Rome If You Want To
Rome: the very word evokes images of imperial majesty, religious supremacy, and grand architectural statements. Visitors to the Eternal City are faced with a sensory overload – and that includes on the gastronomic front.
For more than two millennia, Italy’s capital has principally been about status and power. From the excesses of the original Roman Empire right through to the strutting arrogance of Mussolini, successive guardians of the city have attempted to show the world their grandeur, their influence and their pomposity.
This has left the city with an impressive presence, if not always an aesthetically pleasing one. Take, for example, the faintly ridiculous Vittoriano monument, built in the late 19th century to commemorate Italy’s first king, Victor Emmanuel. Swathes of medieval streets were swept away to build a huge, bombastic structure in white marble, which Romans themselves refer to somewhat irreverently as ‘the typewriter’.
When it comes to ostentatious displays of power, though, nothing comes close to the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. Under the current incumbency of the rather humble Pope Francis, it is easy to forget that for much of the last thousand years, the Vatican was as much the seat of immense political power as it was a religious headquarters.
This is most evident in the great basilica of St Peter, which dominates the cityscape. Enormous, imposing and undeniably impressive, this is a church built first and foremost to demonstrate power over beauty. Notwithstanding Michelangelo’s great dome, you are left with a sense of awe rather than being moved by its aesthetic qualities.
Perhaps controversially, the same could even be said for the Sistine Chapel, which can be visited as part of the Vatican Museums. Most famous for Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling and on the altar wall – and they are stunning, true masterpieces - the modest dimensions of the chapel are overwhelmed by what was in fact an afterthought (Michelangelo was commissioned 27 years after the chapel was consecrated), and overshadow the more restrained and arguably more beautiful paintings on the remaining three walls by the Renaissance masters Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Signorelli and Perugino.
Both St Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel are mustsees for their bombast and their rather over-the-top attention-seeking, but, if you scratch under the surface of Rome, you will find much beauty on an altogether more intimate scale.
A good example is Santa Maria del Popolo, one of three churches on the vast Piazza del Popolo. Hidden behind an anonymous door is a jewel of a 16th century church, packed with Renaissance masterpieces. Among them are two Caravaggio paintings, The Conversion of St Paul and The Crucifixion of St Peter. These stunning pictures were deeply shocking when first painted, with the ever-controversial Caravaggio choosing to place the rather over-prominent backside of a horse facing the altarpiece painting by Carracci, as shocking a twofinger salute to established art as anything Damien Hirst might ever have dreamed of.
With so much great art, statement architecture on every corner, iconic monuments such as the Colosseum, the ruins of the Roman Forum (really poorly interpreted – visit with a guide or risk being disappointed) and the Trevi Fountain at every turn, Rome is an assault on the senses. And when it comes to eating and drinking, the city offers no sensory respite.
This is not really a place for fine dining; there are Michelin-starred temples to international gastronomy, but if you want to really enjoy Roman cuisine, you should eat at a more prosaic level. Roman cuisine is rooted in tradition rather than in culinary fashion, and simplicity combined with good, if not expensive, ingredients is what marks the city’s tastes.
Despite the architectural bombast, Rome is mainly a working class city, and this is reflected in its local dishes. A fair amount involve offal, the so-called ‘fifth quarter’ (because workers at the city’s meat markets would be paid in offal, left over after their more affluent customers had bought the four quarters of the animal).
Perhaps only the strongest of stomachs will order pajata, the intestines of unweaned milk-fed calves complete with the partially digested mother’s milk, but it is worth putting aside any qualms and discovering just how much flavour there is in the parts of the animal that many discard.
Even if offal isn’t your thing, simplicity remains the watchword when eating in Rome. Once you have tasted spaghetti alla carbonara made properly – al dente pasta tossed in crispy pig’s cheek, eggs, pepper and pecorino cheese – you will never again think that this is a dish which requires cream.
Probably the best in the city can be found at Rosciolo, a bustling delicatessen cum restaurant a few paces away from the food market on Campo de’ Fiori. Ask for a table at the back of the shop or in the cosy downstairs room if you don’t want to be jostled by customers at the busy deli counter.
Rosciolo is popular with Romans and tourists alike, and perhaps the biggest tip is to seek out places to eat which are frequented by locals – a strategy that works in practically any city, but particularly in Rome where food and drink is as much as religion as the mother church.
For this reason I would eschew the ever-popular but increasingly touristy Da Francesco near Piazza Navona in favour of the rather more authentic Matricianella, just 10 minutes away. Here you will find traditional Roman food (including the finest saltimbocca I have tasted) in a cheerful and cosy setting. Almost all the voices I heard were speaking in Italian, and, as ever, a little effort to speak the language was rewarded with broad smiles and extra warmth in the welcome.
For something rather more contemporary, it is worth crossing the river to the bustling Travestere district, once a working class area but now a trendy quarter full of bars, restaurants and boutiques. Here you will find Glass Hostaria, which is a world away from the classic trattoria. In a room full of glass, brick and steel, Michelin-starred chef Cristina Bowerman presents an innovative, modern cuisine, sometimes provocative, but always interesting and tasty. Put yourself in her capable hands and go for one of the tasting menus.
Ultimately, though, food and drink is the one area of Rome where simplicity triumphs over pomposity, and whether it's a simple espresso and a pastry for breakfast (taken standing at the bar, of course), a lunchtime artisan beer and a plate of charcuterie on the terrace of a bustling bar like Il Nolano, or a slightly chaotic but delicious dinner in a traditional Roman osteria, the city's love of food will ensure that at mealtimes, the grand posturing of political or religious powerhouses take second place to simple gastronomic pleasures — and that is what the real Rome is all about.
Where to Eat
Ristorante Rosciolo, Via dei Giubbonari, www.salumeriaroscioli.com
Da Francesco, Piazza del Fico, www.dafrancesco.it
Matricianella, Via del Leone, www.matricianella.it
Glass Hostaria, Vicolo de' Cinque, www.glass-restaurant.it
Il Nolano Bottigliera, Campo de’ Fiori