It was the holiday of dusty feet, freckled skin and greasy fingers licked clean. Relentlessly we marched to and fro across the city, admiring views, monuments and ancient ruins, but, truth be told, we were led by our stomachs (or partially by my delicate, paper-white skin thus shelter was regularly required… usually with a beer or aperitivo). Ciao my dear reader, please sit back and let me take you on a gastronomic tour of Rome.
Like our trip to Florence, Rome has been a holiday destination of mine twice before but only for quick visits between other cultural pit-stops. Italy just seems to call to me. This time, however, Calum and I were practically natives, holidaying for a whole week. Already accustomed to the bustling streets packed with other tourists, the Carrefour supermarkets and jaunts around ancient sites, this time it was almost leisurely; opportunities to browse fresh food markets offering spreads of vegetables, oils and olives, to rest in cool, quiet gardens overlooking the city, and to roam (pun intended) the jumble of backstreets at dusk as we scooped up eager spoonfuls of gelato from paper-cups. As they say, Italians are always late so we took a dose of this tranquillity and enjoyed the slow-pace of the sultry summer afternoons and evenings – usually with gelato in hand or on our way to another cafe. We walked over 100km in seven days so all that walking meant we were allowed treats. When in Rome…
Aside from the obvious, all that pizza, pasta and gelato, the treats on our agenda were not always planned. For instance, take the wondrous portable snack, the arancini also known in Rome as the suppli. These moreish bites are risotto balls encased in golden breadcrumbs, filled with tomato sauce or Bolognese, with an oozing core of molten mozzarella. They are not for the faint-hearted – one ball equals a two-course lunch. They fill your hand, rice crumbling onto your lap as you take big greedy bites. Packed into a grease-stained paper bag, these crispy rice balls were our picnic lunch in the little-known aqueduct park on the outskirts of Rome. In the shadow of two-thousand-year-old crumbling ruins we dined.
After a traverse around the aqueducts, and a spot of feet-cleaning in the nearby stream – it is dusty there – we feasted on our second treat of the day. Croissants. Croissants never struck me as a particularly Italian delicacy. But somehow they became a daily snack, on one occasion due to my terrible Italian and a mistaken order (an ‘iced coffee’ turned out to be ‘latte plus croissant’). With the first bite their sugary shells shatter beneath your teeth to reveal hidden casings of buttery latticed pastry or, if you’ve walked extensively that day, custard. Each morning we would hurry to our hotel’s breakfast buffet, hopeful for more than a scraping of scrambled eggs and bacon left on the hot-plate, and to swipe one or two sugar-crusted croissants. We would carry our laden plates to the bright courtyard, warm in the dabbled morning sunlight, and, next to Italian businessmen in tailored suits peeling satsumas and smoking, we’d then stuff those croissants with salty streaky bacon. The elegance of Italian dining was lost on us.
A sweet treat in the morning was neatly bracketed by another treat in the evening. Every night after a wine-soaked supper we would meander through the labyrinthine cobbled streets to find a gelateria. Dinner was not complete until we ate gelato. Through recommendations we found a couple of extraordinary gelaterias – one dating back to 1900, gleaming with varnished wood and glass cabinets encasing fragile pastries, biscuits and cakes. Served by men clad in waistcoats and bow-ties we were transported back in time (disregarding the TV screens projecting their various flavours over the crowd). Squeezing our way through the scrum, we hurriedly placed our orders – cinnamon and caramel for Calum, raspberry and white chocolate for me. Clutching our cones of bounty we hurried down the streets until we sheltered in the portico of the Pantheon. There we hunkered down at the base of a column, feasting our eyes on ancient Rome as we slurped ice cream.
One day though, I dared to break tradition. Gelateria Romana, near the Vatican, display plump golden brioches in glass domes along their counter. Naturally intrigued, I was determined to try this ingenious concept – the most luxurious ice cream sandwich. Too heavy as a post-dinner dessert, this was for lunchtime. My guilt for betraying our nightly gelato jaunts was substantial (romantic city + boyfriend + ice cream = happiness) but not enough to dissuade my urge to try something new. Impulsively, I queued, paid and all too soon I had to choose flavours – which were all in Italian! Bumbling and confused I asked for recommendations and pounced on the first three which sounded tasty – chocolate, caramel and pistachio. Outside, we perched on a bench as I cautiously took the first bite. The gelato was oozing into the soft brioche, moistening the bread so it melted on my tongue. Above all, the delicate flavour of creamy pistachio complimented the brioche perfectly. Soon we were disregarding the flimsy plastic spoon wedged into ice cream and lifting it straight into our mouths. (I say ‘we’ as yes Calum ate half of my treat).
After all that, you’ll have trouble believing me it wasn’t all sugar, pastries and ice cream but dare I say that was only the tip of the iceberg. Mooching around the market on Campo de’ Fiori and admiring the fresh food on display was a pleasure in which I rarely indulge at home. Barely glancing at the stalls of dried herbs, oils and vinegars, I was captivated by the striped white and purple aubergines – common in warmer climates but foreign to our local Sainsbury’s – the pink and white borlotti beans bright like fat candies, rosy pink apricots, plump purple and green figs, and wafer thin spears of asparagus like tufts of grass. I caved and bought a bag of juicy plum tomatoes, petite apricots, and a sack of green briny olives. That afternoon in the park, Calum napped while I dipped my hand in and out of my bag, eagerly searching for another olive like a child stealing sweets.
Before I outstay my welcome with this already lengthy post I must pay homage to our evening meals – the conclusion to a successful and tasty day. Searching for local osterias instead of tourist traps on the main walk ways meant getting lost in the maze of streets. This nightly excursion became part and parcel of the dinner experience, lengthening our anticipation for that night’s meal. A memorable evening saw Calum and I at a wooden table with checked napkins, cold larger and two enormous wood-fired pizzas. Calum’s was drippy with melted cheese and speckled with salami while I ate buffalo mozzarella and basil. His generous cheesy toppings caught my eye more than once I must admit, but my thin crisp base supporting softly sweet tomato, sporadic creamy blobs of buffalo mozzarella and fragrant basil proved to be an excellent choice. Tomato sauce dripped on to my fingers as I devoured the flimsy slices.
The previous night I chose to branch out again (who goes on holiday to eat what they know?) Ossobuco is a classic Italian dish of slow-cooked veal shank. Braised until tender, the meat is served on the bone as a rich stew. Successfully encamped at a table on the warm terrace at L’Orso 80, an osteria frequented by both Romans and tourists, I knew this was the place to taste an artisan dish. Greeted with delight from the waiter as I placed my order, he eventually delivered a steaming plateful of succulent meat, full-flavoured stew packed with sweet peas and garnished with roughly chopped herbs. The veal was meltingly tender and I scraped the bone clean inside and out, enjoying those precious blobs of meaty bone marrow. Finally I mopped the plate clean with crusty bread. We slowly sipped our wine, stuffed and sedate, slightly in love with the city before we were presented with two shot glasses of ice-cold limoncello; on the house from our beaming waiter. Thus, onward for the night’s gelato finale…