When in Rome, Eat Gnocchi on Thursday
By Crystal King
*photos by Katrina Jazayeri
The first meal I had in Rome was the worst I have had in nearly a decade of trips to the Eternal City. My husband and I were tired, forcing ourselves to stay up to stave off the worst of the anticipated jetlag. We found ourselves in Piazza Navona at an overly touristy cafe eating terrible pizza and drinking cheap wine. But despite that, I had never been happier. I was in Rome, the city I had only dreamt about visiting. I was sitting in the same spot where Augustus Caesar’s troops might have exercised, where Emperor Domitian’s stadium had once stood, where Michelangelo might have bought his vegetables. In that moment, it was the best worst-tasting piece of pizza I had ever had.
Later that evening, we had our first proper meal in Rome. We were still tired, but determined to eat a little better. After getting lost in the dimly orange-lit streets of the Jewish Ghetto, we finally stumbled upon Ristorante Vecchia Roma. I remember the waiter leading us through an endless, cavernous series of rooms with scenes of Roman life frescoed upon its walls. I had a creamy gorgonzola stringozzi pasta and my husband had one of Rome’s most traditional dishes, carbonara. We also discovered the delicious fiori zucca--fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta cheese. It’s an appetizer that remains one of my favorite, and thankfully due to hothouses, is one that can be enjoyed year round.
Over the next week we would learn that Rome’s restaurants had a lot of similarities--many of which, over a decade later, are starting to change as more tourists come to Italy and a new global influence has infiltrated many of Rome’s traditions. One of the big shifts I’ve noticed is that the weekly Roman menu no longer holds sway.
Some Americans might remember the weekly menus of their mothers and grandmothers, particularly if they were of Italian descent. Many of my friends growing up always ate spaghetti on a specific night of the week. Even today, my 95 year-old Italian landlady still cooks sausage and peppers every Sunday for her family.
During that first visit and the one that followed a year later, we quickly figured out the schedule of dishes. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday seemed to vary depending on the restaurant, but Wednesday was usually coda alla vaccinara, oxtail stew. Thursday was gnocchi, Friday was fish (generally baccala), and Saturday was trippa, tripe. Nearly every menu we saw across Rome had these same plates featured on the same days.
For my novel The Chef’s Secret, I dove deep into the Renaissance cookbook, L’Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi, penned by a famous Roman chef who worked for a number of cardinals and popes. My study of that cookbook gave me some insight into how the daily Roman dishes came about. In L’Opera (which simply means “the works of”), chapter three is dedicated to “Dishes Proper for Lean and Lenten Days,” and contains 286 recipes suitable to eat on those days when you wouldn’t eat meat. On lean days, Christians would do penance and would reflect upon the life of Jesus or the various Catholic saints. Different eras and regions chose different days as their lean day, and over time it generally became accepted that Friday was the day to abstain from meat. There were also a number of holidays that were lean, including Lent and some days of Advent.
Since Friday is a day of repentance and usually the meals eaten on that day were much lighter, digging into a hearty meal the day before was preferred. Gnocchi is simple, yet very filling, and it soon found its way to being the standard for dining on a Thursday before “fish Friday” commenced. On Friday, you’ll find most restaurants across the Italian peninsula will serve some form of fish, generally baccala, salted cod.
How tripe and oxtail figure into that weekly mix is a bit more unclear, but tripe on Saturday has been a long-standing tradition. Romans love trippa all romana, which is always made with honeycomb tripe, slowly stewed and then covered with a boatload of tomato sauce and topped with Roman mint (a variety closer to pennyroyal than the mint we know) and pecorino cheese. You don’t often see it on menus these days as offal has largely fallen out of favor, particularly by tourists.
One thing that has remained is the popular Roman proverb, “non c’e trippa per gatti,” which dates back the turn of the 19th century, when the Roman mayor declared they could no longer afford to feed the cats of Rome with tripe, which had been a major expenditure to help control the city’s rat population. From then on, the cats would have to fend for themselves and that’s when the expression was born. Today it means that there won’t be any chance of you achieving what you want, no matter how much you try. The cats like tripe, but no one is going to give it to them!
Tripe can still be found in Rome, but not necessarily as a staple on a Saturday menu. In recent years, the weekly menu seems to have largely fallen by the wayside. Gnocchi is found on most menus any day of the week, and in many trattoria it will still be called out as a special on Thursday, but for the most part, the weekly special meal is not as special as it used to be.
I appreciate that the Italians are starting to be more adventurous in their food choices. The types of meals we ate those first few trips felt repetitious because it seemed like all the restaurants generally served the same thing. And while many of the osteria and trattoria of Rome today are still delivering up the tried and true dishes of cacio e pepe, pasta alla gricia, saltimbocca, and bucatini all'amatriciana, they are starting to branch out and experiment. Diners today want to try a variety of dishes, not stay true to a traditional regimen.
Tastes change, and with them, tradition. There is a small part of me that feels sad at this shift from having the same things on the same day. A little familiarity is lost and a little of the past disappears. This is Rome. If there is anything that the Eternal City is, it’s ever-changing, even amidst the ruins, it is ever-evolving
CRYSTAL KING is the author of Feast of Sorrow, about the ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius and The Chef's Secret, forthcoming Feb 12,2019, about the Renaissance chef, Bartolomeo Scappi. A culinary enthusiast and marketing expert, her writing is fueled by a love of history and a passion for the food, language, and culture of Italy. She has taught classes in writing, creativity, and social media at several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University, as well as at GrubStreet, one of the leading creative writing centers in the US. She lives in Boston.