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Tom Parker Bowles In Rome: "Things can be kind of brutal"

Tom Parker Bowles In Rome:

"Ah, Rome,” sighed my friend Matthew. “City of Eternal Heartburn.” It wasn’t exactly the reaction I’d expected. Although to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Putting aside those togas and Titians, the pervy popes, incestuous emperors, painted ceilings and all-the-Christians-you-can-eat big-cat buffets, what I knew about Rome’s food could barely cover a crostini.

Whereas I’m on kissing terms with Sicilian food — and concupiscently close to the tucker of Naples — Rome seemed a beautiful, aloof stranger. Sure, I’d been on a school trip as a teenager, sullenly dragging my heels through the endless ruins, churches and catacombs. But then, my philistine and resolutely filthy little mind was elsewhere.

Either dreaming of that hot French bird I stuttered “Ça va?” to late at night on the Spanish Steps (she ignored me, of course, and went back to blowing smoke at some faux hippy bastard, murdering “Under the Bridge” on his poxy guitar). Or working out the route to the nearest McDonald’s. Not for the burgers, mind you, rather the beer tap next to the Coke dispenser. The contents of which they would sell to 14-year-olds. Without even asking for ID.

So I needed a guide. Someone who had tramped those calf-busting cobbled streets and knew their polpette from their polpetto. Thank God, then, for Jacob Kenedy, the quietly brilliant man behind Bocca di Lupo, that stalwart restaurant back home in London’s Soho. Dear God, can this man cook. Real Italian food, a collection of regional cuisines bound only by passion and prejudice. You want the true definition of disdain?

Ask a Southern Italian about the food of the North. Or vice versa. Hell, ask the ladies of one village about the zuppa-making skills of the neighbouring town and they’ll all swear blind that theirs is the best, most traditional, authentic and the only way. Kenedy, though, has lived in the city, has fed and watered there and knows it like a friend.

“Roman food is, for me, pizza, fried things and gutsy food,” he says between bites of supplì al telefono, deep-fried balls of rice and mozzarella, a cousin to the Sicilian arancini. “There’s nothing fine or fancy here, and things can be, well, kind of brutal.” He takes a swig of beer. “There are a lot of very strong flavours, be it pork, or pecorino, or pepper. And these flavours are turned right up to the max. Subtle, it ain’t.” Waverley Root, writing in The Food of Italy, agrees: “If there is one characteristic shared by authentic alla romana dishes it is a robust directness.”

Also in assent is the great cookbook writer Claudia Roden: “Roman cooking has few elements and all of them are cheap, simply prepared and without frills; a matter of making virtue out of necessity.”

Which is why offal plays such a starring role. The princes and papal bigwigs that ruled the city for so long devoured huge quantities of meat — the expensive cuts, of course. Which meant there was a glut of cheap animal organs for the plebs.

A taste for the “fifth quarter” still endures. At Sora Margherita, in the old Jewish ghetto, you’ll find pajata di vitello, the intestine of newborn veal, with the semi-solid colostrum, or mother’s milk, still inside. OK, so it sounds like something served up as a pre-torture canapé in the Fourth Circle of Dante’s Inferno. Here, though, among the tattered posters of events long past and the tiny, cramped tables, it’s a dish fit for utopia. Seriously. Bathed in a rich tomato sauce, and sitting atop a pile of al dente rigatoni, the taste is soft and gentle, a hint of liver, the merest whisper of farmyard menace. In fact, it’s probably the most subtle and elegant dish I eat in my time in the city.

Equally subdued is the coratella d’abbacchio, the heart, lungs and liver of baby lamb cooked with wine and sweet onions. The age of the beasts meant the palate is gently caressed, rather than bludgeoned into offal submission.

The Jewish influence is everywhere in Roman food. Filetti de baccalà, bought finger-searing hot from a shop of the same name, sees great thick chunks of cod fried in a great thick batter. It’s splendid stuff, the perfect walking snack, firm and chewy, yet blessedly free from salt, like British battered cod in a Berluti overcoat. Deep-frying was said to have started in the ghetto, always out on the street to entice the hungry punter.

And it would be pretty hard to miss the famed carciofi alla giudea. “We’re here at the perfect time,” Kenedy grins, as the artichokes, deep-fried until brown and crisp, then sprinkled with salted water, are put before us, sat on a sheet of brown paper. You can’t use any old variety, rather the romaneschi, so tender that every part can be devoured. With leaves spread out like a rose in bloom, there’s little need for further embellishment. That combination of brittle and chewy is quite enough for even the most exacting of appetites.

And appetite is what you need for a trip with Kenedy. Despite being seemingly chiselled from pure marble, he has that generosity and passion for eating shared by all great chefs. One dish is never alone. “You have to try this,” he says, ordering agnoloti stuffed with beef and ricotta. “Oh, God, and this, too,” adding aliciotti, or anchovies, baked with artichokes. “Oh, and the spaghetti cacio e pepe. The classic.” This last dish has enough pepper to make Europe sneeze. And pecorino cheese, sharp and nutty, tonnes of the stuff. I’ve only been here a day, and I’m already seeing Rome’s allure.

The pace, though, is relentless. We’ve barely digested lunch before we set off again, strolling past the Trevi Fountain and Piazza del Popolo. But all thoughts are on dinner. “Rome,” Kenedy sighs as we push through the tourist throng, “lots to see but nothing to do. It’s not a party town. Often, it’s like walking around a museum, the sense of a city preserved in aspic.”

We arrive at Da Enzo al 29, but despite having booked, there’s a wait. No one seems to mind. The tables are closely packed and spill out onto the pavement. When we eventually sit down, we’re assaulted with the next round. This is eating as sport, beautiful but wearying, too.

We eat with Alfredo, an American ex-pat who has lived in the city for many years.“Oh, the stories I could tell,” he winks. And what stories they were, filled with Italian princes and Hollywood starlets, tales that provoke sharp intakes of breath. “She did what? No!” Sadly, though, I can’t remember one detail. Well, of the gossip anyway. There was no chance of forgetting the food. Bread was dense and chewy, the burrata cheese, made that morning in Campania (a couple of hours to the south) possibly the best I’ve ever tasted, oozingly lactic, the very quintessence of milk. I’m not sure whether to eat it. Or kiss it.

“In Rome, it’s not about the theatre or Mass,” says Alfredo, pouring me another glass of local wine. “Nope, here, it’s all about eating out. They’re big eaters, and go out far more than the rest of Italy.” We eat spaghetti alle vongole (“a great Roman dish,” says Kenedy), fierce with chilli, and penne all’Amatriciana, the real thing, crisp shards of guanciale — cured pigs jowl — a whack of tomato sauce, and the ubiquitous pecorino. More big flavours, stark and unencumbered by normal manners. They strut and swagger across the tongue, great monolithic dishes, stark as a fascist mausoleum.

Being Rome, offal is never far away. At Enzo’s, the tripe is buried under a mass of sweet tomato sauce, which is, in turn, smothered by a snowy pile of still more pecorino. But again, this is the softest and most subtle of dishes, a silken ballet dancer to the Amatriciana’s broad-shouldered bruiser. By this stage, I’m struggling under the sheer weight of delight before me. So a crisp salad of puntarelle, anchovies, artichokes, garlic and lemon comes as edible first aid, cleansing the mouth and sharpening the senses.

We stumble home, to sleep, my dreams crammed with talking pigs and clouds of pepper. I could wax lyrical about two more days spent revelling in tiny agnolotti filled with the most incredible walnut paste, five different pecorinos served with honey, ice cream from Giolitti (“the classic place, half good, half shit. But the blackcurrant quite amazing,” according to Kenedy), and oxtail simmered in tomato sauce. Just one of these dishes would feed the casual eater for days. We manage dozens. The result? Well, Rome is no longer a stranger. In fact, I fell hopelessly in lust. But eaters, beware. The first night’s a blast. And the second, too. Any longer, though, and you just won’t keep up.

My advice? Revel in her endless charms. But this is one city best taken one bite at a time.