41.9028° N, 12.4964° E
‘Rome grabs you and never lets go of you.’
Gems in this
Travel is a core part of inspiring food writer and photographer Saghar Setareh’s identity. She grew up under Iran’s Islamic regime between the capital, Tehran, and Mashhad, before moving to Rome in 2007 to pursue studies in art and design — a decision that changed her life.
Now one of Europe's up-and-coming voices in food, Saghar works with leading editorial and commercial clients; runs cooking workshops across Italy; and has previously contributed to Italy’s national newspaper, Corriere della Sera. Her debut cookbook, Pomegranates & Artichokes, aims to show our innate similarities as humans by tracking recipes on her journey from Iran to Italy. We couldn't wait to discover Saghar's Travel Playbook of recommendations to experience when in Rome.
On your earliest memories growing up in Iran
When I was born, we were not only in full Islamic regime, but we were in the middle of a war with Iraq which went from '80 to '88. It was very traumatic because I was literally born under bombs. My earliest memories are of the sirens that went off in Tehran that announced the bombings, and we used to put big chunks of tape on the windows so that if they broke, they wouldn't break into our homes. We would go away for short periods of time when the bombings were very intense, to other cities. I remember very well that they had bombed maybe a few blocks away from our house, and I remember that the curtain of my room had been ripped apart by glass.
On growing up under a strict regime
From a very early age, the first thing we learned is that your life at home is a very different life from your life outdoors. So indoors, everything is normal — you have parties, your family comes, you put on music. And then we would go to school, and we would have to wear the veil and everything. And your parents would tell you, ‘You shouldn't say to anyone that we were dancing at home yesterday’ or ‘You should never, ever say that daddy had a drink, because all of that is illegal, OK?’. You don't know who to trust, and then eventually you learn that almost all of the kids going to your school are living in a similar situation.
On your creative education
At the university where I studied art and architecture in Tehran, we had a very rigid education about composition and light. I struggled a lot in university in Iran to understand things and find my own visual language. Art especially wasn’t my thing, but my mathematical brain understood composition very well. Then, in Rome, I studied graphic design and design general. And eventually, I moved towards photography and food because I became really passionate about it.
‘For those of us coming from countries like Iran… the experience of arriving in Italy is very different from Under the Tuscan Sun — but when I arrived here, I really fell in love with it.’
On choosing Rome
I didn't know anything about Rome. I chose Rome mainly because it was the Italian capital and in my silly, 20-year-old head, the capital is the place to go. This is what I thought. But when I arrived here, despite the difficulties that it has, I really fell in love with it. For those of us coming from countries like Iran, as students, the experience of arriving in Italy is very, very different from that sort of Under the Tuscan Sun experience. We live in a different dimension: when we arrive here, our goal is survival and we don’t have any funds or anything. And we still need to find a job, and we need to do all of these things in Italian. I went through hell because I was really scared of not being able to make it and having to go back to Iran. Even to this day, whenever I go somewhere and I come back here, I’m happy to come back to Rome. It grabs you and never lets go of you.
On what you love about Rome
Rome is a ridiculously beautiful city. I think that’s very important to me. There are certain aesthetic things — like the trees, Roman pines that are like umbrellas, against the backdrop of the ochre and orange buildings. And the blue sky of Rome is something special. It struck me very, very hard in the beginning. And it still does. And then of course it’s historical; it’s charming; it’s got all of those classic grand things that are very beautiful. They give me joy, as frivolous as it may sound.
‘Palazzo Massimo and Palazzo Altemps are some of the most beautiful things that you can see — not just in Rome, but in Italy; possibly in the world.’
On some of Rome’s lesser-known cultural gems
I live somewhere between the Colosseum and a neighborhood called Esquilino. And over the years it was not known as a very nice place, but now it’s becoming very nice and lovely — I think there’s been a bit of gentrification. It has a very, very long street called Via Merulana that leads to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore; one of Rome’s biggest treasures. They have extraordinary medieval mosaics there — absolutely stunning. I love that church a lot. And then, in terms of museums, Palazzo Massimo and Palazzo Altemps are some of the most beautiful things that you can see — not just in Rome, but in Italy, possibly in the world. Often my suggestion to people who can’t get Vatican tickets or who don’t want to queue for three-and-a-half hours under the burning sun, is to get a combo ticket. It lasts for two days and you can see all of them, including the Vatican. It’s mind-blowing, absolutely mind-blowing.
On your favorite food in Rome
In the side streets of the Via Merulana, there are a couple of nice places. One of them is a new bakery — Forno Conti. They have bread of course, but also croissants and cakes, and it’s become very popular. There’s a little community around it. It’s very different from the classic Roman bakery. Then there’s a little wine bar that’s quite famous now in Trastevere called Enoteca l’Antidoto, and they have very nice natural wines and littles dishes. There’s another trattoria called Trattoria Pennestri. The food is Roman but with an elegant little twist. You need to book but it’s not impossible to get in.
On the best multicultural market in Rome
I do a lot of shopping at Esquilino Market. To be honest, the quality of fruit and veg is not always, like, a farmers market, but it’s possibly the most multicultural market in Rome. And you can find a lot of ingredients that you can’t find anywhere else. The African community shops there; the Chinese community shops there; the Bangladeshi and Indian community shops there. So it’s very interesting.
On finding your creative niche with food photography
After university I discovered food blogs. Some of them were people who were very much like me — they had a background in the arts and now they were working with food. Some of them were doing astonishing photography, and that was the moment that it clicked. And I thought, ‘I can do this’ — not so much because I knew how to do photography, because I didn’t, but because I knew composition and I knew light. So I started practicing. It took me some time but it was also very nice, because for the first time I had found my visual language — the thing that I had struggled so much to find. It was very liberating.
On branching into writing
The more I worked with food, the more I was intrigued with its cultural and political aspects and what it represents. So I started blogging about it and writing about it. And this is how I came to write my first cookbook, Pomegranates & Artichokes, which is exactly about those things. It's also autobiographical, and this is what I do: I love to look at cultures, habits and situations through the lens of food, literally and figuratively.
‘Why is it that people from my side of the world are treated so differently when our food is so similar?’
On your debut cookbook being inspired by taking a flight
Pomegranates & Artichokes is a cookbook that starts in Iran; then it travels west, crossing the Mediterranean and the Middle East through Turkey, Greece, Lebanon and Syria, all of those countries. And it arrives in Italy as if you were taking a flight — it literally does this journey. I love watching the map thing on the airplane and this is exactly that. I got this idea because this is a book that is born out of my experience of living as an Iranian, but mostly as an immigrant, here in Italy, in the West. This whole book is about how a lot of the flavors, ingredients and cooking methods are super similar. We’re not even that far, geographically speaking. Basically, you cross Greece and Turkey, and you’re in Iran — so how is it that people from my side of the world are treated so differently where our food is so similar? So this book is a testimony to those similarities.
On the ongoing protests in Iran
It started because of the protests of the death of Mahsa Amini, who was murdered because she was showing a few strands of hair. So it is about compulsory hijab, and yet it is not just about compulsory hijab. There are many rights that women in Iran don’t have: the testimony of a woman in court is worth half of a man’s; women can work but if your husband says you cannot work then you cannot work; you can’t have rights to the custody of your child if you get divorced; and you can’t ask for a divorce — the right to divorce lies with the husband. What’s happening to the women in Iran concerns us all. And the fight against the Iranian regime is the fight to be on the right side of history.
On window vs aisle seat
Always window. I like to have space to lean out and look out of the window. But it’s mostly the leaning thing.
On the song that always makes you think of Rome
‘Via da Roma’ by Luca Barbarossa, from the album Roma è de tutti. The name says it all. It’s very nice.
On Rome in one word
There are a lot of beautiful things and lots of ugly things. Like all big cities.