It’s pretty common knowledge that Italy’s superb cuisine is essentially peasant food, springing from poverty and the resourcefulness of females in their rudimentary kitchens. It might surprise you to learn that Rome’s culinary tradition has its origins in somewhat different elements: its Jewish inhabitants, shepherds, and soldiers (both Italian and French).
Rome’s Jewish Community: A Unique Story
The Jewish community of Rome is the oldest continuous Jewish settlement in the world outside Israel, with a history stretching back more than two thousand years. Diplomats from Judea arrived in Rome during the second century BCE. In the aftermath of revolts against the Roman Empire a few centuries later, the fellow countrymen of these Israelite envoys would be brought to Rome as prisoners of war.
In the late 15th Century, many Sephardic Jews made their way to The Eternal City after being expelled from Spain. Their culinary traditions were distinctively Mediterranean, and these influences can be seen yet today in Roman-Jewish specialties. Carciofi alla Giudia is the best-known of these.
A Jewish Culinary Jem: Carciofi alla Giudia
They might look like palm-sized dried flowers, but Carciofi alla Giudia are artichokes deep-fried in olive oil. Getting the artichokes to arrive at their splendid bloom-like form is quite a project and a bit of an art form, and in many genuine restaurants, you will still find a matriarchal Jewish figure presiding over the process. If you are a foodie, this quintessential fare is obligatory when you come to Rome.
Shepherds and Soldiers: Strange Sources of Today’s Most Beloved Roman Dishes
Supplì: Iconic Roman Street Food Named by French Troops
Supplì are the classic finger food in Rome, as ubiquitous in The Eternal City as they are nonexistent elsewhere. Deep fried rice balls stuffed with mozzarella and a bit of meat sauce, supplì are basically a little oblong bomb of carbs and fat that you eat as a snack or antipasto.
It is said that the name supplì dates back to the period of Napoleonic occupation at the end of the 18th Century, when French soldiers apparently exclaimed “Quelle surprise!” after biting into the appetizer. Indeed, when you bite into a supplì, you are greeted by the succulent surprise of warm, gooey cheese and the subsequent delight of a silken mozza-string following your hand away from your mouth. The name “given” by the French troops stuck but morphed over time, changing from surprise (“soor-PREEZ”) to supplì (“soo-PLEE”).
Although you can find supplì all over Rome today, and sometimes elevated to gourmet status, their origins are humble, going back to a time when street vendors schlepping cauldrons of hot oil would prepare them on the spot for citizens on the run. Whether you nibble them with a cocktail on a swanky rooftop terrace or at a street-side shack, supplì remain Rome’s consummate street food.
Cacio e Pepe: Old as the Colosseum and Equally Venerated
When foreigners think of cheesy Italian pasta, we usually think of Fettucini Alfredo. Although this delectable dish was invented in Rome, Italians don’t really consider it part of their culinary heritage. And they don’t really eat it, either. The classic pasta with cheese sauce that is one of the signature foods of Rome and beloved by Italians across the country is cacio e pepe. There is no butter or cream in this simple recipe, but it does require a certain skill to prepare.
We have shepherds to thank for this marvelous meal that goes back to Ancient Roman times. In those days, when tenders of sheep were gone for long periods with their migrating flocks, they needed food rich in calories and nutrients that were also satchel-stable. The hard cheese made from the milk of their livestock was one of these staples, along with dried pasta and peppercorns. From these basic ingredients, along with a little of the cooking water, cacio e pepe was born, a dish that is a key part of modern Rome’s identity, a symbol on par with the Colosseum itself.
Pecorino Romano: Epic Roman Cheese
Of course, any discussion about cacio e pepe — cacio being cheese and pepe being pepper — brings us to the matter of the cheese.
Pecorino Romano is the principal ingredient in cacio e pepe. An aged sheep’s milk cheese with a two-thousand-year-old pedigree, it was prized by Ancient Romans and was a staple of the empire’s legionnaires, who received a ration of 27 grams (an ounce) per day. As with our shepherds, the fact that it was a nutrient-dense food that could survive at ambient temperature made it perfect for Roman soldiers during long voyages on foot.
Today most of Italy’s production of Pecorino Romano, which is produced under strict DOP regulations, comes from Sardegna. To learn more about this legendary cheese, check out this interesting article in Italy Magazine.
Cacio e pepe is one of those things you have to eat when you come to Rome. For being made from such simple ingredients, you wouldn’t think it would be so scrumptious. But when a recipe is this old and this sacred, and when epic Roman cheese is the star of the show, it can’t be anything but favoloso.
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