This is my first post on Chowhound. But since I got so much great information here to prepare for my trip, I wanted to share my experience with the greater Chowhound nation. I had three days in Rome, went to Venice for three days, then came back to Rome for three more days. I was traveling by myself, so I didn’t get to sample that many different dishes at each restaurant, but I think I got a good flavor, so to speak, of each of them. Special thanks are due to Maureen Fant for her insights on Roman cuisine and to Joe H. for pointing me to one special restaurant in Venice.
My first dinner was on Saturday night, April 25th, at Ambasciata d’Abruzzo just north of the city center in the Parioli district. It was a really good start to the trip. I got there right at 8 pm and was the only person in the restaurant. But by 8:10 there were half a dozen other tables taken, all by locals, and many of them seeming to be regulars. I started with maccheroni with speck ham and zucchini blossoms. Both the ham and veggies were finely diced, and the sauce was held together by some type of cheese (I’m guessing pecorino). The pasta was cooked perfectly and the sauce was quite good as well. My main was roast suckling pig, and it was very different that what I’ve had in, say, Barcelona. My portion was a pretty sizable chunk of pig rather roughly cut off of the carcass and including a few small bones. There was a generous amount of very crispy skin, and it was all infused with a nice rosemary taste and accented with a couple of tablespoons of pan sauce. It was very tasty, but way too large a portion, especially with the side of very nice spinach. It was accompanied by a dirt cheap (9 euro) half-bottle of Montipulciano (from Abruzzo of course).
For Sunday lunch, I ate at the Terrazza dell’Eden in the Hotel Eden near the Via Veneto. I’ll admit that I seleted La Terrazza partly for the great view (it’s on the top floor of the hotel, which is near the top of the hill near the Villa Borghese) and partly for convenience, since I was staying at the Eden. My amuse was a single ravioli (raviolo?) with duck in a cream sauce. Really good. My primo was a saffron risotto with mixed seafood. The rice was nicely cooked but a bit bland, though there were nice bits of swordfish, squid, mussels, clams, and other fish mixed in. The secondo was a nice thick piece of swordfish, properly cooked (not dry inside) with a nice sear on the outside. It was served with a salad of arugula, cherry tomatoes, and grapefruit, which was a nice contrast. Dessert was an apple “tarte tatin,” which was really more of an individual apple tart than a traditional French tarte tatin. It was very good, however inauthentic it might have been. I had a pretty decent 30E sauvignon blanc from the Veneto with it. Both the food and the view were very enjoyable.
I spent most of Monday west of the Tiber (at the Vatican and the Gianicolo), and dinner was at Antico Arco. Of all the places I ate in Italy, this was the one that could most easily be transplanted to the U.S.: it seems like every restaurant I eat in these days in DC or Atlanta has the same interesting space in an older building, the clever menu with interesting twists on traditional dishes, the young easily-flustered staff, and the sense at the end of the meal that it could have been much more. The amuse was a polpette of pork, lightly breaded and fried, and served on a dollop of spinach. Pretty nice. But the real star of the dinner was the primo: a really nice papardelle with a white duck ragu. Great flavors and presented very well. The main was less successful: roasted pigeon on a bed of peas, baby lima beans, and some other green vegetables. Surprisingly, the legs and thighs were the tastiest parts, with the breast meat—served off the bone and very rare, like duck—didn’t really have a lot of flavor. I think I talked to three different staff members before someone would give me a wine recommendation. We eventually settled on a Lagrein wine from the Alto Adige region, which was new to me, and which turned out to be very good. The amuse dessert, an espresso mousse, was a great accompaniment to the espresso.
On Tuesday I took the surprisingly long train ride to Venice, and dined that evening at the remarkable Il Ridotto. It’s been written up on Chowhound before, but it’s worth repeating that the owner, Chef Gianni, is the maitre’d, the waiter, the cook, the food runner, and the bus boy, assisted only by one person in the kitchen. The restaurant has only five tables and the place turns out incredible food. The amuse was a sort of faux risotto based around farro, with some clams, calamari, and a bit of tomato. My starter was a lobster salad. Do you know that Taco Bell commercial where they say that their taco salad has just enough lettuce to call it a salad? Well, the lobster salad had just enough greens to call it a salad; it was mainly very nice lobster with a little bit of apple, strawberry, and other fruit. The star of the night was the pasta course: homemade fettucine with a beef ragu. There was very little tomato in the ragu, unlike most that I’ve seen, and a little olive oil sprinkled on top. It worked beautifully, with enough beef to accent the pasta, but still allow the wonderful fettucine to be the main attraction. When I originally ordered, I had planned to have three courses to really get a good sampling of Chef Gianni’s cooking. After the salad and the pasta, I had originally tried to order a secondo of branzino, but Gianni said, “No, wait until you finish the pasta and see if you still want anything else.” I’ve never had anyone tell me I shouldn’t order something or that I would be ordering too much. Sure enough, after the pasta, I was close to being full. Gianni asked me if I still wanted the fish and I demurred. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Let me give you a little bit of roast beef with some nice spices.” I recognized the dish he was describing from the menu and I said, “Oh, you mean the guanciale?” and he smiled and nodded. So he gave me a half-portion of the beef guanciale, which turned out to be taste much like a traditional beef pot roast served over a potato puree. It was absolutely heavenly, with a fork-tender beef and a nice sauce made from the braising liquid. And it was the perfect portion size. After a glass of prosecco, he opened up two different bottles of wine for me to have by the glass, a nice verdicchio with the salad and an Amarone with the beef (of which I had three glasses). At the end of the meal he comped me a glass of a very nice grappa. It was one of the best meals of my life—and one of the most enjoyable dining experiences. And when I looked at the bill at the end of it, it was only 89E, which was about half of what the meal was actually worth.
It would have been tough to top the meal at Il Ridotto, and unfortunately my meal the next day at the Club del Doge wasn’t up to the task. This was another restaurant chosen mainly for the view, right over the Grand Canal, and the convenience (I was staying at the Gritti Palace). But the weather was threatening, so there was no dining on the terrace, which severely restricted the view, though on the other hand it rained pretty heavily as I was finishing dinner, so I was glad to be spared a walk back to the hotel. I started with a pumpkin risotto with saffron and castlemagno cheese. The rice was probably not the ideal texture, but it has a pretty good saffron taste and the pumpkin had been pureed or melted into the rice. Overall not bad but nothing special. My main was a couple of filets of the local sole and a couple of langoustines that had been dredged in flour and sautéed. It wasn’t bad, but breading and sautéing was probably not the ideal treatment for the seafood. Overall, fairly forgettable. Much better was the lunch I had at the tourist trap Harry’s Bar. I had the carpaccio, which was actually quite good, albeit ridiculously expensive (55E).
I had high expectations for my final dinner in Venice, which was at the Michelin-starred Met, just down the Grand Canal from San Marco. But it turned out to be one of the most frustrating and disappointing meals I’ve had in quite a while. The evening got off to an ominous start. There were a LOT of servers relative to the number of tables, but service seemed to be disjointed. The menu was confusingly laid out over several pages, interspersed with glossy pictures and self-congratulatory prose about the restaurant and the hotel. The wine list was in two volumes, taking up as much space on the table as the DC yellow pages. And when I ordered a glass of prosecco, they gave me a pretty short pour. Looking at the menu confirmed my fears: this was one of those places that prided itself on its cleverness and tried to distinguish itself through odd—even uncomfortable—combinations of flavors and ingredients. There was actually very little on the menu that seemed appealing, not that I’m squeamish about new or unusual. After I ordered, there were two amuses. The first was a duck consumme with orange—an obvious play on duck a l’orange, which was a little unusual since duck a l’orange was on the menu! It was nice enough, although the broth could have been chicken for all of the duck flavor that it had. A relatively pointless dish. The second amuse was . . . to be honest I cannot for the life of me remember what it was. Which is, I suppose, the very definition of forgettable. So let’s say the second amuse was forgettable. Things definitely took a turn for the better with my primo, which was a pheasant “cannelloni.” The quotation marks were Met’s, which I initially took to merely emphasize the main component of the dish, but which were in reality “air quotes” meant to denote irony. The dish came with a conical pastry, reminiscent of an inverted ice cream cone, which contained the pheasant filling. On the plate were a few chunks of smoked pheasant and a few beans. The server poured the sauce from a silver boat around the “cannelloni.” The sauce had a good pheasant flavor and was thickened with borlotti beans. It sounds a little strange, but it was actually very good. From there, however, things took a turn for the weird. As the server approached my table with my main, I remember thinking, “That can’t be mine. That must be someone’s dessert.” But no, it was mine. I had ordered beef cheeks, intentionally duplicating the main from Il Ridotto to see how Met’s version would compare. On my plate were three one inch cubes: the two on the outside were golden brown and the one in the middle was snow white and sparkly. When I cut into the brown one, I realized that it was the guanciale, which had been cooked, shaped into a cube, breaded, and fried. Since beef cheek is one of those meats that benefits from long moist cooking (as at Il Ridotto), I was surprised by such dry, frankly unappetizing meat. However, the real horror was when I tasted the middle cube. It was ice cold and tasted strongly of horseradish—it was apparently horseradish ice cream. Now I know horseradish is a traditional accompaniment to beef, but not usually in ice cream form. There was no sauce; nothing to moisten the dry stringy beef except for the melting horseradish ice cream. Who would think of such an absurd dish, and more importantly, who would think that someone would want to eat it? I can’t imagine that the Michelin people are looking for such an odd, unappetizing dish to adorn with a rosette. A complete and utter failure.
Back to Rome on Friday for a much more traditional and much more appealing meal at Le Colline Emiliane. I had tried to make a reservation for 8:30 and was told that the only availability was at 7:30. So I showed up a few minutes before 7:30 only to be curtly informed that “We open at 7:30.” So there. The service didn’t get much warmer after 7:30—a contrast to most meals in both cities where the servers were uniformly pleasant and engaging. I started with papardelle with a beef ragu, which was excellent. It had more tomato than at Il Ridotto, but still less than what I usually see in the US. Overall an excellent primo. My secondo was “slow cooked leg of veal with mashed potatoes.” When the waiter put it in front of me, my first thought was, “Oh, no, the sauce separated.” It turned out, though, that the veal had been braised in milk, so the milky curds that I saw in the sauce were to be expected. The veal, served in a large steak-sized slab, was fork tender and had a great taste. The mashed potatoes were fresh and tasty. With it, I had a 30E bottle of Montepulciano, which curiously was the most expensive wine on the restaurant’s limited wine list. Overall, as one might expect with a trattoria, it was not fancy, but it was a tasty meal and a good value.
On Saturday I was in the Pantheon area so I had a big lunch at La Rosetta, which is just off of the Piazza de la Rotunda. A lot of places around there are cheap and touristy, but La Rosetta is a first rate seafood restaurant. I started with a really excellent spaghetti with clams. There were almost too many clams to count (well, that is if you have trouble counting to 50). The spaghetti were nicely cooked and the sauce was rich with butter, clam liquor, and parsley. A very simple dish beautifully executed. My main was a nice piece of sea bass cooked in a lemon and wine sauce with a few cherry tomatoes, who added their color and flavor to the sauce. It was served with a couple of slices of boiled potato. It was another simple dish very well done, though to be honest it was no match for the spaghetti vongole. La Rosetta was one of the pricier restaurants I visited (lunch for one was E133 including a E30 wine), but was probably worth it. After lunch I walked to the other end of the Piazza for a lovely espresso at Tazza d’Oro.
My final meal was a nice Sunday lunch at Al Ceppo following a morning admiring the Bernini sculptures at the Galleria Borghese. The menu was all in Italian—the only time in nine meals plus random café lunches that there was not an English menu. However, the waiter was prepared to explain anything on the menu, although my menu Italian was enough to get me through. I started with tagliatelle with white duck ragu. It was very good, though more aggressively seasoned than a similar dish at Antico Arco or most other dishes during my trip. Nonetheless it was very tasty. My main was a grilled veal chop. There is a very tempting charcoal grill in the main room at Al Ceppo, and I decided to take advantage of it. The loin veal chop was a nice size and was cooked perfectly. Again it was seasoned more than most other dishes, but not excessively so. With the meal I had a nice Tuscan wine, mainly Sangiovese. I finished with a molten chocolate cake and an apertif that the waiter recommended made with lagrein grapes and brandy. All very good, and a nice wrapup to a week of really good food.
I have a coin sitting in the bottom of the Trevi Fountain, so I guess I'll get a chance to go back and try some of these places again!