Kristin and I went to Rome for a few days before Christmas a year ago. One of the never-ending joys of living in central Europe is such kinds of trips, partly for the joy of seeing these places but moreover for being able to casually say, “I went for Rome for a couple days.” Last year I also weekended in Amsterdam and London, and spent afternoons in Dresden and Słubice, Poland. I have a ticket to Zurich for a weekend later this month.

Neither of us had been to Rome, and while I had no specific desire to visit, Rome offers several landmarks and the allure of Real Italian Food.

Kristin at the Vatican
Kristin at the Vatican

Here is where I confess I knew nothing about Rome. Neither did Kristin know much more. We stumbled upon The Pantheon (several times). Entering the piazza of the (hitherto unheard of by me) Trevi Fountain was breathtaking. Turns out the Vatican (wherein you are lead past their entire art collection on a winding route to the Sistine Chapel) has a collection of Dalí paintings. And so on.

Salvador Dalí detail

But what about the food, you ask. For the love of god what about the food? In a word, elusive.

We settled into the guest house and ventured to find lunch. Around the corner we found a tiny a pizza, uh, place. (Imbiss is the best word to use here. English should adopt it). The place had fluorescent lighting and burly patrons.  Uncooked pizza was displayed in bulk trays with no labelling. The price list on the wall indicated that we were to order by weight. Our selections were cooked fast and fresh and served on small cutting boards, simply arranged. We ate with our hands, of course, as only napkins accompanied the manageable little rectangular slices. Creamy white sauce, shrimps, prosciutto … I forget the details but they don’t matter.  It was delicious,  and served fresh and hot on a fluffy, crispy crust.

It was a good start, though less charming than I had hoped.

We vainly search for more places where locals might eat. A friend who had lived in Rome had given us the advice of heading to the student district to find some cool bars. After a very false start, we managed to find one and indulged in the local custom of grazing at their tiny pre-drinks “buffet” that you pay an extra couple euros for when you get your first drink. Couscous and pasta salads, that sort of thing. Cute, and local, but culinarily unsatisfying. It was beginning to dawn on us that we are snobs.

Seen being sold on the street. These doughnuts have a name, but I forget it.

In a touristy area rammed with shops and cafés on narrow alleys, we asked the woman running the English bookstore where she would eat nearby. Perhaps she misunderstood the kind of advice we sought or perhaps she has bad taste. It did not bode well that all the other patrons were also tourists, but the presence of stuffed zucchini blossoms on the menu encouraged and excited us. One summer we had once made them ourselves from blossoms and herbs Kristin grew in her yard and oh my god those were the best thing ever: crisp, light batter that burst with oregano-laced zucchini freshness backed by garlicky cheese. We were highly disappointed by the blobs that were dropped on our table. They resembled oversized chicken balls. Doughy sadness.

Oh, and the pasta turned out to be mushy. My seafood sauce was slimy and salty, with bits of rubbery squid. I can’t even remember what Kristin had.

The next day we wandering into a fancy-looking place with a fair-priced lunch menu outside. We’re both suckers for carbonara, so we both ordered it. We would normally like to try a couple things and share, but we were not about to take chances. Our assessment: solidly good carbonara. Good price. We could get better at Spaghetti Western next to my place in Berlin.

I had a painful and persistent sinus infection that Christmas, and I eventually ran out of tissues. We stopped into a corner store to buy some. The small shop was filled with the kinds of dry goods one can buy in any Italian grocery in Toronto. Tins of tuna and tomatoes. Jars of puréed mushrooms and peppers. A small selection of cheese and meats in a deli counter in the back corner. An entire aisle of the three-aisle shop was piled high with Barilla pasta in all shapes and sizes.

“Tiffany,” Kristin said, “You can’t tell because of your stuffed nose, but it smells like every Italian shop in Toronto in here. It makes me think of my old place on Manning.” She had lived in Little Italy, south of Korea-town, after moving out of Chinatown where I still lived. The same streetcar line served Little India at one end and Roncesvalles (the Polish area) at the other.

We were spoiled. Spoiled snobs. We could go back home to our own boxes of Barilla and enjoy our own damned Italian food exactly the way the locals did: by making it.

Tiffany found a source of pancetta within walking distance of her home on Torstraße. She will be spending the afternoon prepping and cooking 2kg of Bolognese to serve to friends, with Kristin in attendance.

4 thoughts on “Rome

  1. Ciambella?

    Hattie and I had a similarly difficult time trying to find good stuff to eat in Rome (11(!) years ago), but part of that was because we were poor students. I remember some pretty good pizza, but other than that, only one dish stands out. For a quick lunch one day, we popped into a café, which offered the standard selection of panini and caprese in their glass case. There was one plate left of something that looked like bread soaked in olive oil and tomato, but each of us opted for something else. We kept eyeing the plate though and after finishing what became our first course, we decided we just had to try it. It really was just bread, olive oil (think bread floating in olive oil “soup”), tomato and maybe a little garlic, and it was so good. I still think about it every once in a while.


  2. Laura and I ate some mediocre food in Rome, but I just attributed it to being very broke and cheap. I did fall in love with the history of the place though — I also knew very little before arriving, but an amazing couple of walking tours led by native english speakers (nothing against the italians, they’re just hard to understand sometimes) totally made me obsessed with the ancient romans for a little while.


  3. A former boss of mine once travelled to Buenos Aires for the weekend, and each time he ate, he just went to the next restaurant on the list in an article about the city in that month’s issue of Gourmet Magazine. In fact, I think the article might have been what inspired him to go.

    At the time, I thought it was a kind of cheating, and so touristy. But he had a great time and ate great food. I should have learned from him.


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