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  • Writer's pictureAnnelise Richardson

The Roman Meal

Updated: Nov 5, 2021


Coming to Rome, I imagined that every meal I would eat would be the best thing I had ever tasted. I’d be overwhelmed by steaming plates of cacio e pepe, piles of savory ravioli tenderly hand-made by an Italian nonna, and more slices of pizza than I knew what to do with. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve fallen victim to movies like Eat, Pray, Love that present a romantic, picture-perfect version of Rome with pristine cobblestone, glamorous couples strolling arm-in-arm along the Tiber, and, of course, a life-changing plate of pasta waiting on every street corner.

Undeniably, Roman cuisine is rich with culture and tradition that can be sampled in the form of simmering tomatoes and sizzling garlic. I’ve tasted things that have blown my mind, like carciofi alla giudia, traditional Jewish fried artichoke. The best tortellini I’ve ever tasted was in Bologna; savory dumplings of soft cheese soaked in brown butter and sage. But in many ways, our idea of the “true Roman experience” is based on idealized versions of the Eternal City.

Hollywood representations of Rome paint an incomplete portrait of life in the Eternal City. In truth, Rome stretches far beyond picturesque spirals of spaghetti. Rome is noisy, busy, sometimes dirty, crowded; and Rome is colorful, awe-inspiring, resilient, and massive. The Rome of today is a cultural synthesis of flavors, traditions, music, and art from across the Eastern hemisphere. Rome is multifaceted; it does not present itself in a repeating pattern of charm and grace, but manifests in diverse neighborhoods and citizens that shape the spirit of the city.

And in that very spirit, the best meal I’ve had in Rome was eaten on-the-go, while shivering in a very non-Italian jacket borrowed from Megan Lawrence, edging away from two overly flirty raggazi with matching motorcycle helmets. That night, I ate a crescent of pizza-style bread filled with eggplant, cheese, and red sauce. There may have been other ingredients, but I was too busy stuffing my face with the sandwich to notice. The warmth of the sandwich against my shivering un-gloved hands made the food taste all the better as I stood with my friend on the Ponte Palatino on an October evening.

Another unforgettable meal I’ve eaten in Rome was at an Indian restaurant tucked away in a street off Via Cavour. Though appearing small on the outside, it made its presence loud through the delicious aromas of cumin and cardamom wafting down the cobblestone alleyway. I went with my roommate Shreeya Pattekar during a night out in September for the first time. We were both desperately craving spice because, let’s face it, Roman cuisine isn’t known for its piquantness beyond penne all'arrabbiata. The night was filled with laughter against a background of Bollywood music, as the server brought out dish after dish of steaming curries, samosas, and naan bread aplenty. I had never imagined that I would be eating palak paneer in the heart of Italy’s capital, but this city continues to surprise me each day with its depth and dimension.

Among other memorable bites have been one-euro cornetti (the Italian version of a croissant), flaky pastries from a French bakery, and traditional Afghan food from a restaurant in Bologna visited by the JFRC Fall Social Justice Study Trip. On none of these occasions was I accompanied by a gorgeous Italian ragazzo or poised next to the Pantheon at sunset like I had imagined. Instead, the meals were rushed, messy, unconventional snacks eaten standing up in piazzas or while waiting for the infamously late 990 bus after an on-site class. Rather of classically cheery Italian jazz, I was serenaded by frenzied Roman traffic or the incessant song of Rome’s invasive green parakeets. But each time, I was within the embrace of this wonderful, complicated, eternal city.

Often, the best meals are not so much about what you eat, but the company you have them with. In film and literature, every food scene is a communion. The character is reborn, in a sense, after a warm meal shared with a companion. Take it from Stanley Tucci’s character in the Italian movie Big Night; even during periods of change and insecurity, sitting down for a meal, no matter how simple, helps heal the soul.

When I sit down for a meal, I absorb my surroundings and look at the faces of the people I’m sitting with. I try to memorize their eyes, their smiles, the laughter that punctuates the cool evening air. I observe their half-empty glasses of wine, sipped slowly while waiting for food to arrive, so I can remember this life as I am living it now.

Years from today, I’ll be sitting with a different crowd of people, in a different city, wearing new clothes and weighed down by new problems. Maybe I’ll be in Italy again, or Chicago, or somewhere completely outside the scope of my imagination. But if being here has taught me anything, it's how to savor the time we are given like we savor a glass of expensive local wine. Life should be sipped slowly, gently, with the best intentions, and shared with good people that make your soul feel complete. Whether you’re having wine or water, pasta or pancakes, while in Italy or Indiana, enjoy every meal like it's the best you’ve ever had. Someday, our youth will rest behind us like a setting sun; but today, life is brighter than a sunrise and sweeter than tiramisu.

Traditional Afghan meal - Bologna (left)

Annelise with the aforementioned life-changing sandwich - Trapizzino, Trastevere, Rome (bottom)

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