Thoughts on food and a classic Roman recipe

Posted on October 15, 2012

Since moving to Rome, I’ve been thinking a lot about food. Of course, even back in Victoria I thought about food frequently enough, but here it’s different: Food is so firmly ingrained into the culture that it’s almost impossible not to think about it on, say, an hourly basis. There are markets scattered throughout the city. Every time you turn a corner there’s a new string of restaurants and a different smell floating in the breeze – pizza, bread, desserts, something deep and richly meaty, something else soft and smoky. Get a group of Italians together and the conversation turns, almost inevitably, to food.

In fact, food is one of the reasons why I chose to move to this city. I get a huge amount of enjoyment out of the act of cooking, and I love to eat – and pasta, pizza, and parmesan cheese have been some of my favourite things since I was a kid. For someone who loves to spend as much time in the kitchen as possible, living in a country with such an expansive catalogue of regional specialties is incredibly inspiring. There’s history lurking behind each dish; there’s a reason for its initial existence as well as its continued popularity. So many of the dishes that we consider to be Italian “classics” were borne out of extreme poverty, where keeping the list of ingredients simple and seasonal wasn’t some kind of advanced food philosophy, it was a necessity. Transforming the less desirable, rougher cuts of meat into something delicious wasn’t just the experimental whim of a chef – it was the only way that much of the population could afford to eat meat, considering that the “best” cuts went to the wealthy. And then there’s the fierce regionalism of it all – the idea that there’s not one unified Italian cuisine, but rather cucina romana, milanese, pugliese, and so on, each with its own time-honoured favourites and classic ingredients.

In Canada or the USA, this way of thinking about food doesn’t really exist – there’s no overwhelmingly strong sense of true regional or national identity in the cooking. There, whether you’re dining out or cooking yourself, you generally start off by asking yourself: What type of food do I want to eat tonight? Italian? Chinese? French, Indian, or Mexican? Recipes tend to be imported from the far corners of the globe and then altered liberally; made more convenient, or more fun, or easier to cook with the ingredients that you can find in the aisles of your average suburban grocery store. Cooking has become, for a large segment of the North American population, a chore; a mundane everyday necessity that constantly needs to be spiced up and powered through. Walk into the cookbook section of an average bookstore, and you’ll see reams of titles promising “No Repeats – A Year of Deliciously Different Dinners”, “Taste of Home: The Busy Family Cookbook”, or even the ridiculous “Skinny Bitch: Crazy Delicious Recipes that are Good to the Earth and Great for Your Bod”. There’s no tradition in there. None whatsoever. This is cooking at its most bland and uninspiring.

Even in regions with a fairly strong appreciation for good, well-sourced food (Victoria fits into this category, along with cities like Vancouver, San Francisco and New York), the dishes popping up on trendy restaurant menus are centred around local ingredients but incredibly diverse cultural influences. To be clear, this particular trend (as opposed to the “convenience-rules-all” approach) isn’t a bad thing at all. I’ll be the first to admit that I absolutely love cooking and eating food that’s a well-thought-out but wild mix of flavours from around the globe or food that’s been concocted entirely on a whim of the chef’s imagination; innovation is important in society, and this is true in the kitchen too. And it’s through innovation and experimentation like this that regions will come to develop, over time, their own strong culinary traditions.

But the thing that’s missing from this way of thinking about food is the simplicity, the restraint, and the moderation that goes hand-in-hand with a long-standing culinary tradition. When new dishes are invented, they’re not really limited by anything. There’s no sense of right and wrong, and you can walk into nearly any grocery store, at any time of the day, and waltz right out holding a bag filled up with ingredients from the far corners of the earth, both in season and out, that you can then use to craft almost any flavour combination you can possibly dream up.

In Italian cooking, regardless of the region, there is a proper, correct way to prepare each dish. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been instructed not to put cheese on seafood pasta (which made my inner parmesan-addict cringe, but ended up highlighting the incredibly subtle flavours of the fish in a way the cheese would have completely masked), not to mix red pepper and mushrooms in the same dish (the red pepper is a strong, dominating flavour; mushrooms would be lost to it), and not to add onion to pasta all’amatriciana. And when I look at the lists of ingredients for the classic dishes, I’m always surprised at how short they are. This strict, ingredient-sparse style of cooking is difficult for North Americans (for whom the phrases “a little of this, a dash of that”, or “I’ll just add…” are regular parts of cooking) to wrap their heads around at first.

And then you taste the final product, prepared just as intended, and you realize something: You can actually, truly taste every single ingredient that goes into the dish. Nothing is swimming in glue-like, cream-intensive sauces or drowning in overly-flavoured dressings or tasting only like the combination of seasonings layered on top of it. When you eat seafood, you taste the ocean. Tomatoes explode with flavour. Meat tastes like meat, rich and comforting, with only a hint of herbs or a dash of white wine thrown into the pan to complement, not smother, it. Suddenly, the fact that these recipes have been guarded and preserved and then carefully handed down from generation to generation with minimal changes from outside influences makes perfect sense, because it’s good, really good, and something that special is worth preserving.

Saltimbocca alla Romana

Saltimbocca alla Romana

Serves one hungry person as a main (two as a second course)

I wanted to cook Saltimbocca alla Romana ever since I spotted it on a restaurant menu and googled it to see what it was. The combination of thinly-pounded veal and salty prosciutto sounded amazing (it’s no wonder the dish’s name translates to “jumps in the mouth”), but I was thrown off by the immense variety in the ingredients that various recipes online were listing. One recipe would advise dipping each piece of meat in flour before cooking, another insisted that chicken tasted better than veal, and yet another advocated drenching the whole thing in copious amounts of lemon juice.

Thankfully, I have a friend here in Rome who’s every bit as passionate about food and cooking as I am, and he’s an endless wealth of resources on authentic Roman recipes, techniques, and ingredients. One quick email later and I had the true recipe for Saltimbocca alla Romana; one trip to the market later and I was ready to cook it for myself.

As expected, the final product was delicious. The hint of sage and the light butter and white wine sauce (which gets its depth of flavour from scraping up those delicious crispy bits of meat that get stuck to the pan) offset the veal and the prosciutto perfectly. I prepared a side of potatoes roasted with rosemary and garlic to go with the saltimbocca; the combination was wonderful.

  • 2 slices of veal
  • 2 sage leaves
  • 2 slices of prosciutto
  • Roughly 50 grams of butter
  • Half a glass of white wine
  • Salt

Pound the veal slices (with a meat mallet, or, as I used, the side of a large knife) until they’re thin, then lightly salt them and lay a slice of prosciutto and a sage leaf on top of each. Use a toothpick to secure these to the veal. Heat a pan over medium heat (note: Don’t use a non-stick pan! You want to make sure there are delicious crispy bits to scrape up into the sauce), add the butter, and once it’s melted add the veal and cook on both sides until nicely browned. Pour in the wine, and allow it to cook down until it’s reached a nice, saucy consistency. Buon appetito!

An addendum:

There’s some really good discussion going on MetaFliter over this post – most of the comments point out that I’ve completely neglected to consider regional cuisines like tex mex, cajun, BBQ, etc. Fair point – the southern US does seem to have a fairly strong food culture of its own, and although much of it has been adapted from the cuisines of immigrants that have settled there, I should have given it more consideration. But looking at the rest of the US, and certainly at Canada (remember, I’m Canadian), and I just don’t see the same level of strongly regional divisions in cuisines that I’m seeing here in Italy. In Italy, the divisions are to the point where the cuisine of Northern Italy is almost totally different from the cuisine of the south, because it is – and always has been – so solidly centred around fresh, seasonal food that’s actually produced locally. 

If you look hard enough at any area in Canada or the USA, you can certainly pick out area-specific specialties that a region is well known for. You’ve got clam chowder in the Eastern US states, maple syrup in Quebec, and, I’m sure, a whole bunch of other dishes with firm roots in one small area. But in this post I’m talking about a much bigger picture – not just one or two regional dishes, but entirely regional styles of cooking. 

Consider this: While I was travelling in Italy in September, I was astounded by the fact that the food in Siena, Tuscany was completely different than the food in Rome – and the two areas are only three hours apart by train. Hop over to the Cinque Terre, and again there’s a whole new array of regional dishes to consider.

So, in short, although I shouldn’t have made my statements sound so dramatic and sweeping, as if all of North America is eating homogenous mush, I think the broad points I was making in this post definitely still stand. Also, keep in mind that I’ve only just moved to Italy. I’ll be the very first to admit that I’ve only experienced a tiny bit of its culture so far, and that my perceptions are very much rose-tinted at this point. This isn’t intended to be the final say on international food culture – just the musings of someone who is pretty food-obsessed and has been struck with some interesting thoughts on the topic since moving to Rome.

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Comments on this post

Kim W. 16 October 2012 at 6:40 am

Okay, I admit that I do cook some form of ersatz Italian more often than not, but — what do you mean that there’s no strong sense of regional cuisine in North America?

What about Cajun food? Tex-Mex? Down-home Southern? Baltimore crab? Kansas City barbecue? For pity’s sake, there are ARGUMENTS over whether “clam chowder” should properly be “New England Style” or “Manhattan Style”.

If you’re confining yourself to the restaurants, though, I wonder if that may be why you have that perception – I’ve noticed a lot of the restaurants featuring the North American regional food you’re looking for tend to be smaller and more local; the big flashy restaurants you seem to be thinking of are more like show ponies that exist on a different plane, I’ve found.

Actually – I work in theater, and I’ve long differentiated between “Broadway” and “the rest of the theater world,” because Broadway has come to be its own sort of weird self-enclosed entity, tending more towards big budgets and spectacle. For straight dramas and more diversity, you have to leave Broadway and head for the smaller off-Broadway theaters and regional theaters. And so Broadway tends to look kind of all-the-same. I think the big flashy restaurants in North America are trending that same way – they’re Broadway. But there is an off-Broadway in the restaurant world, where there are regional cuisines that are celebrated; and yes, people in North America would probably have no trouble naming a regional dish, even just one (a friend who spent some very formative years in New Orleans can deliver a five-minute ode to the chicken gumbo he had at one particular greasy-spoon diner on Toulouse Street).

BelindieBartscrivner 16 October 2012 at 6:43 am

Rome has supermarkets too. I think you’re trying way too hard.

Kim W. 16 October 2012 at 8:06 am

If I may respond to your addendum…. (smile)

“But in this post I’m talking about a much bigger picture – not just one or two regional dishes, but entirely regional styles of cooking.”

I’m not seeing that that ISN’T the case in North America either, though. Are you saying that the food you ate in BC is absolutely identical with the food in New Brunswick? Across the board? I grew up in Connecticut, and the food I ate in Eastern Connecticut was across-the-board different from the food a friend who grew up in Chicago ate. Yeah, we both had fast food, and there were some basics that were the same, but there was definitely a distinction. It may have been subtle, but it was there. (Exhibit A – our opinions on what pizza “should” be like.)

I mean, consider the American Thanksgiving Dinner. Yeah, everyone’s got the turkey. But – consider the side dishes. Those are all side dishes that have been made by that family since time immemorial; and that means in New England you’re going to find a lot of seafood in the stuffing, plain mashed potatoes, pureed squash, cranberry relish, and pumpkin pie; in the south you’re going to find cornbread stuffing, maybe greens on the side, and a pecan pie. In the midwest you may find a casserole with green beans in some kind of gravy-ish thing, mushrooms….and so on and so on. All pretty distinct to my mind, at least, and all a reflection of the regions in which each family has been based.

What you say about the influence of immgrants is true, but if you go far back enough, the same is true of Italian regional cooking; people who moved from one area adapted to the kind of foodstuffs they found when they got there and made something totally new. Give it long enough and that new adaptation is seen as something distinct; the only reason you may not be seeing Tex-Mex as wholly distinct from its Mexican origins may simply be because enough time hasn’t passed; I’m sure if you go back far enough the cuisine of Milan was still thought of as “Lombard cuisine”.

Sara White 16 October 2012 at 8:21 am

Kim – First of all, I’m glad to see you’re so interested is this issue – I’m definitely enjoying hearing an opposite side to my viewpoints! And you’re totally right that time is a big influence in whether a food is seen as a culture’s own, or whether it’s just considered an adaptation – and both Canada and the US are new-ish countries compared to Europe, so they haven’t had that massive amount of time to become entrenched in regional cooking styles. You’ve definitely got a point there.

But, in my experience, the food in Canada is fairly similar regardless of where you go. Sure, there’s fresher fish available on the coasts, and the prairies have a lot of Ukrainian immigrant families that love their perogies, but those are just small changes in a cuisine that feels, to me, pretty much the same. Especially when you look at restaurants – in every Canadian city I’ve been to (obviously not all of them, so I’m not trying to make a solid conclusion here), there’s been the same array of Italian/Chinese/Mexican/Fusion/Modern “local” options that I’ve seen pretty much everywhere else. And there are a lot of restaurant chains across both Canada and the US that serve exactly the same food regardless of where they are.

Also, re: the Thanksgiving dinner – my family (all West Coast based) has always eaten a spread of dishes that sounds pretty similar to your description of a New England Thanksgiving dinner. We’ve got the plain mashed potatoes, pureed squashes/sweet potatoes/yams, cranberry relish and pumpkin pie! And that’s pretty much the standard “Canadian” thanksgiving dinner.

Kim W. 16 October 2012 at 8:39 am

First, I do hope you’re not seeing the Metafilter discussion as a drubbing, for the record….some people can get pretty passionate there.

You’re looking at the chain restaurants rather than the cooking at home, I notice. Is that what your focus is on, the restaurants, rather than the cooking at home? I can only point back to the “Broadway vs. the rest of theater” in my example. Yeah, every city is going to have its Italian/Chinese/Mexican/sports bar options. But…if you go to the smaller and more “mom and pop” restaurants in town, you’re going to find a lot more seafood in the New England states (and I suspect you’d find more of that in the Maritimes) than you’d find in the Midwest (or Alberta).

I actually also do see some more differences between regions than just “small changes in something that feels more or less the same”. They’re subtle, but they are there; after delving into English and Irish food for a while at home, I can see the British Isles influence in New England cooking more clearly; same too with the Norwegian and Eastern European influence on the MidWest. And French, Spanish, AND Carribbean influences in New Orleans (and, to be honest, I can sometimes see a little Acadian influence as well).

Again, I just point to the notion of “give it more time”. In one of my own cookbooks – one of the Moosewood cookbooks, which deals with different regional cuisines – one of the writers discusses the impact changes in history have had on Italian food – consider that Italy was not united into one country until the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, which gave those regions’ cuisines a lot more of a chance to grow up in isolation from each other than in the North American colonies. So there may be more mixing and mingling in North America – but the sheer size of the continent also keeps things separated to at least some extent.

Dean Soars 16 October 2012 at 9:54 am

Saw this post through MeFi — it seems to have elicited reactions by fiercely territorial Americans. I don’t think I agree with your conclusion that there isn’t a strong culinary cuisine in America, because there certainly is, as others have noted. But I do think that for many reasons, “American” cuisine is very bland and uninspiring.

American food is very homogenous throughout the country. Stuff like Tex-Mex, barbeque, “southern” cooking, can be had all over the country and there is very little difference to be found even if you go to the original place of origin.

I’ve lived in the south of the US for decades, in addition to traveling all over the country, and while I like barbeque, and have preferences for it (North Carolina), I have to admit that compared to cuisines from other countries, American barbeque (or cooking with regards to meat) is not inspired. There are regional variations, but maybe due to the youth of America as a country, the cuisine is just flat.

Somebody in the MeFi thread held up grits as an example of … something. Grits, while I do love them, hardly engender innovation or any kind of uniqueness. Compare their down-homeness to say, Ramen shops in Tokyo, and it’s kind of a sad state of affairs for native American cuisines.

The same thing goes for food in New Orleans or other super specific regions. Sure, they are nice, I suppose, but I have never found anything there that wasn’t replicated everywhere else. To me, regional cooking never seems to rise above “quaint” status.

That being said, the food that exists in big American cities, New York, San Fran, Chicago, is outright amazing. Some of my favorite places are Asian-Western fusion. It is more of a global cuisine in that sense — fusion Peking Duck is crazy good, and when it comes to combining the best elements of global cuisine, I think American restaurants are second to none. Even though, I think this comes at the expense of “native” American food.

Kim W. 16 October 2012 at 10:18 am

I would be the person who held up grits as an example – of “a food that is known as typical of one region but not of another region.”

Although, in response to what you say about grits not engender “innovation” or “uniqueness” – well, isn’t that kind of what this post is about? That celebrating the local traditions is a good thing? (Lemme ask you another way – consider if someone decided to come out with “New York Deli Style” grits. Are you sure you wanna introduce innovation into the concept of grits?)

….I also have to say I’m not quite sure how to process the notion that you haven’t found anything special “super specific regions” like New Orleans. Not being able to recognize the distinctness of jambalaya or crawfish etouffe is a concept I’m just plain not familiar with.

Robert J 16 October 2012 at 11:23 am

I also used grits as example on Metafilter, and I think it does work as a counterexample to the idea that the United States doesn’t have regional food cultures; it absolutely does, as demonstrated by my Yankee wife’s inability to enjoy even really good grits.

The rest of your comment, Dean, just reads as viewing other cultures with a wide-eyedness that you can’t turn on your own. I think that it’s uninspiring for you because you’re used to it. If you have grits every day, then it’s hard to see what’s interesting about them, whereas we’re quick to see what’s interesting in foreign cuisine, even if it’s no different.

Grits are a good example because the natural comparison is to polenta; they’re very similar foods in that they’re cornmeal porridges, but to an American grits are “quaint” while polenta is exotic, even intimidating. There’s nothing intrinsic in grits that makes them boring, it’s having had them for breakfast at least once a week for your whole life that does that.

BelindieG 20 October 2012 at 5:41 pm

Food in Rome isn’t the same as food in Naples or Venice or Milan, either. Have you been to Supermercati PAM, yet? People buy frozen Chinese food!

Jacquelyn P. Matz 12 June 2013 at 6:38 am

Guys don’t mind, but whatever you all are share your comments those are i like it but i have to say that Still i don’t get any opportunity to go Rome so i have no ideas what their traditions and environment so simply i have to say that only one thing really i like this post because i have interest to know outside country information.

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