It’s usually hard to connect and strike up a conversation with a complete stranger in a foreign country. But as a chef who has put together communal dinners at the Third Space, I’ve seen people come in as strangers and leave as friends over a mutual shared discovery of cuisine. Food is a great equalizer.
I locked glances with a young woman sitting across the communal table from me as a server approached with a plate of glistening pasta.
“Wow! That looks amazing,” the woman said. Her hair was swathed in an elegant head wrap, and her face with a cafe au lait complexion beamed with a dimpled smile.
“Doesn’t it?” I replied. “It’s cacio e pepe.”
I was in Roscioli, the famed family-run bakery, restaurant and cafe that I find my way to on each visit to Rome. I’ve had many an incredible meal here, but this time, it was about community.
I learned that her name was Sophia. She was of Eritrean descent but raised in Oslo, Norway. Having just graduated from college, she was treating herself to her first solo trip to Italy.
A few minutes later, a family of four from Brazil sat down at the table. The husband and wife were en route to Beirut to take their two grown daughters to meet their family in Lebanon. Next to join the table was a couple from Boston, on a honeymoon that included a stop at the groom’s native Scotland.
Over the next hour, all of us shared not only our plates of Italian food, but also stories, photos, recipes and laughs. We discovered shared connections through food, and promised to stay in touch and, in true modern fashion, instead of exchanging phone numbers, we shared Instagram handles.
Later that evening, I thought about how the immigrant experience I have had in America played out similarly all over the world.
Of course, this has been happening since time immemorial.
As much as I was enthralled by the architectural marvels like the Pantheon and the Colosseum in Rome, I was fascinated to learn about the Eternal City through the lens of food. The food Romans eat today is a product of the empire’s exposure to other lands, to cultural collisions and immigration — forced and voluntary — over centuries.
The tomato, which is a staple of Italian cuisine, was introduced to Italy by the Spanish. Arab Muslims brought spices and herbs that transformed cooking techniques and flavors.
I love the simplicity and elegance of Italian cuisine, of utilizing what’s freshly available and in season. At the bustling Campo de’ Fiori, one of the oldest markets in Rome, I spent an afternoon hunting down delectable strawberries and tasting varieties of local truffle, in oils and sauces.
This simplicity is not at the expense of flavor, however. As with dishes like cacio e pepe, which means “cheese and pepper,” Romans enthusiastically eat boldly flavored meals heavy with black pepper, funky greens and, of course, pecorino.
Another stalwart of Roman cuisine is the ubiquitous presence of offal such as oxtail, cow intestines and lamb innards. At Volpetti Taverna, I practically inhaled an oxtail ragu — tender chunks of oxtail in a rich tomato stew with vegetables and smoked pancetta. This was serious comfort food and a staple meal during winters in Rome.
After a leisurely dinner there, I strolled up the street to Volpetti Food Store, a century-old gourmet shop and delicatessen. I meandered through the display of gastronomic delights that the generational Volpetti family like to call “pleasures of the table”: meats, fresh cheeses, pasta, award-winning olive oils, balsamic vinegar, and specialties such as white truffles and salted, cured fish roe known as bottarga.
As much as I immensely enjoyed my trip to Rome, as a chef and an American, I started to think about how food traditions form. In places like Europe and my native India, tradition can at times be immutable and often constricting if a chef has the gumption to deviate from a recipe or technique.
I imagine an Italian grandmother arriving on Ellis Island with her time-tested recipes and techniques born from tradition having to adapt to what was locally available and, out of necessity, bringing forth invention. Did she feel a sense of liberation from no longer having to follow the familiar script?
In my case, I relished adapting my Kerala recipes to what I found readily sourced in the American South, like using fresh Georgia peaches for my spiced peach chutney. I did not grow up eating peaches. Today, it is a staple in my kitchen.
The beauty of being an American is that, in a young nation not inured to tradition, there is an infinite capacity for reinvention from all the culinary influences embraced and absorbed through years of immigration. Just like the table of travelers I joined at Roscioli in Rome, we bring our unique experiences and stories to the table.
Quail Ragu with Piccante Frantumato
During a car ride from Rome to Orvieto, chef Asha Gomez happened upon Girarrosto del Buongustaio. This dish is inspired by a ragu she ate there. The recipe calls for dried peperoncini piccante frantumato. While red chile flakes will suffice, Gomez enjoys the rounded heat from the Italian version. “It doesn’t make you want to reach for cold water. It’s a heat that you want to linger in your mouth,” she says.
Warm Seafood Salad
“There is so much seafood in Rome. This recipe is simple, bright and summery,” says Atlanta chef Asha Gomez. She recommends pairing it with crusty rustic bread.