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Like many Americans, I’ve been fed a steady diet of cautionary tales describing the pitfalls of the ancient Roman lifestyle. The excesses of those ancient times can be best understood when you consider the way the glitterati of Rome used to eat.

Regular evening meals were over-the-top occasions lasting until the wee hours of the morning. At the imperial table, diversions too salacious, bizarre and extreme to specify in this commentary, but distinguished in lurid detail in Fellini’s “Satyricon,” served as entertainment during the typical 10-hour food orgy.

A guest’s overindulgence during the feast resulted in the frequent use of the household “vomitorium,” a word whose meaning is easy enough to figure out without benefit of high-school Latin.

Nowadays, thankfully, Roman dining habits are considerably tamer.

The modern Roman repast

Antipasti, or appetizers, launch the typical meal and Roman menus generally feature dishes you might already be familiar with: wine-sautéed mussels, bruschetta and crostini, proscutto-wrapped melon, and simple shrimp cocktail.

A pleasant surprise on a recent trip to Rome was the calamari. Unlike the rubbery, deep-fried, Olive-Garden-cum-over-spiced Marina sauce found in most Italian restaurants in America, my calamari appetizer was tender, unbreaded, unfried, mildly seasoned and damn tasty!

After savoring a selection of antipasti, next up is the primo piatto (first course or primi), which is customarily some sort of pasta, risotto or soup. In order to enjoy a vast selection of Italian cuisine without a visit to the vomitorium, you might want to consider sharing this course with your dining companion or asking your waiter for a half-size order.

Cow and pig parts you previously thought inedible are included in many of the dishes offered for the secondo piatto (second course or secondi). Here’s your opportunity to try something exotic yet typical in Roman cuisine. However, if Italian-style menudo (for the uninitiated: a kind of tripe soup) is something you can stomach only on a New Year’s Day hangover, go for a selection from the seafood menu.

Contorini (side dishes) or insalata (salads) can be added to your meal, but you might want to save money and save room for the dessert.

While dolcé (desserts) are delicious and diverse in Rome, you might want to fight the temptation to indulge by promising yourself a gelato during your after-diner stroll. Instead, treat yourself to an espresso or digestivo (after-dinner drink). My favorite Italian digestivo is a flaming sambuca shot, not so much because I like the flavor of it, but rather the theatrical presentation.

Roman restaurants

“Ristorantes” are highfalutin places you should stay away from. Instead, head for a populated trattoria. (Note: Avoid places that feature a waiter hawking the establishment. If the food was that good, he’d be busy serving it). With a more laid-back atmosphere and lower prices, you’ll be able to sample a wider selection of the menu.

To “get local,” try to find an osteria or hostaria. These are much like a British pub, with a selection of tasty, inexpensive snacks and local wines. You’ll be entertained by the neighborhood regulars comprising much of the customer base.

A trip to Rome wouldn’t be a trip to Rome without experiencing genuine Italian pizza. There are two ways to “do” pizza: Pizza by the plate is sold at a pizzeria forno a legno, where sit-down service is offered. For a slice of pizza on the run, head for a pizzeria rustica.

Bon appetit!


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