“Tasting Rome,” by Kristina Gill and Katie Parla has been on shelves since its release in 2016, but flipping through a copy today has never been more vital. With travel indefinitely suspended, navigating the streets of Rome—without having to worry about stepping aboard an airplane—is soothing, a virtual means of vicariously living through platters of fresh pasta and crispy fried dough.
Related Reading: Lidia Bastianich Takes Us Through the History of Cacio e Pepe
Though Katie and Kristina are both Americans, Rome has served as their bona fide adopted city. Nearly 15 years after moving to the Italian city, Kristina, who’s both a writer and travel photographer, realized she was quite curious about Romans’ favorite foods.
“I was pretty sure the answer would be ‘Roman,’ but I wanted to find out,” Kristina explains.
She spent the next two years forging onward in this culinary quest, namely by interviewing taxi drivers who provided her with recipes. This was just part of the seed that helped form “Tasting Rome,” one whose thesis would ultimately emerge as tracking the origin and evolution of Roman food. The interviews she conducted and the recipes she gathered aren’t reflected in “Tasting Rome,” but rather the idea of focusing on a city’s cuisine.
Tasting Rome, $27.60 on Bookshop.org
“[That’s] something you can do in Italy, as it was a peninsula of unique city-states long before being politically united into a single ‘geographic expression’ fewer than 200 years ago,” Kristina says.
Italian cuisine isn’t just pasta and pizza, after all. Italian food is actually made up of many different cuisines, and Roman cuisine is just one of many.
“If you go to Florence, Palermo, Udine, Milan, Bologna, Genova, you will eat different food in each city, due to history and geography,” Kristina says. “In fact, you probably won’t even find the same items on the menu.” Fish in Genova, Kristina explains, will be far different from the fish in Palermo. Milan’s cuisine inherently boasts more rice than Bologna’s; in Bologna, you should eat pasta, while in Milan you should opt for risotto. In “Tasting Rome,” you’ll discover the intricacies, the specialities, and the ingredients of Roman cuisine.
Plow through the pages of the cookbook and you’ll find familiar recipes, like baked tomatoes stuffed with rice, rigatoni alla carbonara, and thin-crust Roman-style pizza, along with plenty of new faces. You’ll learn how to make spaghetti with dandelion greens and cured fish roe; beef tongue daubed with salsa verde; and tripe swimming in tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.
Armed with “Tasting Rome,” Kristina hopes readers will realize that those ubiquitous Italian dishes you find in American restaurants aren’t necessarily going to be the same, or even exist, in Italy. And that those same luxurious dishes you may stumble upon in opulent restaurants aren’t exactly what ordinary Italians are preparing on a daily basis.
“People get hung up on making ‘that Italian dish’ with a certain name, when in reality, Italians just cook what they have on hand,” Kristina says. “They aren’t making lavish spreads of every ‘famous’ dish you’ve ever heard of. They are just having pasta with vegetables, and a piece of meat cooked in a frying pan.”
Kristina hopes that you, dear reader, can conform to this kind of cooking: stopping by your local farmers’ market, picking whatever’s in season, and preparing a meal out of what’s fresh and not merely always available.
Related Reading: Lockdown in Florence: How One Italian Family Is Coping by Cooking
But if you are insistent on mastering a Roman pasta that does grace the menu of many Italian restaurants, you’ll want to start with this recipe for cacio e pepe. The pantry pasta relies on just four ingredients—salt, pecorino, pasta, and black pepper—which, when properly combined with the help of some starchy pasta water, turns into a glossy, cheesy sauce. Kristina admits it is a hard dish to conquer, despite its outwardly easy-seeming instructions and few ingredients, because you have to make sure the cheese doesn’t seize up.
Read through the instructions and then follow Kristina’s excellent tip, which she learned from fellow cookbook author Elizabeth Minchilli: Blitz all the ingredients (minus the pasta) in a blender to form a paste, then gradually add the pasta’s still-warm cooking water to the cheesy paste, which’ll help turn it into a thick, restaurant-worthy sauce, itching to cling to your noodles.
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And while Kristina is always quite happy to be noshing on Italian food, lately she’s been longing for the comfort of food back home in Nashville, especially during the heart of the pandemic. It’s the first place she wants to hit when travel is possible, by way of New York City.
“I can have an Au Cheval bacon cheeseburger with my BFF, then on to Nashville where I can have sausage biscuits, bacon biscuits, biscuits… I miss home,” she says. “And biscuits for some reason!”
Reprinted from Tasting Rome. Copyright © 2016 by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. Photographs copyright © 2016 by Kristina Gill. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC
Cacio e Pepe di Leonardo Vignoli Recipe
Cacio is the local Roman dialect word for Pecorino Romano, a sheep’s-milk cheese made in the region since ancient times. Like carbonara, cacio e pepe is a relative newcomer to the Roman repertoire, first appearing in the mid-twentieth century. Pasta is tossed with an emulsified sauce of Pecorino Romano and black pepper that is bound by starchy pasta cooking water. Depending on the cook, the results range from dry to juicy. We love Leonardo Vignoli’s saucy version at Cesae al Casaletto. He uses ice in a hot pan to obtain a creamy sauce, but we have adapted his recipe to obtain more consistent results in a home kitchen. Finely grated Pecorino Romano and very hot water are essential to a smooth sauce, while fresh, coarsely ground black pepper gives flavor and texture. The most important component of a flawless cacio e pepe, however, is speed. If the water cools before melting the cheese, the sauce will clump.
Cacio e Pepe
- Sea salt
- 1 pound spaghetti or tonnarelli
- 2 cups finely grated Pecorino Romano
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Salt the water. When the salt has dissolved, add the pasta and cook until al dente.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine 1½ cups of the Pecorino Romano, the pepper, and a small ladle of pasta cooking water. Using the back of a large wooden spoon, mix vigorously and quickly to form a paste.
- When the pasta is cooked, use a large strainer to remove it from the cooking water and quickly add it to the sauce in the bowl, keeping the cooking water boiling on the stove. Toss vigorously, adjusting with additional hot water a tablespoon or two at a time as necessary to melt the cheese and to obtain a juicy sauce that completely coats the pasta.
- Plate and sprinkle each portion with some of the remaining Pecorino Romano and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Header image by Kristina Gill.