Wednesday, 25 September 2013

For George Miller (Rome edition!),

"The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later, you're hungry again."

- George Miller, comedian, 1941 - 2003

Welcome to this very special travel post! The Parmesan Poet has been in Italy recently, on a rare and wonderful paid business trip that involved more pleasure than business. It feels rather privileged and grown up to go on a business trip at all, let alone one to Rome, but I'm going to shut my mouth lest someone at the university realise that they sent the wrong person.

So: what does a foodie do as she gears up for five free days in Rome? Other than squeal with glee and annoy a lot of flight attendants?

First, she downloads the brilliant "Eat Rome" app by food writer Elizabeth Minchilli, and scopes out the top places to eat around the city. And the top priority when determining the top places to eat? Gelato, of course. There's no shortage of gelateria in Rome - there's one on every street, at least. But they can be hit & miss, and coming from the land of Giapo, I demand perfection in my frozen treats. The best place I found was Gelateria del Teatro. They experiment with their flavours, and often combine herbs and fruit in interesting ways. Highlights were the raspberry & sage, peach & lavender, and rosemary, honey & lemon. (I have, of course, rushed home and recreated their flavours as best I can.)

Flavours in centre shot: fig, Sicilian pistachio, chocolate-orange.
As a bonus, Gelateria del Teatro is off the beaten track and has a picturesque alleyway in which to eat. You can also watch them making the gelato through a window wall, decorated with the fruits of their trade.

Second, our travelling foodie researches the local farmer's markets.

Bouquets of chillies are better than roses.
I'm obsessed with markets at home, so why not take the fixation abroad? It seems like a lot of Roman markets are heading indoors lately, which spoils the atmosphere somewhat. But the market at Campo de' Fiori is still held in the glorious Italian sunshine, and it was the highlight of the whole trip.

Available at the Campo de' Fiori market: piles of spices, fruit and flowers.
The market is a curious mix of locals and tourists, buying everything from basics to extravagant luxuries, from tomatoes to liquor in mini barrels (not an exaggeration: you can sample limoncello on tap, which I did, at ten in the morning.)

Chillies and tomatoes, sundried and fresh. All the makings of a delicious pasta sauce.

Campo de' Fiori is also a great place to pick up a casual snack. I bought a punnet each of purple figs and blackberries to eat in the sunshine. You can also buy fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, which is everything that a New Zealand winter is not.

Yes please!
But Campo de' Fiori is not the only market in Rome, which means it's not the only place for me to go on a photo spree while my long-suffering travel buddy holds my bag. Oh, no: the market at Testaccio is also full of delicious things to see and taste. It's not as photogenic, but it's one of several suburban markets where locals buy their daily bread.

Coffee, herbs, vegetables, and seafood on display at the Testaccio market.
The market at Circo Massimo (otherwise known as the original chariot racing track) hits a nice balance between tourist-friendly and local. You can buy everything from chillies on the tree, to soaked meat sandwiches, to big, meaty mushrooms the size of your head. And all a stone's throw from the Colosseum.

Chillies, herbs, and pulses at Circo Massimo.
Once the best gelato is found and the best markets explored, it's time for a hearty sit-down dinner. Elizabeth Minchilli's recommendation sent me to Porto Fluviale, a newish restaurant in the suddenly-hip Testaccio district. At Porto, they play on the traditions of Roman cuisine by acting as a pizzeria, a trattoria (dime-a-dozen neighbourhood joint), a cocktail lounge, and a dessert place all in one. Except it's not quite all-in-one, since where you sit determines the kind of menu you'll have. I hit up the trattoria and had incredibly tender moscardini (baby octopus) and delicate crespelle (crepes). Apologies for the cellphone pictures - I was too busy enjoying the food to focus on photography.

Clockwise from top left: moscardini, wine by the carafe, insalata di gallina (chicken salad), crespelle (crepes with asparagus).
The great thing about modern Roman dining is that you can often order half portions of mains or tapas portions of starters, meaning you can assemble your own menu with lots of small plates. You can also order local wine, purchased by the restaurant in bulk, and served by the carafe. I ordered a huge meal for two, with eight different dishes and a half litre of wine, for only forty euros. It's a great system.

You know what else is a great system? Restaurants on the beach! Yes, this is no new concept to an Aucklander. The City of Sails is also the City of Beachside Restaurants, so I'm not unaccustomed to eating with an ocean view. But there was something about the dining at Sperlonga, a coastal town between Rome and Naples, that took it to the next level.

Caprese salad; the beach at Sperlonga; fettucine ai frutti di mare.
The caprese salad came with the most flavourful tomatoes I've ever eaten, and a mozzarella ball that would require its own mortgage back home. And the fettucine ai frutti di mare (seafood pasta) came with heaping piles of mussels and razor clams - a shellfish so exotic to me that I'd only heard of it through a colleague's research in the biological sciences department.

So: is Rome a foodie paradise? Actually, I wouldn't say so. These are the highlights, of course. And you can eat some amazing food in Rome. But 85% of my meals there were stock-standard pizza and pasta. There is zero diversity when it comes to restaurants in the central part of Rome. They are all trattoria or pizzeria, and they all have the same menu. Rome doesn't seem to have the culinary identity of, say, Naples or Florence. Food from other areas or other countries is very hard to find, and the Roman menu gets extremely samey. Honestly, my Anglicised palate would take a Nigella Lawson Italian dish over a Roman Italian dish any day.

That being said, if you do your homework, you can find the odd place that tries something different. If you're planning a trip to Rome, I'd recommend reading up on interesting restaurants (the Eat Rome app was a godsend for me) and staying somewhere that has a kitchen, if you can. You'll want to cook up a storm after visiting the markets. If you're planning to hit the tourist spots, either take a picnic, or prepare for some average pasta.

Oh, and after a hard day of touristing, you must sit down with the fashionable hordes of local professionals for a five o'clock Campari & soda. After all, when in Rome...