Tasting Rome | A Couple Cooks Podcast Episode 61

Want to be transported to the Eternal City without leaving your couch? We got Rome on the phone in this episode and chatted with Kristina Gill, author and photographer behind the cookbook Tasting Rome. Hear about her love affair with the city that’s kept her there for nearly 20 years, and what she’s learned about authentic Italian cuisine from cabbies to restaurateurs.

Show Notes

Kristina Gill

Instagram | Kristina on Design Sponge

Order her book: Tasting Rome

 

Rome Travel Guide | A Couple Cooks

Cacio e pepe | A Couple Cooks via Date Night In

Pizza dough | A Couple Cooks

Pizza with egg | A Couple Cooks

 

Preorder A Couple Cooks cookbook >> Pretty Simple Cooking

 

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Full Transcript

Sonja:
It’s A Couple Cooks, the podcast with Sonja and Alex Overhiser. We’re a couple on a mission, to find the tastiest, good for you eats you can make in your kitchen. Because the way we eat can make a meaningful difference.

Alex:
Join us as we chase after real good food, through stories, recipes and conversations about cooking at home and eating well.

Alex:
Welcome to the A Couple Cooks podcast, I am Alex.

Sonja:
And I’m Sonja.

Alex:
And we’re glad you’re here. Today on the show, we’re returning to that theme of travel, because it’s January, and it’s cold and it’s a bit miserable here in Indiana.

Sonja:
I need somewhere to go, even if it’s just in my mind.

Alex:
And what we’ve found for the two of us, is that traveling around the world has truly changed the way that we think about food, how we cook it, how we accept different ingredients in different times of the year, and even ways that we can eat healthy and still make food delicious.

Alex:
Sonja, what’s one of the craziest places you’ve traveled?

Sonja:
Craziest places? Would you say the most unexpected place?

Alex:
You can say whatever you like.

Sonja:
Well, you know what? This isn’t crazy, but this is a place that is very different from the US.

Alex:
Is this going to be Wisconsin?

Sonja:
Yes. No, actually, when I went to Japan, I went to Japan 10, a little over 10 years ago, right before we got married. And the food there, it’s as different as you could imagine from American food, and it was such an amazing experience, trying these new flavors and this different ways to conceive of eating. There’s all these colors and textures and ingredients that we would probably never touch here in the US, and eating that way really opened up my mind to this new way of putting together flavors and textures into a really creative and inspired eating experience.

Alex:
And that’s what travel does. It takes you out of your comfort zone, and if you embrace it, you’re going to get new experiences, and probably great experiences, no matter where you go.

Sonja:
You know what, I forgot to say. This is probably even crazier. I did eat a tarantula in Cambodia.

Alex:
That qualifies as crazy.

Sonja:
I amend my answer.

Alex:
I don’t know if that really has influenced our cuisine in too many ways.

Sonja:
Maybe not.

Alex:
I guess anything fried tastes good?

Sonja:
This is true.

Alex:
Well, today, if you listened to our last episode, you heard Sonja cry at the mention of her cookbook and her baby kind of coming together at the same time, and she might cry again today, because her third favorite topic is on the table.

Sonja:
Italy.

Alex:
We’re talking about Italy.

Sonja:
We brought in someone straight from Rome itself, Kristina Gill. She is a food writer and photographer at Living in Rome. She writes the food column for Design Sponge, and she is co-author and photographer of a book called Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes From an Ancient City. So, without further ado, here is Christina.

Sonja:
Kristina Gill, welcome to the A Couple Cooks podcast.

Kristina:
Hi. Thank you for having me.

Sonja:
So you’re coming to us straight from Rome. You’re an American living in Rome, and you’ve written a cookbook called Tasting Rome, that came out last year. So you are all things Rome. And what I’m wondering is, how did this all start?

Kristina:
So, I moved to Rome actually, October 6th, 1999, for work, and I’ve been here ever since. And over the course of the time that I’ve lived here, I, I think it’s inevitable, become very interested in the cuisine. Not just of Rome, but of Italy overall. And when I was in school, when I was studying both undergrad and graduate school, I studied Italian, everything Italian. I think in undergrad I did the Italian political system and a lot of literature and culture. And then in graduate school I did more economics and whatnot. So I was actually quite interested in Italy 360 degrees.

Kristina:
And the more I stayed here, and the more I had friends and visited friends’ families, and became curious to be in the kitchen with friends’ parents, basically their mothers, I started learning to cook things here and there. And when I started my current job, I used to have to take … Well, I still do, very long cab rides. Cab rides are about an hour each way to my meetings. And I, just on a, for some strange reason, decided that I would start to ask cab drivers what their favorite food was. See if it was Roman, which I suspected it would be, because Italians are very attached to their cities.

Kristina:
And I guess after, wow, 100? Over 100 of these little interviews, I had these little notebooks for every cab driver. Not for each individual cab driver. For every cab driver, every cab driver had a recipe, just about. I would say 95% of them. And I wrote down all these little recipes, and then after about two years, two and a half years, I was like oh, well, maybe I have material for a book. That is not ultimately what the book was, but that was the genesis of the idea that then became Tasting Rome.

Sonja:
I love that idea of a book being born of interviews with cab drivers. How fun.

Kristina:
Yeah. That’s the two things I found out, that … Well obviously, the cab drivers knew I was a foreigner. They will either talk about food or soccer, and so there wasn’t much latitude to discuss soccer, because I’m not a fan of one of the two Roman soccer teams. So talking about my soccer team risked me getting kicked out of the cab, so we stuck to food.

Sonja:
What kind of recipes would these cab drivers bring up with you?

Kristina:
A lot of them were the four hallmark Roman recipes. The carbonara, mipliccana, livccia, and cacio e pepe. Actually, I think of all of the recipes that I had, only one mentioned that cacio e pepe was his favorite recipe. And that there were several variations on carbonara, as you would know, there is no one recipe. Everyone has their own idea of whether it should be Parmesan cheese or Pecorino Romano, whether you should only use yolks, whether you should use whole eggs. So there were quite a few variations of that.

Kristina:
And then there were other simple things, but the large majority were Roman. Roman, Roman food.

Sonja:
So you have these notebooks that are full of the recipes from the cab drivers, and then how did that kind of turn into what the book is today?

Kristina:
So, I wrote up a proposal that was actually quite tightly based on the cab drivers, and right away it was finish, and I spoke to one agent who said if you want a book, this was a UK agent, you have to be a celebrity. Roman food doesn’t sell. And she said look, here’s my phone number. Call me.

Kristina:
And I called her, and she walked me through many of the elements of why this was not a good proposal. But in a kind way. She was very, very nice. And so I took it, and so immediately I just took cab driver out, and I just said okay, we’ll just make this about Rome.

Kristina:
And I think over time … That was, from that no, which was a Saturday morning, to when we actually signed the, we sold the proposal, was four years to the day, literally. Because I went back, after we had concluded the auction on the book, and I wanted to thank her for all the advice that she gave me, thank the original agent for all the advice that she gave me, and I noticed that the email was exactly four years before.

Kristina:
But in that four year time period, what happened in the evolution of cookbooks, which I think is also about the evolution of travel, is that people became much more interested in the local. And everything became hyper local, and people became quite curious about this city that they were traveling in, as opposed to the country overall on a macro view. And Italy is a great place to look at the various cuisines, Florentine cuisine versus Venetian cuisine, or Roman or from Padua. And I’m just naming some books that are out or are coming out recently, that are quite markedly different. And I think that that evolution, you know, when you start to have the air BNBs, where people are no longer staying in hotels, but staying people’s houses, because they want to be close to the people. That really helped sell the idea.

Kristina:
And I think that if it had been, you know, two months later, or two months earlier, the book wouldn’t have sold. It was really just being in the right place at the right time.

Sonja:
Wow, what a testament to your grit and your passion for the project, to have something go on for so long, the four years between starting a proposal and then actually selling the proposal. Is there a recipe or two that kind of sticks out to you as some of your favorite, or something that you would recommend, if someone’s picking up the book, what would be a good one to start with?

Kristina:
My favorite probably is the very first, and it’s the classic suppli, and I love that. That’s probably the one I make the most for friends and family, and everything else. I really love that one. And another one that I make, I can really only do it once a year, because it’s really heavy, but the oxtail stew, which was a recipe by Chris Bear, who’s at the American Academy in Rome now. His recipe for the oxtail stew is just, just a wonderful recipe.

Kristina:
And those are, for me, the two standouts from the book that I really like a lot. But there are a lot of recipes in the book, obviously, that I like, but if I had to say one, it would have to be the suppli. And don’t be afraid to fry. Fryers … Deep fry. Fryers are cheap. Just buy a fryer. You get a Fry Daddy or Fry Baby for really cheap, and it’s worth it to have the temperatures right and just go with it.

Sonja:
If I’m an American picking up the book, did you intend for the recipes to be kind of special occasion type recipes, you mentioned frying. Or are there recipes in the book that are more everyday, for everyday meals?

Kristina:
I think, and that’s a good question, and I think my favorite chapter in the book is the Jewish, Roman/Jewish cuisine. And that is so different than regular Roman cuisine, which is … It’s a lot of pork base, and I think that the Jewish chapter comes closest to everyday cuisine. That, and the vegetable chapter, where you have oven baked tomatoes with rice in them, you know, kind of discounting salads, because of just lettuce and condiments. But really, the Jewish cuisine chapter is something where you can make recipes very quickly, and have something on the table in under an hour, with very minimal skills and minimal effort.

Sonja:
Right. I imagine someone living in Rome, and I wonder, are they always making suppli and oxtail soup? How do you eat when you’re living over in Rome?

Kristina:
And this is interesting, because someone just asked me this question the other day because of the discussion on MPR about carbohydrates and proteins and how your diet should be composed. So generally here, Italians don’t eat the way that they used to. They’re not having egg, fresh egg pasta every day. That’s a special occasion. And they’re having, at best, pasta once a day. So they’ll have maybe pasta at lunch, and then in the evening they’ll have protein and vegetable.

Kristina:
And no, they’re not eating suppli every day. They might get a snack. You might go get a snack, but probably not every day. I’m not too tuned in to French cuisine, but they’re probably as careful about what they eat as the French are. You have this reputation of, you know, great butter and cheese and all these fatty foods, and then you come and say “How can everybody be so thin?”

Kristina:
But it’s because they’re not the ones that are eating all that stuff all the time, we are. But they’re, you know, maybe have a nibble, and that’s it.

Sonja:
So I want to go back a little bit and talk about when you first kind of fell in love with Rome. You mentioned studying it in school. Did you travel there beforehand, and did you have kind of a moment when you arrived and you said “Yes. I love this place.”

Kristina:
Oh, my goodness, so wow, when did I fall in love with Rome? The first time I visited Rome … I don’t want to date myself.

Sonja:
You don’t have to share dates.

Kristina:
It was around … I’m trying to think what music was on the radio. Probably 1982 or so, 1983. Via Delia Conciliazione, the street that goes up to the Vatican, was open to traffic. You could drive your car actually into St. Peter’s Square. We did a family vacation and we drove through Germany, Paris, down, all the way down to Rome. We did the Adriatic Coast and everything. And that was the first experience.

Kristina:
And then I came back 10 years later, and I came in the summertime. Best time to come to Rome, because there’s nobody here. You can see the City, it’s quiet. And I … That’s when I fell in love. And there’s a statue at the top of the Gianicolo Hill that is the statue of Garibaldi when he was uniting Italy. And he was coming from the south, and he said, basically “Give me Rome or give me death.” O Roma o morte. And I think one of the O’s has fallen off of it, so it just says Roma o morte on the statue. And so that was my email address, and I fell in love with it from that time. So how many years ago is that? Quite a few.

Kristina:
It was, you know, it’s the history, it’s the layers of history, it’s the influence and the, that it had globally, the Roman Empire. It is being able to go out and walk, and even if you lived 1,000 years, you would notice something new every single day about the City. Even if you walk on the same street. I was coming to work today, and I noticed … I’ve been doing the same road every day for I don’t know how long. Eight years? Nine years? 10 years? And I just noticed that there’s a gate that two horse heads on it. Never noticed it before in eight years.

Kristina:
And it’s those kind of things that just … You know, they can be really amazing when you try to forget about all the chaos and disorder and other things going around. It’s just phenomenal. The colors … And Rome hasn’t really changed much, like other cities modernize. Turin kind of modernized when it hosted the Olympics, the Winter Olympics in 2006. Florence is very responsive to city needs, and Rome is still kind of like stuck in the 16th Century, where there’s not a lot of change. A bit for zoning reasons, but a bit because why do you want to change that landscape?

Sonja:
And then, of course, there’s the food.

Kristina:
Yes. The food, also, although I’m wondering, if I did a classification of my favorite food, Rome probably wouldn’t be in the top one or two. I’m really like super-duper in love with Sicilian food and Tuscan food. I think those are probably my two favorites. And then, yeah, then get to classic Roman dishes.

Sonja:
What’s different in the food in Sicily and Tuscany versus Rome?

Kristina:
Well, it depends on where in Tuscany. So you’ve got the coastal part of Tuscany, Livorno, and the lower Tuscan coast where Lazio, the region that Rome is in meets it, where you have seafood. Then when you go inland you have more meat, heartier bread-based foods. And Sicily obviously, being an island, has got some of the best seafood, some of the best fish. They have lots of nuts there, so you would have pine nuts, pistachios, citrus in the food, and good wines. They have very good wines. Tuscany has very good wines. And then, yeah. Those are … I mean, I could go on and on and on about the differences. But those are big differences, is having the coast and having a defined cuisine from the coast.

Sonja:
That’s something Alex and I found as well. We honeymooned in Rome, and the Amalfi coast, and we did find that the food on the coast was a little bit lighter, more seafood, and like you’re mentioning, more citrus. And the food in Rome was a lot heavier, we found, so there’s a great and beautiful variety of food in all of Italy. But our hearts really lie in the City of Rome. As you mentioned with the history and the Forum being an example of the beautiful layering this age-old history that just drew us in.

Sonja:
Well, I want to close with a question. What can we learn as Americans, kind of looking at your book and learning about Italian history and cuisine, how can that inform the way that we eat?

Kristina:
I think that the best thing, it doesn’t necessarily come through as strongly in the Roman cuisine or the Roman book as we presented it, but it is really eating with the season and eating with your environment. Appreciate what’s in season today. If it’s artichokes, eat artichokes until they come out of your ears. But when they’re not in season, accept that they’re not in season, and move on to your next favorite produce or the next season. And I think that that way, at least for me, keeps eating always very exciting, because each month of the year, I remind myself “Oh, it’s porcini season, and I know I’ve got this short window, and I have to have porcini six ways to Sunday, because then the window’s going to close.”

Kristina:
And when I look at the United States, I’m from the South, so a lot of the South is like Italian cuisine in the sense that you’re eating off the fat of the land. People should just really look to eat from their environment. So if, in your environment, historically there’s a salt mine or a certain type of salt, whether it’s a pink salt or a blue salt, use that in your cuisine.

Kristina:
I took … There’s a lady here who has a wine school. Her name is Handa Lymer, and she, one of the things that she teaches us is if it grows together, it goes together, when she talks about wine and wine pairing and tasting. And I think that that’s really the thing to take away from a book about Roman cuisine, or even regional Italian cuisine.

Sonja:
Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I can’t wait to take a look at your book, Tasting Rome, and we will provide all of the information about that book in our show. Now, Kristina, again, it’s been a pleasure.

Kristina:
Thank you so much.

Alex:
It’s still January, so it’s not too late to keep adding to our New Year’s resolution list.

Sonja:
Go to Rome?

Alex:
Go to Rome.

Sonja:
Number one.

Alex:
Or maybe just try to travel and get some new experiences, figure out what foods are out there in the world, that you haven’t tried yet.

Sonja:
Right. And you can do this. You don’t have to fly halfway across the world, though that would be fun. You can do this in your own city. So even just a week ago, we tried out a new sushi place that’s a couple blocks away, and it was so delightful to be kind of transported back to Japan, like I was talking about up front in this episode.

Alex:
So we are going to turn you into our correspondents this year. We are challenging you formally to go out, have a new food experience, and report back to us what you discovered.

Sonja:
So that could be going to one of the countries on your bucket list, or it could be driving across town to an authentic restaurant.

Alex:
Or maybe taking a weekend trip to that state next door that you never even tried. And, we have a lot of travel on board for us this year. Where all are we going?

Sonja:
We do. We are doing a book tour, actually. This is the first place that we’ve broken this news. We are traveling to several cities across the US. We’re very, very excited to come meet you, wherever you are. So, right now we are still planning all of our stops, but we know we will be in New York City, we’ll be in San Francisco, we’ll be in LA, hoping we’ll be in Seattle, and we have a few others.

Alex:
Minneapolis.

Sonja:
Denver, Minneapolis, and we would love to come to your city, too. So, if you would like us to come, shoot us an email, [email protected], or send us a direct message on Instagram.

Alex:
And we’re throwing a little bit of fun travel, as well. I’m going to New Orleans, so if you know any restaurants there, let me know what I should be eating.

Sonja:
In about a week. So, let us know as soon as you can. I’m staying behind and hanging out with Larson.

Alex:
And you’re traveling to New York as well, for a few days on your own, so maybe people will have some recommendations for what food you should be trying. You haven’t been there in what, 20 years?

Sonja:
A long, long time.

Alex:
So this is the year of getting outside of our comfort zone, and trying some new food.

Sonja:
And, you may have heard us talking about a party that we invited you to, as part of the launch of our cookbook. It’s called the Pretty Simple Dinner Party. All it is is a virtual dinner party. People all around the United States and the world are hosting a dinner party the night of February 17th, making one recipe from our book, and inviting at least one person over for dinner. So it could be a family dinner with just your immediate family, it can be a big party with your friends. We have people doing all sorts of different things. I just heard from someone who might have a photo booth at their party. It’s going to be a Valentine’s Day dinner. There are all sorts of ideas, and we’d love to have you join us.

Alex:
There’s already 320-some people signed up?

Sonja:
330.

Alex:
330.

Sonja:
Today. 330 hosts, and we, actually breaking news, have all 50 states represented in our hosts.

Alex:
But that doesn’t mean we don’t want you, so join the multitudes and party on, February 17th.

Sonja:
To sign up for the Pretty Simple Dinner Party, shoot me an email, [email protected] That’s S-O-N-J-A @Acouplecooks.com. No of.

Alex:
[email protected]

Sonja:
Now, if you’re looking for some Italian-inspired recipes based on this podcast, there’s all sorts of recipes in Kristina’s book, Tasting Rome. I will place a link to that book in the show notes. I’m also going to add some links to some of our favorite recipes on our website, that were inspired by Italian travel. We’ve got some cacio e pepe, which is what Kristina was talking about, cheese and pepper pasta. So good, so simple. I’ll place a link to that there. And then our famous pizza dough recipe, and one of our favorite pizzas with an egg on top. It’s actually pretty simple to make.

Sonja:
Thanks for tuning in. We’ll talk to you next time.