Winter weekend in Rome. Little (very tall) Brother came to keep me company. I rented an apartment in Trastevere and a moped and when it rained we took shelter in a corner cafe and had a shot of expresso chased with a dose of engine-oil grappa. By the time we had paid, the sun had come out and everything sparkled wet and the ruins were all pink and cheery. Of course the Eternal City is eternally beautiful. I don’t think the food ever changes either.
Roman cuisine is a style of cooking not so much honed as worn-in by generations. Each dish seems to reflect the patina of the doorpost that leads into the typical trattoria, smoothed by many hands into the touchstone contours. These family run restaurants, still numerous and easy to find among the trendier joints obsessed with carpaccio, are comfortably undecorated; a few mismatched pictures on the walls, a photograph of an old lady eating spaghetti, a copy of a 19th-century print of the Colosseum. The menu is similarly homey: minestra (any-kind-of vegetable soup heavy with beans); carbonara; bucatini all’Amatriciana (tomato spiked with chilli and porked with pancetta); polpettine which sound like they should be baby octopuses but which are meatballs; slow braised offal. Many dishes carry the imprimatur of “alla Romana”: lumache (snails); gnocchi (made locally without potato since the time of Apicius); abbacchio (month old lamb). Rome even has its own cheese, pecorino Romano, carried by legionnaires marching to fight the barbarians; and its own brassica, the most beautiful vegetable in the world with its architectural spirals of green nobbles, known as broccolo Romano. These are meals of happy winter stodge, layers of carbs like cosy layers of woolly jumpers.
“The cuisine comes from poor people in ancient times,” explained Daniele Gennaro, one of the proprietors of a trattoria just off the Piazza Navona called Ditirambo. “They were eating the same meal two or three or four times in a row and you need the kind of dish you can reheat many times easily.”
Little Brother smiled contentedly. We had eaten well and heartily: a thick khaki coloured lentil soup that occasionally yielded a gift of a soft slither mushroom or a whole chestnut; sformatino di carciofi, a tart of julienned artichoke and potato, baked so that the edges were a little crispy; taglioni with more artichokes (a Roman favourite whatever the season) and cured…