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Tasting Rome: The Joy of the Cultural Minestrone

Kristina Gill talks about her book "Tasting Rome: Fresh flavors & Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City"

by Dariell Vasquez
cucina-romana-tasting-rome
On the occasion of Rome’s 2769th birthday, the author talked about her collection of traditional Roman flavors and the city’s newly evolved cuisine. Tasting Rome documents Rome’s traditional recipes while integrating contemporary innovations and influences

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Culinarians, history buffs and photography enthusiasts came together at the Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò on April 21 for the release of Tasting Rome: Fresh flavors & Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City, published on March 29, 2016 by Clarkson Potter Publishers, on the occasion of Rome’s 2769th birthday. Co-author and photographer Kristina Gill presented her collection of traditional Roman flavors and the city’s newly evolved cuisine, in conversation with Jacqueline Greaves Monda and Casa Italiana Director, Stefano Albertini. Co-author Katie Parla was presenting the book at Fiorella in Rochester, NY at the very same time.

Monda, a graduate of NYU and Columbia, is a food enthusiast who has developed a deep understanding for Italian food through her marriage to a Southern Italian and subsequent move to Rome where she was profoundly influenced by Italy’s own vast regional culinary customs.

The recipes in Tasting Rome were tested and retested in the United States and the book took about 18 months to compile to ensure the authors had a chance to deal with the local ingredients throughout the four seasons. Katie and Kristina are two Americans from worlds apart, New Jersey and Tennessee respectively, who fell prey to the allure of Roman cuisine after their two mutually exclusive one-way trips to Rome. The temporary fascination became a permanent captivation as the two now reside in their adoptive city: Katie as a Rome-based freelance food and beverage journalist and Kristina as a food editor and photographer. Katie is the author of the ebook Eating & Drinking in Rome, the mobile apps Katie Parla’s Rome and Katie Parla’s Istanbul, and the book National Geographic’s Walking Rome. Her food criticism and travel writing have appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Epicurious, and many more. Kristina has produced images for National Geographic, Need Supply’s Human Being Journal, Australia Gourmet Traveller, and Bon Appetit to name a few.

cucina-romana-tasting-romeTasting Rome sprung from a zeal to document Rome’s traditional recipes while integrating contemporary innovations. Katie and Kristina used food as the medium to understand the Eternal City, an amalgam of regional identities who made Rome their home after the unification of Italy in 1861. Thus the cucina romana shares a similar history to the U.S. cuisine in which the local recipes are permeated by ingredients, customs and techniques that have been influenced by immigrants. It is in this mingling of ingredients, both in the past and the present, that we have new dishes deeply rooted in Roman flavors. While including traditional Roman dishes, the book highlights contemporary delicious innovations in such sections as: Snacks, starters and street food; Classics and variations; Cucina ebraica (Roman Jewish cuisine); and Cucina tripolina (Libyan Jewish cuisine).

Tasting Rome captivates its audience in its refusal to portray the cucina romana with a specific and singular identifier. The enchantment of this book lies not only in the Roman culinary canon such as cacio e pepe or rigatoni alla carbonara, but in the cuisine introduced by once marginalized subcultures (cucina ebraica and cucina tripolina). The book states that “each intensely flavored, liberally spiced specialty is both a connection to and a reminder of a lost homeland”. I would argue that these specialties, often characterized by bold flavors for humble ingredients, are conduits of displaced people to a new home.  

“History should be taught through food. Food is a part of our culture, part of our tradition. It’s what makes us who we are. Food is a necessity but it’s also something that brings us so close to our grandmothers, our great grandmothers, to everyone,” said Jacqueline Monda during the presentation and a unanimous expression of agreement was heard through the room.

Food is arguably the most important element of culture because it’s our life source, an undisputable necessity. This book highlights this crucial point by linking recipes and locales, but it also shows through a concise introduction to Rome’s culinary history how that locale is the result of cultural encounters in constant evolution. A multitude of influences ranging from neighboring regions to faraway colonies contributed to the distinctive quality of cucina romana. This mix is what U.S. readers may find familiar; yet perhaps surprising since the uniqueness of Italian cuisine is often predicated on its local authenticity.

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Tasting Rome’s telling photos – two men enjoying a Trapizzino (a cross between triangular bread sandwiches and pizza) or the elderly woman drinking from a fountain – invite the readers to join Katie and Kristina as they explore not only the products of markets and bakeries but also the spaces of the city, including its graffiti-clad periphery. “We enjoyed celebrating new flavors and breaking down the stereotype that Roman food must be hyper-traditional in order to be authentic,” the authors explained in the introduction to the book. By the same token, the book presents, and in alluring ways, recipes that are less commonly found on the menus of Italian restaurants abroad. You might even find yourself salivating over the dishes from the Quinto quarto (fifth quarter), typical Testaccio district dishes composed of off-cuts and organs of animals such as the fettuccine con rigaglie di pollo (fettucine with chicken innards ragù).

When I asked Kristina why we might need a book like this in the U.S., she said that she and Katie wanted to do a book that was “both current and grounded in history, but that also looked like something that was in today’s market, so visually but also substantively.” Another unique trait of Tasting Rome is that next to historical richness it offers a culinary map of Rome’s neighborhoods. Each recipe, whether conjured from antiquity or the more recent Libyan immigration, has its story. Forgotten classics such as fegatelli di maiale (grilled pig’s liver) come alive and are brought back from the periphery in this book. And if you can’t stomach the trippa alla romana (tripe with tomato sauce, mint, and pecorino), there are definitely other classics that an unaccustomed palate would enjoy such as amatriciana estiva (summer amatriciana), a pasta dish with guanciale and a light tomato sauce.

The beauty of Italian cuisine, as with the language and the country itself, is that its authenticity and uniqueness ironically lies in the presence of the “other”. Given that Rome is the largest immigrant city in Italy, the other may come from South Asia, North Africa or other regions around Rome, thus creating a hearty, multicultural minestrone.

Watch the video of the book presentation at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò NYU:


Tasting Rome: Fresh flavors & Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City is available online through Amazon, Barnes & Nobles Google Play and more.    


By: Dariell Vasquez, major in Italian, Montclair State University (NJ).


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