March 22, 2015

Put The Roman Spring On Your Plate!

— Six Delicious Dishes to Try on your Rome Tour —

“The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star”, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the forefather of food writers once said. And if there’s a city that can make a foodie happy, it’s Rome. The delicious triumvirate of Pasta Carbonara, Pasta Amatriciana and Pasta alla Gricia, Rome’s signature dishes, has been ruling over Roman kitchens long enough to put the Italian capital on the world food map. And we haven’t even started on the pizzas: the famous pizza all taglio, a Roman invention which comes with a variety of toppings on a thin and crunchy crust, has given the city bragging rights over Napoli, the birth city of pizza. But come spring, the Romans enthusiastically embrace an all-star selection of fresh ingredients which get made into a variety of mouthwatering dishes.

Whether you’ll join us for a Rome in One Day tour or plan on spending more days in the Eternal City, we wholeheartedly advise you to simply do as the Romans do, and try one of these flavoursome dishes that only come around once a year. Mind you, apart from being delicious, they will also help you expand your culinary universe.

Wild asparagus is a true harbinger of spring. It differs from regular asparagus in that its spears are finer and longer and can only be found in rural areas, in the fields or alongside countryside roads. Foraged by hand and with a stronger flavour, wild asparagus is a delicacy featured exclusively on the menu of select restaurants. It is traditionally served in pasta dishes – try the Carbonara con asparagi selvagi for a classic with a twist – but goes well in frittatas, risottos and soups and makes a wonderful starter when braised in butter with a sprinkle of salt and white pepper. Wild asparagus was appreciated by the Roman poet Juvenal and is said to have been a favourite of Roman Emperor Augustus, who is credited with coining the expression Velocius quam asparagi coquantur, meaning Faster than you can cook asparagus. Try to remember that, should you find a way to get yourself invited to the house of an Italian friend who has relatives in the Roman countryside, the Agro Romano. As a rule, whenever a dish has asparago selvatico in its name, you’re bound to have a memorable meal!

Roman Artichokes are arguably the standout ingredient on Romans’ plate in spring. They come in season before March, which gives them a head start over potential rivals. Those who join us on The Heart of Rome Tour will often see the restaurants dotting the streets between Piazza Navona and the majestic Pantheon display a fresh bunch of globe artichokes outside their doors – an Italian custom – from early February. Since antiquity, artichokes have been a staple food for the Romans and other Mediterranean civilisations. That isn’t to say that they have not had their share of detractors, though. Pliny the Elder, the famed Roman naturalist, described the artichoke as “one of the earth’s monstrosities”. The – totally uncalled for – name calling must have been triggered by the plant’s looks and odd make up. Because the taste of fresh artichokes, many gourmands will testify, is nothing short of divine. Two artichoke-based dishes stand out in Roman cuisine: the Roman-style artichokes – Carciofi alla romana – and the Jewish-style artichoke dish Carciofi alla giudia. While the former asks for the trimmed artichokes to be stuffed with herbs and garlic before being slowly braised, for the latter the artichokes are thrown whole in hot oil twice to achieve the appearance of a crisp blooming flower. Both dishes are cooked using the Romanesco cimarolo artichoke variety, cultivated in the Roman countryside, in the Latina region and are served traditionally in the restaurants of Trastevere and the Jewish Ghetto. For a delicious, gluten-free alternative, order the Italian Spring Stew, or Vignarola,  a mix of young and tender fava beans, peas, artichokes and the optional guanciale, the Italian cured pork cheek or jowl.

For the carnivorous among you, a variety of the suckling lamb dishes – called Abbacchio – will be on offer. Especially around Easter, restaurants will serve chops, grilled and roasted lamb dishes.  But the absolute standout dish, a springtime delicacy since ancient times, is the Roman Roast Lamb, or Abbacchio alla Romana. Make sure to look for restaurants and cafes that supply the lamb from the Agro Romano region for a traditional taste.

As for dessert, while visiting Rome in springtime, there’s nothing more seductive than a sweet treat made with the strongly flavoured wild strawberries growing in the Roman countryside. Best wild strawberries come from Nemi, a tiny village perched on the hills surrounding Rome, which also hosts an annual strawberry festival. The tiny, bright red fruit are naturally sweet and fragrant and go into tarts, jams and – perfectly refreshing on a sunny day and oh so typically Italian – the strawberry ice cream. In Rome you’re never far away from a great gelateria, but the best are to be found in the historic centre, around Colosseum, Piazza Navona and the Vatican. Whether you choose to have a delicious wild strawberry mini tart, the appetising Crostatini alle Fragole –  in the shade – or pick a Gelato alla Fragola on the go, be warned you’re in the presence of a fruit that was touched by gods. Wild strawberries, legend says, were born out of the tears of Venus, goddess of love and a most adored deity in ancient Rome.

For more info about Roman food, food adventures in Rome and cooking classes, please check Roma Experience’s Food Tours of Rome!