Spend time immersed in Italian culture and learn about some of the culinary delights served in traditional Italian food as author Alicia Simcox recounts a day spent exploring a Roman market.
Shored in by the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west, and cradled by the Apennine foothills to the east, Rome has been called the center of the world. It is not hard to imagine why. Historically the seat of one of the greatest empires that ever existed, Rome still to this day retains its culture; a heritage that is the fruit of millennia.
Rome is a city that owes its majesty to not only magnanimous rulers dating all the way back to Emperors and Popes, but also to its location. With the provinces of Viterbo and Rieti to the north, and Latina and Frosinone in the south, the terrain around Rome offers a very rich diversity of landscapes. There are mountains, hills, valleys and rivers; each creating its own unique environment. In these micro-habitats luxuriate crops of all sorts. Vineyards grace the lower hills and fields; chestnuts, orchard fruits, berry bushes and forests are found higher into the mountains. In the flat plains that flank the sea, farmers tend everything from "finocchio" (fennel), to artichokes, to melons, to corn. In these varied realms farmers also raise a plethora of livestock; cows and water buffalo, swine and sheep; fowl, including partridges and peacocks; and even fish, including trout and catfish. Because of this diversity, it is easy to see how Romans have derived much of their refined culinary habits: The rustic life is literally at Rome’s gates! Farmers and the tenders of the earth using simple ingredients were and are the ones who influence the food ways of city denizens to this day.
Romans have been documenting their agricultural heritage for a long time. One of the most famous of these chroniclers was Marcus Cato, who lived from about 243 B.C. to 149 B.C. Cato wrote a treatise on farming called “De Re Agricultura” that laid out a floor map for would-be farmers some 22 centuries ago. Cato outlined in his work advice for city dwellers to start farming. Topics included the selection of a farm; how to grow trees, fruits and vegetables; and how to be profitable. Some must have read it … the commerce that Cato spoke of still is out on the streets and squares of Rome more than 2,000 years later.
It is 7 a.m. and I am up and already walking the narrow cobblestone streets leading to the famous Campo de Fiori market. “Campo de Fiori" means “field of flowers,” and is a marvelous place. As I arrive, the square is full of the hustle and bustle of the morning produce folk. The whole side to my left looks like a colorful rainbow; roses, lilies, peonies, gladiolas and sunflowers all seem to beg for attention from the passersby. I love the flowers, but the real reason I was drawn here is the food! This is arguably the best place in central Rome to find traditional vegetables, fruits and other foods. Because of this, Campo de Fiori is a culinary wonderland.
As I wove myself through the myriad of stalls, looking for delights, I stopped at a small stand that was surely a Ma and Pa operation and asked them what they had. The whole stand was ablaze with color; there were purple onions in baskets, hanging garlands of pink garlic braids, and fire-engine red chili peppers dangling from the center of the tent. I knew that I would find some treasures here. The woman looked up at me, a round little Italian woman who had rough hands from working the earth, and she held up one of her prized artichokes.
She was cleaning them by cutting off the exterior leaflets of the crown and trimming the stem. Artichokes are a delicacy; but unfortunately in the U.S. we do not value them as much as we should. The artichoke (Cynara cardunculus) is native to the Mediterranean and has been grown in the Italian peninsula as a crop for at least 2,500 years. Thus, Romans are very experienced in dealing with this vegetable. One of the classic Roman ways of preparing artichokes is "Carciofi alla Giudia" (Artichokes in the Jewish Style). These are artichokes prepared using an old Jewish recipe. If you go to one of the notable restaurants in the Jewish Ghetto (which is only a stone’s throw from Campo de Fiori), you can order one of these fantastic deep fried delicacies. There are a million other ways of preparing artichokes, from simple boiling, to adding it to soups, pastas, or stir-fry, but "Carciofi alla Giudia" is still one of my favorites.
There are a lot of traditional vegetables that have an intricate history here on the peninsula. Another vegetable as notable as the beloved artichoke to Romans is the cauliflower known as romanesco (Brassica oleracea var.italica). Romanesco is a special Roman cauliflower variety that is light green in color. When it is compared to a normal cauliflower, it is more crunchy and its flavor is not as assertive, being delicate and nutty. The heads are not rounded like the white cauliflower varieties with which North Americans are more familiar, but more fractal and angular in nature. As a vegetable, romanesco is rich in vitamin C, Vitamin K, dietary fiber and carotenoids. Romans love this vegetable and consider it an essential ingredient to fall cooking. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds offers this variety on its website as a broccoli: the small discrepancy in classification is due to differing points of view among “Brassica” specialists. Both broccoli and cauliflower are of the same species, just different “form” groups.
Italians eat a lot of other leafy vegetables. An interesting variety is what Italians call "Cavolo nero" (Brassica oleracea var. acephala). In English it is known as black leaf Kale. Most Italians would associate this vegetable with Tuscany, though it is eaten in most other regions. As a kale, it is a leafy cabbage that does not form heads. The leaves resemble palm fronds that can grow to be about a yard long and have a bubbled appearance. Cavolo nero is extremely good for you; a modest portion contains about 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamins K, A and C. It is also rich in antioxidants and other minerals. In Rome, you can find dishes prepared with Cavolo nero in variety of ways, but it is mostly eaten as a side, or “contorno.” In the region of Tuscany, it is famously used in the traditional soup, Ribollita.
Roman greens are a surprising treat to most foreigners. Things that we would never think of eating back in the U.S. are found here in almost every trattoria. Romans try to use vegetables that are in season. Eating seasonally helps one appreciate what Mother Earth has to offer us.
Another treat in Roman restaurants is a green called “puntarelle.” To a foreigner reading the menu, that needs further definition, but for a Roman it is a known and prized salad ingredient. Puntarelle is a late fall to early winter chicory, which has its origin on the Catalonia coastline of Lazio Gaeta. The puntarelle are picked when they are young and tender and may be eaten raw or cooked. The usual way of preparing this Roman salad is to strip the leaves and shoots and soak them in cold water to curl and “sweeten” them. The typical salad is prepared by using anchovy sauce, garlic, vinegar, olive oil and salt.
Another vegetable curiosity that is almost unknown in North America, but that is eaten quite regularly in Rome, is called "agretti" (Salsola soda), or saltwort in English. I first saw this plant while I was perusing a market stand years ago and saw these strange little bunches of succulent grass-like greens. Only later did I find out what it was and what to do with this linear-leafed plant. Agretti is a small, annual succulent shrub that is native to the Mediterranean basin. It is a very salt tolerant plant, and it typically is found on coastal regions. Historically, it was used as a source of soda ash, which is a type of alkali substance that is crucial to glass making and soap making. Agretti is cultivated in Italy and is usually available in the fall or late spring. As a leafy vegetable, it is usually boiled. If it is lightly cooked, it retains its crunchiness; if eaten raw, it is succulent. Seeds are best planted very early in the spring or fall in areas with a mild to cool winter.
"Finocchio" (Foeniculum vulgare), or fennel in English, is another Italian accomplishment. The domesticated varieties were originally selected from wild fennel, which still grows throughout the Mediterranean. This plant is a culinary delight. The finocchio we are referring to here are varieties that have swollen bulb-like stem bases and are eaten as a vegetable, either cooked or raw in salads. The “bulbous stem base” is sweet and aromatic, like a mild anise. It is very commonly offered in restaurants in Rome in season.
"Cicoria" (Cichorium intybus), or chicory in English, is another green vegetable obscure to Americans that is served in practically every Roman restaurant. These dark leafy greens are first boiled to remove some of the initial bitterness, and then they are fried, or "ripassata," in a delicious mixture of olive oil, hot pepper and garlic. They are both savory and bitter and very pleasing to the taste buds. In many parts of the world this food would just be discarded as a weed, yet Italians thrive on this nutritious plant. It can be found pretty much everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere and grows naturalized throughout North America. A good handbook on foraging is a good way to learn more about this plant.
With the plethora of unique traditional vegetables available to Romans, it is no wonder that they have a wonderful cuisine. In Italy, food is culture. Being preoccupied about food and the quality of it is a big part of life; for the Romans this preoccupation means that great care is exerted to make sure that food is what it should be: delicious! The freshness of the ingredients, the fragrance of a certain mushroom, and the tenderness of a piece of meat are all things that are very common in Italian culture. Romans love eating, and not just to satisfy their hunger, but to truly indulge their palate with every mouthful. Roman cuisine is characterized by its simplicity, with many dishes having only four to eight ingredients. Roman cooks pay more attention to quality of the ingredients than the quantity. I have lived in Rome for a long time and I am still impressed by the effort and passion that goes into cooking here. Even though a rustic dish may seem easy to prepare, judging from the few ingredients it takes to make it, you are in for a surprise when imagining that Roman cuisine is simple. Vegetables play a big role in Roman cuisine, but accent foods like cheeses, spices, olives and oils complete the grand finale. I often included in my morning agenda time searching for these.
I stepped up to a cheese vendor who had converted a truck of some sort into a refrigerated selling machine. I looked into the display vitrine and was mesmerized by an assortment of 30 different cheeses from various parts of Italy. The vendor was seasoned and knew his cheeses like a maestro. I looked at a tub of milky water containing a few “basking” lumps of mozzarella di bufala. Before I could ask, the cheese monger burst forth, telling me almost everything I could have possibly wanted to know about it! In the States we are acquainted with its cousin cheese, mozzarella made from cow’s milk, but this delight is made from water buffalo milk. Mozzarella di bufala is usually produced in the south of Italy, where the buffalo have adapted very well to the steamy hot summers of the coastal plains. It’s a fresh cheese that retains much of the fresh milk; consequently, it is very soft and creamy. It is considered by many to be the most delicious fresh cheese that exists in Italy.
I love mozzarella di bufala, but another of my favorite cheeses is generically referred to as "pecorino” with many existing named varieties. Pecorino is hard cheese made from ewe’s milk; most of these ewe-milk cheeses are made on the Island of Sardinia. And for Italians it is a must “condiment” to flavor meals. Although all pecorino cheeses are “hard,” fresher pecorino has a nutty, buttery taste, whereas the “semi-stagionato” (semi-matured) have a slightly harder texture and more pronounced bite. “Lungo-stagionato” (well aged) pecorinos are often very piquant or sharp. These cheeses are not only eaten as appetizers cut into small wedges and served as an “anti-pasto” before the meal, but have their mainstay use as seasonings. Typically, pecorino is shaved or grated and spread on salads and pastas to add class and flavor.
Just before I walked away from the cheese stand, a tray of fresh “pecora ricotta” caught my eye; this fresh cheese is just bursting with flavor. Ricotta is an Italian whey cheese made from sheep, cow or goat milk. Ricotta is a main ingredient to many sweet Italian dishes. It also is used in many different savory dishes. It is made by using whey and a small quantity of milk. "Ricotta Romana" is usually prepared by using sheep milk. These tender cheeses are often eaten as an appetizer sliced with salad vegetables, and they make up a significant part of the Roman diet. The cheese man extended his hand with a sumptuous morsel of ricotta on a spoon; I accepted and savored the sweetness. He knew he had a customer; “ Due cento cinquanta grammi Per Favore.” “ Two hundred fifty grams, please.” I paid, thanked the cheese man, took my culinary treasures, and subconsciously followed a the subtle perfumed scent of mushrooms to the next booth.
One of my favorite dishes in Rome is made from the porcini mushroom (Boletus edulis). This mushroom can attain an impressive size, up to 12 inches, but typically it is best harvested when half that size or smaller. The mushroom is reddish-brown and is described as the “wild mushroom par excellence.” It is one the most rewarding of all fungi in the kitchen for its taste and versatility. The flavor is amazing, and it is rightly deemed a spice; its “perfume” is described as being nutty and slightly meaty. In the mouth, bits of porcinis are smooth and creamy in texture. Porcinis are sold in fresh markets in the summer and fall months; in the off seasons they are sold dried or canned. There are many dishes for which they can be incorporated, from creams and sauces, to soups, to the classic “Fettucini ai Porcini.”
Porcinis are not the only quintessential flavorings; desiccated tomatoes are another essential to Roman cooking. These are tomatoes that have lost most of their water content by being sliced, salted and naturally dried in the hot sun. Most tomatoes require from four to 10 days in the sun before the drying process is complete. Little cherry types lose up to 88 percent of their fresh weight, and larger paste tomatoes lose up to 93 percent of their weight in the process. It takes about 14 kilos of fresh tomatoes to make 1 kilo of dried tomatoes, hence their higher price is merited. Even though the evaporation sucks all the water out of the tomatoes, the nutritional value remains. Sun-dried tomatoes are high in lycopene, antioxidants and vitamin C. These dried tomatoes can be used in a variety of ways, be it in pasta dishes, on bruschetta, or just as they are. One popular way of making them even more delightful is to re-bathe them in virgin olive oil, or "sotto olio," and store them in jars. No matter how they are used, in Rome they are considered to give an exciting kick to every dish they are added to.
Porcinis are not the only fungi to stand in the culinary spotlight. The most prestigious fungus in the world is the truffle. In Italy, truffles are harvested in the central forests and are a delicacy esteemed beyond comprehension. One truffle stand in Campo de Fiori had about 30 different types of truffle sauces and various olive oils all scented with the aroma of the truffle. Truffles are a subterranean fungus. The more common French black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) usually grows beneath oak and hazelnut trees. French black truffles are usually harvested in late autumn and winter. Because truffles are so pungent, it takes very little to go a long way. Truffles are added to a multitude of dishes in Rome, and they are all delicious.
We cannot speak about Mediterranean foods without paying due to the olive (Olea europaea). Italy has hundreds of varieties of olives and innumerable ways of preparing them. My favorite Italian olive is the Cerignola. The Cerignola is a giant known for its size and very mild flavor. It can either be served green or black. This cultivar is originally from the town of Cerignola in the southern region of Puglia. This olive is usually just eaten as is as an appetizer accompanied with drinks, though it can be added to various recipes. Another spectacular olive, whose home is closer to Rome, is a wonderful medium-sized green “cracked” olive that is produced in the environs of Mount Circeo, just southeast of Rome. These wonderful fresh olives are only available a few months after the harvest and have never really been available in large commercial quantities outside of the local region.
Even though Italians like to eat olives, their true fascination with Olea europaea is with the oil that it produces. Olive oil is essential to all Italian cooking. To define this obsession requires sharing a grocery store encounter. I went into a typical grocery store, searched out the oil isle and counted some 20 different kinds offered in a myriad of proportions. Olive oils are, as the true connoisseurs contend, as varied in flavor as wines are. There are oils that are nominated peppery, fruity, bitter, and even sweet. The gastronome uses them accordingly, selecting oils specifically to accent the qualities of each dish. The taste of olive oil depends on a variety of factors. It depends on the cultivar of the olive, the climate, the soil type, the maturity of the fruit at the point of harvest, the harvesting method, the oil extraction system, and even the extraction temperatures. All these steps are essential to how olive oil tastes. The most prestigious oils are cold pressed and hand bottled; these and other extra virgin oils are dramatically different from heat-extracted, mass produced oils that are properly considered inferior. No self-respecting Roman chef would use such oils in his cuisine. Most of those mass produced, heat-extracted oils are destined for export to be sold to users who may not be so savvy and experienced. The U.S. and China are some of the largest consumers of these inferior olive oils, so beware when you go to your supermarket and buy only extra-virgin olive oil!
After being enchanted with olives and olive oil, and mesmerized by the olive man and all his explanations of such, I thanked him and left. The next stand that caught my eye had stacks of orange fruit in Styrofoam containers. This was the kaki stand. Kaki (Diospyros kaki) is one of the true delights of autumn in Italy and one of my favorite fruits in the world. The fruits are the size of apples, originally from the orient. Kakis are now omnipresent in Italy and many temperate countries around the world. The Kaki seems to have originated in the far east; great diversity is found in Japan, Korea and China. Eventually it spread westward and made its way to Europe. Today these strange looking orange autumn fruits are one of Italy’s most aesthetically beautiful. The Kaki, or, persimmon, as it is called in English, is a rich golden orange color. The taste is said to be the mixture of dates and heavy chestnut honey. Kakis can be quite fragrant; and the astringent types cannot be appreciated much until they completely soften. Because the fruits soften completely before being eaten, the texture provokes a number of reactions in first time persimmon eaters. I describe it to debutantes as slimy or squishy with a heavenly taste. Unripe Kakis can sit a long time, but once they soften up they do not last long and need to be eaten or preserved. I bought a couple of pounds of them, and the gentleman packed them carefully so I didn’t end up with jam on the way home.
The diversity of Campo de Fiori is the thrill, from artichokes to cheeses, to olives and persimmons, the selection is amazing. Not only are local products represented in force but also specialties from other areas of Italy. The regions of Calabria, Tuscany, Umbria and Puglia are some of the main food producing regions and are all represented in force in this bustling square. In front of me was a stand that was visibly “Pugliese” and the lady had some lampascioni for sell. I had recently learned what this vegetable was after my father brought me a jar of them from the southern Italian province of Puglia. Not knowing anything more than he told me about them, I did a little research and experimented with them. I tried to use them in almost every plausible recipe. Lampascioni (Leopoldia comosa, syn. Muscari comosum) is an Italian delicacy from Puglia. It is a perennial plant that forms a bulb; it will come as a surprise to most people that it is one of a number of varieties of the grape hyacinth. It is a common wildflower in Italy, though few people know that the bulb is edible. Lampascioni is a classic example of Italian cuisine’s use of the ingredients of the land. What seems to us today to be an odd edible has, in fact, traditionally been used for centuries. That these type of traditions are still being preserved and actually promoted in Italy is a tribute to their common sense and culture. Lampascionis are not palatable right out of the ground; they need to be cut, soaked and then cooked, ultimately being pickled and oiled in a myriad of ways. Typically, they are usually prepared “agrodolce” (sweet and sour), a preparation that cuts their residual bitterness while softening the bulbs. They are also served baked, roasted or fried. The Lampascioni tradition exemplifies that poor man’s food has become an authentic mark of Italian regional cuisine and culinary prestige. No longer are Lampascionis only for the poor, they are now sought by well informed foodies everywhere.
From delicacies from the earth to delicacies fabricated by man’s hands, we cannot mention Rome without talking about Roman cured meats. Italians have a hundred different ways of curing and preparing meats. They can be pork, veal, beef, goat, sheep, wild boar; you name the animal and you will most likely find a cured meat that is made from it. Curing meats was born from the need to preserve them for long periods of time. Salting, smoking and air-drying are the three processes by which fresh meat is transformed into a long-keeping food. Italians have been making sausages for thousands of years. The ancient Romans use to praise a spicy pork sausage called Lucanian that was made in the region of Basilicata. The same sausage is still eaten to this day, though the name has changed to Lucaniche. Prosciutto is made by salting whole thighs, a tradition that has been repeated for thousands of years. Pork remains the prized curing meat for Italians to this day. There are two categories of Italian “salumi:” those that are obtained from whole cuts of meat, like prosciutto, and those that are made from minced, or chopped meat. Just take a walk down a normal Italian street and you will be sure to find a little “salumeria,” which will have an abundant supply of Italian sausage and ham varieties. Salumi form a very important part of Roman cooking. They are essential for a good antipasto, served with bread and cheese or with melon. They are a key ingredient for many soups and pasta dishes.
Having discovered so many Roman foods in the raw at Campo de Fiori, I decided to try some famous roman dishes. I walked down a little cobblestone street in search of some tasty Roman cooking. It was Christmas time and most of the streets were decorated with blue and white lights, a wonderful contrast to the yellow and red buildings of the city center. I stopped in front of a little trattoria, it was bustling inside and I decided that this would be a perfect place to relax and get a good meal. I asked the waiter to bring me an antipasto “alla Romana” (Roman style). He brought out a plate full of different roasted vegetables: zucchini, finocchio, roasted eggplants, stuffed mushrooms and my favorite Roman recipe, mozzarella-filled zucchini flowers rolled in pancetta (bacon). Even though an Italian antipasto was enough to fill me up, I was going to have the whole four-course meal that night! My next choice on the menu was my favorite dish, “fettucine ai porcini,” an exquisite pasta dish with the meaty, nutty porcini mushrooms. When the dish arrived, all I could smell was the strong fragrance of the fresh ingredients. I ordered as my third dish something that most Americans would not really call extravagant cooking, but for Rome it is a signature dish. “Trippa alla Romana” is a very simple dish, consisting mostly of tripe, tomato sauce and pecorino cheese. It is known as a poor dish because it is made out of the cow’s stomach, but it has become the popular dish. To finish off my amazing meal I asked for a panna cotta, which is a traditional Piedmontese recipe made from thick cream, egg white and honey.
As I finish my marathon-like culinary indulgence, I smiled at the excess and could only thank the Romans of today and yesterday for bringing such wonders to the world!
Alicia Simcox is the daughter of Joseph Simcox, The Botanical Explorer. Alicia has traveled to 70 countries with her father, studying the wonders of the green world. She presently is finishing her university studies in Rome, Italy, majoring in philosophy and languages.
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