One of the things that I love about life in New York City is the crazy convergence of diverse cultures taking place in nearly every neighborhood, a dizzying array of food choices offered at the corner market as well as the corner restaurant. I've learned never to under-appreciate the blessing of choosing between Dominican, Greek, or Japanese in a span of ten blocks.
Rome doesn't have the same level of multi-culti vibe going on in its modern food scene; it is something you have to seek out with a bit of effort. Finding truly exciting, authentic, well-prepared ethnic food can be a challenge.
Rome is a diverse city demographically, with an ever-expanding immigrant population, but the availability of ethnic food sources hasn't quite caught up with those numbers. This is mostly because Rome has such solid food traditions of its own that have withstood the test of time and invasion, and because the local products and cuisine are just so damned good there is little reason to want for more.
Discovering Rome's multicultural essence just got a little easier with the launch of Roma Multietnica, a website and corresponding printed guide sponsored jointly by the Commune of Rome and the city's library system to celebrate and encourage Rome's ethnic diversity. I spotted my copy while browsing at the 'Gusto Emporio and couldn't resist picking it up. In addition to listings of art galleries, merchants, bookstores, cinemas, cultural associations, music, and houses of worship for more than 20 nationalities, there's a terrific section on ethnic restaurants and markets, available in English on the website.
Cooking ethnic in a Roman apartment kitchen is entirely doable. If you have deep pockets, you can always head to Castroni, the specialty food shop in Prati that stocks super-expensive bottles of Vietnamese fish sauce, jars of Marmite, and tins of Hungarian paprika. But a bus ride to the Mercato Esquilino, not far from the Termini Station, is much easier on the wallet and a lot more fun.
What I love most about shopping at this sprawling, covered market is that I can experience traditional Rome together with new Rome in one shot. Stalls operated by generations of Roman butchers, fishmongers and produce vendors stand alongside merchants from Morocco, North Africa, India, Pakistan, China and Korea selling fresh fruits, vegetables, and just about every ethnic grocery item you can think of.
Dates from Africa are to the left of the litchi, not far from piles of bok choy, next to sacks of dal, just over from buckets of Sicilian olives, next to broccoli romanesco, across from fresh pork from Abruzzo. These are some of the tastes of today's Rome that echo the ancient city, where the markets overflowed with the vibrant colors, flavors, and aromas from the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire.
Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. She is currently in Rome researching for her next book and further exploring her passions for Italian food.
Address: Via Giovanni Giolitti, just south of the Termini Station