“Al Dente: Madness, Beauty and the Food of Rome” by British writer David Winner is not your typical book about food in Rome. It’s both a perfect introduction to Rome as a reminder of how big an appetite we all have for Rome’s food, history, culture, art and religion. It is an enjoyable exploration (mostly in the early chapters) of the streets and food of Rome with David Winner as an entertaining guide, giving us handy tips on where to go.
Al Dente: Madness, Beauty and the Food of Rome takes us through the streets of ancient and modern Rome, where for millennia (almost) every aspect of life had, and still has, something to do with alimentation. “Romans think about and discuss the subject all the time”.
A fair warning though, anyone who buys Al Dente in the hope of enlightenment about Roman cuisine is in for a surprise. In his preface Winner writes: “It’s a book about Rome and food. Yet it is not exactly a book about Roman food. No book can cope to squeeze limitless Rome all in. The best one can do is to get a taste of the place.” And, that about sums it up? No!
The book reads as a series of linked observations on Roman food, hunger, history and culture. The book starts in a most atypical way with a chapter about Water, aqueducts and fountains followed by the food-and-sex scandal that sent Saint Jerome packing. We learn about Rome as metropolis and necropolis, about tasty vineyard snails, about the cinematic greats such as Fellini, Marco Ferreri director of “La Grande Bouffe, Ferreri ‘s epic film about the art of overindulgence on food and wine and Dario Argento, a post-war film maker of thrillers and supernatural horror films, about a professor of criminal law who is an authority on Roman water, about Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi with marble tabletops and vintage gelato-making machinery still producing the classic, artisan ice-cream once loved by Benito Mussolini, Vittorio Emanuele III and Adolf Hitler.
David Winner’s tour of Rome is personal, but always entertaining and often revelatory in the sense that his stories have an eye for detail and he loves to write about eccentric situations that often lead to adverse unintended consequences on the way people live or behave. In doing so Winner provides us with a new map to wander around and look at this remarkable city with fresh eyes.
The decade David Winner lived in Rome certainly helps in depicting his observations about Rome, but he is making it clear from the start that, although food plays a major role in Roman life, it is not food that is the subject of this book; it is the colourful city of Rome itself.