Rome's delis have had their salami

Two thousand years of culinary tradition are coming to an end in the Italian capital, as supermarket competition and rising costs are driving its famous neighbourhood delicatessens out of business. Peter Popham reports

The neighbourhood delicatessens of Rome, whose roots go back 2,000 years to the Roman Empire, are on their last legs. Until two decades ago, in the traditional pockets of Rome there was a droghiere on practically every corner, its windows crammed with prosciutto hams, its display cabinets full of wheels of parmigiano and tubs of ricotta and mozzarella cheese. There was pancetta and salami and Norcia sausages, trays of pickled baby artichokes and anchovies and grilled aubergines, with ceci e bacala, chickpeas and dried cod, on Fridays only.

They were called droghiere because droga means spice as well as drug and spices were their early standby, but they had evolved into all-round grocers, providing bitter black olives from Gaeta, cheap, decent table wine, locally baked bread, as well as milk, beer, soap powder and corn flakes.

Then the supermarkets arrived, and one by one they began to disappear. "Until 1980 or 1985, there were lots of us, more than 20 in this neighbourhood," said Sergio D'Amico, owner of one of the last survivors in his area. "There were no supermarkets here till 1980; after that they exploded. And many of us closed down. Now there's only a handful of us left."

And the annihilation of many of the rest cannot be far away. Recent research on retail trends shows that more than 7 per cent of the capital's remaining family-run food shops closed between 2005 and 2008. The present recession is likely to finish off yet more, as shoppers concentrate on the bottom line.

"There's no one single explanation," says Valter Giammaria, secretary general of Confesercenti Roma, a shopkeepers' association. "There are a number of factors, and there is the growing competition of shopping centres, of which there were 26 and soon there will be 40."

Mr D'Amico cites another crucial factor, and that is the running costs of the shops, particularly soaring rents. His story is typical of many. In his corner shop in the working-class neighbourhood of Garbatella, a couple of kilometres south of Rome's city walls, time, one feels, has stood still. The bold sign outside, stretching the length of the frontage, reads "Superalimeentai", "super foods", and is unchanged since the shop was opened by his father in 1953. "I started working with him when I left school at 16 and I have kept going ever since," he said.

Has he seen many changes in that time? "Not really, no. I've always enjoyed the work, perhaps because I've done it for so many years. And this is a family business so we don't have the sort of problems that a larger business might have. It's just a little shop. My father's dead so now there's my mother, Emma, who operates the till, Sylvia my wife, my uncle Alvaro and me."

Sergio was born near by, but like most of Rome's droghieri or small grocers his family's roots are in Umbria, the place his father left to migrate to the capital after the war. "They call us the Norcini, the famous Norcini who migrated to the city in search of work," he said. "We Norcini are famous all over the world for our skill at rearing and butchering pigs, making prosciutto, salami, sausages, all those sorts of things. They are our specialities."

Norcia is a small town in the far south-east of Umbria, the region due north of Rome which has become a popular alternative to Tuscany for British people hunting an affordable Italian pied-á-terre. A few centuries ago, it was the centre of the migratory trade in sheep, which were pastured in the Umbrian hills during the summer then brought down to winter in the countryside outside Rome and Florence.

But back in Roman times, the "Norcini" had already established what they were really good at. The Umbrian hills were full of oak woods and became a centre of pig-rearing. Two millennia ago, the people of the town were already known for their skill at butchering and carving the pigs which gorged on the local acorns. Sergio D'Amico plays down the difficulty of the core skill in the droghiere's trade, which is slicing the prosciutto hams by hand. "Slicing the prosciutto is something that comes with experience," he says. "You watch someone bigger than you doing it, you observe him closely and gradually you learn the trade. At first it's not easy slicing with such a narrow-bladed knife; some customers want the ham fine, others want it in thicker slices, but with the passing of years you get the hang of it. The knives are also very sharp, which is important. Once a week the sharpener comes by with his grindstone."

But the art which he practises with so little fuss has been handed down from father to son through the ages. So expert did the medieval Norcini become at carving the carcasses of pigs that at some point they were called on to apply their skills in a different sphere.

"In the Middle Ages, the word Norcia came to be used pejoratively for a lesser individual who could take the place of a surgeon," a website of Norcia droghieri reports. "The Norcini who were known in ancient Rome as experts at the art of castrating pigs and working with meat developed a manual ability which made them ideally suited for carrying out operations" for ailments including hernias, cataracts and tumours. Notoriously, they were also called on to castrate musical young children from poor families who were secretly sold to theatres, to be trained as castrati singers.

Sergio D'Amico expects to carry on wielding his knife for a few more years yet, but once he hangs it up for good, "Superalimentari" is likely to go the way of all the others. "The future is grey," he admits. "I'm 55 now and I'm waiting to collect my pension, then that's it. Buona notte."

Roman specialities

*Spaghetti alla carbonara: pasta with "guanciale" or "pig's cheek" bacon, pecorino cheese and egg.

*Fiori di zucca: fried courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta and anchovies.

*Coda alla Vaccinara: oxtail stewed in a rich and savoury tomato sauce.

*Pasta cacio e pepe: spaghetti dish with cacio cheese, pepper, olive oil.

Suggested Topics
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teachers and Support Staff

£50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

SharePoint Engineer - Bishop's Stortford

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organ...

Planning Manager (Training, Learning and Development) - London

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glob...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a Teaching Assistant...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering