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May 1, 2007 04:42 AM

Rome report (long)

Wrapping up a week in Rome – my first visit. Loved the city, and the food was a big part of it. The only meals that weren’t at least OK were two desperation lunches in museum cafeterias (the Vatican Museum and Ostia Antica), and even these weren’t so awful.

My favorite meals

La Campana
Via Campana, Tridente neighborhood
This mid-priced trattoria features an antipasto table starring grilled and marinated artichokes, sautéed chicory, and other delicious things. In each of two separate visits, we loaded up a plate to start.

On one visit, we had spaghetti with fresh anchovies and pecorino– unusual in pairing seafood with cheese but the anchovies stood up well to the sharp, salty pecorino. The other pasta was artichoke ravioli in a light tomato sauce, a subtler flavor than the anchovy/pecorino pasta but equally good. Finally, we had a fritto misto of fresh seafood, it being Tuesday, and Tuesday and Friday are Rome’s fresh fish days. The fritto misto included calamari, shrimp, and a small fish I don’t remember, all lightly fried and very fresh.

On another visit, we had spaghetti with bottarga and fiore de zucca, one of those unexpected combinations that worked very well. Rigatoni alla amatriciana was our other dish – also very good though not quite the gold standard of Matricianella (see below).

Via del Prefetti, Tridente neighborhood
Described as a “mozzarella bar,” Obika offers a buffet for 22 euros that features four artisan cheeses: a creamy ricotta, a mild and dry mozzarella, a smoked mozzarella, and – the winner – a runny, stringy, pungent mozzarella. The buffet also has a good salumi selection, pasta salads, and antipasto-style vegetables. Obika has branches in Milan and Rome.

Via Frattina, Tridente neighborhood near Spanish Steps
This is a wine bar featuring the foods of Lazio, the region of Italy that includes Rome. I think it’s a government-run attempt to support local food producers. We went for lunch: it opened at 1 and was packed at 1:10. After a generous and varied cheese selection, we had two pastas. Tonnarelli (thick spaghetti) al cacio e pepe (with pecorino and black pepper) was spicy from the sharp cheese and creamy – I thought it was perfect though I could see how someone who prefers a more textured sauce would find it boring. The other pasta, lasagna with ground beef and cheese, was among the best dishes of the week. It wasn’t baked: rather, it was boiled lasagna noodles tossed with mozzarella, pecorino, and a ground-beef-and-tomato sauce.

Al Bric
Via del Pelligrino, Campo de Fiori neighborhood
Al Bric is the most expensive restaurant we tried, offering modern rather than traditional Italian. We had tonnarelli with broccoli and pecorino: the sweet broccoli, the salty cheese, and the thick pasta complemented each other. We also had pappardelle with wild boar sausage, and the thick and ragged pasta picked up the meaty sauce very well. As a main, we had a pastry filled with broccoli served with crumbled grilled spicy sausage and a creamy pumpkin sauce. The pastry was paper-thin and in a pyramid shape, like a nearly transparent samosa. The combination of flavors, color, and textures made this the most interesting dish of the trip. Finally, we asked for the gorgonzola gelato, which was on the menu as an accompaniment to another dessert but was also available solo. Being a fan of salty ice cream, I found this heavenly. The gorgonzola was so prevalent that the ice cream was light blue with blue-veined flecks. Wow.

Cremeria Montefiore
Via della Rotunda, Pantheon neighborhood
Gelato. I had chocolate sorbet with whipped cream – cremolata cioccolata con panna I think it was. The sorbet was dark and rich, and the cream cut it perfectly.

Piazza Cairoli, Campo de Fiori neighborhood
This was our regular breakfast place. The coffee was as good as at Sant Eustachio and Tazzo de Oro, the two places that get the most attention for their coffee. The pastries set this place apart. The cornetti (croissants) were the best among several places I tried, especially when sliced open and served with a schmear of whipped cream. Other winners there were the donuts – I forget the Italian name – and a pistachio tart that was so green I thought at first it was basil.

Via del Giubonnari, Campo de Fiori neighborhood
Bought cheese, salumi, and prepared vegetables from this high-end deli that also has table service. Great for provisions. Also has a bakery around the corner.

Also very good meals

Via del Leone, Tridente neighborhood
This well-reviewed restaurant served the best bucatini alla amatriciana I tried all week and a very good pasta with mushrooms and chicory. The whole fried artichoke and the saltimbocca, however, were both disappointments.

Da Giggetto
Via Portico d’Ottavia, Ghetto neighborhood
Amazing whole fried artichoke, which is fitting since carciofi alla giudia is a Jewish Roman dish and Da Giggetto is the big restaurant in the Jewish section. Excellent roast lamb – abbacchio arrosto – as well. Spaghetti alla gricia (cheese, bacon, pepper) was good. Service was abysmal.

Tram Tram
San Lorenzo neighborhood
Modest trattoria with very good fried anchovies, spaghetti alla amatriciana, and a bresaola/arugula/grana salad. However, fried anchovies were not quite as good as La Campana’s fried seafood, and amatriciana was not as good as Matricianella’s. A plus: open Sunday for dinner.

Sora Margherita
Piazza dei Cinque Scole, Ghetto neighborhood
Tiny trattoria, no sign, chaotically run. Another amazing fried artichoke: my three data points suggest that the secret to great carciofi alla giudia is proximity to the big synagogue. The pasta was unusual here, extremely eggy and very thick. In our meat agnilotti, the dough was so thick and the filling so dense that they were more like northern Chinese potstickers than anything Italian; the heavy dough worked better in fettucini with pesto.

Two forgettable meals

Da Sergio
Via del Grotte, Campo de Fiori neighborhood
Crowded with tourists and locals, this is an OK place for quick pasta. The amatriciana and carbonara were both solid but unexceptional, which means they didn’t stand out by Roman standards but were better than nearly any version of either I have tried outside of Rome.

Piazza della Cancelleria, Campo de Fiori neighborhood
Odd place featuring lots of whole-wheat pasta and vegetables. Whole-wheat pappardelle with rabbit and sun-dried tomatoes was good if a little jarring in the combination. “Bread pasta,” made with farina rather than semolina, was very similar to Ethiopian injera or Sephardic matzoh; served with pesto, it was more interesting than it was tasty.

Some general thoughts on eating in Rome
1. I never had a bad pasta dish. The least-good pasta dish I had in Rome was far better than nearly any pasta dish anywhere else.
2. Even if service is surly, restaurants are very accommodating. Despite the structured menus – antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni – it was always totally fine to order whatever we wanted in any order and in any amount. Our typical meal was two pasta dishes and two other things – two contorni, or one contorno and one secondo, or one secondo and one dessert.
3. Prices in guidebooks are misleading. I think they give prices assuming each person orders every course. We found that we typically spent one-third less than what guidebooks told us to expect since we never ordered every course.
4. The best source for restaurant advice was the series a few years back in Gourmet magazine. Several of my favorite places were mentioned there and nowhere else. The recently published Osterie e Locandi d’Italia – the English version of the Italian slow food guide – was helpful but not essential.
5. Both the pasta and the main at Al Bric listed “broccoli siciliana” as an ingredient. I was hoping that meant broccoli rabe, but it was actually just regular broccoli. In my week in Rome I never saw broccoli rabe (or rapini, or cime di rape) on a menu. Not in season, perhaps? Chicory, however, was ubiquitous: sautéed, it showed up as a side, as a pasta sauce, as a pizza topping, and as panini filling.

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  1. I've generally found that in Rome Broccoli Siciliano is what most resembles american broccoli. Broccoli by itself can be many things, and sometimes is even cauliflower. Roman Broccoli is a kind of green pointy cauliflower like thing. Broccoli Rabe is generally called broccoletti. its mostly in season in the winter

    1. Glad you liked Al Brik. It doesn't seem to get much mention on this board, but when we fell into it about 3 years ago, it proved to have one of the more interesting menus we saw in Rome (not particularly Roman, but very innovative Italian). Our dinner was very much like yours, with the addition of a wonderful pasta with chestnuts, and as you can tell from this post, it was quite memorable. Thanks for your report.

      1. thats a really really terrific report.
        I am glad that La Campana satisfied - we had loved it 25 years ago but I had a little doubt on our last visit in 2005. Re Tram Tram, I dont believe their cuisine is Roman - thought they had a pugiese emphasis - maybe that accounts for a lesser rendition of Roman dishes?
        we were eating plenty of broccoli rabe (or its cousin) down in Naples and Amalfi last month - its definitely not out of season. They call it friarielli in Naples.

        Slowfood's reccomendations may be limited by their constraint to modestly priced establishments - in a city like Rome as opposed to the country there may be upward pressure, as well as the desire to raise prices when they get acclaim and patronage.In Venice at least there are a number of restaurants which were formerly in the guide but are not any more - I think this is likely due to price rather than quality changes

        3 Replies
        1. re: jen kalb

          Jen Kalb: Is there any chance that you will be writing about your recent trip? I would love to read about eating in that region. Many thanks!

          1. re: erica

            I posted my Naples reccs here

            Will try to finish up with Pompeii, Paestum and Amalfi/Ravello soon. One observation though - even with a lot of physical activity we were hardput to eat more than one restaurant meal a day on this trip. So my hat's off to David K for all the data points he was able to add to this site with his Rome visit.

        2. Thanks for your report, some interesting observations. As far as broccoli rabe goes, it's found most often on the antipasto cart, boiled but not dressed. That way it can be either served cold with oil and lemon, or sauteed with garlic & red pepper.

          3 Replies
          1. re: bropaul

            Yes, I should correct myself: I had broccoli rabe once, on the antipasto cart at La Campana, on my last night in Rome.

            It kills me to learn now that broccoletti is broccoli rabe. I assumed it would be rapini or something similar in Italian. In fact, I saw broccoletti on numerous menus and assumed it meant something like the baby broccoli that I see in bags at Trader Joe's. Why didn't I just ask what it meant?

            1. re: david kaplan

              Don't beat yourself up, next time you'll know better and can enjoy all the brocoletti you want. Just think about all the great food you ate!

              1. re: david kaplan

                Rapini is not, to my knowledge, an Italian word, though I can't swear it doesn't turn up in some dialect. In Rome you have broccolo romanesco, broccoli siciliani, and broccoletti. You don't usually have cime di rapa, which are practically the same as broccoletti. In general, Italian cooking doesn't go in for baby stuff. It doesn't need too.

            2. Hi David,
              About Obikwa I am planning to go there with my mother at the end of May for lunch after we arrive (plane doesn't arrive until 1pm at Fiumicino) you have to have the buffet or do they do plates of mozzarella with proscuitto etc? Thank you very much. Disappointing about Ditirambo it used to be one of my favourites but interesting about Matricianella. Best, Charlotte

              3 Replies
              1. re: LotsC

                I went for lunch on a weekday holiday, and the only option I believe was the buffet. I don't know if it is buffet-only on other days for lunch. When I passed by one evening, the buffet was not set up and people were ordering off menus.

                However, even if the only option is buffet, the spread includes two fresh mozzarellas and one smoked mozzarella, as well as several salumi options including prosciutto. As long as you don't mind paying 22 euros per person, you can create plates of mozzarella and prosciutto just as you like. To me, the quality is worth it.

                Obika wasn't very crowded that day, and I believe it is open continuously from late morning through evening, so it's an ideal option for an arrival lunch since you should be able to sit down right away and start eating regardless of what time you arrive.

                1. re: LotsC

                  You do not have to do the buffet at Obika; you can order from a menu.

                  I had a very good meal at Ditirambo and two good ones at Matricinella on my last trip in January. I would not write either of these places off.

                  1. re: erica

                    i'll second ditirambo. the cacio e pepe is very good, the grilled fish is superb. mrs. steve h. will have a full report shortly.