Browsing through a menu in a Roman Trattoria, you will be surprised by the contrasting choices available. In traditional Roman cooking, you can find delicate gnocchi or scaloppini and robust dishes of pasta carbonara, lamb, or oxtail side by side. To explain the many aspect of Roman cuisine, we have to look back in history.
We should first point out that trying to date contemporary dishes back to Roman times is merely an exercise because there was no continuity between then and now.
The fall of the Roman Empire happened gradually between the third and fifth century AD. The destruction of the Ostrogoth kingdom by the Huns in Eastern Europe generated a chain reaction. The people settled at the eastern boundaries of the Roman Empire saw their only way of escape as westward in the direction of the Roman territories. Rome, in the midst of economic crisis, civil wars, and headed by weak and inept emperors, was unable to stop the invasions, and before long would succumb to the barbarians. Raided by bands of marauders, the Roman Empire no longer existed.
Aqueducts broken, monuments in ruin, Rome was burned and pillaged, and the population, once in the hundreds of thousands, fell to 60,000 terrorized, starving survivors. Horrible reports tell of life in the centuries after the fall of Rome. Famine, plague, and bloody wars raged over the cities and countryside. The barbarian invasions destroyed communities and cultivated areas, completely annihilating the eating habits of the times. Medieval people had to start again from scratch, feeding on game, wild grains, and roots—and in some cases anything that was edible— to avoid starvation. The great Roman cooking traditions were completely lost.
The barbarians who settled in Italy brought with them new eating habits. Their diet was mainly based on meat, pork fats, and beer, in contrast to the grain, olive oil, and wine diet of the Mediterranean population. This contrast is still apparent today between the northern and southern regions of Italy.
In the seventh century, Charlemagne donated vast territories for the Pope to rule. Rome became the capital of the temporal “State of the Church,” which lasted in various forms until 1870. In the centuries that followed Rome’s fall, the city’s fortune was erratic until the modern city started to take shape under Pope Giulio II and his successors.
They initiated great urban and architectural works, attracting the best artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque period, such as Michelangelo, Raffaello, Bramante, Bernini, Borromini, and Canova. Agriculture was reestablished and the countryside around Rome began producing the same sheep, goats, cheeses, and vegetables as it had during Roman times. In the city, large open areas were transformed into gardens planted with vegetables that helped feed the city dwellers. These gardens lasted until Rome became the capital of Italy.