Immersion into the ancient Roman world of food and wine – a Pompeii eatery brought back to life. | The world of food and cooking


Pompeii ruins

An interesting and quite unusual opening took place over the weekend (Sunday, 21 March, 2010) in the ruins of Pompeii, in the Italian province of Campania. An ancient eating establishment that was buried under a massive wave of scalding ash during the eruption of Pompeii in the year 79 AD, was brought back to live.

In an advance opening ceremony for 300 guests, the limited number of visitors was taken on a 45-minute guided tour of the Vetutius Placidus’ thermopolium (as the eatery will be called), which was previously closed to members of the public. The full opening will take place later this year. The eatery takes its name from electoral graffiti engraved on the outside of the shop, calling on passersby to vote for the candidate Vetutius Placidus, and on three amphorae found inside the premises.

Just couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about the world’s oldest restaurants but I am not going to go back and revise it. Vetutius Placidus’ thermopolium will not go on the list of the oldest eateries in the world because it hasn’t been in constant operation. The reason the café was out of business for almost 2 millennia, is the famous but catastrophic two-day eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79AD when Pompeii, which is near Naples, was destroyed and completely buried.

Today the ancient eatery is one of the best preserved sites in Pompeii. The thermopolium features a cellar, garden and dining area – or triclinium. Inside, as in many modern cafés and bars, visitors are greeted with a large, L-shaped, decorated counter where customers stood to enjoy a quick lunch. Cylindrical holes in the bar contained glass dolia, or jars, displaying food.

Visitors will soon be able get an idea of a typical ancient Roman lunch establishment. Tourist will also enjoy a taste of Romans, including the Mediterranean lunch or the famous snack of ricotta cheese and sticky honey, enjoyed by all the sections of Pompeii society before the city was destroyed.

So we understand that ricotta cheese has been around for over two centuries, but what else did Romans eat? I did a little research and found what Dr Annamaria Ciarallo says about the subject.  The author of “Gardens of Pompeii” book and researcher at Pompeii ruins for two decades, says: “The food then was mainly based on cereals, vegetables, cheese and fish, with just a little meat, few times a year. It was very healthy and this is the original Mediterranean diet.”

Dr Ciarallo also said many of the customers would have grabbed snacks and light meals as takeaways. “There wasn’t a lot of ceremony. Often people, especially the busy ones, would have eaten outside,” she adds. Sounds familiar?

Two of these snacks, mostaccioli and globe, will be offered for the visitors, once the eatery is opened to the public.

Another curious fact is archaeologists found a jar full of coins, amounting to about two days of café’s revenues. They believe the owner may have left them as he fled the fated city.

If it wasn’t for the eruption of the volcano, which first killed and later preserved the city of Pompeii, we wouldn’t have this piece of history today.


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