I have been to two Roman street food fairs in as many months and here’s the thing: Italians don’t really get it. In the US, street food, as provided by food trucks, hies back to ye olde cowboy days. Chuck Goodnight, a Texas rancher and yes, that is his real name, introduced the chuckwagon in the 1860s. He fitted out an old army surplus wagon and went on cattle drives, where he served things like beans, salted meats and coffee. ‘Chuck,’ we learn from Wikipedia, is a slang term for food and not the nickname for the wagon’s inventor. There are still some places out west that feature chuckwagon cookoffs and some rodeos have chuck wagon races and blah blah who cares.
Most big US cities — at least the ones I know well — have long had hot dog trucks (otherwise known as ‘roach coaches’) parked on major thoroughfares or near construction sites where busy office workers or labourers can pick up wieners that have been sitting in a scary witches brew for hours on end. The wieners are — of course — delicious but inevitably and almost immediately to be regretted. My meditation on hot dog carts, btw, spun me off on an Ignatius J. Reilly tangent and recalled a favorite quote from A Confederacy of Dunces: I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.
In the past decade or so, food trucks have become gourmet-minded. Apparently this was prompted as much by a slow economy as by the rise of hipster foodies. Fewer construction projects and the closure of high-end restaurants meant unemployed food trucks and out of work chefs. Two plus two equals fancy food to go. The new generation of food trucks features everything from gourmet burgers to Japanese noodles to cupcakes to lobster rolls. Lil Dan’s Food Truck in my hometown of Philly has this on its menu: an Oreo-crusted Chicken Sandwich, which is breaded with vanilla Oreo crumbs, then topped with lettuce, tomato and a spicy sauce. So yay, no need to dress up and sit at a table and be ignored by grumpy wanna be something else waiters in order to eat pretentious silly food. Remember the sitting at a table concept because I think one of the points of street food is that you don’t need to do that, a point we will come back to anon. Street trucks are Zagat-rated and trackable through Twitter and Facebook. More and more, they are growing controversial as restaurants complain about stolen business and local officials worry about health code violations.
Okay, as noted I have been to a couple of street food fairs in Rome of late. Neither of them took place on the street. The first — which I wrote about here — was held at Eataly, the city’s foremost food court. The second, known as ‘This is Food’, took place at the Officine Farneto, a sort of events location near the Stadio dei Marmi (formerly the Foro Mussolini, the stadium was used to train Il Duce’s Blackshirts and later was the scene for hockey matches in the 1960 Olympics. More on this interesting story another time). Essentially, both events gave space to local restaurants to show off some of their signature dishes, few of which could be considered street food, unless you consider a bowl of delicate gazpacho or rice salad to be boulevard-friendly. Fortunately, in both cases we were provided with some nice seating.
And by the way, it has been illegal to eat food on the streets of Rome — at least in areas that have a particular historic or architectural value, i.e. everywhere — for nearly two years. Fines can run up to Euros 500, although to be honest the law seems to have been pretty much forgotten as soon as it hit the books. Here’s what the Upstairs Vegetarian had to say about it at the time; this story features one of my favourite NYT quotes ever: “Stefano, look! There’s another eater.”
All this by way of saying that while the Romans have dutifully adopted the upscale street food craze, they neither sell upscale food on the street nor are they even allowed by law to eat there (In fairness, you can find a plethora of trucks along the river selling food items akin to Ignatius J’s Paradise hot dog carts of yore). I am sure that there are other Roman examples of this sort of magical thinking but in the meantime, here are some photos from the ‘This is Food’ event.