A life to savour: Rachel Roddy

The renowned food writer, on her love of Roman cuisine


In one memorable episode of his landmark television series No Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain says “Rome is a place where you find the most extraordinary of pleasures in the most ordinary things, like this place which I’m not ever going to tell you the name of”.

This unnamed local trattoria was particularly beloved of Bourdain, frequented as it was by the Italian actress and filmmaker Asia Argento, whom he dated until his tragic death in 2018. His words though encapsulate something wider about the romance of Roman cuisine; the idea of the traditional trattoria as somewhere extraordinarily unfussy, embodying pleasure and conviviality stripped of unnecessary window-dressing.

This archetypal trattoria will be family-owned. Its decor will be rustic and its aura casual. There will be vintage posters and family photos plastering the walls. The menu will feature hand-carved prosciutto crudo, and dishes like spaghetti cacio e pepe and bucatini all’Amatriciana. You’ll drink vino della casa alongside such pasta, and likely finish with a tiramisu, panna cotta, and an obligatory limoncello to help you digest.

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Why fix what ain’t broken? But the risk of that image is a notion of a Rome that’s stuck in time. In reality, Roman cuisine, much like any culinary tradition, is evolving in intriguing ways, and who better to guide us through these changes than food writer and author of The A-to-Z of Pasta (among other excellent books) Rachel Roddy, who has been a resident of the city for the past two decades.

How would you summarise what makes Roman cuisine in its traditional form so distinctive?

It’s a genuine cuisine I think, very ingredient-driven, traditional home cooking. All that said, a lot of the traditions are twentieth century ones. I think the best comparison is the archaeological ruins that are everywhere in the city; layers and layers of constant building. The food of Rome is just like that. It’s also a cuisine shaped after unification, so after 1861. It’s complicated and in many ways a cuisine of innovation as much as tradition. 

And what would you say are some of the core ingredients that make it different from, say, cuisine in Milan, another major city? 

Good question. Green vegetables, lots of them. It is pastoral, so sheep’s products—sheep’s cheese, pecorino and its by-product ricotta—as well as meat, lamb, also pork, often cured, with guanciale ‘Pig’s cheek’ being the most typical. There’s also pulses, chickpeas, lentils, peas, and in particular, broad beans. In antiquity, grains would have been barley and farro and spelt, which evolved into what we recognise now as soft wheat and durum wheat, which are both used to make bread and pasta. It is a tenuous thread but you can trace many of those elemental ingredients through a continuous line of 2,753 years. I’m not suggesting that contemporary Roman cuisine is like ancient Roman cuisine, but there are patterns, not least the wild greens of the cicoria family; loved by the ancients and still the city’s favourite vegetables. Also Poke. 

To ask a more simple question. What are your favourite Roman dishes? 

I love classic Roman cooking, though again I must note much of the classic, traditional cooking of Rome is actually quite recent. You find dishes like hunter’s style chicken, pasta and beans, and pasta and chickpeas all over Italy, differing slightly from place to place. More often than not, my preference is the Roman version, invariably with the triptych of rosemary, garlic and chili. These dishes are infinitely friendly, variable, and easygoing. 

And are these home-cooked dishes, as opposed to those you’d get in restaurants?

There’s different sorts of restaurants. With the trattoria or osteria, the line’s a bit blurred. When I first came to Rome, it took me a while to realise these family-run restaurants were more like pubs than restaurants. My granny had a pub in Oldham, which was family run and always full of locals, a place where you could have a meat pie or a sandwich and something to drink, sit and keep warm, chat if you like. I think the spirit of trattorias and osterias is more like this. You’ll often see ‘cucina casareccia’, which is home cooking. And then you’ve got fancy restaurants, fish restaurants, trendy restaurants and wine bars, as well as tavola caldas, or hot table canteens, which are like English caffs, really. But the baseline is these osterias, which are everywhere. 

Would pizza be something you don’t find in the home?

Some make pizza at home, but generally people go out for it. There’s pizza tonda or round pizza, the really thin, Roman style, which is cooked in a wood oven. There’s also pizza taglio or pizza by the slice, which is sold in bakeries but also small shops, often not much bigger than their counter, which do a brisk trade selling slices of red, white and potato pizza by weight to anyone who needs it. So those two things really fuel the city, and they’re everywhere. 

What was the restaurant landscape like when you first arrived a couple of decades ago? Have you seen changes?

I arrived 20 years ago and after the dramatic changes post-unification and during the economic boom of the 60s and 70s, Rome settled into patterns of eating I think, what we now think of as traditional Roman food. But as I said, Roman cuisine is as much one of innovation as tradition, and I think this is a phase of innovation and an interesting moment. After two decades in the city, I feel I can have a perspective on it. 

These family-run trattorias that found their feet in the 80s, then stayed in limbo, are evolving. And there seems to be much more attention to the quality of ingredients. I think Romans themselves are beginning to re-evaluate their own cuisine, and think about how it can be a better version of itself. The other interesting aspect is that the city is becoming more international.

We have certain cuisines in London that are better than in other cities. Would you say Rome is getting to that place? 

Slowly, and the fact that so much of the economy depends on the ‘traditional places’, and also rising costs, means that some places are stuck in what can be a theme park of eating— and I say that with love. That said, and while it is incomparable with London, Rome has thriving Indian, Bangladeshi, Eritrean, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Peruvian restaurants. Sinosteri is one of Rome’s best places to eat and drink.

And have you found any similarities between Roman cuisine and British cuisine? 

I think that Roman food has quite a lot in common with Northern English food. They share a lot of ingredients. Peas, potatoes, leeks, turnips, lettuce, apples, broad beans and dried fruit, as well as beef, oxtail, sausages and lamb, cream. Then there’s always been a tradition of offal cooking in Rome. People still eat tripe, liver and kidneys. And that reminds me, one of the first books I brought to Rome was the St. John cookbook. And it’s so at home in Rome. All of those ingredients—anchovies, skate, rabbit, capers, eel—and the careful cooking of extremities. It was one of the great joys of my life to sit with Fergus Henderson in a Roman trattoria and eat offal there together. A sort of symmetry.

Is there a new style of restaurant emerging that represents a desire for change? 

Again, I think at this moment there is a reimagining of the traditional trattoria/osteria. For example take my local Piatto Romano, which is about 15 years old, although the family have been in Testaccio for 50 years. It’s dead Roman, and they serve traditional dishes, the quartet of classic roman pastas, lots of offal cooked in good, simple style, plenty of green vegetables, cherry tart and tiramisu. The dishes have changed though, because of ingredients, tweaks to the recipe. They also have a chef from Veneto, who loves to cook white asparagus with butter and make kimchi, while Andrea the owner is trying to perfect his blue potato and corn soup and find the best meat he can. And they’ve completely changed their wine list in the last five years, and keep changing it. They are a better version of themselves. They’re both looking towards the past and into the future.

You mentioned the wine list. Is the changing wine bar culture having an impact on how the food is evolving? 

Definitely. Piatto Romano, for example, has a completely natural menu, which the staff are still learning how to sell. They’ve got a new wine supplier, who’s really young and obviously wonderful. He’ll know a good cheese dealer, and he’s probably going to get you good bread as well. 

So it seems one of the major changes is this growing ecosystem of different people representing artisanal products, but that still doesn’t feel radical. Would you say that change is still a little bit constrained? 

Yeah. I think Rome is cautious but also a clever and resourceful city that wants to feed people. When change happens—natural wine being a contentious but brilliant example—it is steady, like a ripple that pushes forward.

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