Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Food Trail From Prati to Centro Storico

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No matter what country I visit, I’m always interested in seeing markets and food shops to compare prices and to see what wonderful products I’ve been missing. The Roman district of Prati is home to a very fine food store with a broad range of products and meal service. Castroni Caffe is well worth visiting. A few short blocks away is the covered market at Piazza di Unita with its grand steel and glass building and fine quality produce, its bakery and salumeria, as well as its meat, poultry and fish stalls. Both venues are well attended by locals as well as intrepid food enthusiasts from other neighborhoods and the world for that matter.

As you walk into the store you are greeted by bins of Italian, individually wrapped candies that are familiar to any American of Italian descent or anyone living in an Italian community here in the New World. After the importation of Italian cheese, pasta and olive oil I believe that these candies, whether they be hard fruit flavored and filled, chewy nougat, or fruit gels, these surely must be the next most widely imported food product from Italy. I personally cannot remember a holiday at my grandparents’ home that didn’t include them. Right next to them was the pastry counter filled with the standard butter cookies, cannoli and bigne, the Italian version of profiteroles.

Beyond the pastry case was the torrefazione or coffee bar where people were drinking shots of espresso and eating a pastry or  panini. Standing at the bar is customary as a social tradition in Italy, but obligatory at Castroni, as there were no tables at all. This establishment has an “head ‘em up, move ‘em out” approach to customer service and a quick turnover must mean higher profits because the staff were experts at thinning out the herd. I was in and out of the line within two minutes and it only took that long because the clerk forgot to charge me for one of the items and had to ring up my credit card a 2nd time.

Anything you might expect in a food shop was well represented although I did not photograph the entire shop. There were cheeses and cold cuts available as well a quite a few coffees and teas. They offered plenty of pasta as you can see by the photo. Most were artisan made and a number of them were flavored with spinach, saffron, tomato and squid ink; I may have seen a curry flavored pasta here, but failed to write it in my notes, so I’m not certain. The tea and herb collection was excellent and I thought the ceramic jars of herbs would make ideal presents for friends at home, however I selected small bottles of flavored olive oils, since some of the flavors were unique, like finocchio selvetica or wild fennel in English. The 2nd photo on the top depicts flavored risotti ready to take home and prepare without searching for ingredients; the one package held the complete recipe.

My Gourmet-O-Meter registers high numbers in direct proportion to the selection of salts offered by any particular shop. Castroni gets a superior score in this category. I counted 2 types of Portuguese fleur de sel, 2 smoked salts including one from Denmark, 2 pink salts including Murray River from Australia and another from the Himalayas, Hawaiian red salt and the latest in the field of gourmet salts from Japan. I think they even offered a black flaked salt, but it doesn’t appear in these photos.

The store was filled to the brim with wonderful condiments including many flavored olive oils packaged in bottles as well as tin cans; handy for a safer transport back home. Grains, legumes, pasta and Italian DOC rice varieties were well represented. There were herb blends, numerous varieties of balsamic vinegars in a variety of flavors with differing aging times, antipasti and chocolate in all forms.

The photo on the right shows the Calabrian answer to Viagra, a hot pepper paste. Next to the bottle of “Viagro” are two jars of antipasti. They are filled with incredibly small fish hatchlings. This was not the first time I have seen products like these, I first saw them in Spain, and one of these days I will gather enough courage to try them. The flavored oils were beautifully packaged. The one that intrigues me the most was the tomato flavored olive oil not pictured.

Castroni’s was big on convenience foods like these packages of sauces and puddings, but they also had some imports that were easy to recognize like Hunt’s tomato catsup and Tabasco sauce. The photo below shows a product we all grew up with; two actually.

“You say tomato, I say…” pomodoro! It always amuses me to see something familiar that is not quite the same as it was remembered. And isn’t that Ovaltine hiding in the corner? If I had spent more time, I suspect there would have been many more familiar items to find at Castroni Caffe, but finding the unfamiliar was my true mission.

The liqueurs and cordials were also well represented and I spent more than my fair share of time deliberating on which one to try. The creamy liqueurs are popular in Sicily and Limoncello is popular on the Amalfi coast. The fruit infusions looked appealing although the rue flavored one seemed a bit confusing as that herb is usually included in one type of traditional grappa. The green bottle on the left is filled with Axenthio or Absinthe, that I actually tried once; it completely numbed my tongue, so it was my first and last taste.

It was not an easy call, but, due to space constraints in my suitcase, and carryon constraints imposed by international aviation practices, it had to be a small bottle. I passed up the cantaloupe flavored Melone liqueur on the left of the photo and selected the pistachio flavored liqueur on the right. It was thicker than I could imagine and slightly sweet. It also packed a wallop, even in small amounts.


Next stop, the Mercato Rionale at Piazza Dell’ Unita which is also in the Prati neighborhood walking from Castroni towards the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Covered markets are generally very charming in Italy and almost always involve glass and steel. Mercato Dell’ Unita, as it is also known, was no exception with its high ceilings and flood of light. It seemed much more formal than the open air market in Campo Di Fiore, and more elegant than the covered market in Testaccio.

Via Ottaviano, 55
Rome, Italy

06 39 72 32 79

Mon-Sun 6:00am-10:30pm

Mercato Dell’ Unita seemed a bit more upscale even though prices seemed comparable to the other markets. The aisles were more spacious and selling seemed less frenetic, although I suspect it was busier earlier in the morning.


While most stalls were specializing in one thing or another, there seemed to be a good number of alimentari that stock an assortment of items such as cheeses, salumi, dried pasta, olive oils as well as flavored oils like the truffle oil, vinegars, olives, coffee, jars of anchovies and tuna (it is rare to find Italian tuna packed in anything but glass jars), dried beans and wine to name but a few.


Admittedly, the pastas are my favorite item to look at in the markets because the range of shapes, colors, and flavors are extremely broad. It is nice to see regional pastas such as the orchiette in the right foreground of the photo. The rainbow farfalle and lumache next the them were new to me. The Genovese green trofie just behind them were unusual to find. I’m not certain if they were spinach or basil flavored; basil makes more sense since trofie are the traditional Pesto Genovese pasta, but that could be gilding the lily. You can even see a chocolate pappardelle to the left in the 2nd row. Thus far, I have resisted dessert pasta.

The regional pasta above is from Altamura, a town in Puglia renowned for it’s bread; they even hold a yearly festival for “pane”. Some vendors were also offering fresh pasta that included gnocchi, ravioli, and tortellini. This is not uncommon, to see fresh pasta for sale in the markets, but for the first time I spotted Roman semolina gnocchi. On further thought, it was probably because this market is after all in Rome.


The poultry and meat vendors were plentiful which made the lack of a fish stall all the more noticeable. I now wonder if there may have been a notable fish monger somewhere nearby, or if stall holders come and go as they please. The veal looked especially appealing and my lack of a kitchen facility seemed all the more apparent. One day I hope to stay in Rome for a month, renting an apartment, so I can cook all the wonderful foods I only gaze at as a tourist.


There were several salumeria in the mercato with extensive assortments of cold cuts and cheese. Note the slab bacon in the photo on the top left. If a kitchen were in the equation, it would be easy to comment on whether or not it was smoked. The scamorza in the next photo is definitely smoked. If you are unfamiliar with this cheese it is semisoft and similar to a provola or provolone (a large provola). This lower photo shows a variety of cold cuts including turkey breast, coppa, a  hot salami, and Prosciutto San Daniele, purportedly the best of the prosciutti, with an even higher rating than Prosciutto di Parma.

With the variety of breads and rolls at the mercato, it was easy to imagine having a sandwich made for a quick lunch. Then I noticed the vendor doing just that, making a panini for one of his customers. You can really take the bite out of food costs for your vacation by having a lunch like this. Throw in a piece of fruit and you’re set.

Any of these fruits would make handsome additions to that lunch. The apricots were in perfect, non bruised or blemished condition. The melons smelled sweet and you would be hard pressed to find a sweeter, more fragrant cantaloupe than those grown in Italy. May is the month for “ciliegie” cherries in Italy and they were ripe and luscious as were the “pere” pears.

Peaches came in different shapes and colors and the vegetables you would expect to find were there in abundance. Nothing too unusual except for the preponderance of artichokes in purple rather than green and the agretti you see in the photo above. It’s a vegetable I see infrequently at home and it tastes a bit sour. The name translates roughly to “little sour one” and it can grow in saltwater marshes, although it has a certain salinity even when grown on normal ground. It’s also a bit “fleshy” like a succulent. Here are a few photos of vegetables without commentary so you can see what was available and notice the quality.


The vendors work hard each day to show their produce to its best advantage and as you can see by the photos, they provide customers with shelled peas, trimmed green beans, chopped vegetables for soups, and trimmed artichokes so beautiful they look like flowers. I could see someone using them in a floral display for their table.

At Piazza dell' Unità, 32 Via Cola Di Rienzo
00192 Rome, Italy
06 3211333

Subway: Ottaviano San Pietro

A 3 minute walk from Mercato Dell’ Unita brought me to Castel Sant’ Angelo, after which  I crossed the bridge into the centro storico and made my way to 14 Via Dei Bianchi Nuovi, to try the price fixed lunch at Alfredo E Ada. It was a fun experience and the food was very good and offered some items that would not be what you could find on every menu in town. The restaurant was intimate and had a sense of history due to its early 20th century look. Alfredo manned the restaurant for over 60 years while his wife Ada cooked. His widow Ada has retired and their son now operates the restaurant. You can expect a carafe of wine, a primi and a main course for 22 euro. There was more wine than I wished to drink, so I offered it to a British couple sitting nearby on my way out. For the complete review check the link to RestoReco on the top right of this page.

Alfredo e Ada
Via dei Banchi Nuovi, 14
(39) 06 688842

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