There is something really special about Italian food and with its reliance on using the best fresh seasonal ingredients that are available it is easy to understand why. However, it’s also easy to fall back on time-worn perceptions of Italian cuisine and believe that it’s primarily centred on pizza, pasta and ice-cream. The truth is that the food of Italy is far more complex and varied than you might first think and each region has its own unique culinary customs and traditions which are best experienced by visiting those places and eating as the locals do. This is as true with regard to the food of Rome as it is to the food found elsewhere in Italy.
In Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavours and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City author Katie Parla and photographer Kristina Gill want to show us Rome as it really is. This they do by reference to the food found in the different neighbourhoods around the city and through the many tempting recipes that they have included in this sumptuous book. With the turn of each page, the reader learns new things as they are brought on a gastronomic tour of the city.
Parla and Gill are respected food and travel writers/journalists and have both lived in Rome and Italy for a number of years. Parla has written over 20 food and travel books and her work has appeared in a large number of publications including the New York Times and Bon Appétit. She also writes on her blog. Gill is the Italy based food and drinks editor at Design*Sponge – a much respected lifestyle blog. As a photographer she has also worked for National Geographic, Traveler and Kinfolk.
Despite its Imperialistic past Parla and Gill show us that there is little that is lavish or ostentatious about Roman food but rather that it is characterised by its simplicity and a no-nonsense approach to the ingredients that are used. Put simply, Roman cooking is instinctive and based around using whatever produce is freshly available and in season. I was keen to start cooking and try out some of the recipes.
Rather than dividing the chapters of the book into traditional courses like antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, and dolce, Parla and Gill chose to structure the book in a way that highlights new classic dishes but also acknowledges the importance that certain dishes have played in Rome’s culinary past. Consequently, the eight chapters in the book encompass topics such as Snacks, Starters & Street Food; Foraging Rome; Bread & Pizza and Drinks.
I decided to kick off my recipe road-test with Cacio e Pepe Suppli (Rice Croquettes with Pecorino Romano & Black Pepper). Here Parla has adapted the flavours found in Cacio e Pepe – a pasta sauce made from Pecorino Romano and coarsely ground black – and has used them in an updated version of the deep-fried rice croquettes which are a popular street-food in Rome.
I start by making a simple risotto flavoured with Pecorino Romano – a salted sheep’s milk cheese that has roots in Rome stretching back two thousand years – and let this cool before forming it into little individual croquettes around a central core of mozzarella. After dipping each croquette into flour, beaten egg and fine breadcrumbs, the croquettes are deep-fried until golden brown. The suppli are eaten whilst still warm so that the melted cheese centres can be enjoyed in all their glory.
I love classic suppli and didn’t believe that they could be improved on… but the recipe in Tasting Rome surpassed all expectations. The recipe was easy to follow and whilst some technique was involved even someone with limited cooking skills could make them. I loved them and thought this updated version was inspired.
As a keen baker, I am invariably drawn to recipes for breads cakes and biscuits so decided to make the Almond and Cinnamon Biscotti. The recipe in Tasting Rome was inspired by the biscotti which are unique to the Roman Jewish Tradition. There are approximately thirteen thousand Jews in Rome – a city with a population of almost 4 million – but the community’s influence on the food culture of the city is immense. As Parla and Gill acknowledge, this is due in part to three centuries of isolation in a walled Ghetto (from 1555 to 1870), living on limited food resources out of which they developed a unique cuisine called the cucina ebraica romanesca which “coaxes intense flavour from paltry resources”.
I love biscotti so this recipe containing whole almonds and cinnamon immediately appealed. Although American Cup Measurements were used, the book contains a handy conversion chart and in no-time at all I had the ingredients weighed out and the dough mixed up. I then shaped the dough into two logs and popped them into the oven for their first baking. Once out of the oven the logs were sliced into individual biscuits and baked for a second time to dry them out. This recipe makes a large amount of biscuits, but I wasn’t complaining as they were absolutely delicious. They also were easy to store and remained beautifully crisp, stored in a tin for a number of days after I had made them.
I then decided to make the Frittata di Zucca (Pumpkin Frittata). Like most of the recipes in the book, this used simple ingredients and was easy to make, merely requiring the cracking of a few eggs and the chopping of some vegetables which were then combined in a large frying pan to make the flavoursome frittata which was wonderful eaten at room temperature but also equally tasty eaten cold at a family picnic the following day. I loved it.
Panna cotta is served in most Roman restaurants, so I felt duty bound to make the Panna Cotta alla Menta con salsa di Cioccolato (Mint Panna Cotta). At its simplest panna cotta is a set-milk dessert, commonly flavoured with vanilla but easy to adapt to incorporate other flavours. This version was gently flavoured with vanilla but had a good hit of mint.
It was incredibly easy to make and I quickly had it mixed up and poured into ramekins. They were left to set in the fridge overnight and the following day I turned them out onto individual serving plates and served them along with the wonderful chocolate sauce suggested in Tasting Rome. They were outstanding.
I decided to finish my recipe road test with the rather enticing Crostata di Prugne di Sara Levi (Sara Levi’s Plum Crostata with Almond Crust. This beautiful fruit tart was topped with a lovely pastry lattice which I thought looked fabulous albeit complicated to achieve. Fruit tarts are hugely popular in Rome and are seen everywhere; – they are even often enjoyed for breakfast. The version in Tasting Rome is based on a recipe by Chef Sara Levi of the Rome Sustainable Food Project and is truly exceptional. I found the pastry a little difficult, but not impossible to work with and thoroughly enjoyed creating the lattice on top of the tart. Whilst this recipe was more complicated and time-consuming to make than many of the others in the book the final result made all the effort worthwhile. For me it was the highlight of my recipe-testing and I have made it a number of times since.
Tasting Rome is a beautiful book which is extremely informative and very well-written. The photography throughout it is exceptional. If I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that I own many cookery books that I have never actually cooked from. They sit on shelves gathering dust and serving no real purpose. The recipes in Tasting Rome are recipes that you will want to cook. The food is beautifully presented and the recipes are well laid out with easy-to-follow instructions. But the thing that really sets this book apart is the fact that you really feel as if you are getting a true taste of this most iconic of cities. This book is an absolute must for anyone who loves Italy and wants to learn more about the city, its people and its food.
I defy anyone to read this book and not want to immediately book a flight to Rome.
Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavours and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City is published by Clarkson Potter and is available to buy at www.amazon.co.uk/Tasting-Rome-Flavors-Forgotten-Recipes/.
Niamh believes Ireland produces some of the best food in the world, and travels around the country; seeking out the best food producers, and places to eat.
An accomplished cook and baker, Niamh is also a previous MasterChef Ireland finalist. During the competition she had the opportunity to cook in some of Ireland’s top restaurants and experience life on the other side of the kitchen pass.
Working with TheTaste allows Niamh to write about her experiences and to share her passion for food and cooking with a wide audience.
Visit Niamh’s blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.