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Report from ROME: Grano, La Gensola, and Al Ceppo

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Several months ago, I sought some advice on where my wife and I should dine in Rome. We appreciated all the helpful replies and now that we’re back from our trip abroad, here’s our report from Rome, which serves as our thanks.

Tuesday night, October 5, tired, hungry, and without a reservation, we walked to Ristorante Grano where we wanted to have a casual dinner outside. We arrived around 9:00PM and we were immediately seated at a table among other English-speaking diners. Our waiter was pleasant, but seemed to disappear for long stretches, especially after we asked for the check at the end of the meal. From the English menus, we ordered and split spaghetti carbonara and rigatoni all’amatriciana to start. Neither was particularly outstanding. The carbonara was drenched in a heavy sauce and I couldn’t find the pecorino or guanciale flavors anywhere. To be fair, my wife, who has a better palette than me, thought the flavor was as it should be. The amatriciana was good, but the sauce tasted more like marinara—it wasn’t spicy and there was very little pancetta. Our entrees were just disappointing. I ordered veal saltimbocca alla romana and my wife ordered calamari. I’ve made better saltimbocca at home. The sauce was flat and the bright flavors usually associated with the dish were conspicuously absent. Worse, the veal was tough. The breaded calamari was soggy, under-seasoned, and very chewy. It may have been the worst dish we’ve experienced in Italy. We passed on dessert and paid our €87 bill, which included a bottle of white table wine. We didn’t have high expectations prior to dinner, and Grano didn’t exceed them.

The next night we dined at Osteria La Gensola in Trastevere. I reserved a table at 7:30PM over the Internet two month in advance—probably more lead time than required, but I wanted to guarantee the table and move on to planning other aspects of our trip. We arrived on time to find an empty restaurant and we were given a choice table and menus written in Italian. Both of us speak enough Italian to express ourselves, but neither of us knew enough to understand every menu item, as some items were specific varieties of vegetables or cuts of fish or meat, some of which were locally obtained. Our waiter graciously and patiently answered all our questions—in Italian when we understood it and in English when we couldn’t. As time passed, the tables around us filled with diners speaking Italian, and the spirited din reached a crescendo around 9:00PM. We ordered a bottle of 2006 Cusumano Nero d’Avola (recommended by our waiter) and we were brought a treat from the kitchen: baby anchovies with tomatoes in a chickpea puree—a nice, unexpected way to start our meal. After, we shared an outstanding appetizer of tuna meatballs in a delicious tomato sauce. The meatballs melted like M&Ms. Next, my wife had rigatoni all’matriciana and I had calamari and spaghetti tossed with olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, and fennel seed. The matriciana was good, but could have benefited from a few more hot pepper flakes, but the calamari and spaghetti was everything that I want in pasta when in Italy: simple and fresh. My wife, not normally a fan of fennel seed, thought the ingredient made the dish. For the entrees, we ordered coda alla vaccinara and monkfish cheeks in tomato sauce. Both were fantastic. The meat from the oxtail offered no resistance when pulled from the bone and the sauce was deliciously rich. The fish cheeks were perfectly cooked and the dish was light and fresh, similar to a puttanesca sauce. We don’t normally order desert, but since everything else was so good we thought it might be best to try a slice of chocolate cake and cassata siciliana. The chocolate cake was good, but the cassata siciliana was excellent; it’s filling reminded me of the filling found in a good cannoli. The bill was €138. Obviously, we loved La Gensola. Our waiter was friendly and helpful and the food was superlative. La Gensola’s atmosphere was what I would think most people seek; a neighborhoody kind of place where the chef inspects a delivery of live crustaceans in the dining room and where English pleasantly absent.

Thursday night, we were excited to dine at Al Ceppo since the chef of an Italian restaurant of which we’re fond recommended it. Like La Gensola, I made a reservation over the Internet two months in advance for a table at 8:00PM. There were a handful of guests already in the middle of their meals when we arrived. We were promptly shown to our table in a very brightly lighted, proper space where figures in large oil paintings watched over the room. Once we settled into our seats, we noticed that many of the diners were speaking English. Again, we found the Italian menu (which was seasonal specific) above our Italian reading level. Our waiter was happy to translate it. To start, we split an octopus, shaved celery stalk, and celery leaf salad. The octopus was overcooked and very chewy—disappointing. We each ordered pasta: I had spaghetti tossed with tuna, tomato, capers, breadcrumbs, and hot pepper flakes; sort of a refined take on spaghetti puttanesca. We both thought it was very well done. My wife had ziti tossed with lamb and ricotta meatballs, artichokes, and olive oil topped with flakes of parmigiano cheese. It sounded fantastic, but the dish was pretty bland. Eating the dish was a bit of a chore. [A quick aside…has the serving size of pasta increased in Rome recently? Both pasta dishes at Al Ceppo were huge. And the dishes at La Gensola were very generous too. This surprised us.] After the pasta, we had grilled lamb chops served with artichokes and potato wedges as well as grilled fish (kingfish, perhaps?) with grilled tomato, zucchini, and eggplant. The lamb was outstanding and perfectly cooked. Unfortunately, the fish was overcooked like the octopus, a bit dry, and forgettable. Ordering fish may have been a mistake. Perhaps we should have taken a cue from the large grill at the front of the house on which all sorts of delicious looking meats were grilling? We thought grilled fish would be within Al Ceppo’s area of expertise, but maybe not. Along with dinner we drank a good bottle of wine that was recommended by our waiter, but neither of us can remember any details aside from its color (red). We passed on desert and paid the €141 bill. We had high expectations before dinner and we left a little disappointed. Half our meal was very good, which only accentuated the deficiencies of the other half. Given that Al Ceppo was so highly praised, by our source and by other members of Chowhound, it’s possible that we simply ordered the wrong items. Perhaps it deserves a second look…

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  1. Thank for the thorough report on your dining experience in Rome. We had a similar experience at Al Ceppo couple years ago. Below is the link of my earlier post.
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5630...

    1. Thank you for the report. Was your waiter Mario at La Gensola? Right out of Prizzi's Honor. I have had several meals there - one last month - and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Chef Claudio is a character and quite good cook. Agree with your assessment of Al Ceppo (despite the Michelin ranking).

      2 Replies
      1. re: wristband

        You’re welcome! I don’t think we ever learned our waiter’s name. It’s been almost two months since we were at La Gensola, so we only remember our waiter’s most general physical characteristics…middle aged, average height, and short, dark hair. Mario or not, he was a good waiter.

        1. re: Il Duomo

          Mario is a dead ringer for William Hickey who starred in Prizzi's Honor. Hickey was an excellent character actor who passed away ten+ years ago. Mario's distinctive gravely voice and wizened look reminds me of Hickey.

          Sounds like your waiter was Giovanni who we had on a lunch visit. Very pleasant experience b/c of the food and G's friendly guidance as to what was particularly good that day from the kitchen. BTW, the Cusamano Insolia Sicilian wine served as the house white is available in the US. I bought several cases since our return as a result of our meals - pleasant but I really love the glass (not cork) top!

      2. In light of this article,
        http://www.parlafood.com/grano-and-th...
        very interesting report which I missed when it first came out.

        11 Replies
        1. re: Parigi

          Grano indeed charged a service fee...it's listed on the bill after the Totale; Servizio: 11,50.
          Adding to the insult, is that our server, Saverio, was the same server who didn't add a fee to Katie Parla's bill (see link above). The date of our dinner was October 5, 2010.

          I never save receipts, but for some reason I saved this one. I'm glad I did. Even knowing that I could get around the service fee in the future, I'll never go back.

          -----
          Grano
          Piazza Rondanini, 53, Rome, Lazio 00186, IT

          1. re: Parigi

            @Parigi thanks for posting this. im sorry that my suspicions turned out the be true.

            @Il Duomo im sorry that happened to you! one note, saviero doesnt personally handle the bills himself the owner does. i have it on good authority that the service charge doesnt go to the server, but directly to the owner. shameful.

            1. re: katieparla

              katieparla:

              Don't worry. For me, a lesson learned. Thanks for your investigative work!

            2. re: Parigi

              To me, the imposition of a discriminatory 15% up-charge on tourists is a very big deal. On our recent trip to Rome --see Dining in Rome - May, 2011, posted on 5/20/11--no such charge was imposed on us at any of the restaurants we patronized. When Katie Parla first raised this issue, that settled one of our choices. We went to Campana instead of Grano, and may well have had a better meal there. But if Grano was El Bulli, this tourist would not knowingly subject himself to a blatantly discriminatory charge.

              By the way, if Il Duomo reads my dining report he will recognize the debt I owe to his original filing for directing me to La Gensola (along with praise from Elizabeth Minchilli). Pal, what we found there was exactly as you had described. Only sorry that we missed those tuna meatballs. My bad.

              -----
              Grano
              Piazza Rondanini, 53, Rome, Lazio 00186, IT

              La Gensola
              Piazza della Gensola, 15, Rome, Lazio 00153, IT

              1. re: lsernoff

                I am totally perverse, so went to Grano in April to "test it out." This was before Katie Parla had confirmed but there were already several reports about the discriminatory servizio. I was so mad at myself that I wasted our last night in Rome at Grano rather than trying someplace else or even returning to any of the other restaurants we had enjoyed on this or prior trips--Antico Arco, Asino d'Oro, Checchino...anything!

                I just had to try it for myself. Foolish, foolish me. I even--very unreasonably and I know I'll get over it--have a teeny-tiny negative view of Rome now, based on that final impression. And this was my sixth visit to Rome, one of my favorite cities.

                -----
                Grano
                Piazza Rondanini, 53, Rome, Lazio 00186, IT

                1. re: Leely2

                  You mean you went out of your way to dine in a restaurant that you had suspected of discriminatory, and came away with a negative view of Rome instead of a negative view of your own judgment?

                  1. re: Parigi

                    Parigi, please see my qualifiers and also my initial statement which would indicate a negative view of my own judgment:

                    I am perverse....[and visiting Grano in spite of my suspicions led me to]--very unreasonably and I know I'll get over it--have a teeny-tiny negative view of Rome....Foolish, foolish me...

                    -----
                    Grano
                    Piazza Rondanini, 53, Rome, Lazio 00186, IT

                  2. re: Leely2

                    Leely2:

                    Shady business practices aside, I’m really curious to know what you thought of your meal.

                    1. re: Il Duomo

                      Il Duomo, our dinner was similar to yours. I had the amatriciana and was underwhelmed though it certainly wasn't bad. The meatballs were pretty good though. Service was friendly but scattered; our server disappeared for long stretches. Someone in my party got the veal and didn't care for it but I can't recall why--may have been tough like yours.

                      I'll have to go and review my notes.

                      1. re: Leely2

                        Thanks, Leely2. The comments on this site regarding Grano have been consistently pretty good and well respected Chowhounders have said nice things about it. All this made me think that I had missed something given the (food) experience that I had. I'm glad I'm not alone.

                        -----
                        Grano
                        Piazza Rondanini, 53, Rome, Lazio 00186, IT

                  3. re: lsernoff

                    Isernoff:

                    I read your report after seeing your post above; I'm glad that someone else enjoyed La Gensola as much we did! We are very fond of it.

                    -----
                    La Gensola
                    Piazza della Gensola, 15, Rome, Lazio 00153, IT