Seven Days in Rome--a meal-by-meal account
In gratitude for some advice received here, I offer this post. (The complete post, with pictures, can be found at www.lthforum.com on the "Beyond Chicagoland" forum.)
We recently returned from seven days in Rome—our first trip there. If the gods are kind, it will be only the first trip of many. I can’t recall ever spending so much time and effort researching food and restaurants and so forth but it paid off. We had great meals, espresso, gelato, and shopping. And the tourist sights weren’t bad either. Besides, how could I not love a city where people drive like I do? So...boisterously?
We tried, in a week, to cover as much ground as we could, restricting ourselves, within reason, to classic Roman food. Fortunately, that doesn’t significantly reduce the number of choices available and so we had meals at a wide variety of establishments from humble to haughty. (Well, maybe only semi-haughty. Given the state of the dollar, we didn’t get near any truly haughty establishments.)
The Lovely Dining Companion speaks no Italian and mine is fairly minimal but we rarely had much trouble communicating, either in shops or sightseeing or even in restaurants. We were taken aback at the number of tourists in Rome in mid-November, although Americans were not numerous. We always had breakfast at the hotel (a one-minute walk from Piazza Barberini) and generally chose our lunches based on where we found ourselves at the moment. Most dinners were decided in advance. What follows is a relatively meal-by-meal account, with digressions, of our week in Rome.
We were fortunate in our weather. November is one of the rainiest months in the Roman calendar and it was drizzling when we arrived. (FWIW, we flew Alitalia through Milan because we got exceptional prices. In our four separate flight segments, the attendants were routinely unhelpful and uninterested; the food ranged from mediocre to nearly inedible; and the fairly old aircraft had not been well-maintained from a customer comfort perspective. I’ve also never waited over an hour for my luggage. But I digress.) Except for that first day, every remaining day we enjoyed nearly complete sunshine. Over the course of our week there, the temps rose from the lower 40s to the mid and upper 50s with even more warm weather promised as we departed. We couldn’t have asked for much better weather.
Our first afternoon we looked, not quite hard enough, for Il Margutta, the well-regarded vegetarian restaurant in Campo Marzio about midway between the Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo. We were unable to find it and so “settled” for Osteria Margutta, a little trattoria that was an unexpectedly wonderful introduction to eating in Rome. The menu was exclusively in Italian and our server spoke very little English. So given our arrival only a few hours earlier, our jet lag, and our poor Italian, we fumbled a bit. But the very warm, comfortable atmosphere and the friendliness of the staff made the experience a pleasure. The trattoria is fairly small but stylishly decorated; via Margutta seems to house primarily high-end antiques dealers. Prices reflected that but we decided to ignore the dollar’s abysmal value as much as we could. Since our internal clocks and appetites were a bit confused, we did not order a full meal. Rather, I chose a fairly simple meal of pasta and saltimbocca, accompanied by puntarelle. I had been told to keep an eye out for this, as it’s a Roman specialty and likely to be one I would enjoy: a bitter green.
Digression number 1:
According to the wonderful Prodotti tipici d’Italia (a small softcover encyclopedia of Italian foods that I purchased while there), puntarelle is a variety of chicory specific to Lazio, Rome’s province. As the picture shows, puntarelle has serrated leaves, like dandelions, and long white/green ribs that are hollow. The ribs and leaves are usually served raw, as a salad dressed with an anchovy vinaigrette. The puntarelle itself is mildly peppery with, perhaps, a bit of sweetness. It reminded me a bit of chicory or even endive. The shoots are wonderfully crisp and what intrigued me was the preparation. The ribs are sliced extremely thinly and then soaked in ice water for hours. This treatment causes a remarkable transformation: the strips curl up tightly, become juicier, and lose some of their bitterness. (David Downie, in Cooking the Roman Way, devotes a two-page spread to a discussion of puntarelle.)
Although I would have puntarelle several more times, this turned out to be the best preparation. The anchovies were identifiable without being overwhelming in a dressing that was nicely acidic and complemented the greens just right. The puntarelle itself a generous portion that was crisp and delicious. I’d recommend anyone with a taste for chicory try it—and try it there. I can’t recall the pasta any longer (my note-taking routine hadn’t yet been established) but I remember the saltimbocca well. It was a small portion for a secondi but good. I had saltimbocca one other time—at a very nice dinner at La Matricianella—and the two restaurants’ preps were remarkably similar in size and taste (not that there’s much room for experimentation). In both cases, the serving consisted of two small pieces of veal (smaller than the palm of your hand), topped with a small sage leaf, covered by a piece of prosciutto. And, in both cases, liberally surrounded by pan gravy. Both were good but in neither case would I be likely to order them again.
Two other notes: we had been so looking forward to having artichokes in Rome that we were more than a little taken aback when we ordered some only to have the server tell us they were out of season. Now, in fairness, it’s entirely possible that a language gap may have been responsible for a misunderstanding here, but it was clear that they didn’t have any at Osteria Margutta. Maybe they ran out; maybe she genuinely believed them to be out of season. But, in the event, we had them everywhere else and even saw them for sale in the outdoor markets.
Second note: pane e coperta. Our guidebooks and other research all mentioned that we would be paying for the basket of bread put on our table. I remembered this practice from my travels in Eastern Europe and, though part of me rebels against the notion of being charged for bread, it’s a different culture and I need to relax a little. So I did. And, interestingly, we were charged nothing at all about as often as we were charged a couple dollars. And to bring this, finally, back to Osteria Margutta: it is virtually the only place where the bread wasn’t good. In every other case, lunch or dinner, fancy place or not, the bread ranged from very good to excellent: crusty, fresh, great texture, and great flavor.
As jet lag and the number of hours we’d been awake began to catch up with us, we knew we didn’t have the energy to enjoy a leisurely dinner, so we decided, based on our location at the time, to visit Giolitti for gelato instead. One of the great benefits of traveling in mid-November was that lines—which I imagine in the summer must be phenomenal—were virtually non-existent on each of our visits.
Exceptional. Now we understand that naming a favorite gelateria is like waving a red flag in front of anyone who has a different opinion. And I don’t offer the adjective with the intention of starting a gelato smackdown. I merely report on our experience and thoughts. I had pistachio and LDC had fichi d’India. (Only later did we understand why it didn’t really taste like fig. Fichi d’India is the Italian name for prickly pears.) Mine was nearly perfect. Though the pistachios had been toasted a trifle longer than I would have done, the gelato was creamy...silken beyond my powers of description. Rich, dense, and unbelievably delicious. We would have gelato at several other places during our stay, including Tre Scalini (about which more later), Il Gelatone, and San Crispino, but Giolitti was our clear favorite. We found Il Gelatone’s very good but not exceptional and San Crispino’s was so evidently of an ice-cream-like texture that we wondered later whether we had somehow erred.
Since our lunches were haphazard affairs, I’ll mention only a few. Among the best was the pizza at Antico Forno in Campo de’Fiori: pizza bianca the first time and with mushrooms and with squash blossoms and anchovies the second.
Digression number 2:
Pizza bianca is not “pizza” in the American sense. (I know, I know; let’s not go down that road.) Remarkably enough, I’ve found in my research that there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on precisely what comprises a pizza bianca. One school of thought—let’s call them the purists—insist that the dough is topped with a little olive oil, salt, and, if you’re feeling wild and crazy, a bit of rosemary. The second school—the iconoclasts—believe that there’s a place for some good mozzarella. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But we, in our naivete, were under the impression that “bianca” implied cheese. Arthur Schwartz, in Naples at Table, gives the best explication I’ve found of what pizza bianca is today: “Pizza bianca can be several different things. In the old days, it was the dough spread with rendered lard and sprinkled with grated pecorino. Today, it is more likely to be mozzarella, basil, olive oil, and parmigiano, or shavings of parmigiano and leaves of rucola [that’s arugula, folks]. It can also be prosciutto and rucola. Bianca doesn’t mean pure white. It means no red.” David Downie concurs in the judgment that the name means different things to different people. And he offers a recipe, adapted from Antico Forno Roscioli, that seems to be nearly identical to what we had: no cheese.
One thing is clear, whether you’re a purist or an iconoclast: pizza bianca is a simple dish. And, precisely for that reason, I imagine, difficult to pull off successfully. The simpler, the harder—a little like Mozart. In our case, what we got fell into the purists school: no lard, but also no basil, no arugula, no prosciutto, and no cheese. It resembled focaccia, only thinner. Whatever we had—and since they called it pizza bianca, that’s good enough for me—the flavor was impressive. We were impressed with how much flavor was packed into so simple a vehicle. In that sense, and only in that sense, the pizzas with additional ingredients were slightly disappointing. One cannot expect that the flavor will increase geometrically as one adds ingredients but that didn’t prevent us from hoping. Still, the other pizzas were enjoyable, as much for the crust and texture as for the flavors. There was a bit too much anchovy on the squash blossom pizza to my mind, but hardly a significant factor.
Speaking of pizza...in Rome (and I presume elsewhere in Italy), pizza is usually sold al taglio. That means that there are a few freshly made pizzas on the counter and you tell the fellow with the knife in his hand how big a piece you want. He cuts to your order (from a rectangular pie)—and after, of course, inquiring whether you want is “this big?” [immense] or merely “this big?” [teeny-weeny]. Most countermen we met had a wonderful sense of humor, derived no doubt from having to deal with too many tourists. After he cuts the piece, he weighs it, and then hands you a chit to pay the cashier. Having done so, you come back and collect your slice(s). They’re usually wrapped in plain paper and you take them outside, find a convenient and comfortable spot and eat. Or you eat standing up like the Romans do. Talk about simple! No fancy table, no fancy surroundings, no fancy anything, and the pizza is great. It couldn’t be more plainly all about the food. And the pizza couldn’t be better.
Lunch. Volpetti’s. To those who know this deli (and I use the word advisedly), I need say no more. (The Volpettis call their establishment a “negozio di gastronomia” which they translate on the English-language version of their site as a “food store.” Who am I to argue?) To those who don’t, I’m almost at a loss to begin. It’s a deli in the sense that they sell a variety of what Americans have come to expect to find in a deli, such as meats and cheeses, products which you can take home, and they will make you a sandwich or sell you some things to go. But to call Volpetti’s a deli is somewhat like calling St. Peter’s a parish church. It is everything that a deli is, might be, could be, and more. It is the Platonic ideal of a deli, the deli of delis, the mother of all delis, and the deli without which others couldn’t begin to think of themselves as delis. Not only is the selection enormous. (Look at the one picture below and find an unoccupied chink of space—I dare you). Not only do they have most anything you could want or even think you might, conceivably, someday think about wanting. The people are helpful, generous, and even patient with tourists. They offer multiple free samples. That said, they aren’t inexpensive. Still, I think I could eat happily from Volpetti’s forever and not be bored.
After much deliberation, we chose pieces of the various pizzas available and some arancini. We were treated to tastes of recently fried artichokes and even proffered fried pineapple during the decision-making process. But…swoon…the store. The shelves, the goods, the smells, the tastes. This, boys and girls, is what heaven looks like. We took our oversized bag across the street to the very convenient park and savored our stash. Needless to say, we returned later that day, on our way to dinner, and bought oodles of things to bring home.
Dinner that evening was in Testaccio: Checchino dal 1887, an emporium dedicated to the classic “fifth quarter”—offal.
Digression number 3:
Sometimes called the “fifth quarter” (a strict translation of the Italian quinto quarto), sometimes called “offal,” and sometimes called things we cannot say here, the reference is to organ meats and other rarely used parts: kidneys, brains, lungs, intestines, tongues, feet, heads, and so forth. Mimi Sheraton and Arthur Schwartz both call it “innards.” These are the things that many of us have grown up knowing little about. Had we been children of the butchers of Testaccio we would know better. These are the parts that were left over, the parts that were often used to pay (or supplement the pay of) workers in the slaughterhouses. These are what the poorer folks ate. And perhaps it’s partly that stigma that kept us from them. We haven’t been exposed to these things or perhaps we have and wish never again to be exposed to them. One taste, one texture serves not only for a lifetime, but stands for all that “offal” stuff. As I would discover, there’s a world of treats in store for those willing to put aside their preconceptions and try some of these dishes. You may not like them. But, as Mom would say, if you don’t try it, you’ll never know.
And what better way to enjoy it than at Checchino—a place famed for its preparations of fifth quarter goodies and, specifically, with their Degustazione storico. This menu emphasized the classic nature of the dishes and, though I struggled with the idea of the first item, I eventually succumbed to the encomiums of the place that I had read virtually everywhere:
The restaurant itself is a bright, attractive room, homey, with tables well apart from each other. We sat down eager to enjoy the highly touted menu. Sad to say, we were largely disappointed. Some of this had to do with a server who could not have been less interested. I don’t know if it was us, him, how his day went, or what the issue might have been. I only know that he wasn’t engaged or attentive from the moment we sat down until the moment we left. Had the gentleman he relied upon to bring dishes, replace silver, and generally interact with us, been similarly inclined, the evening would have been a disaster. As it was, he apparently misunderstood LDC’s pasta order. Rather than clarify things, he simply didn’t place any order. When, after waiting an eternity for it to arrive, I finally inquired, his blank expression spoke volumes. He placed the order immediately and it arrived a while later, pasta surprisingly undercooked. No apologies, no evident concern, just an exasperated look that spoke volumes.
My calf’s-foot salad was far less unpleasant than I expected. The calf’s-foot portions themselves were much more approachable than I expected. They looked like oddly shaped pieces of pasta in both color and appearance. Texture reminded me of nothing so much as a cross between slightly undercooked pasta and ever-so-slightly chewy squid. The green sauce—which seemed to be Genovese pesto—worked with the vegetables and was a good vorspeis but, all told, I’m not planning to order this again. Still, I’m glad I tried it and would not hesitate to recommend it to the curious.
LDC ordered bruschetta to begin, followed by a bowl of stracciatella (think Italian eggdrop soup). It was good, but unlike any bruschetta we’ve seen or were prepared for. Indeed, as the picture demonstrates, it looks almost like half of a grilled cheese sandwich on a large thin slice of rye. My two pastas were served side-by-side. Both were disappointing. Not only was nothing noteworthy about either, both seemed like dishes I could get at a hundred other places. Why come to Checchino for them? I should confess that I was quite looking forward to the pajata, a dish not all that common, even in Rome.
Digression number 4:
Pajata(the local Roman spelling of pagliata) is another Roman specialty. Pasta alla (or sometimes con la) pajata, meaning that the pasta (usually, but not always rigatoni) is served with small sections of an unweaned calf’s intestines. Since it has been fed only its mother's milk, which is left intact, the milk coagulates and, when added to the pasta and tomato sauce, creates a somewhat creamy dish. The intestines themselves look like smaller tan-colored versions of penne without the grooves and are looped together, resembling the bunched tentacle ends of calamari.
I guess pajata is just not my dish. I found the expected sour “edge”—but it wasn’t an “ordinary” sour. I have struggled since that evening to find an accurate way to describe the taste and have failed miserably. The cheesiness that the curdled milk in the intestines imparts is not troublesome in the least. I wonder aloud, though, whether a tomato-based sauce is the right vehicle for this specialty: the acid in the tomatoes doesn’t seem to work with the acid in the milk. Instead, there is an earthiness, a robustness to the sour that I found off-putting.
Equally disappointing was the bucatini alla gricia served with the pajata. There was nothing wrong with it, but there was nothing particularly good about it either. It struck me as a dish I could have anywhere, including the local Italian/American red tablecloth joint down the street. Everything about it was acceptable and no more.
The coda alla vaccinara, fortunately, was a bright spot. A classic dish, this oxtail stew was bursting with flavor, a true delight. The ingredients themselves, as disclosed on the menu, are simple. But married with the—to me, unexpected—bitter chocolate, the sauce transcended the ordinary and added a great note to the rich, delicious gravy.
Next day, Sunday, was devoted to the Vatican in the morning and then Porta Portese, the weekly flea market in Trastevere. Walking slowly back toward the center of town, we stopped, famished at Osteria Pucci. And no sooner had I given my order than I was advised, “no pizza for lunch”! “I beg your...what?” No pizza for lunch? Since when is pizza strictly dinner food? Oh, never mind. The Lovely Dining Companion chose a boiled artichoke with garlic to begin and a prawns with chickpeas soup for her lunch. I had pasta. I no longer recall what kind. I don’t remember the pasta, the sauce, or much else about this place. There was nothing bad about it, there was just nothing to make us want to return. Service was acceptable, prices a tad high—but then, we were among the few stupid Americans in Rome with a dollar buried somewhere deep in the sub-sub-basement. We calculated prices during our stay at $1.50 to the Euro and we ended up being dismayingly, dismally close to right. Ouch.
As we wended our way back through Trastevere, over the river, and into the historic center of town, we discovered ourselves at Tre Scalini. It’s a wonderful little spot on the Campo de’Fiori for a mid-afternoon break. The espresso was very good and the Tartufo to die for. I’m not sure it was worth the 7.5€ ($11.25) price tag but it was indisputably wonderful. We chose to enjoy ours senza panna (without whipped cream), in deference to tasting the unadulterated taste experience. Still, having the whipped cream might be a wise way to moderate the intensity of the dish.
Digression number 5:
Tartufo is a dessert served only by Tre Scalini. The emporium, which began life as an inn in the 1800s, owes the Tartufo—named in honor of that great savory delicacy, the truffle—to a manager’s creativity back in 1931. The Tartufo itself is a fist-sized ball of astonishingly rich, dense, dark chocolate. I have seen descriptions that label it gelato and others that call it ice cream. (Since we didn’t ask and they don’t have a website, I’m not taking bets.) The confection is so creamy that it calls to mind the most decadent mousse you can imagine. Indeed, there was something about the texture that called to mind a superb mousse. Like buried treasure, one happens upon occasional chunks of chocolate and, where X marks the spot, a candied cherry. Thank God for wretched excess!
Dinner that evening was close to the Piazza del Popolo. Although La Buca di Ripetta did not appear on a lot recommended lists, I saw enough positive mentions to mark it down. As a result we were rewarded with one of the best meals during our stay in Rome. We even got a waiter of the kind I had hoped to find: one who advises and counsels, who suggests and steers. We were the first ones in the door at 7:30pm, though the restaurant filled up soon thereafter with what seemed to be mostly locals. The dinner was not without its issues but they were few. Our waiter was properly attentive, erred on the side of formality, but was friendly enough and, more important, helpful. Between his English and my Italian, we managed to understand each other almost completely. He persuaded me—gently—that the baby lamb dish I had in mind might be fine but that the chops were better still. I took his advice—a wise move in the event.
I started with millafoglie di arista (filetto di maiale alle prugne): a thin slice of beef tenderloin, incorporating a slice of prune, was wrapped around some arugula and parmigiano.
This description (which may, I fear, be forgetting an ingredient in the stuffing) was excellent. It was followed by pear ravioli with an orange sauce and shaved parmigiano and a secondo of baby lamb chops. Every course was very attractively plated and pleased both eye and palate. The pear ravioli, which may sound just a trifle odd, worked beautifully. The pear was well-flavored enough that one could discern that it was pear and the acid in the orange sauce highlighted the ravioli perfectly.
The Lovely Dining Companion had carciofi alla giudia followed by eggplant ravioli and—we were in Italy, after all: tiramisu. Her artichokes were disappointing. They were too oily. Even had we not had a superb version a few nights later at Piperno, we would have known that this was not a particularly successful attempt. Our consolation lay in the fact that this was one of the few misses of the night. The ravioli were very good but perhaps a bit too expectable: nothing wrong, but nothing exceptional either.
For dessert, I chose a Sicilian offering: Cassatella tipica siciliana ripiena di ricotta di bufala scoglie cioccolato canditi con affianco di moscato di Noto: deep-fried half-moon pastries dusted with sugar and filled with ricotta, chocolate, candied fruit, all accompanied by a glass of Moscato di Noto.
All in all, we enjoyed an excellent meal in comfortable surroundings. The restaurant has been in its cozy digs for about a century and it has that feeling. We had a wonderful time and would return or recommend it without hesitation.
Although we did not find Il Margutta the first day, it turns out that if we had gone another dozen steps or so around a corner, we would have found it. Determined to eat there, we walked this time until we found it. Il Margutta is famous; in fact, it’s very famous. I’ve seen it called the best vegetarian restaurant in Europe! To say that it has achieved a remarkable level of recognition would be putting it mildly. So much so that I have to admit to a bit of trepidation walking in the door of this restaurant cum art gallery. The expansive space is modern and stylish, with plenty of room and very comfortable seating. The waitstaff—at least the night we were there—seemed entirely composed of people in mid-20s. The menu was extensive and intriguing. There were a number of degustations, many of which I found quite appealing and we were intrigued to find quite a large number of vegan selections as well. (For those interested, their menu is online at their website, listed at the end of this review; I’d encourage you to look at it.) It is, no doubt, evident from what has preceded this paragraph that we are not vegetarians. But good food is good food. And if it happens to be vegetarian, fine.
I began with a disk of pecorino baked in an almond crust sitting atop a bed of chicory, accented by a few slices of pear. The cheese was lovely and cooked precisely the right length of time. It maintained enough structural integrity to deal with it even as it nearly melted in your mouth. I would never have thought to pair pecorino with crushed almonds, but that’s why they’re running the restaurant and I’m not.
Following that I had trofie alla Siciliana with eggplant, olives, and capers. (Trofie is a traditional Genovese pasta in which a thin, one- or two-inch cylinder of pasta is rolled and twisted into shape, the final product resembling nothing so much as a screw with two tapered ends.) I order strudel stuffed with zucchini and ricotta for my secondo.
I thought the strudel a little dry but otherwise admirable, and found myself greatly enjoying the “vegetarian experience.” I’m not sure what I think of eating in a space that doubles as an art gallery, but we were pleasantly surprised at the number of people there on a mid-weekday evening, only a few of whom appeared to be tourists. To cap the meal, I ordered a pear/cinnamon tart with vanilla ice cream and amaretti.
LDC chose the stuffed squash blossoms to begin, followed by a spinach soufflé with deep-fried squash blossoms and a parmigiano truffle sauce. Sadly, the soufflé was small, dry, and surprisingly salty. What made that the more disappointing was that LDC had specifically asked for a recommendation between the strudel and the soufflé. Not knowing that I was about to order the strudel, he pooh-poohed it, suggesting that one could get that anywhere. But the soufflé, he said...ah, that’s special. Only we make that and it’s a specialty of the house. You must order it. So she did. And what had sounded and looked so promising proved to be a disaster. Its failure stood out the more starkly for the success of all the other dishes. While none of the dishes were startlingly good, all were well-executed, beautifully presented, and downright tasty.
In fact, I think Il Margutta’s presentations were the most appealing (and artistic) of those we had during the week. Although it was obvious that great care went into things at Checchino dal 1887 and Piperno, one had the sense that both places justified their presentations on the grounds that they have always done things that way. Their presentations were attractive, to be sure…and expectable. Only La Buca di Ripetta offered presentations that seemed to match the high quality of the food.
And, of course, some places just put the food in front of you. Case in point: Cacio e Pepe. This was the place that proved the old adage that you can’t go wrong relying on a tourist guidebook! You read that right. The best lunch of the trip was at this establishment, plucked, partly out of desperation, from the Lonely Planet guidebook. It was one of a very recommended places in Prati (the middle-class neighborhood northeast of the Vatican). In fairness, the book probably recommends only a few since there are almost no tourist sights here and thus little reason for most tourists to be up here.
The restaurant is one door down from the bank on the corner and its tables oozed all the way to the corner, like an amoeba. The day we visited was sunny, if a bit cool, and every one of the many tables was filled with students, business people, or other locals. Though our server insisted that tourists are common, we heard not a word of any language but Italian. Service is brisk and efficient. No menus because the choices are limited: there were four pastas when we visited: gricia, all’Amatriciana, carbonara, and the eponymous cacio e pepe. (I also recall a soup of chickpeas and something and pasta e fagioli; the website mentions secondi; we were too stuffed after the pasta and no one else seemed to be having anything but primi either.)
Simple home cooking done perfectly. Superb pasta. LDC opted for the cacio e pepe and I ordered the carbonara. I cannot imagine better preparations of these classics. (In the interest of complete disclosure, LDC pointed to a smallish pool of olive oil remaining in the bottom of her bowl. I hadn’t thought olive oil would be an ingredient in making that dish, just pasta, a little pasta water, lots of ground black pepper, and freshly grated pecorino. But the small pool of oil was indisputable.) Now, I will concede that the atmosphere, weather, friendliness of our half-American, half-Sardinian server helped. Still, it was the best pasta I’ve ever had. I would recommend this place unhesitatingly and return in a heartbeat.
Though we didn’t follow lunch with anything on this particular day, coffee—or more precisely, espresso—was often on my mind. I had read about just how devoted Italians are to their coffee but the clincher was on a visit to the out-of-the-way Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (the walls of the city, that is). It is a fascinating place, the second largest basilica in the world, and it dates from the third century when Constantine constructed a church on what was believed to be St. Paul’s burial site. (In fact, in late 2006, a sarcophagus labeled Paulo Apostolo Mart[yri] was found; the church is still deciding whether to open it.) The original basilica has been expanded and rebuilt many times over the millennia, and it is a beautiful site, including lovely, graceful cloisters and gardens. (They even have a gift shop complete with a large variety of home-made liqueurs!) But I bring it up for the small refreshment room, filled with snack machines and a coffee machine. But not just any coffee machine. I count at least eleven kinds of coffee, not to mention several kinds of hot chocolate and even tea!
…and speaking of espresso. As a recent convert, I tried espresso as often as I could. For the most part, I lost track of the places I had it. Sadly, I never made it to Tazza d’Oro. But I made the hadj to Sant’Eustachio. In the event, it turns out I’m a drinker not so much of espresso as of macchiato. That word, meaning “marked” or “stained,” receives a small amount of milk, thereby rendering it—to my palate at least—perfect. The verdict of a man still relatively new to the beverage: I didn’t have any bad espresso. I had a many good to very good cups. But the Sant’Eustachio was quite impressive because of its intensity, an almost overpowering cup nearly completely lacking in bitterness. The flavor was full, deep, and rounded, and I regret only that I was unable to visit more than once. Expensive ($3) but well worth it.
Dinner that Tuesday evening was at La Matricianella, a place spoken of favorably by many but by no means universally. We were, once again, the first customers of the night. After a brief confusion our reservation was found and we were duly seated spitting distance from the kitchen door. The three rooms here are small and the tables set close together. Softly lit with checked tablecloths and wicker chairs, the walls are decorated with copper pots and a large number of framed reviews (Mimi Sheraton’s is stuck in an out-of-the-way, visible only to those who visit the restrooms!) Best of all was the huge leg of prosciutto San Daniele on a carving stand, close enough to our table to reach out and touch. The restaurant exudes warmth and comfort and gives the impression of having been here for a very long time. We were given menus—you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more authentic, truly Roman, set of choices, I suspect—and began to study them carefully since not everything was translated into English and not everything was in our lexicon.
No sooner had we made our final decision than he arrived! We nicknamed him Gusteau, after Auguste Gusteau from Ratatouille. He was one of the hits of the evening. Not that he was friendly, warm, helpful, or otherwise pleasant. Gusteau was about six-foot two or three and probably weighed in at around 280-300 pounds. A very large man with long hair and a somewhat imperious attitude. He was responsible for a number of tables and spent no time chatting up the customers. He took orders, answered questions if necessary, and went about his business. He was not there to be your friend, or even your advisor. But he had a sweet side as we would discover throughout the course of the evening. A few carefully chosen compliments and thanks managed to elicit the most genuine, whole-face-encompassing beaming smile I’ve seen in ages.
My dinner began with a bresaola, arugula, and parmigiano appetizer, followed by spaghetti all’Amatriciana, and saltimbocca. The bresaola was plentiful and delicious. (It’s an air-dried salted beef that has been aged for several months during which time it becomes hard and becomes a dark reddish, purple. The thin slices are lean, with a sweetness and depth of flavor that the other ingredients highighted well). Indeed, the three basic ingredients demonstrated quite successfully that food need not be complicated to be delectable. A little lemon to complete the dish. Artfully presented, the dish was delightful.
My contorno was puntarelle. Sadly, neither the picture I took of this puntarelle, nor any other, turned out worth reproducing. (There are some good pics on the internet, if you’re so inclined. I’d particularly recommend one , so if you’re interested, you should take a look at www.gustoblog.it. The spaghetti and the saltimbocca were both good, though I must confess mild disappointment with both as well. It’s not so much that I can point to flaws as that, in the end, neither dish excited me. Both were attractive and both tasted fine. But neither made me sit up and take note. Neither made me eager to return to have them again. Indeed, the puntarelle was a flat-out miss. The portion was ungenerous and the dressing too vinegary. And though I happen to like anchovies, the dish would have benefited from a lighter hand with them.
The Lovely Dining Companion ordered cacio e pepe and an eggplant casserole, both of which were very good but no more. For dessert, I chose dolce della nonna and LDC had a marinated orange topped with candied peel and a light caramel sauce. By all accounts—I couldn’t even manage a taste—the orange was a great success. It’s also worth noting that, alone of the higher-end places we visited for dinner, La Matricianella was very reasonably prices. While all the others hovered around $150 (and Piperno was closer to $210), Matricianella came in at a mere $110. Truly a bargain.
Next afternoon, finding ourselves a block away, we decided to visit Armando al Pantheon for lunch. We were taken aback at the small room but not at the fact that it was already nearly full. Given the location, a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, we were also surprised to find only a few tables of tourists there. Perhaps things are different at the height of summer, but in mid-November the lion’s share of tables were occupied by local Romans. There were enough tables to keep two servers occupied and again, our server’s English and my Italian managed to eke out an order. Notwithstanding the odd dish served by Checchino dal 1887, I ordered bruschetta; this time it came looking exactly like I expected bruschetta to look: slices of bread with chopped tomato, basil, and a good olive oil. It tasted as good as it looked. We each ordered a pasta: I went with carbonara and LDC chose cacio e pepe (clearly, her new favorite dish). As elsewhere, I asked for a glass of house wine and, for the first (and last) time, was given a selection of three to choose among.
Piperno has a long history and a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest restaurants in the Jewish ghetto. Family-run and with a century-and-a-half of history behind it, the setting is very chic and refined…for the 1950s. White-jacketed waiters, rich accoutrements, classic. Ah, but the food! The artichokes, Jewish style, are reputed to be the best in the city so we ordered them. While we don’t have an extensive background in this dish and only had it two other times, I feel confident in saying that these qualified as excellent. Crisp, not greasy in the least. And toothsome. Scrumptious. Makes you understand why they’re so popular.
Digression number 6:
Roman food includes a special category for Roman Jewish food. Indeed, it is not hard, even in the United States, to find cookbooks dedicated to this particular specialty, notably Joyce Goldstein’s Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen. While her book does not focus on Rome, there is a widely recognized and still vibrant Jewish culinary culture and tradition in Rome and Italy. Jews came to Rome as early as the second century BC, and in the mid-16th century, were confined to a small area hard by the Tiber River under direct orders from Pope Paul IV. Indeed, the word ghetto itself comes down to us from sixteenth-century Venice. And who knew that pasta alla puttanesca could likely point to a Jewish origin? Friggitori, street vendors, battered and fried up whatever came to hand. That included inexpensive ingredients readily available within the ghetto such as mozzarella, salt cod, and artichokes. And so it came to be that fried foods are among the stars of Roman Jewish cuisine: carciofi alla giudia, filetti di baccala, and suppli. Some recipes, such as bream or sea bass cooked in a sweet and sour sauce with pine nuts and raisins, are still popular throughout the city. There’s even a sweet pizza with almonds, raisins and pine nuts that can be traced to this community.
One of the dishes on my list to try in Rome had been gnocchi alla Romana. I hadn’t seen it on a single menu so far. For whatever reason, I had yet to see or have gnocchi of any kind. And so I was greatly pleased to see gnochetti alla fontina on the dinner menu at Piperno. It wasn’t Roman but from Aosta, near the Italian Alps. And it wasn’t, strictly speaking, gnocchi, but gnochetti. But it seemed like it would be my only chance to try anything resembling gnocchi while in Rome. And so I ordered it. Again, my photographic skills were elsewhere. The picture is not worth reproducing. But that recipe most definitely is. Small little gnochetti, about the size of the last joint of my thumb in a perfect sauce. Fontina is a cow’s milk cheese and has a slightly nutty flavor reminiscent of gruyere or emmental. Having had such a wonderful dish, I know now how high the bar is. And I have to return to Rome to start sampling the gnocchi to be had. This was a dish I would have over and over, had I the opportunity.
And then there was the matter of the secondi. The choices were plentiful, the decision painful. But, recognizing that while I might not be in Testaccio, I could still continue to enjoy foods of the “fifth quarter.” So I ordered the animelle di abbacchio. That’s the lamb sweetbreads, Mom. But I’ve had sweetbreads before and I had a good notion what to expect. What I didn’t expect was just how good this dish was. Loaded with meat, braised with artichokes and other good stuff (okay, so my notes aren’t so good...). Another absolute winner.
Dessert. Well, you’ll never believe me. Oh? You think I’m wrong? Okay. Fine. Just remember, I told you you wouldn’t believe it. On the menu, it’s Le Palle di Nonno Fritte. In the words of their English translation, “Fried Grandpa’s Balls.” Poor Grandpa. And yet...and yet.... With a name like that, as the Smucker’s people might say, it just had to be good. So…sorry, Grandpa, but I couldn’t resist. Damn, they were good. Ricotta with pieces of chocolate sprinkled throughout. Shaped into balls which must have been frozen, rolled in something delectable, and then deep-fried. These people know how to fry—not a hint of oiliness. Gooey without being messy. Did I mention that they were yummy?
LDC began her meal with grilled fresh-caught giant prawns, a dish she pronounced among the best of its kind she’d ever had. I managed to cadge a bite and have to say that whatever secret mixture they used to marinate or baste the prawns was remarkably tasty. She followed this with ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta. And finished with a delicacy we’d both seen and tasted already: fragoline, or tiny, wild strawberries. The ravioli were ravioli, which is to say that they were very good, no more. A little disappointing, perhaps, in light of the promise foretold by the prawns. The tiny wild strawberries, on the other hand, superb: intensely flavored, light, and perfectly highlighted by a single scoop of excellent vanilla gelato.
And with that, the week was nearly over. It was Thanksgiving and dinner was approaching. Where to go for our last dinner in Rome? We had researched, we sought suggestions, we talked. We sought more advice. And, in the end, it came to us: our last dinner in Rome had to be pizza. And it had to be Da Baffetto, a pizza spot so widely and highly lauded that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Is it the best pizza I’ve ever had? I don’t think so. But I’m not sure. It might have been. The crust was crisp and chewy and delicious all by itself. But once again Mies van der Rohe came to mind: less is more. None of the American practice of using a dump truck to deliver the ingredients. What was put on the pizza was used in moderation. Or less. Simple, clean, and precisely the right amounts. And that allowed the ingredients to taste like something instead of all melting into an indefinable mass. Everything stood out because there wasn’t too much of anything.
It was damn good pizza. Really excellent. The whole was more than the sum of the parts. I can’t imagine enjoying a pizza more and can remember only a handful of other experiences like it.
And to follow great pizza, for our last food in Rome? Where else? We visited Giolitti again. This time, I split my order: chocolate and orange; the Lovely Dining Companion ordered marrons glacés. Superb. The orange was remarkable for its intensity of flavor while managing to decrease the acidity I would have thought necessary to achieve the flavor. Tiny bits of orange throughout this nectar-like delight. The chocolate was similarly intense and struck a nearly perfect balance between sweet and unsweetened. Though my chocolate preferences have moderated as I grow older (I find myself less drawn to bittersweet and more fond of milk chocolates, I’m very surprised to report), I found this bittersweet chocolate to be perfectly balanced in a way that recalled my initial attraction to bittersweet oh-so-many years ago.
Pizza and gelato. Is there any better way to celebrate Thanksgiving? We’re thinking of inaugurating a new Thanksgiving tradition in our household. And returning to Rome every year to celebrate! Buon appetito.
Looking back over our many meals, a pattern seemed to emerge. We’ll skip over the issue of prices since they were entirely beyond our control, fairly consistent, and also instructive. It’s also hard to compare the lunch places since we ate at such a wide variety of places, from pizza al taglio to Armando al Pantheon. Nevertheless, I think one observation holds for all of our dinners (excepting, of course, the last, as you will see shortly), including Armanda al Pantheon. Even with the occasional exception, we almost always received very good food that was ably served and nicely presented. The food was often even better than that; it was often downright delicious. If it didn’t truly excite us and impress us enormously, it was nevertheless excellent food, clearly among the top tier of what’s available. And yet….
Despite so many wonderful experiences, so many truly wonderful dishes…I have this yearning, this nagging feeling that there is still better food out there. Maybe it means leaving the big city and going into the country. Maybe it means finding the places we didn’t find. Maybe it means not being so picky. Maybe it means knowing what to order and what to avoid. (Though I’m inclined to believe that if something is on the menu, it should be up to the quality of whatever the best dish is.) Still, I find it intriguing that the two meals that pleased me most were lunch at Cacio e Pepe and Da Baffetto. Perhaps that speaks more to my tastes and prejudices. That said, I would happily return to most of the places we ate—certainly to La Buca di Ripetta, to Il Margutta, and to Piperno. I would return to Matricianella, to Armando al Pantheon, and to Osteria Margutta. But the quest will continue for even better food. And we can’t wait to return to Rome.
* * *
Via Margutta 82
Via Uffici del Vicario 40
via dei Serpenti 28
Via Della Panetteria 54
Via Marmorata 47
Checchino dal 1887
Via di Monte Testaccio 30
Piazza Mastai, 1
Piazza Navona, 30
La Buca di Ripetta
via Ripetta 36
Via Margutta 118
Cacio e Pepe
via Avezzana, 11
Piazza Sant'Eustachio 82
via del Leone 4
Armando al Pantheon
Salita dei Crescenzi 31
Via Monte de' Cenci 9
Da Baffetto (aka Pizzeria Baffetto)
Via del Governo Vecchio 114
Wow, I don't really have the words to describe how your post made me feel, or how profoundly it affected my day, but I thank you. As a lover of Rome, and former two-time resident, I long to return on a near-daily basis.... and while the food is only one reason, it is a very important one!
I am glad that you had such positive gastronomic experiences- some of the places that you visited are among my favorites. I just hope that you found a little bit of time to distract yourself from eating with some history/architecture/fine art.... but not too much :) Thanks again for taking the time to allow us to relive it with you.
Thanks ever so much for taking the time! I am also a fan of Buca di Ripetta which probably deserves more mention here, especially because good unprentious places are not so thick on the ground in that area.. There is another place on the same side of the street that is also quite good...Trattoria Al Gran Sasso.
I had an excellent pajata at Nerone last winter..so you might try that next time just to see if it is any more satisfactory than the one at Checchino.
I think that bruschetta has a different connotation here than it does in Italy. I believe, and MBFant or JenKalb can correct, that the word refers to the bread being "grilled over a fire" and that said bread can be served either alone or topped with any number of things..there is no set recipe for bruschetta.
Again, many thanks for a wonderfully informative and tasty report!
I might agree with you about the bruschetta except for the fact that we also ordered it at Armando al Pantheon and it came exactly as we expected--or, if you will, as we would expect to get it in the US. Whether this particular presentation was unique to Checchino (and, in fairness, it's possible that the menu had a description of a different kind of bruschetta, though we don't recall it that way) or to certain places or whether there's some other explanation, who knows? I should also point it that it was fine, as in tasty to eat. Just unexpected.
Thanks. The two other sources I used--both were invaluable--were eGullet and LTHForum.org (a local board in Chicago that I am a member of and that you've already looked at, clearly. Use their extremely helpful search function; same with eGullet). I'd encourage you to spend as much time as you feel the investment is worth. Frankly, I based 95% of our decisions on what I'd read on those boards plus Chowhound. Everyone filters what they read, whose advice they take, and so forth, differently. I'd strongly encourage you to read as much as you can. For us, it paid off handsomely.