“Ask your dad” I whispered.
“He won’t know. He doesn’t do street food.” Lori hissed back.
Luigi Di Francesco, my immaculate father-in-law and fount of all knowledge when it comes to proper Italian restaurants, looks at us questioningly.
When we first set out to explore the street food of Rome, we had an idea in our heads. We thought that it would be all about the antique form of the hipster favourite, the old-timers on the cobbled corners of Trastevere. We thought that whilst San Francisco has its Presidio Picnic circled by gourmet vans and Lisbon has its slick Time Out Market in Cais do Sodre, Rome would be lagging behind, stuck in the past with its delicious but unsurprising pizza al taglio, grattachecca and panini heaving with fennel-scented porchetta.
We were wrong. Firstly on the street food front. And secondly, of course, on the Luigi front. It shouldn’t have surprised us. When it comes to tastebuds, Luigi is the oracle. I remember driving through Italy with Lori when we first met and stopping off in a tiny, and I mean tiny, village. There was a river, a windmill and not much else. A quick phone call from Lori to his dad and we were sorted.
Lori: “Do you like trout?”
Lori: “do you like truffles?”
Five minutes later we were taking the first sip of wine at a trattoria that specialises in truffles and trout, under strict instructions to tell the owner who we were. That’s how Luigi rolls.
So it stands to reason that he knew about the unstoppable street food craze that has even managed to sweep Rome. I’ve always found Italian food incredible, obviously, but I’ve also always had a slight issue with the rigidity of the recipes. I’m not talking about the high-end, Michelin-starred rebels like Massimo Bottura. I’m talking about the day to day unspoken codes of how to cut this and how to cook that and are-you-crazy-you-can’t-put-that-sauce-with-pappardelle. Creators of history-steeped, dribble-inducing tastes, absolutely. Rule-breakers, not so much.
Until now. Now the Italians are doing what they do best. They’re having fun. And nowhere was that more apparent than the Mercato Centrale. A beacon of good design and great food in the unlikely neighbourhood of Stazione Termini. The hangout of choice for the addicts of the eternal city, it’s the kind of walk that makes you clutch the buggy a little tighter and drag your four-year-old along the road a little faster than she wants to go. But it’s worth it. Set in the grand architectural surroundings of the old station workers canteen, the space is dominated by a hulking marble canopy that used to sit above the kitchen. Now it’s flanked by long communal tables and a ring of artisan offerings.
There’s a butchery that also cooks their meat, sandwiching it in fresh tigelle, the lovechild of the pancake and the English muffin. There’s one sprawling stall serving a niche menu of only mushrooms and artichokes. There’s the Italian take on innards that would make Fergus Henderson do a double take. Yes, pig nerves, I’m looking at you.
And then there’s Trapizzino. A wildly popular invention that rips up the rule book on pizza by forming the dough into crispy little cones, then fills them with the good and the great of classic Roman cuisine. Armed with an Aperol Spritz each, we set about testing as much of the menu as possible. Pure white and oozing burrata was spiked with pungent, salty anchovies. Zucchine alla scapece are half marinated, half fried, then tossed together into their cone. The deeply traditional trippa alla Romana, followed swiftly by the comfort of polpette al sugo, the soft dough soaking up the rich tomato sauce. Finally, the winner. Pollo alla cacciatora, that yielding mess of slow-cooked chicken in white wine, garlic and rosemary, was the kind of dish that would have made us march cheerfully back along that intimidating road for more. And more. And more.
We took our jobs seriously, cheerfully sacrificing our waistlines for the endless sprawl of fresh produce at Eataly and working our way through the selection of pizza fritta at the excellent DON, a white tiled love letter to the iconic Neapolitan fried pizza.
So street food is alive and well in Rome. It’s playful, it’s popular, it’s bloody delicious. But there’s a familiarity about it all. Somehow, it’s not entirely…Roman. So we use our last morning in the capital to make a little pilgrimage of our own.
There’s a bakery called Il Fornaio in via dei Baullari. An unapologetic celebration of the carbohydrate, it’s been there forever and is filled to the gills with every kind of bread and biscuit you could wish for. But we’re not there for that. The star is outside in a glass box, the biggest mortadella sausage you’ve ever seen. Ask nicely and they’ll carve it by hand and wrap it in brown paper. We follow it up with the mandatory pit-stop in the Forno Campo de’ Fiori, which needs no introduction, grabbing a few slices of its famous focaccia and the thinnest pizza rossa you’ve ever tasted.
And so we finish our tour with the real street food. By which I mean we pull up a patch of cobbles in the shade of a building in Piazza del Biscione, shamelessly spread out our picnic, and get to work. There are a few odd looks from British tourists in their bucket hats and lobster tans. It isn’t hip. It isn’t branded. It certainly isn’t glamorous. But that, we think, makes it the best street food of all.
Via Giovanni Giolitti, 36, 00185 Rome, Italy
Via Dei Baullari, 5, 00186 Rome, Italy
Forno Campo de' Fiori
Vicolo del Gallo, 14, 00186 Rome, Italy
DON Vera Pizza
Via di S. Francesco a Ripa, 103, 00153, Rome, Italy
Piazzale 12 Ottobre 1492, 00154 Roma RM, Italy