Some of the first works of art I saw when I got to Italy were the Etruscan sarcophagi, found aplenty in museums of ancient art in Tuscany and Rome. Before Christianity the Etruscans lived in Tuscany and cultivated and made much of the wine, olives, and garlic Italy is known for. Much of their culture was centered around food and agriculture–so much so that when someone died, a sarcophagus would be made featuring a reproduction of that person in a reclined pose. Etruscans were pagan and had many celebrations and meals where they would be lying on their sides, propped up on one elbow. The man in the picture below is even holding an empty plate as though the meal has yet to begin. The Etruscans wanted to communicate their hope that even in the afterlife there would be abundance.
Being immersed in European culture is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. One of the things I feel is immediately different is the culture surrounding food. I imagine because Italy is so much smaller than the U.S., food takes less time to get from its source to its market. Therefore, there are less preservatives and there is less of an emphasis on quantity and more on quality. People eat seasonally here and groceries are more of a day-to-day item rather than something that’s bought once a week. Before there were supermarkets in Italy, people used to go to a salumeria for their cured meats and cheeses, a pasticceria for their bread, an open market for their vegetables and fruits, a pesceria for their fish and a macelleria for their other meats. Because stores are smaller here, it is common for people to have a relationship with the person from whom they purchase their food. Ultimately, I believe because of the cultural emphasis on food here, there is more of a ritual and practice surrounding it. Some of my first memories of food here are espresso, pizza, brie, a cornetto (croissant), and many paninis. It took me a while to understand how to order food and what was normal here. Based on my experience, there are two essential types of eating in Rome: a long, several course meal, or a quick meal at a bar-style restaurant.
The Leisurely Meal
My first sit-down meal was on a day trip to Siena with friends. I remember it because I made a drawing of it. It was gnocchi stuffed with pear and covered in a cheese sauce with pepper. It is customary when you sit down with a group of people to purchase a bottle of wine and many wait staff will entreat you to do so. I find in general when sitting down to a meal or browsing in a store, the staff can be very persuasive (Confession: I have bought knock-off items at least twice, and every time it was because I believed some sugary fact from a sales clerk such as “That’s real silver,” or “I made these all myself,” or “It’s limited edition.” As someone once said, “You live and you learn”). There is no greater pleasure than being able to sit down to a luxurious, several course meal of incredibly prepared food. My favorite meal here was at Sughetto in the Jewish ghetto. My friend and I ordered a fried artichoke, falafel and meatballs served in a fresh pomodoro (tomato) sauce. It was so memorable because of all the different sensory experiences surrounding the food. The fried artichoke was crispy and earthy like a flake of dried coconut and the falafel was crunchy and bright, and the meatballs were sweet. There are more courses in smaller amounts. Meals also happen over several hours, whereas in the U.S. we are used to the get-in-get-out culture of fast food and drive-ins. That being said, while Italian culture traditionally practices long meals in several courses, Rome in particular is known for its street food.
The Standing Meal
Rome is a walking city. You’re lucky if you have time to wait for the bus while you’re out and about getting from this place to the next. That’s why the Italian standing meal is an essential practice. Rome is scoured with restaurants that offer little to no seating. Oftentimes there is simply a bar to place your food and stand at. This reminds me, yesterday I had the pleasure of taking a weekend walk through the park at Villa Borghese with several friends. Afterwards we wandered into a restaurant called Pastificio, across from the Spanish Steps. There were two pastas of the day: cacio e peppe and formaggio e zucchero for only four euro a serving. It was served to us in plastic containers and we stood and ate it by a counter without stools until we were ready to leave. Because the pasta was cooked directly after the dough was made, it was soft and spongy and felt much less dense than noodles that are prepared after they are dried. In addition to this street food experience, I often walk to Forno Marco Roscioli in Trastevere to get freshly baked pizza with flavor combinations that are out of this world (i.e. pumpkin-mushroom-smoked blue cheese, shrimp-mozzarella-basil, and potato-zucchini-parmesan)! Whenever I grab pizza, I make a point to purchase a suppli classico or two. These are balls of risotto in tomato sauce and stuffed with mozzarella cheese, and they are absolutely sinful. Something interesting about the fast food culture of Rome versus that of the U.S. is that it is always a focused experience. When I go out for lunch on campus, a couple local vendors know me and we will talk shortly about our day-to-day. Some places also have different items every day and it is nice to chat with vendors about these things. Above all, the fast food is different because you choose the spot you’re going to for the quality of the items presented. Not all espresso is good espresso– even in Rome.
I can’t help but feel that if I take anything home from Rome, it will be a better affinity for food culture and the ceremony with which food is treated. Not only do I feel more sensitized to the flavors and textures which food can inhabit, but I also know the sanctity of a quick container of pasta from a hole in the wall and a two-and-a-half-hour meal with a friend at a nice restaurant. Rome has taught me that cooking is like painting; if you want it to be good you have to invest time picking out your materials and learning the techniques with which to put them together.