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Why Roman Food Is Everywhere Right Now

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Thank the Eternal City for all the pizza al taglio and cacio e pepe on American menus today

Pizza al taglio at Bonci in Chicago.
Photo: Bonci USA / Facebook

There are two main entrances to the Redbury Hotel in Manhattan’s Nomad neighborhood. Walk through either of them and you’ll be no more than a few feet from a slice of Rome. On the south side at 29th Street, there’s Marta, Union Square Hospitality Group maestro Danny Meyer’s three-year-old restaurant and pizzeria, which now has an offshoot downtown called Martina. Walk around the building to 30th Street and you’re greeted on the right by Caffe Marchio, where New Yorkers are encouraged to have their coffee as Romans would, standing up and perhaps with an apricot-glazed cornetto. Across the hallway, there’s Vini e Fritti, USHG’s newest spot, a wine and snack bar serving Roman dishes like fried artichokes and crispy fried-rice croquettes called suppli.

Roman food “is delicious, it’s got balls,” says USHG’s Joe Tarasco, the executive chef of all the Redbury projects. It’s also a point of inspiration. In an age of #saddesklunch and restaurants that would have never considered offering delivery a few years ago signing deals with Caviar, “maybe we can’t convince people to come in and order a bottle of wine,” Tarasco says. Instead, “we’re going to give them something affordable and delicious, but not a full-service model.” With that in mind, it comes down to “how do we do something that’s still soul satisfying and delicious?” he says. The answer: Look to the Eternal City.

The Roman phenomenon goes well beyond one well-fed hotel in New York City. Restaurants across the country are borrowing recipes from the Italian capital, making it one of the dominant trends of the year. With Roman recipes comes a style and approach to dining. And their popularity in the U.S. reveals something about what it means to be a diner in 2017: We’re on the go, interested in unfussy regional cooking with a story behind it, and living in a time when seasonal ingredients are a given and a fear of carbs isn’t.

Trapizzini and suppli at Trapizzino in New York City.
Photo by Nick Solares for Eater NY

Rome’s culinary conquest of the U.S. is tied to Meyer, who worked as a tour guide in Rome as a young adult, says Katie Parla, a food writer and tour guide herself, who has lived in Rome for 15 years. (Parla also contributes Eater’s Rome coverage.) Since Meyer and his team started preparing to open his Manhattan trattoria Maialino in 2009, staff, including Tarasco and Nick Anderer, executive chef of Martina and the founding chef of Marta and Maialino, have spent time eating and researching in the city. Meyer also sent Lena Ciardullo, Marta’s chef de cuisine, to stage briefly with acclaimed pizzaioli Stefano Callegari and Gabriele Bonci — an arrangement Parla helped put in place — before they opened in 2014. It’s “through those connections,” says Parla, that Roman food went from a rare sight in the U.S. to its status today.

The second wave came in the form of slices of porchetta and, especially, bowls of cacio e pepe, Rome’s classic three-ingredient pasta. In recent years, it became an almost mandatory dish for restaurants with any Italian leanings to serve. As a 2016 article in Tasting Table points out, renditions range from the fairly traditional, like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s bucatini cacio e pepe, to cece e pepe, a rendition that swaps pecorino romano for fermented chickpea paste that seemed to drive the bulk of traffic to David Chang’s Nishi in its early days (and remains on the menu now that the restaurant switched from a Korean-Italian fusion spot to a mostly Italian one).

Cacio e pepe and porchetta: Those dishes are “the Roman gateway drugs,” says Tarasco. “As people responded to certain Roman dishes, you’ve got chefs and restaurateurs saying there’s another opportunity to have a point of view” about the cuisine — not to mention a new opportunity for chefs from Rome to enter the market.

Nishi’s ceci e pepe, pasta with chickpea hozon and black pepper.
Photo by Nick Solares for Eater NY

Like here, a sit-down lunch in Rome has become less common in recent years. Trapizzino, which opened in Rome in 2008 and on New York’s Lower East Side in February, found a solution to that. Callegari cleverly tucks Roman classics that take hours to make, such as lingua in salsa verde and trippa alla romana, into a pocket of pizza bianca dough that has a slight tang, courtesy of a starter co-owner Nick Hatsatouris and his team think is approximately 200 years old. Hatsatouris sees it as tradition “in a new format.” Parla calls it “completely revolutionary.”

It’s not just these trattoria classics at Trapizzino that are consumed quickly in modern Rome, she adds. Coffee is considered “a utilitarian ritual,” consumed standing up at a cafe next to your apartment or office. It’s something USHG is trying to teach visitors to Caffe Marchio.

We do a lot of take-away eating,” she says. And while there are sit-down pizzerias in the city, Rome is traditionally the only place in Italy where pizza is also served al taglio, or cut and ready to eat on the go.

This summer, Bonci, the man behind Rome’s Pizzarium, opened his first outpost (called Bonci) in the U.S. with the help of ex-P.F. Chang’s COO Rick Tasman in Chicago. Lined up next to one another, the rectangular pies cover a long counter, with staff standing at the ready with scissors to cut them to order. The team is cutting the same pizzas as they do in Rome, like potato and mozzarella and “the rossa,” made with tomato sauce, burrata, and long anchovies. While Bonci and Tasman have kept the spot close to its Roman cousins, they made a small concession — they’re waiting to introduce a tripe-topped pizza until diners are more familiar with their concept.

Still, “we didn’t know how it would translate,” Tasman says. “People in Chicago are proud of their pizza heritage.” But so far, diners have proven eager for what Tasman calls “something different,” a departure from the local deep dish and thin crust — and, more broadly speaking, from the southern Italian food that’s informed so much of Italian cooking in the U.S.

If it does well, there could be more locations down the line. “We brought it here as a proof of concept,” Tasman says. And Roman-style pizza is already making serious inroads across the U.S. In September, Il Romanista, which serves 15 Roman-style pizzas, opened in Los Angeles. Philadelphia, which is already home to Roman-style pizzeria Rione, will get another one before the end of the year. Pizza al taglio places — and Trapizzino, which also hopes to expand its presence in the U.S. — offer, essentially, a fast-casual experience without making you feel like you’re at the latest rendition of the Chipotle of X, a relief in 2017.

Margherita, potato, and arrabbiata pizza at Bonci in Chicago.
Photo: Bonci USA / Facebook

It’s not just lunch on the go or regional food that diners want. “New Yorkers are moving away from fussy cuisine,” Tarasco says. “And in Italy you find Roman [fare to be] a particularly honest cuisine.” In 2010, the last time Roman food felt like a trend in New York, Florence Fabricant explained, “Simplicity is the hallmark of the cuisine.”

Roman cooking also checks two required boxes of 2017: The food is seasonal, and it’s available throughout the day. At Bonci, pizza toppings will change through the year; Tarasco alters elements of all his menus with the seasons, offering a summertime-only squash blossom pizza at Marta and switching up the vegetable in the stracciatella and pesto sandwich at Caffe Marchio.

As Tarasco points out, “Rome provides something for every part of the day. [And] there’s something delicious for every quick stop.” Bonci is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days, Trapizzino fills pizza pockets from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. on the weekends, and at the Redbury, there’s at least one place that offers a slice of Rome from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. most days of the week.

Fritti at Vini e Fritti in New York City.
Photo: Liz Clayman / USHG

While the food of Rome and the style of dining that comes with it seem to be at the crux of how we eat in 2017, it’s worth noting that not all of the dishes we’re seeing at Roman restaurants in the U.S. are exact facsimiles of what one might get on the boot. Tarasco says his time in Rome helps him sort through the ideas from his team. “My job is to let them create dishes for menu and funnel it through my eyes and my vision of Rome,” he says. “Marta isn’t 100 percent Roman, but [the question is]: How do we create dishes that feel like Rome even if they’re not straight off a menu of a trattoria?”

For Tarasco, like the team at Bonci, the adjustments are often around offal. “Romans revere offcuts and offal. The same cannot be said for Americans.” So he’s taken pork cheeks and tucked them into a sandwich with a cherry tomato salad, arugula, and grana padano. It “softens the blow,” he says. It’s not just tweaks around the menu that he’s made. At Caffe Marchio, the team added a few stools for guests who, unlike the Romans, prefer to sit and linger while they drink their coffee. These slight changes have helped Roman cooking find a home overseas.

Parla likens this approach to what Alon Shaya did with Israeli cuisine at Shaya in New Orleans and what Michael Solomonov does with it at Zahav in Philadelphia: these chefs “can go to a place and witness a food identity,” then bring it back to the States and change it slightly for diners, she says. As she sees it, much of Roman food in America in 2017 is about “celebrating a distinct culture, but adapting it so it works in its place.” And also, in Parla’s words, one crucial detail helps: Americans are “fucking finally” less afraid of carbs.

Devra Ferst is a food writer, editor, and cooking teacher based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Instagram @dferst.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan