An A-Z of how Italy made me fat
I’m not actually overweight. Well, that depends on who you ask. Valeriano affectionately calls me “cicciona”, while my family have been more blunt. But even if the title is an exaggeration, living in Italy has certainly made me put on weight. Happy weight. A combination of indulging in delicious food and alcohol and, considering that most of the weight gain has taken place over the past year, perhaps the inevitable weight gain that comes with being in love.
Love aside, these are the main culprits:
There are two kinds of aperitivo. The first is a drink with some nibbles – usually crisps and nuts. The second is a drink with endless food – bread, cheese, meat, salad, pasta. You would think that the second kind of aperitivo would be more dangerous calorie-wise, but it’s actually the first. The second kind replaces dinner, but the first comes before dinner, and is essentially an excuse for having a massive, salty snack before a proper meal.
My favourite places for aperitivo in Rome are L’Oasi della Birra (Piazza Testaccio) and Momart (Viale XXI Aprile, near Piazza Bologna). The second is particularly indulgent, and definitely a substitute for dinner.
I never drank beer when I lived in England. The idea of drinking a pint of any liquid just never appealed, and I never craved it. Then I moved to Rome, discovered that it was acceptable to drink a small bottle of Peroni instead of a pint, got into birra artiginale, and found myself living around the corner from L’Oasi della Birra (“the oasis of beer”). Although I don’t drink large quantities of beer in one go, I certainly drink it a lot more than I used to. It’s especially hard to resist in the summer. In England it’s never hot enough to really crave beer, but once it gets to 30 degrees in Rome…
Cacio e pepe
Aka the most delicious thing in the world. Cacio e pepe is a Roman pasta dish, usually made with tonnarelli, tagliolini or spaghetti, and liberal quantities of pecorino cheese and black pepper. It’s the ultimate comfort food. If I see it on the menu at a restaurant – which is almost always – I find it very hard to order anything else, and I’ve also learned how to make a decent version myself. Everyone has their own opinion about where to find the best cacio e pepe in Rome (see this guide by An American in Rome), but my personal favourites are Da Felice, Flavio al Velavevodetto, Il Cantinone (all in Testaccio) and La Taverna Romana in Monti.
This is Linari’s fault. Cornetti are the Italian version of croissants – a breakfast pastry that accompanies coffee. They can be plain (semplice), filled with cream (con la crema) or wholegrain with honey (integrale). Depending on where you get them, they can be pretty unremarkable, but I have the misfortune to live near the bar/pasticceria Linari, which does excellent coffee and equally excellent cornetti. For my first couple of years in Rome, I had a cappuccino and cornetto at Linari pretty much every morning, but I’m trying to be more restrained these days. The barista used to automatically bring me a cornetto, even without me saying anything, until I told him I was a dieta. Incidentally, another barista at Linari asked me a while ago if I was incinta (pregnant). Not incinta, just cicciona.
As you may have guessed from my appreciation of cacio e pepe, I really love cheese. All cheese. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten any kind of cheese and not liked it. I live near one of the most famous cheese shops in Rome, Volpetti, and normally manage to resist the temptation (thank goodness it’s so expensive), but every now and then I treat myself. Other local temptations include the cheese selection at La Fraschetta and the Sicilian food stall at the mercato that sells peppery goat’s cheese from Agrigento.
But if I had to choose one cheese, it would be mozzarella di bufala. So good. As that rare thing in Italy – a vegetarian – I tend to get offered huge amounts of mozzarella. While everyone else is eating meat, I stuff myself with cheese. Valeriano’s father recently served me up a massive ball of mozzarella at lunch, as a substitute for chicken. “I can’t eat all that!” I exclaimed. I then proceeded to eat all of it.
Gelato is the kind of dessert you pretend doesn’t count as dessert. If you pick a fruity flavour, it doesn’t seem particularly decadent, and in the summer you can find yourself eating it on a daily basis. Part of the problem is seeing tourists eating it all the time. They’re on holiday, so of course they’re going to treat themselves, but you can’t really behave like a tourist if you live in Rome. It’s not good for your waistline.
Gelateria of choice: Panna & Co in Testaccio, or Fassi near Piazza Vittorio. Flavours of choice: stracciatella, pistacchio, cioccolato, gianduia, mango e zenzero, pesche al vino
I once shared a flat with a French boy who was very dismissive about the quality of Italian bread. In general, I’d agree that most Italian bread is nothing special – it’s more something to fill up on than indulge in. But an inevitable consequence of eating out at restaurants regularly is that I consume far too much bread, picking at the bread basket while I wait for my primo to arrive.
Bread is an example of love and food combining to make me fat. I hardly ever bought bread when I was single, but Valeriano insists that no meal is complete without it (and that wasting or throwing away bread is a mortal sin).
My excuse for eating so much pasta – I always get home late from work (9-10pm) and am starving. I need to cook something that’s quick, easy and filling, and pasta is the obvious choice. Ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, in butter and sage sauce. Pasta alla norma. Fettuccine with mushrooms and truffle. Cacio e pepe. Penne all’arrabbiata. Add a glass of wine and a side dish of cicoria ripassata and I’m in heaven.
Non-Romans don’t think much of Roman pizza. “It’s not real pizza,” they scoff, “More like a cracker.” Roman pizza is very thin, and very crispy. It’s delicious though, and less guilt-inducing than the thicker, more calorific Neapolitan pizza. I usually go to Il Grottino in Testaccio when I’m craving pizza. While I’m waiting I watch the pizzaiolo at work; it’s strangely hypnotic. Definitely an art. The pizza at Da Remo is equally good, and I go there when I’m the mood for the real Roman experience – brusque waiters, chaos, suppli and paper-thin pizza that melts in your mouth.
The Best. Nothing beats a proper, doughy margherita, made with the best tomatoes and the best mozzarella. If I lived in Naples I would probably weigh twice as much. My favourite pizzeria in Naples, Da Michele, recently opened a branch in London, and there was a lot of hysteria on social media. Neapolitan pizza has that effect on people. Although I do object to Da Michele being labelled as “the place where Julia Roberts eats pizza in Eat, Pray, Love”… So what? Neapolitans have been making spectacular pizzas for more than a century, and the famous pizzerias in Naples have had people queuing in the street long before Julia Roberts set foot in Da Michele.
I think you’re safe getting a pizza pretty much anywhere in Naples, but I’d particularly recommend Da Michele, Trianon and La Locanda del Grifo (pictured above). I was too traumatised by the queue at Di Matteo to go back. The pizza was sublime, but waiting an hour for the table and another hour for the pizza made me too angry to appreciate it properly.
The best Neapolitan style pizza I’ve had in Rome was at O Sole e Napule (Via Aosta 17 and Via Olevano Romano 67). My first attempt to try the pizza at O Sole e Napule was with Valeriano, early on in our relationship. I was coming down with some kind of horrible virus that evening, but I was so determined to enjoy my pizza that I went ahead and ordered anyway, despite my increasing nausea. The mere smell of the pizza made me feel worse, so we got it to take away instead, in the hope that I’d feel better later. I didn’t. I ended up getting out of the car and, much to my mortification, throwing up in the street. I think Valeriano ate my pizza cold the next morning. Since then, I’ve been back several times and had much better experiences…
In general, I don’t really have a sweet tooth, and I find it fairly easy to avoid the temptation of sweets, chocolates, etc. Tiramisu is the exception. During my first month in Rome, a friend (thank you Giulia!) introduced me to Pompi – essentially tiramisu heaven. As well as the classic tiramisu, they do pistacchio tiramisu, strawberry tiramisu, and banana and chocolate tiramisu. Elsewhere, I’ve also heard of “birramisu” (beer tiramisu), though I’ve never tried it.
My ex-boss inadvertently cured my tiramisu addiction by turning up at the office one day with several boxes of Pompi tiramisu. I find tiramisu is one of those things you have to actively crave. If you don’t actually want it, eating a large tiramisu can be something of a chore. The experience of feeling compelled to eat tiramisu just to be polite put me off for a while. Even though a branch of Pompi recently opened in Testaccio I have yet to visit.
Wine goes well with pasta. I eat a lot of pasta. I drink a lot of wine. I’m not much more knowledgeable about wine than I was before I came to Italy, though when I meet up with my friend Luca – a sommelier-in-training – he shows me how to swish and sniff and taste, rather than just gulping it down.
Some of my favourite places to drink wine include:
–Il Goccetto (Via dei Banchi Vecchi 14) – Cosy enoteca in the centro storico with great choice of wine and nibbles. Extra marks for having a very pretty ceiling. It’s friendly too. I once got a round of applause after coming out of the toilet, with everyone cheering my name (for no obvious reason).
–Fafiuche (Via della Madonna dei Monti 28) – Another cosy enoteca, this time in Monti, specialising in the Piemonte region. There are more than 600 kinds of wine, and the aperitivo is very good.
–La Fraschetta da Sandro (Via Galileo Ferraris 5) Very very Roman. This is where old men go to get drunk in Testaccio. The clientele is 99% Italian men – hardly a tourist (or woman) in sight. It’s something ridiculous like 2 euros for a generous glass of vino sfuso, and the food – bread, cheese, cold cuts and vegetables drenched in olive oil – is similarly good value.