When I started cooking in the late ’90s, there were no cookbooks focusing specifically on Rome, at least that I could find. But a few years later there was a flurry of publication: David Dowdie’s Cooking the Roman Way, Jo Bettoja’s In a Roman Kitchen, and Maureen Fant’s Rome (Williams Sonoma).
After another few years of quiet, a new crop of Rome cookbooks has suddenly burst on the scene offering an abundance of riches for those interested in the cooking of the Eternal City.
First, I offer an apology for not including a discussion of Rome: Centuries in an Italian Kitchen by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi. It has only recently come to my attention and I haven’t had a chance to spend time with it yet. When I do, I’ll report back.
But I have spent time with three new books on Roman cooking: Eating Rome by Elizabeth Minchilli, Tasting Rome by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill, and My Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy. You might wonder whether the market needs three new books on Rome. But these three books differ so much in content and tone that it wouldn’t be at all redundant for someone interested in Rome to own all three.
Elizabeth Minchilli’s Eating Rome was the first published, and it is perhaps the most diverse in its content. In addition to recipes, it is full of charming stories as well as copious recommendations of where to shop, eat, and spend time in Rome. Minchilli is American, but moved to Rome with her family in the 1970s when she was 12 years old. They only stayed two years, but after numerous repeat trips for vacation and graduate school, she eventually married a Roman and has lived in Rome ever since. Having spent three decades in Rome, her breadth of experience is hard to match.
For the sake of full disclosure, I must say that second author, Katie Parla, has been my friend and mentor in all things Roman since I started taking my high school Latin students to Rome and hired Katie to do our touring. I quickly learned that her expertise in the Roman culinary scene equalled her expertise in Roman art, history, and culture. So when I heard that she would be publishing her first cookbook, Tasting Rome, co-authored by Kristina Gill, I was pumped. Katie has an exceedingly rare gift of excellent taste. I’ve been let down many times by restaurant recommendations, but rarely from Katie. She has high standards, and like the late great Marcella Hazan, doesn’t suffer fools or fakes. She has strong opinions and doesn’t keep them to herself. This makes her writing compelling, especially on her blog. Her cookbook is beautiful. While it doesn’t have the breadth of Minchilli’s book, it more than makes up for this with its depth. It doesn’t try to do everything, but what it does it does very well. Perhaps its most unique and valuable characteristic is the extent to which it offers recipes from some of Rome’s finest chefs. The gnocchi recipe is the recipe from gnocchi master Arcangelo Dandini. The spaghetti alla gricia recipe is from Claudio Gargioli of Armando al Pantheon, to me the restaurant with the most exquisite rendition of this dish. The amatriciana is from Nabil Hassen of Roscioli. The fact that these chefs were happy to share their recipes with Katie for the book is a great testament to Katie’s reputation in Rome. Having recipes from masters such as Arcangelo, Claudio, Nabil and others elevates and ennobles Katie’s book. If there is a shortcoming to the book, perhaps it is that it’s surprisingly impersonal, and Katie’s personality doesn’t come through as it does on her blog. But it is a very important book, and one that I am thilled to have.
Last but not least is Rachel Roddy’s My Kitchen in Rome. To me, it’s the best title of the three. The original British title of the book, Five Quarters, might be even better, as an homage to the importance of offal in the Roman kitchen as well as as a metaphor for the frugality and honesty of Roman cooking. But the American title, My Kitchen in Rome, is pretty great too because it immediately brings to mind a homely, personal, and authentic quality which is the book’s greatest characteristic. Rachel came to Rome about 10 years ago and hardly intended to stay. But as for so many others, months turned into years. Back home in England, cooking had played a part in her life, but it was a part amplified and enriched by cooking at home in Rome, in particular in the Testaccio neighborhood which has informed so much of Rachel’s cooking and which she writes so lovingly about. Rachel is refreshingly honest about the limitations of her kitchen: tiny, no exhaust fan, improvised equipment. It’s a reminder that good cooking comes from humble surroundings. But in the loving descriptions of her kitchen, of her neighborhood, of her husband and child, of her favorite restaurants, markets, coffee bars, and butchers; in her loving descriptions of all of these, Rachel communicates a real sense of her personality, a real sense of herself, and this makes the cookbook both rare and a treasure.
All three of these women have come to know Rome as an adopted home and all three communicate in their own ways their love for the city. All three have blogs. But despite the similarities, all three offer very different books, each of which is worth adding to your collection.
Justin Naylor, chef and proprietor of Old Tioga Farm