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The Way to Rome’s Heart is Through its Stomach

I did not move to Rome solely for the food. Although, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t influence my decision. I mean, can you blame me? According to an international YouGov study of more than 25,000 people in 24 countries, Italian cuisine is the most popular in the world. With this information fueling my excitement to begin my semester studying abroad, I left my small town in New Jersey, and officially claimed Trastevere, the 13th district of Rome, as my new home.

I wasted no time indulging in pasta like long flat strands of tagliatelle generously bathed in cheese and pepper to make the perfect cacio e pepe dish, and brick oven pizzas, topped with luscious mozzarella and funghi (aka, mushrooms) with a delectable scent that unfailingly filled the room and made my mouth water. However, upon enjoying pasta for my sixth straight dinner, it suddenly dawned on me. There must be more to Italian cuisine than pizza and pasta. With four months as a citizen of Trastevere ahead of me, I decided I needed to branch out and learn more about the history of Rome and its cuisine. Fortunately for me, the two go hand in hand. So, somewhat apprehensively, I committed to venturing beyond the safety of pizza and pasta, in an attempt to shed my touristic ways and learn how to eat like a local.

We All Scream for Gelato

Around 9pm on a Thursday night, I dodged tourists as I walked upon the smooth cobblestone of the narrow and winding streets of Trastevere which reflected the twinkling lights adorning the exteriors of restaurants like a night sky full of stars. In the distance, the sound of an acoustic guitar floated through the breeze, its player hoping to earn euros in exchange for entertainment. The only thing able to shake me from my trance was the sweet smell of waffle cones which I followed to a gelateria nearby.

Perhaps just below pizza and pasta, gelato is among the most popular foods in Rome today, confirmed by a quick Google search which reveals there are over 20 gelaterias in Trastevere alone. This is due, at least in part, to the origins of the sweet treat. According to Penny Mincho for The International Wine & Food Society, the humble beginnings of gelato can be traced all the way back to 3000 BC, when Asian peoples consumed crushed ice with flavorings. Centuries after this, Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors enjoyed their own renditions with cups of ice sweetened with fruit juice. Eventually, the Florentine Medici Family introduced a sorbet-like dessert to France when Caterina de Medici had it at her wedding to the future King of France in 1533. The Medici Family employed Bernardo Buontalenti in the late 1500s, and he prepared a special dessert for the King of Spain which was creamy and very close to the dairy-based gelato we know and love today. It is for this reason that Buontalenti is credited with being the father of modern gelato.

According to Mincho, although Romans were among the first to enjoy gelato, seeing someone walking the street with a cone or cup did not happen until the 1920s when the mobile gelato cart came into widespread use. When I asked Thea, the manager of Gelato Sicily, if she thought the business could survive if customers had to sit to eat gelato, she

laughed. Gelato Sicily is a small shop on one of the most exposed streets in Trastevere, positioned right next to the Tiber River. Customers are constantly flowing in and out of the gelateria in a steady stream, but that is all they can do because the shop is only slightly wider than an average hallway. Thea does not seem to regard this negatively, however. She explained to me, “Good weather and tourism are our keys to success. People do not want to sit in a gelateria, they want to walk around Rome while they eat the gelato they have dreamt of.” She was quick to add, regulars at Gelato Sicily visit the shop rain or shine, but the sunniest days are the busiest.

Although gelato is enjoyed by tourists and locals alike, legend says only locals have the gift of being able to separate the “good” gelato from the “bad” (as if there could ever be such a thing). I’d like to say I, too, gained the gift because of my time in Rome, but truthfully, I did not understand the difference until I researched the topic. According to The Local it, the first step to avoiding low-quality gelato is to understand what makes gelato “authentic.” Compared to ice cream, gelato contains much less fat and is churned at a slower speed so less air gets mixed in. This allows for a denser texture and more intense flavors. However, since it is difficult to know how intense the flavors of gelato may be just by looking through a window, I have allowed more obvious signs shared by The Local it to guide me. I’ve learned to grab my wallet if gelato is stored in flat metal tins with lids because that means the gelato is being carefully kept at the right temperatures, maintaining the desired dense texture. As eye-grabbing as mountains of bright pink and blue gelato may be, I’ve also learned natural colors are preferred because they indicate natural ingredients and little added coloring have been used. Also, gelato that is piled too high doesn’t melt which, according to an Italian gelataio who spoke with The Local it, is not good because it means the gelato is rich in vegetable fats and emulsifiers.

As I licked my cone of pistachio gelato, which, according to Thea, is the most popular flavor at Gelato Sicily, I realized that although gelato is enjoyed by tourists just as much as locals, understanding the origin and properties of the delicious dessert brought me one step closer to my goal of eating like a local. With pizza and pasta fading from view, I continued my mission to do as the Romans do through culinary exploration.

A Roman Specialty

With my confidence in trying foods other than pizza and pasta growing by the day, I moved on from gelato and decided to pursue something foreign to me prior to moving to Rome: the suppli. I heard the word from my Italian classmates and saw it written on chalkboard easels stationed outside restaurant entrances like hotel doormen, but I’d never encountered it in America. According to Joseph Micallef for Forbes, the word “suppli” is derived from the French word “surprise,” which is written the same way with the same meaning in English. Micallef goes on to explain suppli are fried, oblong rice balls, that are crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, filled with ragu and mozzarella.

Although suppli are a popular “street food” in Rome today, like gelato, their origins can be traced back centuries. In fact, the ancient Romans are credited with the invention of the concept of “street food.” According to The Local it, when Emperor Augustus was in power from 63 BC to 14 AD, he recognized food scarcity could trigger uprisings and lead to his downfall. So, he prioritized importing wheat, oil, wine, and other foodstuffs. With a capital of one million people, the biggest in history before the industrial revolution hit London, new practices were adopted to keep Romans fed, with one being the creation of “fast food restaurants,” known then as thermopolia. The term thermopolium translates to “a place where hot is sold.”

A bit later but also dating back to Roman times, rice was first cultivated in Italy on a large scale between the 8th and 10th centuries, Micallef explains. Initially, rice was considered a medicinal herb. Around the 15th century, it had become a staple in the Italian diet, providing an estimate of the date of origin for the quintessential Italian rice dishes like risotto, arancini, and, yes, suppli. I figured for a food to be around for that long, it must be pretty amazing, so to feed my curiosity (literally), I took a walk to Suppli Roma.

Suppli Roma is a restaurant on a side street branching off the busy main road of Viale di Trastevere. Nestled between a farmacia (pharmacy) and antica caciara (specialty grocery store with meats and cheeses), Suppli Roma is only slightly larger than Gelato Sicily. The lack of indoor seating supports the business’ self-proclaimed title of being a fast-food restaurant, though I’ve never had anything this delicious at McDonald’s. The only thing that reminded me of fast-food was the pace at which I received my supply.

As I approached the restaurant on a Wednesday night, I was surprised to see a line out the door. I considered turning back, especially when the scent of cheese hit me like a truck while passing the neighboring antica caciara, but I was determined to try a suppli. To my delight, I was inside the restaurant within three minutes. The small, square interior had vibrant red walls with large mirrors, and any open spaces on the walls were covered in photos, which I would later learn are of the workers and special customers throughout the years. Typical pizza counters with glass enclosures formed an “L” in front of the back and left walls, leaving just enough open space for customers to stand, order, pay, and go.

Behind the counters, four workers buzzed around like bees, shouting in Italian, yet somehow appearing as far from stressed as possible. When I talked to Gabriele, who is a manager and has worked at Suppli Roma for 16 years, he explained the staff has learned to work “like a machine.” “This is not a family-run business, but we are the same as family. Some have worked here for 30 years, this place has been open for 43, it’s like our home,” Gabriele said, with a genuine smile. When I asked about the key to the business’ long-standing success, he said, “The first on top is the actual product, the quality, and then the people who make the food.”

A customer standing nearby, who goes by Maury, somehow overheard our conversation through the bustle in the restaurant and wanted to offer his take (I’ve learned Italians are very friendly like that). According to him, “Suppli Roma is the best around because they have kept the same heritage.” Some places are just for tourists now, with trendy recipes, but this place “stays true to their roots.” By roots, Maury was referring to the rich culture that has shaped Trastevere. According to John Cabot University, Trastevere was an immigrant settlement, only captured by Rome because its location on the Tiber River was appealing for trade purposes. The land was therefore left for citizens to develop themselves, so fishermen, sailors, and immigrants built the district “from the ground up.” The working-class population of Trastevere’s origins would have made “fast-food” popular among busy citizens, and while Suppli Roma has not been around since the founding of Trastevere, the suppli is a food that pays homage to the neighborhood’s humble beginnings.

As I bit into my first classico suppli, I finally understood the excitement. Steam erupted from the ball of rice as the crunchy, breaded exterior mixed with the rich and cheesy interior in my mouth. Red sauce, rice, and mozzarella cheese harmoniously melted together, while the breaded coating kept the suppli intact, proving it to truly be a street food perfect for Romans on the go. I only resisted the urge to go back in and buy ten more because I knew I could return to Suppli Roma in the (very near) future. Satisfied with all I’d learned about the food Gabriele affectionately called the “prince” of Roman cuisine (“just for fun,” he said), I wondered what food to try next.

Transcending Tourism

As I explained the art of the suppli to my parents over the phone, my dad told me I sounded like a real Italian. I smiled, knowing I was achieving my goal, yet I wasn’t satisfied. Although I was enjoying exploring the cuisine in Rome, I could not shake the feeling of being a tourist. Every restaurant had English translations on menus and polite waiters who mercifully spoke English. I listened to people around me butcher Italian pronunciations and grew frustrated by the thought of never truly eating like a local. Then, to my sheer delight, my concerns were unexpectedly put to rest.

It was a rainy Wednesday night when I stumbled upon a unique restaurant on one of the back streets of Trastevere. The clear glass doors and windows allowed the approximately 60-inch television screen in the restaurant’s lobby on which a Korean drama was playing to be seen from outside. I opened the door and was excited to be engulfed by the scent of traditional Korean cuisine but couldn’t help feeling like I was neglecting my mission to eat like a local by not eating Italian. I promised myself I’d resume my mission after this meal, but while running through such ignorant thoughts, I noticed no one around me was wearing t-shirts or sneakers (the fashion associated with tourists). No one had their phone out to type phrases into Google Translate, and each conversation taking place around me was being spoken in either Italian or Korean. That’s right, no English.

When I sat down with Hana, the manager of IGIO Ristorante Coreano Roma, she smiled as she told me, “We do get tourists as well because it is a touristic area, but I think 70% of our customers are regulars, either Italian local people or Korean local people.” Since both Thea and Gabriele expressed a dependency on tourism, and according to WorldData, Italy recorded a total of 38 million tourists in 2020, ranking 6th in the world in absolute terms, I knew it was rare to find such a dominantly local clientele. Finally, I was eating like a citizen of Rome rather than just a visitor.

However, Hana was quick to add IGIO was not always so popular among locals. “The first ten years of this business, a lot of Italian people didn’t even know that there was a Korean restaurant, and they were also not interested to try new things and ethnic foods. Italian people are very proud of their food, and rightfully so,” said Hana. A Google search revealing there are fewer than ten Korean restaurants in all of Rome, in comparison to over 280 Italian restaurants, supports Hana’s judgment. So, how then, did a traditional Korean restaurant find its way to Trastevere? The short answer is opera.

Although Hana was born and raised in Rome, her parents are from Korea. She shared with me that her father was an opera singer, so he and her mother moved to Rome about 30 years ago to study the genre of music which, according to San Francisco Opera, was born in Italy more than 400 years ago during the Renaissance. More specifically, opera began in Florence when a small group of men known as the Florentine Camerata first utilized music to recreate the storytelling of Greek drama. Opera has evolved and been reimagined over time, so that today they vary from Italian Baroque, to Classical, to Grand, and beyond. It was not until they were finished with their studies that Hana’s parents decided to settle in Rome and open IGIO.

Even after facing initial resistance from those unfamiliar with Korean cuisine, IGIO has now been open for 17 years. Hana credits her father’s commitment to authenticity for the restaurant’s success, saying, “My father has been very strong to this day and said ‘Okay, we are Koreans, we don’t have to adapt it to the western taste or western styles,’ and so his philosophy was to maintain the original, authentic Korean food. Now, people appreciate that.”

With a spicy flair I had yet to find in any Italian dishes, my first bite of kimchi brought a refreshing change. Although it did not originate in Italy, the history of kimchi is just as impressive as that of gelato and suppli, dating back to the Three Kingdoms period between the 1st century BC and the 7th century AD in Korea, according to Patricia Paskov for Food First. Families needed to preserve food to have a supply during long winters, so they used fermentation to preserve cabbage, and kimchi was born. Just as Korean families preserved cabbage and made kimchi, Hana and her family have preserved their identity as Koreans by staying true to their traditions through the food they share in the heart of Rome.

With newfound knowledge and appreciation for a dessert enjoyed by tourists and locals alike, a Roman specialty street food, and a staple in traditional Korean cuisine, I felt I could declare I’d eaten like a local at last. Pizza and pasta in Rome are undeniably delicious, but just as the eternal city is built upon layers of history and stories, so too, is its food. I finally understood I didn’t need to find the most elusive restaurants with the “Italian-est” foods. Rather, I needed to branch out from the pizzerias that catch the eye of every tourist and get to know all the food, history, and people that make Trastevere, Rome, and Italy what it is today. To me, that is how to eat like a local.

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