Rome's food is under-appreciated. This makes me incredibly sad. Not because I am from Rome, and possibly biased. But because among the abundance that is Italian gastronomy, the flavours of its capital city bring unmatched joy to the palate. Let me tell you why.
1. All the best pasta dishes are from Rome.
The undisputed queen of the pasta kingdom is the carbonara. The quality of a proper plate of carbonara exponentially decreases the further you venture beyond commuting distance from Via dei Giubbonari. Putting this geographical fact of life to one side, Oldroyd in north London has a mighty take on the classic recipe.
The below dish looks controversial, I know. However, I am from Rome. So you can trust me. It is exquisite.
The Amatriciana? It was invented in Amatrice. Its residents claim that no town has produced more papal chefs. The dish was perfected though some 140km away, in Rome.
The recipe is strict, but straightforward. Bucatini or mezze maniche (you can maybe get away with rigatoni), tomatoes, guanciale (cured, unsmoked pig cheek), pecorino cheese (of the Romano kind), olive oil, salt, pepper, chilli (optional). No garlic. Never.
Guanciale is the key ingredient. Bacon is too smoky. Pancetta, too lean. The New York Times explained why guanciale matters in a feature the newspaper published in 2008.
There is a strong case to be made for pasta alla gricia too: basically, an Amatriciana without tomatoes.
But, the real testbed of Italian cooking is “cacio e pepe.”
Literally, cheese and pepper. Simple is superior, but can easily go wrong. There is nowhere to hide with a cacio e pepe. There are two secrets to a good plate. Pepper should be crushed on the spot, and mixed with freshly grated pecorino (reminder: it must be Romano). Second, water from the pasta should be used to make the sauce creamy (no additional aides, such as cream or oil, are permissible). For it to be creamy, and at the same time al dente, timing is of the essence.
In Rome, the king of cacio e pepe is Trattoria Da Cesare. Outside the Grande Raccordo Anulare, the circular road that runs round Italy's capital, a fine option is Padella near Borough Market in London.
2. In no city in the world do artichokes taste quite the same.
Alla romana – a squeeze of lemon, then filled with parsley, mint, garlic, salt, and pepper. Once seasoned, the artichokes, stem up, are slowly cooked in water, white wine, and olive oil.
Even better, “carciofi alla Giudia”, "Jewish-style" artichokes.
The dish originated in the "Hebrew ghetto", a historic area of Rome where Jews were once forced to live between 1555 and 1870 by successive popes. The artichokes are cleaned (leaving only the softer parts), then put in cold water for a couple of minutes before being deep-fried in olive oil. Finally, they’re seasoned with salt and pepper, and sprinkled with a tiny bit of cold water to make them extra crispy.
London's delicious, although pricey, River Cafe occasionally has both on the menu when artichokes are in season (November-March). Giggetto, and Trattoria Lilli, are far more affordable – but are both in Rome.
3. It's not just the artichokes. Pretty much everything fried the Rome way is amazing.
Once you try Rome’s deep-fried street food, croquetas de jamon will feel like walking into a Trappist brewery only to be served a non-alcoholic beer.
First up, the supplì – a ball of rice with a mozzarella centre.
Next, the fried courgette flower. Stuffed with mozzarella and an anchovy.
The centrepiece: salted cod. Or in the local dialect, "er filetto de' baccalá".
The different fried elements, "fritti Romani", can all be ordered together as a mixed platter. In fact, it is strongly recommended. In London, this can be done at Bocca di Lupo.
4. Sorry, Naples, but pizza by the slice is where it’s at.
The best round pies, admittedly, hail from Naples. But Roman pizza, by the slice – al taglio or in teglia – has a superior variety of toppings. And being thinner, it is also more crunchy.
Just look at these formidable courgette flowers.
Angelo e Simonetta (on via Nomentana), former world pizza champions (yes, such a competition exists), is a must.
Their focaccia topped with stracchino cheese, pancetta, olive oil, and parsley is wonderful.
5. Even Roman salads are awesome.
The main ingredient is puntarelle, a type of chicory. Slightly less bitter than other Roman variants, but by no means sweet. This is no iceberg. Puntarelle are pleasantly perfect. Once washed, the leaves are cut into thin strips, then dressed in a garnish of olive oil, vinegar, anchovies, crushed garlic, salt, and pepper.
6. And nobody stuffs a tomato like a Roman.
Stuffed tomatoes with potatoes announce the beginning of summer. This dish takes about an hour to cook, but it is quite possibly the easiest recipe in the world. Stuff your tomatoes with rice (pre-boiled for about 10 minutes), and put everything in the oven. Only one rule: The tomatoes must be roasted on top of the potatoes. This is critical, yet easily forgotten.
7. Doughnuts alla Romana.
The maritozzo con panna, aka what breakfast looks like in Rome. It's available in most respected pasticcerie (Romoli is particularly spectacular).
For later in the day, or late at night, there is the “bomba”, with cream or Nutella.
Straight out of bed, and it's already Roma 1, Team Porridge 0.