Mitshel Ibrahim: 10 things I love about Rome
We’re asking chefs to tell us about their favourite foodie places around the world. Mitshel Ibrahim of London restaurant Ombra shares his food experiences of Rome.
Interview by Joel Porter, words by Mitshel Ibrahim
Anyone who knows me knows that the way to my heart is through pizza, pasta and fried food. Even though I’m from Milan, it’s Rome that really does it for me, food-wise – the fact that they do so much with very little draws me in every time.
But it’s all interlaced with tradition, history, and a crossover of cultures from different regions of Italy and the city’s Jewish settlers. The amazing produce available and the number of unique dishes on offer make it a truly incredible destination for food lovers – Rome is a city that I can never stay away from for too long.
When you think of Italian food, pizza is one of the first things that comes to mind. Italians love all sorts: there are those who prefer it ‘rossa’ (no cheese), those who like it ‘bianca’ (no tomato), those who swear by Neapolitan-style, and those who prefer it Roman.
Roman ‘pinsa’ pizza is made from wheat, rice and soy flours, and is slightly thinner than usual, with a much crispier bottom. With more water and less salt than traditional dough, pinsa is lighter, airier and easier to digest. Toppings range from the classic tomato, oregano and olive oil, to more inventive slices, such as courgette, fresh ricotta and lemon zest.
2. Jewish cuisine
Rome has one of the oldest Jewish settlements in western Europe, and this has had a huge impact on the city’s cuisine. Cucina ebraica romana (Roman Jewish cuisine) is celebrated throughout Rome, and it’s one of the most unique aspects of the city.
One of the most famous dishes is carciofi alla giudia, Jewish-style deep-fried artichokes served hot from the fryer. Other must-try dishes include fiori di zucca (fried courgette flowers stuffed with mozzarella) and baccalà all’ebraica (fried salt cod).
While central and southern Italy are known for pasta made with water and flour, Rome and the north are famous for egg pastas. The north was traditionally more affluent than the south, so they could afford the luxury of adding eggs to pasta dough, while southern regions relied on hard wheat semolina. Some of the best-loved pasta dishes, such as carbonara and cacio e pepe, originated in Rome.
Although these are now made in homes around the world, nothing can compare to enjoying them in a Roman trattoria. My favourite egg pastas include bucatini amatriciana, a tomato sauce with black pepper, chilli flakes and guanciale (salt-cured pork jowl), and rigatoni al sugo di coda made with oxtail stew leftovers.
Rome is a city teeming with markets, and everyone should visit at least one. There are flea markets, antique markets, and, of course, many food markets. My favourite is Mercato di Testaccio, a neighbourhood market that attracts both tourists and locals. There are rows and rows of fresh produce, meat and fish vendors, as well as small stands selling pasta, sandwiches, pastries and sweets.
I love browsing the stalls in the morning before having a panino alla pajata for lunch. This classic Roman sandwich is stuffed with milk-fed lamb’s intestines that have been curdled in milk, then braised in a spicy, oily tomato sauce – it’s absolutely delicious. The market also has Roman archaeological remains in the basement, so you’ll get a bonus history lesson when you visit.
5. Pork belly
Panino con la porchetta (roast pork belly that’s been stuffed with herbs, then rolled) is the most famous street food available in the Italian capital, and can be found anywhere across the city, including at many of the food markets.
It’s an absolute must-eat whenever you’re in Rome. Be sure not to look like a ‘tourista’, and ask for ‘cotenna’ (crackling) added to your sandwich.
Rome is famous for offal. It’s known locally as ‘quinto quarto’ (or the fifth quarter), an old joke that goes back to when meat was distributed to citizens according to their social class – the poor would end up with the offal that was left over after each social group had taken their quarter of the animal. It was left to the poorer citizens to make delicious dishes using the brains, intestines and lungs, and as a result, offal is a huge part of Roman cuisine – and they aren’t afraid to glorify it.
Aside from the classic trippa alla Romana (tripe stewed in tomatoes, onions and pecorino), one of my favourite offal dishes is coratella d’agnello, a delicious braise of lamb offal (lungs, liver and heart). Another must-try is tagliata di cavallo (horse steak).
7. Beer and wine
While Milan is still the capital of the aperitivo, Rome is best for beer lovers and natural wine drinkers. While the city’s craft beer scene is not yet on par with the UK, there are more and more small breweries and tap rooms opening, offering delicious artisanal beers.
There are also natural wine bars popping up all over, showcasing low-intervention and biodynamic wines from all over Italy. This being Rome, there’s always a small menu of snacks, cheese and ham available, too.
With a cuisine so heavily reliant on aged meats and cheeses, delis or salumerie are a frequent stop for home cooks. There are several delis in every neighbourhood in Rome, where locals stock up on prosciutto, pecorino, artichokes, olives and anchovies.
Just walking into these shops is an experience, with the shelves stacked high with food, and legs of cured ham hanging from the ceiling. I always visit several, even if I’m not buying anything. Many delis also serve a few hot dishes, such as pizza slices or supplì – fried balls of risotto rice in tomato sauce.
Maritozzi are a type of sweet brioche bun that are filled with whipped cream. They’re a common late-night snack, and there are spots that stay open and bake the buns through the night.
Most gelaterias will also offer the option to have your ice cream in a maritozzi, so you can have two classic Roman desserts in one.
10. Hidden gems
My final and (and most essential) recommendation for visiting Rome would be to set aside one day that doesn’t involve any grand plans. Go somewhere not too central, stop looking at your map and just get lost in the city and its beautiful alleys.
Rome is a city that rewards exploration on foot and away from the crowds, so you’re sure to discover your own favourite cafés, bars and restaurants. Plus, it’s a good way to get plenty of walking in and burn off all those delicious meals!
Travellers are advised to read the FCO travel advice at gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice for the country they are travelling to.
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