When in Rome, eat as the Romans do.
Or, in my case, as they did, nearly 2,000 years ago.
Even though these days I’m often up to my elbows in trying to create recipes for fictional worlds, historical foodstuffs remain one of my passions and big interests when time allows. So naturally, when planning a family trip to Rome earlier this month, I started in with looking for a restaurant that serves ancient Roman recipes.
It was something of a struggle. There are a number of places that are happy to have a costumed gladiator or centurion trot around the dining room. There are some restaurants tucked into ancient ruins (that’s on the list for next time). The search brought up heaps of articles about how the Romans only ate weird and gross food back in the day– these kind of misconceptions are one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to historical dishes!
But finally, there it was. Hostaria Antica Roma. A restaurant that actually serves historical recipes alongside modern dishes. What’s more, they were planning feast of all ancient recipes to celebrate Rome’s birthday, but it was the day after we were scheduled to leave. I quickly got in touch with the owner, Paolo, and shamefacedly explained that I had utterly failed at planning our trip, and we would be missing Rome’s 2,771st birthday by ONE DAY, and did they normally serve the ancient recipes? He assured me that they did, and that he would be happy to make a couple extra if I gave him a heads up.
So after a day of strolling the ruins of Rome, four of us- my husband, father-in-law, his wife, and me- found ourselves strolling down the Appian Way. Like, THE Appian Way. I feel like every time I turn around in Rome I’m geeking out about some other amazing historical thing. It’s super easy to do. We toured the tomb of Cecilia Metella then wandered the rest of the way to the restaurant. The weather was perfect, a far cry from what we had left in Vermont. Paolo greeted us at the door as we were laughing at the BBQ grill made out of a replica Roman chariot; I wouldn’t turn one of those down for the back yard! And then he ushered us inside to sit. Paolo gave us the chance to order from the menu, but we gave him carte blanche, and were promised a Roman feast in return for our trust.
Guys, I can’t even find the words to tell you how amazing this entire dinner was. In one’s life, there are probably only a few really stand-out meals, and this was definitely one of them. Even my in-laws, who have always been leery of historical recipes, were blown away. We began with platter after platter of antipasto dishes- cured meats, cheeses, grilled vegetables, seafood salad, and more–we needed a booster table brought over just to have enough room for all the plates.
Of especial interest to me was the libum (ancient bread from Cato’s writings) and an incredible herbed garlic cheese (based on a passage from Virgil’s Georgics). Both were just outstanding, the bread something akin to an eggy popover flavored by the bay leaves they’re baked on, and the cheese just out of this world, with flavors of coriander and garlic. I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t take a crack at recipes for both, so stay tuned for that.
Here I have to apologize, because the dinner was so incredible that I basically forgot to take any pictures of it. I’m afraid I’m just not that kind of food blogger! But as is the pitfall of any food photo, they could not have done justice to the incredible flavor combinations. For the main courses, the in-laws ordered fall-off-the-bone lamb, my husband opted for the ancient lasagna, and of course, I ordered the chicken with garum sauce. That was basically the end of all conversation for the moment as we all made happy sounds over our foods. The lamb was divine, the chicken and garum was rich and flavorful (but really not fishy at all), and the lasagna was the best any of us had ever had, with layers of ricotta, beef, and fennel. Top all of that off with four different desserts and a few bottles of wine, and I was starting to feel like a happily plump Roman empress…
But one of the best parts for me was getting to meet Paolo. There are a lot of food nerds out there, but really very few that love historical cooking like I do. Paolo is one of them. And while he has served diplomats and movie stars, his first foray into historical foods was accidental, much like mine. I found in him a kindred spirit with a top-notch mustache. He was the consummate host during our visit, regaling us with stories and anecdotes, showing us the pair of Roman outfits made for him and his wife by the costume designer for the original Ben Hur. And we chatted historical food, swapping sources and camaraderie. It was awesome.
So listen: If you ever find yourself in Rome, or heck, in Italy at all, you MUST go pay a visit to Hostaria Antica Roma.