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Dispatch From Rome

Published May 19, 2023

The omniscience of Amatriciana; cheap and good wine; and vegetables instead of pasta (sometimes)

Photo: Getty Images

I can see myself turning into a boring old man, spinning yarns of my youth; it might have happened already. In the week I’ve been here (Rome), I’ve probably, without exaggeration, started five sentences with “When I first came to Rome, in ’76…. “ Half the people I say that to weren’t born in ’76, and I almost feel as if I were talking about rolling in with “our boys” in ’44.

The first of the three times I used “When I first came here in ’76,” it was to explain that, back then, American friends who’d lived in Rome told me, “You must eat spaghetti carbonara,” which was little-known in the States in those days. Upon arrival, however, I was instructed by Romans that Amatriciana was the thing. They were right, of course: Carbonara, by comparison, is baby food.

What has not changed in Rome since ‘76 is the omniscience of Amatriciana.

Photo: Getty Images

But much has changed, even, it seems to me, in the sixteen months since I was last here. When I got here just before New Year of 2022, the fear of COVID was strong: There were mask mandates (outdoors, mind you!) and lots of testing. But the corner had been turned, and the masks began to became scarcer. When, in February of 2022, the weather began to warm, the crowds of tourists, often in groups of twenty, and forty, and fifty, sometimes groups of a hundred or more, began to once again clog sidewalks, intersections, whole piazze.

Now Rome centro has the feeling of any city core dominated by tourists, the feeling of the center of Venice, or Paris, or the popular neighborhoods of New York. The difference is that the residents seem to have left the city, almost intact, in the care of visitors; they’re not here anymore, and neither are many of the businesses they depended on until recently.

“When I first came here in ’76,” there was a bar (a “bar” is mostly for coffee in the morning, gradually transitioning to alcohol with each passing hour) on just about every corner, where everyone stopped on the way to work, or for a break, or on the way home, or whatever; now it’s difficult to find one. (Ominously, the first Starbucks in Rome center opened less than a week ago.) Every neighborhood had several fruit and vegetable vendors, at least one butcher and baker, a small supermarket or two. The centro has almost none of that now. It does have are a couple of upscale bars, more wine bars, some convenience stores, “bakers” that sell nothing but pizza, not a butcher or fishmonger in sight. Campo de’ Fiori displays more clothes than flowers.

Photo: Instagram/@pippo_campodefiori

I’m not complaining; I can’t. I’m a tourist, too, and what tourists want is Airbnbs that are less expensive or give more bang for the buck than hotel rooms (that system seems broken, by the way, filled with price-gouging, but more on that another time), and lots and lots of restaurants and shops. And that’s what we’ve been given: a growing number of cafés and fast, inexpensive restaurants in which to buy pizza and pasta and maybe hamburgers, and a few exclusive international chains complemented by a huge selection of shops that represent what people associate with Rome – leather goods, including great value in shoes (for women especially), beautiful paper products (often bound in leather), jewelry, admittedly stylish and generally not overpriced clothing.

Photo: Getty Images

Combined with the decline in people going to work in the center, the net result is that Rome has become … not a Disneyland, as the harshest critics would say, or an empty shell (which would be an exaggeration), or even a place dominated by Americans (while it’s true that the second most frequent language heard on the street is English, the first is Italian, often in dialect, which indicates that the speakers are also tourists), but a pleasant place in which to see spectacular, often unique architecture from two thousand and two hundred years ago; to wander ancient streets where those buildings and ruins remain as jaw-dropping scenery; to have meals of Amatriciana and abbacchio and vignarola, the springtime stew of favas and artichokes and peas and onion and lettuce and almost anything else green that’s growing right now; to drink wonderful, inexpensive, local wines; and to understand that, whether you consider it a boon or a curse (it is both, of course, but to consider it a curse may oblige you not to participate), tourism is a gigantic wheel of change, emptying the center of the world’s most interesting cities of their original residents (who either can no longer afford to live there, or can no longer resist the profits made from renting out their places while they move five miles from the center), and adjusting their services so that they meet the needs of people who spend a day or a few, who don’t need to cook, or buy a hammer or a nail, or even a raw egg, but who need constant entertainment, three meals every day and, as far as I can tell, twice-daily gelato.

Favas and pecorino. Photo: Mark Bittman

Needless to say I have eaten my share of Amatriciana and abbacchio and vignarola by now, and even shared in a pile of raw favas, still in their shells, accompanied by crumbs of excellent pecorino, mild and salty. This is a traditional May dish, broken out first on Mayday as part of the workers’ celebrations, and continuing as long as the favas last.

Peas and agretti. Photo: Mark Bittman

Even here, much of the best cooking is at home. We have a third-rate kitchen in our temporary home, but I did manage an improvised dish of agretti (sometimes translated as monk’s beard, a grassy green you almost never see in the States) and peas, which was unusual and lovely.

We have also had as many of the last of the carciofi (artichokes) as we can manage (that season is ending) and I cooked some with nothing but olive oil, salt, and a little water. These were sensational, and devoured instantly, but even better were those prepared by my friend Andrea, who stewed them with olives, mushrooms, oil, and garlic, a giant and delicious pile, and served them – because he knows I come to Rome craving Amatriciana and then get sick of it after three days – with a plate of rigatoni alla San Giovanniello, in this case a sauce of fresh cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, lots of garlic, lots of Parmesan, perfectly done and somehow different enough from Amatriciana (tomatoes, onion, guanciale, pecorino) to be refreshing. 

Rigatoni alla San Giovanniello. Photo: Mark Bittman

Before I tired of Amatriciana, my friend Stewart made his, which was much better than the version at the new hipster restaurant we’d eaten at the day before (I will get to that), and that’s entirely because this simple group of what I think of as “the” Roman pasta dishes (there are more) – cacio e pepe, alla Gricia (which adds guanciale), carbonara (which further adds egg), and Amatriciana (which replaces egg with tomato sauce), can be made perfectly well by anyone paying attention and using good ingredients.

The new hipster restaurant was very nice, and in fact not crowded (I was told the next day that it’s “impossible” to get into), but the staff were distracted: The wine guy was chatting with friends, the acting chef may have been high (the “real” chef was in fact absent). In any case, not much attention was being paid, because the food ranged from very good (in this case a tiny frittata with chicken livers) to mediocre (almost everything else), to awful.

One of my admirably bold friends, when asked by a server why she didn’t finish her linguine with bacala, which would have been tastier had it been pasta with Filet O Fish, told the truth, and suddenly we were overwhelmed by “free” dishes, including a decent Amatriciana. Suddenly the chef was attentive.

The few restaurants I know to be reliable are much the same as always, more expensive but inexpensive by American standards, considering the quality of food and wine. I’m talking, specifically, about Hosteria Costanza and Armando al Pantheon, both in the center, both with never-changing menus, both with a kind of beat-up charm. I’m always disappointed by the modernized Roman restaurants but this could be some kind of reverse and perverse snobbery on my part – back to the boring old man thing. In any case, I do get sick of Amatriciana, but usually I just switch to pasta alla Gricia for a meal, or even skip pasta and eat more vegetables, not a terrible idea.

Photo: Getty Images

We joke – someone is going to do this, and it will be amazing, depressing, and wonderful at the same time – of taking over one of the dozen or so restaurant venues lining the always-crowded Piazza Navonna, and opening a Korean restaurant, with a slogan something like “Tired of Amatriciana? Try Bi Bim Bop!” Of course this would only be novel in the centro; there are restaurants serving varieties of Asian food everywhere in the neighborhoods, because the locals who’ve left the center grew up with Amatriciana and have no desire to eat it daily.