It’s Carnival time: have you tried Rome’s seasonal treats?
If you’re visiting Rome in February & you have a sweet tooth, you’ll have the rare chance to sample some of the city’s (and region’s) seasonal treats: unlike panettone, pandoro or pastiera, these are only available at this time of year, and are harder to find in supermarkets or grocery stores.
So, bakeries are the way to go if you want to try castagnole, frappe or bigné di San Giuseppe. But before delving into it, a little backstory is in order!
Carnevale in Italy: a celebration dating back to ancient Rome
As we’re sure you know, the word Carnevale (and the corresponding, English “Carnival”) comes from the Latin “carnem levare“, ie. “taking out the meat”.
It is a religious celebration preceding Lent & Easter, but it overlaps almost completely with the ancient Roman Saturnalia: both ceremonies included giving up meat and overly rich types of food for a period of time, with a last, sumptuous banquet (and parties, and parades) to put a full stop (or an exclamation point, perhaps) to the extravagance and the indulgent feasting.
“Martedì grasso“ (Mardi Gras) is the last day to indulge in sweets and more, so you’ll have a little bit of time still (this year’s Mardi Gras is scheduled for February 25th) to sample some of Rome’s traditional “dolci di carnevale” (“Carnival treats”).
Currently the catholic undertone to the whole Carnivale going-ons is almost completely lost, but people stuck by its desserts!
A note on local (Roman) Carnival treats
It probably bears repeating that in Italy, food is culture: even with such a mundane example as Carnival treats, you can actually see how each of the available pastry is really tied to a specific moment in the history of Italy. Or its former political geography.
Case in point: not all Carnival treats available in Rome can be found throughout Italy. This is a testament to the fact that the country was very much split into micro-nations for centuries, plus communication and trade were not always extensive, so certain products can, to this day, only be found in specific areas.
On the other hand, some of those really are ubiquitous. Roman frappe (not to be mistaken with frappé, with a stress on a last e: a milkshake!) are found in several regions in Italy. They might have a different name or slightly different ingredients, but they’re very recognizable nonetheless.
That’s because they’re the “descendants” of ancient Roman “frictilia“ (translatable as “little deep fried things”), which were served at the end of the Saturnalia. Rome’s influence really lasts to this day, even in this instance!
Frappe, castagnole or bigné? Pick your poison!
Let’s start this small overview on frappe (pronounced “frah-pay”), then: a simple strip of unsweetened, unsalted dough, rolled thin and deep fried, then sprinkled with sugar. As easy as can be! Best eaten hot off the pan. They are also called “chiacchiere”, or “cioffe”.
Vegan readers, be warned: some bakeries may be using lard or butter for part of their preparations, so ask before you taste them!
Castagnole (“cast-ah-knee-yo-leh”), too, are super simple – they’re just “morsels” of dough, again deep fried and sprinkled in sugar: while the outside is crunchy, the inside (when well executed) is super soft and not dry at all. You might find some castagnole being sold that have a filling: custard or ricotta cheese.
They are named after “castagne” (“chestnuts”), because brownish as they are, they do look like ones!
If you’re wondering why there seems to be a deep-frying theme about these Carnival treats, consider that in a society that was pre-electricity and pre-fridges, frying was the way to go to make sure food kept longer. Of course you can now also find oven-baked, lighter frappe, castagnole or bigné, but purists swear that the experience is not the same. You be the judge!
Finally, bigné (“bee-knee-eh”) served at this time of the year are slightly larger than regular ones. Of course they are named after the French “beignet”, and in fact they are Italy’s equivalent of New Orleans’ beignets (although the shape is different). Think of them as cream puffs, again deep fried, with custard or ricotta cheese in them.
They are usually sold for longer than just Carnival: in fact, they are called after St. Joseph (stress on the “di San Giuseppe” bit) as they are associated with the holy man, celebrated in Italy on March 19th.
Where to find Carnival treats in Rome
Family owned or, more generally speaking, traditional bakeries (“pasticceria”, in Italian) are working overtime to guarantee Romans (and visitors) their daily fix of Carnival treats. Among them Regoli and Panella, close to our managed accommodation on Via Mecenate, should help you with your cravings.
If you don’t mind a quick trip outside the city center, Romoli (we talked about it here) is heaven for Carnival lovers. Pasticceria Andreotti, on Via Ostiense, a few minutes from Annia Faustina, is another must-visit. Try also Monteforte, by Via dei Cartari and walking distance from a number of our rentals in the city center: although it’s not a guarantee, they might have just what you’re craving!
But bakeries are really too many to mention: use Google Maps to locate the ones closer to your location. You’ll thank us later!