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May 5, 2009 01:12 PM

Rome Trip Report (2 of 2)

Agata e Romeo: I wanted to love this restaurant more than I did. I was impressed with the technical skill of the dishes, impressed with the quality of the ingredients, and blown-away with the extra-ordinary service. Ultimately, however, I have a serious criticism about the repeated use of turbot in the Agata e Romeo tasting menu. The restaurant's cooking style lets the natural flavors of the ingredients speak for themselves without too much embellishment. Conceptually, I have no problem with that approach. In reality, I have a problem when one ingredient takes a star turn over and over without much variety in sauces or preparation.

Dinner began with an amuse that was a mousse of turbot with a sea urchin sauce. I know sea urchin is a controversial ingredient, but I’ve had it in several dishes and really enjoyed the flavor. Oddly, I got a strong taste of liver in the amuse in spite of the fact that the dish, as explained, contained no liver. (I like liver, too, so that wasn’t a problem.)

The first course was lobster prepared two ways -- a terrine of lobster and a lobster claw -- accompanied by salad of mache. There was a wonderfully intense lime sauce drizzled over the lobster claw and the salad. The lobster terrine was bland and would have benefitted from a drizzle of the superb lime sauce.

The next course was foie gras prepared three ways: grilled fresh foie gras, pate, and foie gras creme brulee. The last item was totally amazing, probably my favorite dish in the whole meal. The dish included a fig chutney that was sublime and a whole fig in heavy sugar syrup. These two accompaniments were a great addition to the grilled foie gras, in particular.

We next ate risotto topped by a scallop. This was a tour de force demonstration of how to make a good risotto.

The next course was described as ravioli of fish soup (ravioli di zuppa de pesce). Part of my disappointment about this course was one of expectations. I had anticipated an Italian version of Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai soup dumplings). In fact, the dish turned out to be ravioli filled with a puree of turbot. The ravioli were served in a bit of broth accompanied by a small piece of turbot and a head-on shrimp. The dish was really tasty, but double appearance of turbot was not a selling point for me. My husband felt that the texture of the ravioli filling was too reminiscent of the texture of the lobster terrine.

Up to this point in the meal, everyone got the same food. At this stage, diners selected the next course choosing between pigeon accompanied by pigeon-liver mousse and turbot wrapped in leeks and accompanied by a dice of mixed vegetables. My husband and I love fish. We eat it essentially seven days a week so the relatively few options was not a problem. However, the third appearance of turbot continued the serious lack of imagination and was a problem. With all the lovely fish available in the region, I was, and continue to be, utterly bewildered why the kitchen would send out turbot three times.

I mentioned the technical excellence of the food and this dish was a good example. Someone in the kitchen has super knife skills. The size of the diced vegetables was amazingly tiny and staggeringly uniform. Very impressive. While I can admire such arcane details, ultimately, I judge a restaurant by the taste and I was somewhat let down by eating turbot again.

The next course certainly broke new ground! It consisted of gorgonzola gelato surrounded by some honey and topped with a sauce of melted hard gorgonzola cheese. I liked the flavors, but the gelato had a lumpy texture when cold. Once the gelato melted in my mouth, the texture issues disappeared and I could focus on the fascinating taste.

The next dessert was a tower affair consisting of two paper-thin rectangular cookies of chocolate layered with a custard cream and raspberries. Lovely. This pastry was accompanied by vanilla gelato with rum served in a Florentine cookie tuille.

The final dessert consisted of three types of ultra-mini pastries: a baba and two types of cookies. Each ranged in size from a US quarter to a US nickel. Again, the technical skill to produce such delectable minis was very impressive.

We drank Italian champagne throughout the entire meal. (The server made it very clear that we would be drinking champagne and not spumante or prosecco.) This was a wonderful accompaniment to the dishes.

Since I collect teapots, I loved the restaurant’s decoration. Wall-sized grids of dark-stained wood provided display space for Agata’s teapot collection. Along one wall, there was a high shelf lined with teapots that were too big to fit into the niches of the grid. Twice, I saw a waiter walk over to the wall and take down a teapot. A short time later, the teapot appeared on someone’s table. I thought this was a neat touch.

Purse stools! Hooray!

Immediately after the meal, my husband and I said that despite being an impressive meal, ultimately dining at a super high-end restaurant is not why we enjoy eating in Italy. Over time, our feelings changed somewhat to focus on the lack of variety. We thought back to other high-end tasting meals we’ve eaten (e.g. Jean-Georges in NY) and recalled our positive feelings about the succession of tastes throughout the meal. Would I go back to Agata e Romeo? Not sure. If so, we’d probably try the traditional tasting menu, although I suspect we’d first head back to Il Convivio. Still, our visit the next night to Antico Arco makes a future visit to either Agata or Convivio less likely. This restaurant is not Agata’s equal, but it compares very favorably with regard to cooking skill and decor. Service is extremely polished, definitely closer to the Agata model than to the trattoria model. And all this at a price that is only slightly more than half the cost of our meal at Agata.

Antico Arco: This is a sleek, modern restaurant serving innovative, well-executed food. You’ll need to take a taxi to get to this out of the way location, but the views driving up to the top of the hill are lovely. After carrying on about the repetition of ingredients at Agata, you’ll note a bit of inconsistency in my positive feelings about Antico Arco considering there was a lot of cheese in this menu. However, both the type of cheese and the treatment of each dish showed enough variety that we were totally happy with our meal.

We began the meal with an amuse consisting of a slice of poached octopus inserted into a bed of mashed potatoes mixed with olives. Outstanding.

The first course was delectable; we were swooning and yet, as the other courses were presented, this yummy food eventually fell to third place. The menu calls this dish “ Mozzarella di bufala croccante, bottarga di tonno e pomodori confit.” The dish consists of a ball of mozzarella wrapped in a few sheets of puff pastry and baked. The dish was finished by shaved bottarga and strips of semi-dried tomatoes.

The menu describes the next course as “Tortino di Burrata alici e fiori di zucca.” I’m not sure about the tortino part; I’m not persuaded that a portion of melted burrata cheese qualifies as a tortino. Nevertheless, we enjoyed this dish with its appealing combination of flavors: cheese, fresh anchovy, and zucchini blossom.

Question: I’m not clear about the difference between alici and accughe? Is one fresh and the other salted or marinated? When would someone use one word versus the other word?

The regular sequence of the tasting menu would next serve tagliatelle with gray mullet and saffron. However, in our internet research we’d become attracted to one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, a cheese risotto served with a nebbiolo sauce. We asked if we could substitute the risotto for the tagliatelle. A quick inquiry of the chef and our request was honored. I now present the star of the meal: Riso Violone Nano, Castlemagno, e Riduzione di Nebbiolo. Fantastic! The wine sauce was an incredibly delicious foil for the amazing cheese risotto.

The pasta Amatriciana was delicious and would have been a star in another setting but it followed the amazing risotto and was merely good in comparison. (The pasta was half-paccheri, a pasta that we would come to know and love in its full dimensions in Amalfi and Naples.)

I was nervous about the next course since I’m not a big fan of sweet with meat and the word “agrodolce” jumped out at me when reading the menu. (If asked if I wanted the English or Italian menu, I take one of each. My menu Italian is my best Italian; actually it’s quite serviceable Italian except for local pasta names and some more arcane words. I knew the word for pork, but the words for suckling pig sent me scurrying to the English menu.)

I should have had more confidence in this excellent kitchen; the sauce was very light and appealing -- not the least bit cloying. The dish consisted of two slices of pork tenderloin set vertically on the plate. They were linked by a log-shaped piece of ultra-crisp skin so the total effect was that of a bar bell. This was topped by a second piece of skin. By deconstructing the dish, the kitchen was able to deliver each element optimally -- moist meat and super-crisp skin.

Pre-dessert was an appealing pear panna cotta. The cheese course consisted of three cheeses, a hard cheese, a soft cheese, and gorgonzola. (Sorry, I can’t remember the types of cheese.) These were accompanied by a tomato-horseradish chutney, a lemon-celery chutney, and honey.

The silver medal dish of the evening was dessert: mojito sorbetto. At least the menu called it sorbetto. I think granita is a more accurate description of the texture. Each portion of this dessert is made to order. The ingredients of the sorbetto/granita are exactly those of the drink. The jolt of lime and the rum were a perfect ending to this outstanding meal.

Food and fun with Maureen Fant: We spent a very special day with Maureen visiting Volpetti’s and the Testaccio market and feasting at Checchino dal 1887. We arranged this experience through ContextRome, an excellent day-tour organization. (We would later take a considerable number of their day tours in Naples.) The official title of the experience is Annotated Lunch. I think “The Pleasure of Maureen’s Company – Along with Really Delicious Food” is a much more evocative title.

Incidentally, Context Rome and Context Naples offer two types of tours: private and small group. Although there is a calendar for the small group tours, if you want to take a specific tour but it isn’t offered on a convenient day write the office and ask about their adding a small group tour to the public calendar. That’s what we did for our day with Maureen and for all our tours in Naples. Maureen also offers a more hands-on cooking experience through her own web site. Regardless of which experience better meets your needs, you’ll find Maureen to be a knowledgeable, charming, and enthusiastic person to help you better appreciate Roman and Italian food. Kudos! (How would I say this in Italian? Brava? Bravo?)

Maureen has a close relationship with Volpetti and this benefits those of us in her charge. We were showered with samples of white-belt pork salami and proscuitto, marinated mushrooms, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Of course, our group – two couples – responded by enthusiastically buying food.

(For the flight home, we kept the balsamic in its original protective packaging and carried it in our on-board luggage. The bottle did meet the 100 ml restriction, but the protective wrapping was too large to fit inside a plastic baggie. Nevertheless, our arrangements didn’t even produce a raised eyebrow from security in our departure city, Naples. We didn’t have to go through security for our connecting flight back to the US in Munich. Two years ago, we got static about our balsamic bottle not being in a baggie in both our departure city, Bologna, and our change of plane in Paris.)

The tour of the market in Testaccio was fascinating. Maureen identified some foods that were wholly new to us. Even familiar food looked fresher and more appealing than food we can find locally until farmer’s market season. We bought oranges from Sicily to eat for breakfast the next day and they were merely amazing!

The food and the company at lunch at Checchino combined for a memorable experience. No one ordered any of the hard-core offal dishes (e.g. pajata), but we didn’t exactly wimp out either. I’ll try to remember what everyone ate, but I might not be able to do so since we consumed amazing quantities of excellent food. In fact, we never did eat dinner that night. At some point, we nibbled on a bit of our food from Volpetti and consumed the rest for breakfast the next morning. (In Rome, we stayed in an apartment in the Monti district.)

For the primi course, I think our group was split between pasta carbonara and bucatini alla gricia. Maureen explained that the latter is simply carbonara without the egg. My husband got the carbonara, and I got the alla gricia. We shared tastes and both agreed that mine was the better dish. My husband felt the egg diluted the flavors of the cheese and guanciale. At home, I’ve only seen ground guanciale. The version at Checchino featured thin small pieces of the meat. This produced a more successful dish. While eating, I could distinguish each element so I encountered a succession of tastes instead of a homogeneous taste. Lovely.

Although I was considering ordering the grilled sweetbreads, I ultimately ordered a great lamb dish whose name I don’t remember. I only have the word “abbachio” in my notes. It consisted of chunks of braised lamb coated with lemon, egg, and parsley. The lemon added a brightness to the dish without being as sharp as a Greek avgolemono sauce. Absolutely delicious! (I like sweetbreads but I’m used to a saute with a bit of sauce. The unadorned grilled version offered at this restaurant seemed too austere.) My husband adored his oxtail, Coda alla Vaccarina. I know that one person in our group ordered the coda cacciatore, but I think we were otherwise split between the lamb dish and the oxtail.

We also ordered contorni for everyone to share: vignarola and broccoli rabe. Both delicious.

More sharing ensued when we got the last piece of apple cake in the restaurant along with a thoroughly decadent piece of stracciatella cake. And, as if that weren’t enough, we nibbled on excellent cheese platters.

At the end of the day, we were hugging one another as we said our good-byes. That’s the sort of comfortable rapport Maureen establishes with her group. A memorable experience on many levels.


Il Gelato di San Crispino now has a branch located somewhat north of the Pantheon. It’s in the pedestrian route between the Corso and the Piazza della Rotonda. I assume the original location near the Trevi Fountain still exists.

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  1. You can't see me blushing, but I'm deeply honored by your enthusiastic report. Let me try to fill in a few details. I also want to clarify something. My close relationship with Volpetti is based more on the amount of treccia di bufala my husband is able to consume in a year than on the fact that people I take there occasionally buy balsamic vinegar. I've been shopping there for nigh on thirty years. The white belt pork is Cinta senese, an heirloom pig from southern Tuscany which gives the most wonderful salami and prosciutto. We also ate the pork chops once at an agriturismo in Tuscany, and my next experiment will be making pasta alla gricia with the guanciale.

    The lamb dish is abbacchio brodettato and they make it at Checchino only in the weeks around Easter. I agree that gricia is better than carbonara. Never heard of grinding guanciale. That's terrible. The coda doesn’t come alla cacciatora. That would be lamb. The other manifestation of the coda is in tonnarelli al sugo di coda, the tomato sauce in which the oxtail stewed for several hours.

    6 Replies
    1. re: mbfant

      Wow !! I am overwhelmed, and from this description, sooo jealous! Thank you so much for the wonderful report ... we are looking forward to trying all your choices as well. I was unaware that MBFant was available to guide one through such interesting culinary adventures ... I will remember that for future travels! Surely, you are better versed than I in the menu choices, so I am sure I would benefit even more from an on-site tutorial by Maureen of the fare available at this level!! And, by the way, I was so involved in your descriptions of the meals you had that I think I missed which were at Convivio, or are you posting later on that?? Antico Arco is much raved about lately ... now I know specifically why ... we will go there first and then compare against that! Thanks for your great report.

      1. re: PeggyD

        Hmmm. Your question about Il Convivio makes me realize how badly I garbled my last paragraph. My husband and I ate at Convivio our last trip to Rome not this trip. When we were debating between Agata and Convivio for our insanely big splurge, Agata won the toss both because it was new to us and because we could walk there from our apartment. We love being able to walk to sites and restaurants -- great break from our typical suburban routine and imperative if we want to keep our weight somewhat under control.

      2. re: mbfant

        Thanks for the clarifying information. Again, thanks for a wonderful day learning and feasting.

        1. re: mbfant

          "The other manifestation of the coda is in tonnarelli al sugo di coda, the tomato sauce in which the oxtail stewed for several hours."

          Thank you, mbfant! I had this in January and couldn't for the life of me remember what I had ordered. It was possibly my favorite dish that trip. I followed it with a lamb dish that had a distinctive kick (insert joke about how it must have been donkey if it kicked, har har). Maybe a bit of anchovy and red pepper flake? It almost seemed like something I could replicate at home....?

          Indy, we went to Antico Arco twice in one week--partially because I got a little confused making reservations using my "Italian"--first night did the tasting menu, second time a la carte. The service was gracious both times, but positively effusive our second visit. Nice wines.

          Okay, this is making want to return to Rome straightaway.

          1. re: Leely2

            Your lamb must have been abbacchio alla cacciatora, boneless lamb marinated and cooked with a piece of anchovy and red pepper, also rosemary.

        2. I will be in Rome in a week and a half, and Antico Arco looms large on our agenda. Can't wait.

          1. Great report, both parts. You've given me lots of ideas.

            On my last trip, our final evening in Rome we had a taxi driver drop us off at San Crispino by Trevi after dinner. On the walk back to apartment we discovered the new San Crispino. Gluttony beat goodness (again!) and we had a second gelato.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Leely2

              I've already posted what I'm about to share, but it's very appropriate. Compared to the individual below, you have nothing to feel guilty about!

              Favorite conversation overheard in Italy. (Overheard on Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle):

              Wife: What do you want to do about breakfast?
              Husband: Get some gelato.
              Wife: But it's breakfast! You really can't want to eat gelato.
              Husband: It's my last day in Rome. I'm going to have gelato for breakfast and after lunch and dinner. And if I feel like having some gelato in between meals, I'm going to!

            2. This is a marvelous report! Thank you so much. And you got to meet, and dine with(!!), the legendary MB Fant, an experience that I now hope to repeat on my own trip to Rome sometime in the (near, I hope) future!

              Also LOVED your Amalfi report!

              1. there's just something so cool about renting an apartment in rome and living on the economy.

                my modest contribution to this wonderful thread is this: walk the neighborhoods and gravitate toward restaurants that "talk" to you. sometimes we all get a little too consumed by our quest for the best. restaurants love repeat customers. find a local place you enjoy and go back. it will be like a family homecoming. food, service and personal attention will be kicked up a notch.

                one last thing: deb and i are charter members of the maureen fan club.

                2 Replies
                1. re: steve h.

                  Thanks, steve h. - I really needed to hear that! I'm making a few reservations for the places high on my list (Paris, Al Ceppo, Armando & ColIine Emiliane). However, I've really been struggling with our other meal decisions and just last evening I decided to leave the rest of the choices open and let serendipity lead us.
                  We are going to be in Rome for 6 days and have a lot of sightseeing planned, however, we also have a lot of free time for wandering and exploring. I have a feeling those explorations will lead us in the right direction.
                  And if we have a clunker...sometimes it's those not-so-great experiences that can be memorable for their comedic material. (Believe it or not, we ate excellently on our trip to Ireland, however, the funny happenstances of our two worst meals still make us a chuckle.)

                  1. re: Mushroom

                    hi mushroom,
                    serendipity is at the heart of every great adventure.