The Real Cucina Povera Is Vegetarian

These are salad greens, which are different from cooking greens.

In almost all cooking or travel shows about Rome, “cucina povera” — the poor kitchen, is featured with the host shown noshing at the offal of some animal. Invariably, they will also mention the fifth quarter, the quinto quarto, which is what is left after the other parts were shared between the nobles, clergy, bourgeoisie, and military.

Borage. I think.

What if you were vegetarian? I’m being facetious, because if you are poor, you eat what you can. Most poor people, through history, have been vegetarian. On a side note, the pig is the only barnyard animal that is worth more when dead. Most animals are worth more for their eggs, milk, wool, etc.

Cooked chicory greens. Available every single day.

Italians have been poor for most of their history (from long before there was a nation called Italy — created in 1861) and their cuisine has grown from necessity. As recently as a few generations ago, there were times of famine. Eating offal such as heart, tripe, and other organ meat, would have been rare. The daily food would have been vegetables, bread, pasta, and legumes, such as wild greens and beans. Even today, there are dishes such as puree of fava beans served with chicory greens. Vegetables that would be considered weeds are normal food in Italy. Dandelion and other wild greens that are now on Michelin star menus have been normal food here for centuries. Things like beet tops/greens which would be animal feed in other countries, is normal human fodder.

Dandelion?

Parmesan cheese has over thirty percent protein so it is considered a good source of protein when meat is not available. It is called “the poor man’s meat” or was, but it certainly is not for the poor anymore. Meat is cheaper. There are even recipes that call for toasted breadcrumbs — this was if you could not even afford cheese.

Broccoli greens.

I recently discovered another frugal use of dairy. Ricotta is made from the whey leftover from the making of cheese. In Puglia, they take the ricotta and let it ferment to become “Ricotta Forte” a strong cream cheese product that is picante because its sourness will bite you in the back of the throat. I have not asked but it’s probably “good for you” which normally means they need to convince you to eat it…

Fortunately, there is olive oil. Even the poor can afford it. Italy was a mostly agricultural society and even today there are many small farmers. Many big city families still own an olive tree orchard and produce their own olive oil each year.

Today is mother’s day in Italy, but really, every day is mother’s day in Italy. While men are often the famous chefs, it’s the mothers who do the majority of the cooking. They can even turn weeds into comfort food.

Taking a Taxi in Rome

I find it weird not being allowed to flag down a taxi on the street. In Rome, you must use a taxi stand, telephone, text, or app to get a taxi. This site has great information. The taxi stands are marked with an orange taxi sign and the taxis are always white. Some may be vans and some are in not so great condition, but they are always white. (Uber is only Uber Black which usually a luxury car and very expensive, and as I write this, maybe they have outlawed that as well.) There are lots of taxi stands all over the city of Rome but during these pandemic times, not all have taxis waiting around. The taxis have plastic barriers (well, most do) between the driver and the customers and generally the windows are open to help keep the air flowing. Everyone wears a mask. The base rate is €3 (three euro). Most rides around the center of Rome cost about 5-16 euro. No tipping although you can leave them the change. On regular city rides, the taxi driver will help you with your bags at no extra cost. Generally the drivers don’t speak English. If I can’t explain where I want to go, then I show them on my phone.

The taxi stand by Piazza Navona.

If you use an app like ITaxi (Italy Taxi) or Free Now, you can get a taxi anywhere you happen to be. The taxi meter starts when they ACCEPT the ride, not when you get in the car! This is what is shocking to most foreigners. Most of the rides I’ve taken have started at about €4.40 by the time I got in the car. This also means that the taxi will wait for you. It’s on you and not them. So it’s easier for me to get them show up. It is possible to pay by credit card and the drivers never have change for a 50. (Also, they have a color rating system for customers… one day I read the phone screen of the taxi driver and I could see my name and that I was “gold” level.) It is also possible to call or text to request a cab, but I prefer the app. I just wish that I could input the name of a restaurant instead of an address.

Airports: The rates from and to the two main airports, Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO) and Ciampino International Airport “G. B. Pastine” (CIA), are set to the Aurelian walls of the city. But, then it’s metered so while the base cost is 48 and 30 euro, it will cost you more. Tell the taxi driver that you want the set price so that at least that is a known quantity. From Fiumicino, a taxi ride to the historic center of Rome will probably cost in the 50-60 euro range (ride is about an hour) and from Ciampino (ride is about half an hour), from 30-40 euro. Plus extra for extra luggage.

Although you can walk everywhere in Rome, there are a lot of hills and groceries get heavy… Of course, people do flag down taxis on the street… but you are not supposed to.

The Round Cucumber of Puglia

When researching my book about Italian food, I discovered the round melon cucumber of Puglia. It was described as a cross between a melon and a cucumber.

I was eager to try it and I thought I would have to wait till I could travel to Puglia. But, one day at the Campo de Fiori market, I saw it. The cucumber tastes like a mild cucumber (even milder) but has the shape of a melon. The rind is slightly leathery and I actually liked the way it has a pleasant chewiness.

Imagine if these were grown without seeds? They would be perfect for sandwiches. Never mind that, after my terrible encounter with a normal Italian cucumber back in November, I was just happy that this one didn’t bite my tongue off with bitterness. I had a Greek salad the other day, and the cucumber was equally bitter.

I didn’t expect the cucumbers to be bitter in Italy. But, then again, Romans like bitter greens like chicory so why not bitter cucumber (not to be confused with bitter gourd).

Note: If you prefer to watch this blog article as a video, click here for my YouTube channel.

East Asian Grocery Stores in Rome

This article is mainly about the Chinese and Korean (and Philippine) grocery stores in Rome (there are many Bangladeshis in Rome and many run the local produce shops). For more, read this blogger’s post on the Asian grocery stores in Rome. Almost all the Asian grocery stores are located near the Termini train station where there are many other Chinese shops selling non-food items. This area also has stores with supplies from parts of Africa and other parts of the world.

I get lots of questions about where to buy cilantro, as it is a big part of Southeast Asian cuisine and Mexican food, so I’ll include a point about that (it tastes like soap to me so I can’t stand it. Someone should start an Instagram just for cilantro…)

Back to the Asian stores. One thing that all these stores sell is a plethora of ramen. Who knew there were so many types?

This a tiny segment of the walls of ramen.

Asia Supermarket, Via Ricasoli 20: The entrance/exit is badly planned, and this shop is bigger than it appears. Fresh vegetables, fresh tofu, cooking utensils, fish sauce, etc.

Xin Ye Gruppo, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II 34: Mostly dry goods but it’s bigger than it looks so you can find rice paper, ground cumin, fresh ginger, soldering tools, and bowls, etc.

Tapioca pasta balls for “bubble” tea.

La Famiglia (Korean store), Via Filippo Turati 102: Located in a courtyard, you must leave the busy street and go into the building’s courtyard. Mostly Korean goods. No fresh vegetables.

When you see the sign, that’s where the entrance is located.
Enter and the Korean store is located in the right hand corner.

The Korean Market, Via Cavour 84: Mainly frozen and dry foods from Korea and Japan. Owners are Korean.

This store has the fanciest address on a main street. All items imported from Korea.

Nuovo Mercato Esquilino, Via Principe Amedeo 184: Famous ethnic market of Rome. It’s more like a suq or wet market.

Bok choy from my local South Asian vendor. Ask and they can usually provide. Plus, most South Asians speak English.

Unknown name, Philippino corner store, Via Calatafirmi 14/a (the street intersects with itself and this shop is on the corner – on google, it appears as Hotel Papagermano): This small shop sells dried foods but also jarred kimchi. This kimchi is the one that I like to eat.

Kimchi from Korea

Trionfale market, Via Andrea Doria 41 (this is not near the Termini station and is located north of the Vatican, in Prati): There are several stalls that specialize in Asian vegetables and foods, so you can find what you will need there. If you enter from the Via Andrea Doria main entrance, the staff is on your right (box # 238) almost the minute you enter the market. The stall also has noodles and other items that you might need.

Cilantro, ginger, noodles, fish sauce…

Testaccio Market, Via Aldo Munazio 66b (every taxi driver knows where the market is located, or should). Has parking: Also carries cilantro at times. There is an herb staff (stall #34) that has it. Cilantro is “coriandolo” in Italian.

Noodles, pasta, and snacks.

Many of the markets are beginning to sell exotic fruits and vegetables, and many grocery stores sell a few “international” items. I’ll update this article as I discover more.

Pizza, Pinsa, Focaccia, Schiacciata, and Cold?

Pizza is cut with scissors and a spatula.

Pizza in Italy reminds me a bit of that time when my friend, who had never had a wedge salad, ordered one but without the tomatoes or the blue cheese. She was speechless with disbelief when a wedge of iceberg was served to her on a plate. In Italy, a plain pizza, a “pizza bianca,” or “white pizza” is indeed a piece of pizza bread that looks like focaccia… no cheese, no sauce, no toppings (other than salt and oil), and often served cold.

White pizza and red pizza fresh out of the oven. No cheese needed.

During the pandemic, I’ve been keeping pizza in my freezer. After a few weeks of eating all the frozen pizza I’d sequestered in my freezer, I thought that I’d had enough pizza for a while… until I saw a potato and mozzarella slice at Alice (AH-lee-chay).

Alice is a pizza chain.

Now that I live in Italy, some of my friends ask me questions about Italian food expecting that perhaps I have become an expert. Not yet. The most recent question I received was about focaccia and pizza. What is the difference? It turns out that pizza is the type of dough, not so much the type of topping or how it’s served. Even a brioche can be a pizza. At Easter, a large brioche shaped like a panettone is called a “pizza formaggio” and it is a cheese pizza. See photo below.

Pizza formaggio

I actually quite like the bread that is called pizza because it’s made from the pizza dough.

Bread roll made from pizza dought.
Long pizzas are sold by the slice (taglio) in Rome.

This reminded me of the last time I was in Italy when I had a bread called, “schiacciata,” which is was a flat, oil-rich, salty, pillowy dimpled flat bread sold in squares. I recall those dimples of green olive oil and the slick of grease on my chin. It is a Tuscan version of what is known as focaccia in the North. It is a little thinner, and perhaps a little closer to a pizza.  

Cold shrimp salad on a pizza. Ham and cheese pizza (sandwich).

In Rome, the pizza is sold by weight and in rectangles. It doesn’t have to have red sauce or cheese. It doesn’t even have to be warm! Often the pizza is topped with cold salad or sauteed greens. An extremely popular topping is cold mortadella. Pizza is also available as a breakfast item, even mortadella with mayonnaise.

Notice how it’s an oval shape?

There is a style called “pinsa” which is slightly oval and it is not a pizza, it’s a pinsa. Got it? The pinsa is a type of flat bread that is baked first and then topped with fresh ingredients.

This a colorful array of pinsa from Pinsere (small pinsa) before they go in the oven once you order.

So basically a pizza is a type of bread, sometimes cooked with the toppings in the oven and sometimes dressed afterwards. Otherwise, the rest seems to be free to one’s creativity. Except for pineapple. No pineapple on the pizza here in Italy. I really like pineapple on pizza and I don’t even mind corn. A really good pizza here is blue cheese and walnuts. Nuts! Right? Many of the Italian immigrants to the United States were from Naples so the American pizza evolved from the Neapolitan pizza.

A white pizza with porchetta.

When I went on a food tour with a local guide, she confirmed that pizza is about the type of bread. Not what is on it, what temperature it is, or how it’s served.

This lesson pizza will have to be ongoing as I discover more types of pizza.

The Dove and the Eggs – Easter Treats

Easter, Pasquale, is the second biggest celebration for the Italians, after Christmas, and of course, there is special bread for the occasion. The Colomba, dove, is a bread that is shaped like a dove in flight (symbolizing the spirit in the holy trinity). It is a panettone baked in a four point shape. When I first saw the breads for the sale, I had no idea what it was supposed to resemble. I think it takes faith.

Eggs are big part of Easter because they were a part of the fertility goddess festival in honor of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sex and fertility. Easter was superimposed upon this festival. From that celebration, we get the bunnies and eggs related to Easter.

The Italians also eat lamb at Easter as that is a Christian ritual. The Italians also eat pasta, as they do all year round, but Easter is about the breads. Another bread is the Casatiello, a savory crown (crown of thorns) shaped bread decorated with eggs (rebirth) on the top and with ham inside. Also, at this time, bakeries make small milk based yeast buns, Valtellina, which are my favorite.

The chocolate eggs are given on Easter Monday. Or so I’m told, but I can’t imagine that children, of any age, can wait that long.

Testaccio Market

Mercato Testaccio (“mare-cah-toe” “tess-tah-chi-oh”) seems world famous, but I may be getting too “Rome blind” and just assume that everyone has watched 500 videos about Rome. No, you haven’t? Well, if you want, you can watch MY video, on my YouTube channel, about Testaccio Market. And then see where the rabbit hole takes you.

Testaccio market is located in the neighborhood of Testaccio, just south of historic center along the river. This location is the new location which was purpose built. It’s organized and has parking! Here is a good run down from another blog who posted this article.

One thing I really like about markets is the hustle and bustle. With pandemic distancing, it’s lacking some of that. But, it was still lovely to hear Italians talking louder than a hush. Of the markets I’ve been to, Trionfale is larger so I may like that one more. Testaccio feels a little too gentrified.

Eating Monk’s Beard

In March, I saw clumps of grass being sold at the markets. I asked what it was and was told, “agretti” — in English, this vegetable is called Salsola Soda or Opposite-Leaved Saltwort (although I don’t think it’s a common thing to eat in English speaking countries so the name may not be so important). In Italian, the fun name is Monk’s beard.

I asked the vegetable seller how to cook it and she said, to cook it in salted water for ten minutes, dress with olive oil and lemon juice, a bit of salt and pepper, and eat. Some recipes say to add garlic so I may do that. I like this recipe because I like the idea of cooking it with spaghetti so that the shapes are similar. First I tried it without any flavorings so I can see what it tastes like.

I over cooked the pasta… I was too busy taking photos!

For those who live in the U.S. and want to grow Italian vegetables, this site also provides some information on them. This vegetable is supposedly becoming more popular with chefs. Other season vegetables right now are wild asparagus and artichokes. I even saw some sunchokes, Jerusalem artichokes, at the market the other day.

While the appearance is a bit like chives, it tastes more like… grass, and has a nice slippery texture. I think this would be a very healthy vegetable and it could be fun as a dish by itself. I made it with spaghetti so that the shapes matched. Of course, I put cheese on it.

Father’s Day in Italy

Bigne di s. giuseppe and maritozzi (cream buns)

March 19 is the saint feast, or name, day for St. Joseph (San Giuseppe in Italian) and it is father’s day (festa del papa) in Italy. Giuseppe, shortened to Peppino, Pino, Pina, Giusy (a modern variation) can also be a female name, as Giuseppina. Celebrating St. Joseph as Mary’s husband is marked on May 1.

Italy is a Catholic country and in Rome, within hearing distance of the Vatican, Catholicism is a part of daily life. Every day, at certain times of the day, the bells toll from all the churches, not just to mark services, but also to set their time.

It seems like there is a special pastry and/or food that one should eat for everything. For St. Joseph’s day, it’s a beignet filled with pastry cream. It is called “bigne di san giuseppe” or “zeppole.” There are many recipes online, but basically it’s a choux pastry (baked up like a white sauce to create rise instead of using a raising agent) which is then injected with pastry cream.

In pagan times, this is the day that marked the end of winter, so bonfires were set ablaze to clear away the old wheat fields. Maybe they started frying dough on these fires?

The Ides of Meow

Traditionally the ides of March was the 74th day of year and it was the day to settle debts so as to be debt free by March 25, the start of the fresh year. In Roman times, the Ides of March marked the start of a holy week celebrating the finding of baby Attis in the reeds, later his death under a pine tree (they would cut down a pine each year to commemorate this), and his rebirth on March 25. Sound familiar?

Then, in 44 BCE, the Roman senators, afraid that Julius Caesar was going to make himself king of Rome, stabbed him to death. In modern times, we are aware of the phrase, “beware the ides of March” because of the play, Julius Caesar, by Shakespeare. The famous, “et tu, Brute” is probably not what he said as he was stabbed to death by his senators.

2,065 years later, the location is now called “Largo du Torre Argentina” and is more famous for the cat sanctuary located there. The spot where Caesar was killed is near the pine trees.

This year, the ides of March marks the start of a three week red zone lockdown.

See and Eat Rome with Sophie

Suppli

Want to try Roman foods? Wish you had a Roman friend who lights up a shop when she walks in? Wish you were Stanley Tucci? Then try a food tour with Sophie Minchilli, on her tour called “Rome with Sophie”. It is a pleasant walk with some history but mainly food tastings. You may try suppli, cheese, wine, cookies, pizza, prosciutto, gelato, coffee, and visit old markets and neighborhoods of Rome. We chose the “three neighborhoods tour” of Campo di Fiori, Jewish ghetto, and Trastevere. Sophie has known some of the shop owners all her life and it shows. You get a real “insider’s” tour. It is clear that they love her. You might risk feeling the same way.

Roman pizza

The tour cost 140 Euro but she gave us a COVID discount. The max group size is six people and the tour takes about three hours. She does tours starting late morning and also late afternoon. Ours started at 11 a.m., as she accommodated our schedule, but it’s better to start earlier to avoid the crowds. The food tour was a good intro. It’s more an array, rather than an in-depth lesson in food, but good if you are new to Rome or just visiting. As you fill up on food, Sophie will adapt the tour. Some can’t hack it to the prosciutto or gelato stop. The day we went, we forewent the gelato for a sit down with an alcohol-free aperitif. Along the way, Sophie will get you snacks, answer questions, and explain food in Rome.

In the Jewish ghetto, we learned about the brass markers embedded in the cobblestones to mark where once there lived a Jewish family, killed during WWII. But, we also sat outside at the only table at a 400-year-old shop, eating cheese, feeling the ambience of ghetto life.

Sophie is half American/Italian and much beloved in her neighborhoods. If you want a tour in English and with someone young, she’s the perfect person. She and her mom, Elizabeth Minchilli, run longer tours of Puglia, and Sophie is expanding to one-day outings in Lazio (the region that includes Rome). Elizabeth Minchilli is an author (and friend of Elizabeth Gilbert, for those who are fans of Eat, Pray, Love) and well connected to the other tour guides in Rome. Sophie offers three tours in Rome and accepts payment via PayPal and cash. With her mother, Sophie also does food tours in other parts of Italy so you can spend a whole week with them and really feel Italian!

Puntarelli

Sophie Minchilli

Food Tours and Culinary Services in Rome

http://www.sophieminchilli.com

Instagram: @sminchilli

On Tripadvisor

A savory cookie.

My favorite part of the tour was the ghetto. I also enjoyed the spontaneous non-alcoholic aperitif discovery. I don’t know what it’s called but it was orange and bitter, yet refreshing, and slightly addictive.


Cute Misunderstandings in Italian Class

One of the cutest things I encountered in Italian class was a misunderstanding. Our teacher would say, “chiaro?” often. This went on for days until finally one of my classmates asked what does “chiaro” mean? She thought that it meant “honey” or some other term of affection and that our teacher was calling us this several times an hour! Our teacher was asking us if we understood what was being said! “Chiaro?” means “clear?” in Italian.

Cute, like this tiramisu in a jar.