Al Dente: Madness, Beauty and the Food of Rome, by David Winner, Simon & Schuster, RRP£14.99, 304 pages
Rome is one of those cities in which things, if you wait for long enough, just happen to you. Some 25 years ago, I sat sipping a late night hot chocolate in a café in the via Veneto. An American film crew was celebrating the end of a day’s shooting at the table next to mine. One of the crew introduced himself as Frank Stallone, who was writing the music for the film, and who told me that I looked remarkably like his brother Sylvester, which I did, a little, back in the day.
We were joined by the actor Danny Aiello, who had just played Madonna’s father in the video for “Papa Don’t Preach”. He had a book full of anecdotes. We continued late into the night. Had I been a Hollywood gossip columnist, my income stream for the next 12 months would have been secured. I remember the evening as one of the most good-humoured, if ultimately uneventful, encounters of my life. How had the Roman night worked this magic, that left us all open, unguarded, inspired by nothing but the transient moment?
It has much to do with food, according to David Winner’s appealing new book. Food and madness. Food and madness and religion. And all those other things – art, climate, architecture, movies – that make the Italian capital among the most seductive places on earth. Winner unpicks the relationship between these forces with a wry humour, and a shrewd shuffling of authorial tones. The book is both anecdotal and historical, passionate and detached. It would act as a sophisticated travel guide, and a quirky recipe book. It also makes you want to zip straight to the nearest city-break website to test out that killer plate of black rice on the corner of via Merulana for yourself.
That the author has fallen heavily in love with Rome is never in doubt. That is both a strength and a weakness of Al Dente. As he enters yet another charming eatery with a fascinating history, we wonder if the living in this infuriating and difficult city can really be so easy. There is little mention, in his besotted wanderings, of crime, corruption, sexism or that lack of civic spirit that darkens so many dreamy Mediterranean vistas. Rome’s warm embrace can have that effect.
Never mind: at its best, this is episodic, postmodern travel writing at its sharpest. The opening chapter on the significance of Rome’s water is beautifully drawn, as is the account of the making of Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe, an unlikely art-house hit of the 1970s in which a group of friends plan to eat themselves to death. Winner loves his Italian movies, but perhaps overplays the significance of Ferreri and horror-master Dario Argento, whom he interviews. (By contrast, I was surprised by the lack of mention of Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect, a brilliantly inventive discourse on digestion and cultural decadence.) He is very good on Antonioni, Monica Vitti and the entrancing final seven minutes of L’Eclisse.
A section on the “fish marbles”, tracing the use of fallen white marble slabs from Augustus’s original Portico as fish stalls in the 12th century, is history made vivid, and there is a mouth-watering paean to Rome’s greatest tiramisu and its refreshingly unpretentious maker. There is madness, or mild eccentricity at least, in many of Winner’s meetings, but he finds it in abundance in the rites of the Roman Catholic church, on which he remains dispassionate but discernibly incredulous. The asceticism and self-abuse of figures such as Catherine of Siena are the flip-side of ancient Rome’s orgiastic appetites. Winner, it is fair to say, is on the side of the ice-creams.
Disappointingly, the book runs out of ideas just as it should be wowing us with a memorable dessert. There is a worthy account of the Jews in Rome that has scant relationship with food and belongs in another book, while a meeting with a “character” in the Caffè Greco is dull and anti-climactic. If he had wanted a downbeat ending, Winner might have described the young people who crowd around the city’s fast-food counters on a Saturday night, seemingly intent on trashing their own proud traditions. The eternal city is made of strong stuff; but hamburgers, it seems, really are for ever.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer