I've always tried to live by the maxim, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do"—especially when it comes to food. During my first trip to the Eternal City, I said yes to everything that was offered to me: large, cheesy rectangles of pizza, bowls of buttery cacio e pepe, and of course, as many scoops of gelato as my parents would allow.
When I got back to the states, I immediately craved the freshness of the tomatoes, the al dente bite of Roman pasta, and the Roman way of dining, too—the pleasure they take in every bite. Years later, I still salivate at the thought of returning. But with a little bit of guidance and the right lineup of dishes, I can bring a taste of Italy's capital right into my very own home with a Roman-inspired dinner party. And you know what? So can you.
For ideas on how to get the food, wine, and the ambience just right, I turned to Katie Parla, the New Jersey–born, Rome-based journalist, culinary educator, and cookbook author (of Tasting Rome and *National Geographic's Walking Rome, among other titles).
First things first, "Rome is a super down to earth, casual city in the majority of the cases," says Parla. That means Roman dinner parties are fairly laid back, too. "People might dress up nicely or get their hair done, but things are very free flowing—wine flows very freely and so people are pretty loose." That relaxed atmosphere translates right to the decor: "There’s usually zero variety in the place settings," she explains, because "apartments are small, tables are small, so you make the most of the space that you have." So very rarely do people bust out an heirloom china set or their grandmother's crystal glassware. As a matter of fact, she adds, you're more likely to be drinking wine out of the same juice glasses and eating off everyday serve ware.
That being said, Romans take a great deal of care when it comes to the food being served. "When people go out to dinner, they can’t afford to get the antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno...but when you go to someone’s house you’re getting that whole parade of things," Parla says. That means everything has a course, like in the sample menu below.
To kick off any dinner party, you'll start by serving a selection of anitipasti, usually an assortment of small bites and dishes that come before the meal. As guests arrive, Parla likes to have a selection of cured cheeses and meats, for example, "a wedge of sheep’s milk ricotta with some bread from Roscioli or Panificio Bonci, two very famous bakeries for bread, and prosciutto." You can up the ante with a few simple, composed antipasti, such as marinated olives, fried baby artichoke hearts (if they're in season), and breadsticks to nibble on. Crostini with butter and anchovies is a Roman classic that Parla also likes to serve—"it's so delicious," she says. Other things you might want to serve include
And what to drink alongside? "A lot of people bring prosecco, which is not Roman at all," she adds, "but because of its tremendous boom in production has become a go-to, festive wine people will bring to have as aperitivo." Although Rome isn't really a cocktail city in homes yet, you'll often find ex-pats mixing up spritzes or even Negronis, which are made using gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth.
"After the antipasto—if someone has a terrace they might start that outside—then you’d sit down for the pasta course," says Parla. From this course on, the host typically balances their time between the kitchen and the dining room, since they're often the only person doing the majority of the cooking. "Nevertheless, a lot of home cooks are able to do a lot and execute a lot in a small space because of necessity and practice," she explains.
That's also where simple, ready-in-a-flash pastas like cacio e pepe, which translates to "cheese and pepper," come in handy. "Like, you drop the pasta, you prepare a quick sauce, and that’s like a 10-15 minute process," says Parla. "I mean that's literally the pasta that was invented because it was so fast."
But cacio e pepe, however delicious, is not your only options. Another Roman classic is bucatini all’Amatriciana, which is traditionally made with guanciale (cured pork cheeks; if you can't find it bacon is a fine substitute) and a homemade tomato sauce. Pasta alla Gricia is another exceptionally straight-forward pasta, made with simple ingredients like rendered guanciale, a little garlic, black pepper, grated Pecorino cheese, and a little pasta water to tie everything tother.
Then you have the secondo, the meat or fish course, accompanied by a contorno, a side dish that usually consists of "aggressively cooked vegetables or raw things like hammered chicory, or a salad," according to Parla. "There’s always a vegetable component," she says, "and that way you can talk about how efficiently you’re digesting your food while eating fiber." (A topic that comes up quite often at Roman dinner parties, she adds.)
This part of the meal would of course be incomplete without a few bottles of wine, but you don't need to hunt down a carefully curated selection, says Parla. "Pair it with the food in a way that sort of follows the traditional pairings—if you’re serving fish you’re gonna have white, if you’re serving meat then you’re gonna have red." For white wines, try picking up a bottle of Frascati, or other wines made from Trebbiano or Malvasia. As for red wines grown in the area, Parla suggests trying Cesanese, but notes that people don't feel confined to just drink locally because only in the "last decade and a half has there been a huge increase in [local] quality wine production." At the end of the day, the most important thing when it comes to wine and Roman dinner parties is to have at least a couple of bottles on hand.
"The next step is usually a little pause before dessert," says Parla. Most often, guests will bring the dessert, like pasticcini (small pastries) or the crostata below. Consider asking your guests to bring along their favorite type of biscotti, or if you have a friend who loves to bake, suggest these simple anise-studded wine cookies or even Roman cream puffs or olive oil cake. But aside from those sweet treats, Parla likes to have a selection of fresh, seasonal fruit and nuts on hand as well—thing figs, persimmons, or citrus.
Dessert is always accompanied by digestivi, after-dinner drinks meant to help settle the stomach and promote digestion after a meal. "Romans feel really free to freestyle with their digestivi," she explains, "so coffee of course, and then amaro, limoncello, or grappa."
Once you've got all the pieces of your Roman dinner party together, the most important thing to do is enjoy. Let the wine flow freely, savor every moment with your friends—and of course, every bite.
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