An (Ancient) Roman Holiday

While watching the “making of” featurette for HBO’s flawed but awe-inspiring series Rome, I was visited by Synchronos, the Roman god of meaningless coincidences. He graciously guided me to a meaty story in Food & Wine about re-creating the famous last meal of Roman satirist Petronius.

The topic is swollen with a sort of natural pomposity, which the writer—who recently researched a historical novel set in ancient Rome—chooses to unironically embrace:

Having undertaken a great deal of research already, I felt that I had a firm grasp of everything I needed to know about ancient Roman life—cooking, architecture, politics, clothing, etiquette.

Uh, sure. It’s relatively easy to understand everything you need to know about modern-day cooking, architecture, politics, clothing, and etiquette, so the only trick with ancient Rome is to do the same thing, only with people who have been dead for 2,500 years. A couple all-nighters should pretty much take care of that.

Getting past that detail, the piece itself relates a marvelous meal at the Da Fefè restaurant in the village of Bacoli. Taking off from the details of a feast in Petronius’s Satyricon, the writer regales us with lovingly overwritten tales of paccheri alla genovese (pasta tossed in an onion purée with octopus); squid heads stuffed with bread crumbs, garlic, and parsley; and pesce bandiera (scabbard fish) roasted with red onions and vinegar.

The Romans may have owned slaves and participated in the gladiatorial sacrifice of social undesirables, but—on the other hand—they seemed to have a pretty firm grasp on good eats.

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