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Florence / Rome report - May 2013 (Long Trip, Long Post)

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PROLOGUE

Too many details here, but as I re-lived these meals, I noted whether we had/needed a reservation. I thought about any “touristy” vibe (obviously we added to it), but some places felt more “local” than others. I tracked prices as an exercise in personal and inflationary economics – no conclusions. But if there is economic disaster in Italy, we couldn’t tell. I have not recorded tips as that discussion probably belongs in a separate thread; not easy to figure out the right thing to do.

Location determines our eating: Santa Croce neighborhood in Florence and Piazza Navona in Rome. Our goal is to enjoy good food without starchy formal service or the latest culinary innovations so we don’t seek super high end dining with either of those features. We try to avoid eating mediocre food just because it is cheap and convenient. A caveat: Tabs may be misleading since “split” is our MO as we have aged out (had a 46th anniversary) of eating ourselves into a perpetual stupor. Thanks to all the Chowhounders who contributed to our list over the years.

FLORENCE

Day 1- Dinner at Casalinga. Reservation. Seated at 7:30 in the half-full back room between an English (as in UK) foursome of a certain age and an Italian mother and father, tourists with, let's say, a 12 year old daughter. Waiter was a particularly cheerful Italian who had learned his colloquial English in Australia and New York. A lively and fun dinner, one of our best.

Had mixed crostini and tomato bruschetta (so did everyone else). Rich liver pate especially terrific. My eyes had bulged out when the waiter brought the kilo of steak he proposed as ours. Yes, of course. So we had beef cooked bleu inside and charred crust outside with salty oily zucchini I ordered on impulse that really complemented the meat. We took more than half that steak home. Total was 66 Euros, of which 5.50 covered both a half-liter of good but abandoned house white (ordered after a jet-lagged senior moment of forgetting the metrics of a liter) and a glass of pretty weak red. Much figuring out to do about wine--we don’t drink a whole bottle--even a half is a stretch.

Day 2 - Dinner. I posted earlier asking for a quiet restaurant. Many helpful suggestions offered but after some off-Chowhound advice we settled on Trattoria Roberto (via Castellani 4). Worked perfectly: tables far apart; no neighbors; no noise; pretty enough with vibrant turquoise tablecloths; unobtrusive service, convenient location. Food was only fair (both the bland halibut and bland veal were in the same bland lemon sauce) but the setting was exactly right. 88 Euros for 3, including an 18 Euro bottle of red.

Day 3 - Lunch from a cheerful patient salumeria vendor inside the Mercato Sant‘ Ambrogio. We ate in a nearby park--my favorite eating if the transaction of buying is pleasurable. Then a rich cone at Grom (not my favorite gelato).

Dinner at Valle Dei Cedri (Borgo S. Croce 11/R). Yes, I know. Lebanese in Florence. Crazy. At 8:00 we kept our 7:30 reservation --having stopped by earlier on our way to the Uffizi to reserve. We were identified only as "the Americans"; we were indeed the only ones. FYI for anyone interested in raw Kibbeh on the menu: it has to be requested in advance so the “right lamb” can be procured. We split hot and cold mixed appetizer plate, tabouleh, kibbeh pie, rice, and mixed sweets plate for dessert. One beer and a glass of white wine. Satisfying dinner in a pleasant surround with good service. 62 Euros.

Day 4 - Not a Chowhound-worthy day (well maybe the yummy market strawberries and leftover steak snack). On the Uffizi terrace water was the point. FYI: No water allowed in the galleries. We had to trash our bottles on entry and we encountered no drinking fountains. 19 Euros for our water/coffee break.

At the top of the Bardini Gardens a surprisingly good prepackaged gelato -- brand “Baby”. OUTSTANDING view. 15 Euros for a prosecco, the gelato and a capuccino.

Hearty early dinner at the touristy pizza place on our corner (Le Colonnine Via De Benci 6R). Pizza with four cheeses, a Margherita, salad and a glass of wine. 27 Euros. (Better pizza than we had in Rome.)

Day 5 - Lunch at Quelo on Borgo S. Croce. Perhaps quite the bar at night with its hip urban name, but at a quiet quick lunch we each had a warming bowl of minestrone and split a HUGE mozzarella and tomato crostini. Cash. No receipt. Off to Rome on the high speed train.

ROME

Day 1 - Dinner on a Monday night near Piazza Navona without a reservation. Hmm. We were hungry and delighted to be in a huge city again -- could have eaten anything and loved it. Wandered past Restaurant Fico and remembered a friend recommended it. Pretty empty at 8:00. Pasta with “regular pesto” was the special as the waiter translated it. (Now comes the embarrassing admission that we speak no Italian at all.) It was better than the amatriciana, but neither was memorable. Split a salad and semifreddo. We had a good time–chatted with a honeymooning couple from Berlin--he a sushi chef trained in Israel. Cash. Lost receipt.

Day 2 - Lunch After our much-repeated search for the best imaginable 2008 take-away porchetta on the west side of the Pantheon, we split an ok porchetta and salad at Aristocampo, efficiently served among lots of tourists. (We possibly found the original place but the offering was pre-made sandwiches from a a puny cold pig –I asked to see–rather than from the whole-just-arrived-from-the-countryside warm pig that we dream of). 23 Euros, including a glass of Pinot Grigio.

Dinner at Etabli on Viccolo delle Vacche, thanks to Rome Eats app. Pretty empty for us earlybirds. Split: creamy small artichoke flan (I’d eat it again in a heartbeat), a yummy ricotta crostini, a tasty hamburger, one glass of of good wine. “Hit the Road Jack” played in the background. Live music as we left when it began to fill up. I would return. Low key at the time we were there. Charming waiter. Friendly vibe. Quirky decor. 27 Euros.

Day 3 - Lunch. Stumbled on a holiday into Piperno without a reservation. Gorgeous day. Outside full. No other Americans inside and a large Italian three-generation family with babies and grandparents set the tone (nice). I ordered off-menu handmade fettucine with oil and cheese. (Learned before at Piperno to pay attention to handmade versus homemade.) This simple but perfectly done pasta was among the best things I ate in Rome. I’d love to be able to duplicate it but can’t get my dressed pasta hot enough. Husband had taglioni with tomato sauce. We also split a refreshing lemony room temperature spinach side. I had wild strawberries with lemon sauce. (My almost favorite desert of the trip.) Spouse had a not too sweet purple cherry tart. One glass of white wine -- elegantly served in a serious wine glass by a serious waiter. Best (though only) Caffe Americano I had in Rome. Would love that coffee at home. 65 Euros.

Dinner: Memorable. Our wonderful guide for a tour of the Celian Churches (Carolina Vincenti) reserved for us at La Pace Del Palato (Via Del Teatro Pace). Our 8:00 reservation found us in a mostly empty small restaurant, seated in a little alcove near an open door, psychologically between the outside and the inside. This is not a particularly “touristy” restaurant and I thought this must have been a place to seat tourists, but no -- it was a gesture to give us a beautifully lit quiet table. Lovely. Romantic. We split: delicate ravioli with butter and sage, juicy meatballs with a potato napoleon, a salad (the best freshest greens of the whole trip), tirimisu, half bottle of good white wine, and a comped lemoncello. (We had to beg the server not to give us two.) 70 Euros.

Day 4 - Trattoria Monti. Reserved. We always have a good time here--the only time we drink almost a whole bottle-- perhaps an explanation. We split ravioli with sage and butter, as good as anything we ate anywhere. Spouse had heavenly piglet. I had the rabbit wrapped around ground meat. A bit dry (which is not the first time I have had a disappointing main here) but I ate enough of the piglet so all was well. My husband always choses a tiramisu. I chose a delicious frozen cantaloupe mousse-incredibly light and refreshing. Caused me to order cantaloupe gelato elsewhere but none as intensely melon-flavored as this dessert. We were there for a good 2 1/2 hours, including a complimentary Grappa. (Is Grappa odd after lunch? Another (American) couple leaving with us had watched and said it was very odd.) 85 Euros, including the tasty 18 euro bottle of white wine.

Dinner -- we stumbled into Cul de Sac and ordered a bean/artichoke dish and broccolini. Good, hearty portions. Plus an antipasto with two kinds of rich mozzarella and two kinds of prosciutto. I chose a 6 euro glass of Rosso Poggio Alle Mura which was the best red I drank all trip. (Wine bars may be my solution for good wine – but the food not so much.) Only time we heard a lot of American English. 31 Euros.

Day 5 - Dinner - after an (FYI) relatively uncrowded open-to-the-public May evening at the Vatican, we headed back to La Pace Del Palato and, as “regulars” without a reservation and were seated outside in the last empty space. It was fashionably late and we watched with amazement the young folks eating course after course after course. We split: salad (again tender greens, self-dressed), artichoke, carbonara, and a glass of wine, all of which still took two hours. Had we not gotten the vibe that it always takes two hours to eat here, we might have returned. A gem of a family-owned restaurant. 43 Euros plus a tip handed directly to the over-worked waitress.

Day 6 - a respite from eating out.

Day 7 - Weekend Brunch with local friends at a fixed price buffet at Fabrica on Via Savonarola. An old factory - interesting setting. Pleasant, quiet (we were early). Food was a home-made mix of hummus and other mezze, frittatas, bacon, scrambled eggs, savory and sweet tarts. As tourists, it was a unique neighborhood experience. 87 Euros for four, including one 5 Euro glass of wine.

Day 8 - simple lunch at the Bramante Cloister on Via Della Pace. I recommend it -- spouse not so enamored. Small menu. I chose a warm salad: green beans and smashed potatoes garnished with almonds, sweet berries, sour berries, and pickled red onions (will try this at home). Spouse chose a creamy rich asparagus risotto and found it too monotonous as a whole meal. 23 Euros. No wine.

Dinner at locals’ home. Best meal, except for dessert, provided by me, as an American touch. I took cupcakes from Creative Bakery on Via Coronati. Sorry to report they were variable -- some less fresh than others. In chatting through language barriers I am guessing this bakery accepts a longer than I think appropriate “sell by” date. But the venue did have an exquisite tiny cup of made-on-the-spot pistachio gelato that I could eat forever (two flavors offered each day). Alas, the next day, the machine was broken.

Day 9 - After the Capitoline museums, we found ourselves unexpectedly in the Ghetto again. So we ate at Giggetto and split the famous artichoke. YUM. Rest was on the heavy side. My husband’s cannelloni had just the right amount of char. My saltimbocca was tasty enough with a side of spinach. Not a light meal; not even close to a favorite, but artichoke is still in my dreams. One glass of wine. 52 Euros.

Dinner at Armando al Pantheon, reserved days earlier in person and almost full even then. I had to beg a little for 8:00. Small/cozy/charming/could become a favorite. However, wasn’t our favorite meal. Spouse ordered (at my urging) cacio e pepe which I make from Cucina Simpatica (Il Forno, Providence RI). It was hotter than mine (mea culpa), also more al dente -- most al dente pasta we ate. Interesting as a standard. I was intrigued by the waiter’s description to order the special grouper (not split with my husband who does not eat fish) but as an inexperienced fish eater, I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. Not their fault. Semifreddo was only okay. House wine. We were not rushed by the staff in any way and were in and out in an hour. The staff took signals from us. I think we weren’t hungry enough after gorging ourselves on Titian at the Quirinal, or perhaps at Giggetto. 63 Euros.

Day 10 - Larry River’s exhibit opening at Jewish Museum with passed hors d’oeuvres. Interesting to me but possibly predictable to Romans: eggplant mash on really fresh soft bread, individual servings of mashed bean presented in small ramekins with long-handled tiny spoons, one-bite tartlets, tiny crostini, peanuts, full open bar including Bellini’s, and nut biscotti. In the Synagogue courtyard with beautiful weather and astoundingly elegant attendees.

Day 11 - Lunch at Al Moro. We split the perfect carbonara which was indeed “more soft” than others, by which the waiter probably meant “delicate.” It was the best, as predicted. Spouse had veal with lemon sauce and I had baby lamb in a mildly spicy sauce. Both excellent. And some too oily asparagus. I ordered wild strawberries in lemon juice (not “sauce” as at Piperno) and alas declined the choice of ice cream of whipped cream which was clearly a necessary addition. Spouse had a sour cherry tart in the same league as Piperno, but sweeter. He couldn’t choose a favorite. A glass of prosecco, 1/2 bottle of white chosen by the waiter, and one limoncello (not comped). A long relaxed meal, professionally served. We could hear banking business conducted around us in accented English but if there were American tourists, we couldn’t hear them. Total with the 15 Euro half bottle was 137 Euros. We actually ate a lot, hence the large check.

Day 12 - Lunch. After a late opera night with no dinner, we wandered a bit thinking about lunch. We called for a (necessary) reservation to start in 20 minutes at Ditirambo (Piazza della Cancelleria). We split the steak tartar appetizer which was one of the best tartars I’ve eaten -- maybe ever. It is a home staple but this one had NO fat at all in the very tasty beef -- the fat came from porcinis in truffle oil. I ordered cacio e pepe for comparison to Armando. Fatter pasta (tonnarelli, I believe), not so al dente but not overcooked either. I prefer the thinner pasta at Armando. Spouse had pappardelle with rabbit, cheese, and tomatoes. Pretty good, but for me simpler is better. One glass of wine. 49 Euros.

Day 13 -- Back to US

Misc.: Espresso at St. Eustachio -- I finally get why it is considered the best. Naturally, gelato at Frigidarium (2 euros per small cone) with amaretto the highlight. Our favorite gelato place was the newly opened Via Coronari location of Gelateria del Teatro. Smaller portions than Frigidarium, less rich than Grom, and wonderful flavor combinations served purposely side-by-side. 2.50 euros per small cone; no lines as yet.

Mediocre pizza not worth reporting.

When we skipped eating out, we ate delicious nuts (especially fresh walnuts) from the Campo stand Spezie e Frutta Fresca Da Berardi Mauro and antipasti from Roscioli. We made multiple trips to the salumeria facing the Pantheon that purportedly stays open till 2:00 am. I owe thanks to the patient English speaking cashier there who cajoled her colleagues into putting up with me and picky slow ordering.

I want to live in Rome. I want to learn to make my pasta properly. I want to eat more Roman artichokes and more steak tartar at Ditirambo. More of it all. And it may even become possible next spring. I’m hoping.

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  1. Thanks for taking the time to write this. It was entertaining and has given me some ideas for an upcoming trip in September.

    1. Elizabeth, fantastic report. You gave me some ideas for my upcoming trip. Thanks