Of the 14 regions in the city of Rome, my favorite area to wander around with Rebekah is Trastevere, arm in arm, taking our time… strolling within its maze of narrow winding cobblestone streets. We like to get lost there. First we go to the Coliseum, stare in awe, and then we head for Trastevere to eat.
Since the most ancient times of Rome, this has always been the outsider neighborhood, and in fact, it is named “beyond the Tiber.” It was sometimes called the Jewish quarter, and at other times just the Old City, and some of the buildings remain pretty much unchanged since the Middle Ages.
Trastevere was outside the protected walls when the enemies of Rome threatened to overwhelm the city, and therefore its population had the highest percentage of newcomers and starving artists, the “outsiders” of the time. Because it was inhabited by a crazy mix of immigrants, many from North Africa and the Middle East, it gives this region the same soulful quality that we always feel wandering the Latin Quarter of Paris.
This is one of the best places to visit for the lovers of Rome, those who have traveled here from worlds away. It’s here that I find the simplest and most authentic of all restaurant meals in The Eternal City. And it’s insanely romantic.
There is a modest restaurant in Trastevere called Augusto, with only a handful of tables, anchoring one corner of a little obscure and lovely square, and they make some of the best meals I’ve ever had in Rome. Their pasta had a light but intense roasted red bell pepper sauce, sitting on some big tubes of penne. Filled mostly with locals, Augusto was both casual and welcoming. I half expected the ladies I could see bustling around in back to ask me to help with the dishes after we finished our languid lunch, and the Rosé wine. I wish they had… working in such a kitchen, in the mythical neighborhood of Trastevere, I would have been in heaven.
All wanderers want to feel that they have seen the soul of Rome, and have become a part of its majestic living history. This feast of savory Roman Chicken always brings us closer, in some deep umami way, to being a culinary citizen of The Eternal City.
8 chicken thighs, or 4 pounds rabbit, bone in, skin on (free range, air chilled is best)
4 of the largest red bell peppers you can find while urban foraging, or 8 small
1 cup dry Marsala wine or dry white wine (we sometimes use Chardonnay)
1 28 oz. can of Italian plum tomatoes (we use brands that import their plum tomatoes from the San Marzano region of Italy) or 2 pounds fresh plum tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup Castelvetuano olives, pitted and cut in half (completely optional… we sometimes add these olives for fun, their neon green color is beautiful, but they are a break from tradition)
1/3 pound smoked bacon or pancetta
3 to 4 cloves garlic, depending on size, crushed
1 tablespoon of fresh oregano, minced (or 1 teaspoon of dried)
1 tablespoon of fresh rosemary, minced
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon Anchovy paste
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste, at least 1 teaspoon
Oven roast, or broil, the two biggest peppers until charred all over and allow to cool. Shake the two roasted peppers in a paper bag to remove the skins, and then chop into 1 inch strips. (You can also use a 10 oz jar of roasted Piquillo peppers, which can be purchased in most fine stores. One common brand is Italbrand. It gives this meal a slight Basque flavor, which is always wonderful.)
Chop the other two large red bell peppers into strips of about inch wide. Also cut the bacon or pancetta into one inch strips. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs on both sides.
In a 12 to 14 inch frying pan, preferably cast iron, fry the bacon gently until crispy, chop and set aside. Add the chicken thighs, skin down. Turn up the heat to medium high and fry the thighs in the bacon drippings until the skin is toasty, about 6 minutes. Turn the thighs and brown the other side.
Add to the chicken the two chopped red peppers that weren’t roasted, along with the garlic and Anchovy paste. On medium heat, fry them together for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often.
Now add the Marsala or white wine and allow to simmer while scraping all of the burned bits off the bottom of the pan, where the intense flavors are.
Add the canned tomatoes, crushing them by hand, and simmer together on low to medium heat, with the pan covered, for 8 to 10 minutes. (If you are using fresh tomatoes that are juicy, it’s best not to cover the pan and allow the moisture to escape and the tomatoes to thicken.)
Add back the pancetta or bacon and simmer with the lid ajar for 30 to 40 minutes, on low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes and the peppers have formed a deep patina puddle of molten lava, and the chicken is nearly falling off the bone.
Now add the parsley, oregano and rosemary, as well as the already roasted bright red sexy pepper strips.
Simmer for at least 5 minutes, with the chicken smothered, and then remove from the heat and cover, allowing time for the flavors to marry.
After you have prepared a side pasta or salad, or maybe some roasted potatoes with duck fat and fresh thyme, the chicken and roasted peppers meal should be perfumed and sultry.
Serve with crusty bread or with the pasta on the side, and a big red wine to stand up to the deep rich sauce. Your family and friends will mumble thanks to you in the midst of their deliciously satisfying food coma.
Our hearts belong to the Eternal City of Rome.