Just as Roman cuisine is famous for using the “quinto quarto” (fifth quarter) of the animal, Rome famous for four pasta sauces — with one that is made from the part of the animal that no one wants to mention — the fifth quarter. Or is it the opposite?
In most restaurants, you order your pasta dish by the sauce as there are traditionally certain pastas for certain sauces. In a few, by the shape of the pasta, although most places will have already decided which pasta they are cooking that day. I find that many restaurants use the large tubular pasta as it fills the plate better. There are officially 350 shapes of pasta but many have different regional names and new shapes are being invented constantly. Italians will tell you that the pasta should fit the sauce so that the sauce sticks to the pasta. Some Romans will tell you that only certain sauces go with certain types of pasta.
A basic thing about Roman cooking. It’s simple with few ingredients and use the best quality that you can afford. Also, almost no garlic or chili. The Italians are sensitive to regional names so even describing something as “like bacon” can be controversial.
Cacio e Pepe (catch-ee-oh-eh-peh-pa): Basically it’s called “cheese and black pepper” and that’s what it is. Usually a long string-like pasta like spaghetti although traditionally, tonnarelli (a rougher hand cut “square” long pasta) is used. Spaghetti means “strings.” The cheese used is Roman Pecorino, the sheep’s milk version similar in hardness and age to Parmesan (which comes from Parma), and pepper. One makes the sauce by using hot water that the pasta has been cooked in. There is no cream added. It’s a very simple sauce.
Carbonara (cARR-boh-nar-ah): This is the one with the famous story about how the American GIs missed eggs and bacon and so this pasta sauce was made to cater to them. Not true but a nice story. This sauce involves pork jowl, guanciale, fried to bacon bits (they will tell you not to use bacon — but if that’s all you have…), grated pecorino, and an egg yolk. The result is a thick golden sauce.
Gricia (gree-CH-ah): Is basically carbonara without the raw egg yolk. If you like bacon bits but don’t want the cloying creaminess of the carbonara, this is the one for you. It’s often used with tubular pasta like rigatoni.
Amatriciana (ah-mah-TREE-chee-ah-na): If you like the pork jowl bacon, you like the Pecorino, but you don’t like the egg yolk, and you wish they’d add some tomato sauce, then get the amatriciana. It’s called that because the pork comes from Amatrice, a town in northern Lazio (the region where Rome is located, south of the famous Tuscany).
And the fifth… is hard to find these days and never on the English language version of the menu (some traditional Roman restaurants will have a printed menu in English for the foreigners and a hand written on for the locals). It’s a dish called “rigatoni alla pajata” and is rigatoni with veal’s intestines (or bowel, as they will say here). It’s that particular part of the intestine from newborn calves who have only had milk. When the calf is slaughtered, the undigested milk is still in the intestine and it looks a bit like a creamy sausage.
None of these are my favorite pasta sauces. I like spaghetti alle vongole/spaghetti con le vongole (spaghetti with clams) and aglio e olio (garlic and oil) with chili flakes, a dish so simple that it’s almost never on the menu in restaurants. Apparently, it’s a drunk food that people make when they come back from being out on the town. Both of these dishes are from Naples. Many of the Italian immigrants to the United States were from Naples so the American idea of Italian food is often shaped by that. This is evident in the New York style pizza which is most like a Neopolitan pizza.
Oh, I also like penne with canned/preserved tuna or salmon. It’s one of the most common things to get in a Roman cafeteria. It’s easy to make and all the ingredients are already in the pantry.
Tomatoes are juicy and red, Olive oil is gold and green, Mozzarella is creamy and white, And Johnny Madge is keen.
I felt inspired to write a cheesy poem!
Johnny Madge loves, lives, breathes olive oil. He even has “I Love Olive Oil” written on his van. Oddly, that is the least of the reasons to go on his olive oil tour. Sorry, Johnny. It’s not just about the oil.
If anyone is a natural at what they do, then it’s the legendary Johnny Madge. Taking an olive oil tasting class with him feels less like a class, and more like you just happen to have a wise friend who is an expert on olive oil… wild plants… wine… life? There are some professors and tour guides who seem scripted in their style of teaching. All respect to them, but Johnny is not one of them. Johnny Madge speaks with the ease of someone who knows vastly more than they are telling you. It reminds of advice a writing teacher once told me, “Make sure you know everything about the character, and then put none of that in your story.” Once in a while you meet people who are more than the product they sell. The fact that he has a British accent just makes everything he says sound more credible. It’s easy to get a crush on him (olive oil joke).
As I said, the olive oil tasting was a minor part of the day. The whole day was a celebration of good extra virgin olive oil (and the lifestyle that it symbolizes). Johnny Madge has a sensational high rating on TripAdvisor and rightly so.
He will pick you up from the train station in Fara Sabina (a small town about 35 minutes on the regional train line from Rome) in his van which can seat eight. If you drive your own car, you can follow him like the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The whole day had that fairytale feel to it as we meandered the undulating lanes.
You might wonder what could take so long. The pace is set by the lovely small streets along the neat rows of olive trees, the green hedges, and azure sky above gently rolling country. The tour starts in an olive tree orchard. Johnny will tell you about olive trees, the recent devastating fires, harvesting, and other facts about the trees. Did you know that an olive tree can survive a fire? As you walk around enjoying the clean air of the countryside, he will show wild edible plants like wild fennel, and explain other plants if you ask him (I asked about a seed that I found which it turns out inspired Leonardo da Vinci to invent the helicopter). Or you can wander away and sit in the shade of an olive tree. There are no demands that you pay attention and no exam. No stress.
After the orchard, he takes you to visit the largest olive tree in Europe. The tree is famous for being large, but it was comforting to meet such an old tree. It is perhaps 2,000 years old but no one really knows. Olive oil trees hollow out making it hard to count rings. When we were there admiring the tree, the owner came out to chat with Johnny. They were clearly friends catching up with each other.
Then back to admire the vegetable garden. All the while, Johnny regales you with stories and anecdotes, pointing out this and that along the way. As a city person, it’s interesting to see Swiss chard growing like a weed. One could feel the pace of life slowing down to that sweet art of doing nothing (a saying in Italian)… the art of enjoying the sweet life.
Outside the main hangar-size building, there is a metal car scale built in to the parking lot. When the local farmers need their olives processed, they drive their olive-laden cars on to the scale. After the initial weigh-in, the car is emptied of olives. Then the car is weighed again. The client pays by weight. I say client because it turns out that many Italians own a small patch of olive trees and make their own olive oil each year. After the weighing, the olives get cleaned, crushed, and spun. In the old days, the olive mash would be squeezed in reed mats but now, the oil is extracted using centrifugal force. Super high quality olive oil is spun for a mere seven minutes — thus ensuring that minimal heat is created — making it truly cold pressed. Most extra virgin olive oil is spun for 30 minutes. After spinning, the oil is filtered. Olive oil doesn’t need to be filtered but it’s better to avoid the sludge at the bottom of the bottle. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age.
There is also something about what can be called “virgin” and “extra virgin” — the “virgin” olive oil is defective. Shocker. I think that he explained that defective doesn’t mean undrinkable. But I wasn’t paying attention… I guess I’ll have to go on another tour. If you want to geek out a bit, read this newsletter. Olive oil’s quality is not based on color. How deep is that? Professional tastings happen with blue glasses.
The mill has just opened a shop on site where small bottles of olive oil cost 5 euro and large bottles cost 8 euro. I didn’t get a photo of the shop because I was too busy shopping! They also sell flavored oils, but not garlic flavor (Romans really don’t eat much garlic), and spreads like pistachio with pesto. I think I spent around 90 euros… because I wasn’t sure when I’d get back. That said, the mill will deliver and you can purchase online. I don’t know if it was pre-arranged (despite what Johnny said) but when we visited the mill, they gave us freshly made bruschetta, which had been toasted on the olive tree wood barbecue. I’m not sure it gets better than that, in terms of experiential shopping experiences.
From the mill, we could see our lunch destination, across the valley, past neat green fields, impossibly pretty. Can this be real?
Lunch was a leisurely feast of multiple courses including creamy cannelloni beans, crunchy bruschetta with tomato, cheese, golden oven roasted potatoes, yummy lasagne, and not too sweet apple pie. Johnny brought lots of wine to pair, but it was mostly about the olive oil pairings. Every dish had olive oil. At this point, Johnny explained how to taste olive oil and we tried a few straight up. I did not like most of the oil when tasted alone. I preferred the oil on the food. We actually started with olive oil on a chocolate crostini which brought happy memories of my days in El Cacaotal in Lima. I can’t wait to get these food nerds together and watch them nerd out.
To contact Johnny for olive oil tastings, or to feature him in your documentary or to hire him as an expert (he was in Pasta Grannies! Name drop!), here is how to contact him: Johnny Madge, email@example.com, www.johnnymadge.com, +39 328 339 8479. He speaks English and Italian.
The olive oil tour, including lunch, wine, and olive oil tasting, cost 110 euro per person. The train costs 2.80 euro each way. You can also drive there in 35 minutes and leave your car at the train station or follow him around the countryside.
The day out was fabulous. Johnny loves olive oil and after a day with him, you might love olive oil as much as Johnny. Or maybe him.
If you really want to get an idea of how pleasant the day was (I mean, how olive oil is made!), enjoy this video by the mill again.
I end this with a version of the roses are red poem from Les Mis. We did go a-touring in the countryside of Rome where the pomegranate blossoms were orange and I loved, loved, loved it.
We will buy very pretty things A-walking through the suburbs. Violets are blue, roses are red, Violets are blue, I love my loves.
I have also made a video of my own. Nothing compared to the mill’s… but, enjoy the song by Ed Sheeran and Andrea Bocelli. It’s perfect.
In Italy, every coffee bar/cafe, has a different brand of coffee. Why? Because they get their dishware etc. sponsored by the brand. If you only drink a certain brand of coffee, then you have to drink at a certain cafe.
While coffee beans are not grown in Italy, the Italians are quite obsessed with coffee. But it’s not a fashion item. It’s more that they drink espressos all day long, at about a rate of one every few hours. It’s a social event as well so if someone says, “shall we have a coffee?” then they are inviting you to be sociable.
A “caffe” is by default an espresso. One way to tell if you have become a local is if the barista assumes that you mean an espresso when you order a “caffe” — rather than double checking with you that it’s an espresso that you want and not an “americano” (which is an espresso with hot water added).
I’ve had many awful cups of espresso here so far and some are okay ones. I prefer them without sugar so I can actually taste the coffee. Italians almost always add sugar. It’s like the equivalent of a Redbull. A shot of caffeine to get you through the next couple of hours. An espresso has half the caffeine of a cup of filtered drip coffee. The key is to drink the espresso quickly and chase it with a glass of water or a sweet baked item.
Coffee was introduced to Europe through Venice a few centuries ago and the oldest coffee shop, Cafe Florian, is still in business in Venice. The second oldest, Antico Cafe Greco, is in Rome, right by the Spanish Steps.
As for Starbucks, there is one in Milan. Or go to Seattle for them, and enjoy the many types of coffee in Italy when you are in Italy.
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?
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.
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.
The Korean Market, Via Cavour 84: Mainly frozen and dry foods from Korea and Japan. Owners are Korean.
Nuovo Mercato Esquilino, Via Principe Amedeo 184: Famous ethnic market of Rome. It’s more like a suq or wet market.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
I actually quite like the bread that is called pizza because it’s made from the pizza dough.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
If you want to binge on watching videos about Italy, here are some I’ve found. Mostly on food. Mostly about Rome. I will not list all of them as there are too many, but a few that will give you some leads to follow.
Rick Stein is one of my favorite TV chef presenters. The thinking chef’s chef. Here in Corsica and Sardinia.
Floyd was a chef who had a good time, this time in Liguria.
If you want months worth of binge watching, Rick Steves provides! Rick Steves has eight hours of free TV shows on Italy alone! He also has free audio tours, apps, books, etc. He is much raunchier on his audio tours! If you want a private guide in your ear, he has those! If you just want to watch him give good advice, watch him here.
Carnival, carnevale in Italian, translates to “farewell to meat” and marks the festivities before Lent (the 40 days of fasting before Easter in the Catholic religion, this year starting on February 17). Traditionally, one had to use up all the fat and sugar (luxury items), therefore the treats served during this period are deep fried. There is one type called “Castagnole di Carnevale” which translates to “mardi gras chestnuts” — donut holes. Also called “frittele.” Another fried dough is the “zeppole” which is a lump of fried dough.
The lasagne style fried dough are called “cenci” which means “tatters” as they look like tatters. There are other names for these (just there are many names for the same type of pasta depending on the region) including “frappe (commonly called this in Rome), chiacchiere, bugie, and guanti.”
As it is, Italians eat sweet things for breakfast. Many do not eat very much at all for breakfast. Some even considered the milk in their coffee to be breakfast…
While Italians eat lasagne all year round, it is served more during this “farewell to meat” period than at other times of the year. Another thing I noticed about lasagne in Rome is that it’s not very saucy, although during carnival it is meatier. Lasagna with an A at the end is one piece of lasagna. No one wants that!