Searching for Italy: Food Tour of Rome

By Dana Perkiss

Most may think about Rome as an elegant, ancient town with glorious monuments, history, and the center of Catholic power. Though some of this is true, Rome is also mostly a working-class town, where locals have learned to take simple ingredients and create phenomenal, beloved-around-the-world food. It’s no surprise why the cardinal rule for eating is “when in Rome, eat as the Romans do” which generally means lots of pasta.

In the second episode of Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, Tucci guides us through the rich food history of the central Italian region, Lazio. He begins by taking us across the Tiber River to the bohemian town of Trastevere. It’s known for its various educational institutions (you’ll probably see lots of undergrads), bohemian artistic atmosphere, and the centuries-old work which have resulted in some of the best foods around the world.

We follow Tucci to one of the most popular places in Trastevere, a café/bar called Bar San Calisto. In true Italian fashion, Tucci and his friend stop in for just an espresso but end up chowing down on a sweet Italian delight: maritozzi, a cream-filled brioche-like bun with a 2,000-year-old history that is simply irresistible — seriously, these were one of the few sweet things that the Catholic church would let people eat during lent in the Middle Ages. So, there’s basically no guilt or calories when eating these tasty treats, right?

Keep in mind, Italians don’t have breakfast that’s deemed typical in the rest of the world — they usually eat sweet pastries and coffee, instead of something like eggs and bacon. While you’re there, eat like the Italians do and start your day with something sweet. But just like Tucci had to do, be sure to leave room in your stomach for the inevitable pasta.

Speaking of, Tucci takes us to what’s known as the “Pantheon of pasta” restaurant, Armando al Pantheon. The chef explains the four classic Italian pastas, which center on simple ingredients like salt, cheese, pepper, and guanciale (pork). The cacio e pepe is the simplest, with a perfect blend of cheese and pepper. Gricia is noodles cooked with chewy bits of pork, along with pepper and cheese. Next there’s carbonara, a favorite that adds eggs to make a creamy sauce. Finally there’s the amatriciana, which uses tomatoes instead of egg to add a rich acidic taste to the pork and cheese. We watch as Tucci chooses the rigatoni all’amatriciana and look on hungrily as he slurps up the steaming pasta.

Pasta is a pillar of Roman cuisine, so of course we see Tucci trying much more pasta throughout the episode. He meets up with chef, historian, and DJ Daniele di Michele who goes to Pommidoro, promising the best carbonara. The exact history of carbonara is up for speculation; some say that Italians have been making carbonara for centuries, and others say that it was simply when American soldiers came to Italy and wanted to add bacon and eggs to their pasta. Whatever the truth, I think we’re all grateful for this glorious, creamy creation.

As a historian, Michele shares more about the history of pasta, and how it has been used to fight oppression. Early 1930s government passed bans on foods, including wheat, and tried to convince people that pasta would make people weak, lazy, and impotent — unsurprising to say, the campaign was highly unsuccessful. Pasta became the symbol of resistance against fascism; next time you’re eating pasta, think about how much more it symbolizes than just comfort food.

Tucci then guides us to the little Roman neighborhood, Centocelle, to visit one of the best delis in the region. The chef explained how Lazio has over 100 different types of cheeses native to the region; sheep are cheaper to keep, so you’ll find a delicious array of sheep’s milk and cheese products. Similarly, the reason you’ll find pork in many Roman dishes is because pigs are easier and cheaper to care for. Though they were forced to use lower-grade products, the Roman people have always found a way to make magic out of the simplest ingredients.

Next we head close to the Tiber River for the town of Testaccio, which was home to old slaughterhouses. This area heavily influenced the foods Romans would eat in the 19th and 20th century, and being that locals could only afford the lower-quality meats, they had to learn to make the best with what they got.

Tucci takes us to one of the remaining restaurants keeping this culinary history alive, SantoPalato, where chef Sarah Cicolini is masterfully creating innovative dishes with classic Roman flavors. Here, you’ll find the true food of the people — mashed chicken offal, wagyu heart tartare, oxtail meatballs, and liver omelets are just a few of the unique offerings. This restaurant, like the Roman locals, takes the worst cuts of meat — stomach, liver, and heart — to create delicious dishes.

“If pasta is the first pillar of Rome, the astonishing use of awful is definitely the second,” Tucci said through bites of these delicacies.

Perhaps not as well known but still a staple of Roman cuisine, the artichoke is another “poor” product that locals have masterfully learned to use to create some of the best food in the city. Just like other Roman dishes, the artichoke has its own sad story: Jewish people were forced to live in Rome’s Jewish ghetto from the 1500s to about the 1940s, when Nazis raided Rome. Locked in the walls of the ghetto and living in poverty, the community was forced to use lower-quality products like anchovies, eggplants, and artichokes.

Tucci shows us La Reginella, where the legacy of artisanal artichokes still thrives. Owner Italia Tagliacozzo shows us how the artichoke is trimmed, fried, and lightly salted to create an addictive, crispy snack you just can’t stop crunching on.

Now that Tucci has taken a break to show us the simple elegance of artichokes, he’s ready for one final pasta dish — as if we weren’t already salivating with envy.

This time, he takes us to a different kind of Italian pasta restaurant; Bistrot64 boasts masterful simplicity in its dishes, and the chef Kotaro Noda brings his Japanese roots to influence the Italian cuisine. As a Michelin star winner, you can safely bet on having an incredible meal here.

Tucci tries the cacio e pepe, and is astonished how a dish with so few ingredients can be so extraordinary. The restaurant offers innovative dishes including sweet breads and purple potato cream, but the pasta is always a classic favorite.

Whether you want to try each of the 4 Roman classic pasta’s or enjoy the crispiest artichoke in the world, there’s no doubt the region of Lazio has it all.

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