Wrapping up a week in Rome – my first visit. Loved the city, and the food was a big part of it. The only meals that weren’t at least OK were two desperation lunches in museum cafeterias (the Vatican Museum and Ostia Antica), and even these weren’t so awful.
My favorite meals
Via Campana, Tridente neighborhood
This mid-priced trattoria features an antipasto table starring grilled and marinated artichokes, sautéed chicory, and other delicious things. In each of two separate visits, we loaded up a plate to start.
On one visit, we had spaghetti with fresh anchovies and pecorino– unusual in pairing seafood with cheese but the anchovies stood up well to the sharp, salty pecorino. The other pasta was artichoke ravioli in a light tomato sauce, a subtler flavor than the anchovy/pecorino pasta but equally good. Finally, we had a fritto misto of fresh seafood, it being Tuesday, and Tuesday and Friday are Rome’s fresh fish days. The fritto misto included calamari, shrimp, and a small fish I don’t remember, all lightly fried and very fresh.
On another visit, we had spaghetti with bottarga and fiore de zucca, one of those unexpected combinations that worked very well. Rigatoni alla amatriciana was our other dish – also very good though not quite the gold standard of Matricianella (see below).
Via del Prefetti, Tridente neighborhood
Described as a “mozzarella bar,” Obika offers a buffet for 22 euros that features four artisan cheeses: a creamy ricotta, a mild and dry mozzarella, a smoked mozzarella, and – the winner – a runny, stringy, pungent mozzarella. The buffet also has a good salumi selection, pasta salads, and antipasto-style vegetables. Obika has branches in Milan and Rome.
Via Frattina, Tridente neighborhood near Spanish Steps
This is a wine bar featuring the foods of Lazio, the region of Italy that includes Rome. I think it’s a government-run attempt to support local food producers. We went for lunch: it opened at 1 and was packed at 1:10. After a generous and varied cheese selection, we had two pastas. Tonnarelli (thick spaghetti) al cacio e pepe (with pecorino and black pepper) was spicy from the sharp cheese and creamy – I thought it was perfect though I could see how someone who prefers a more textured sauce would find it boring. The other pasta, lasagna with ground beef and cheese, was among the best dishes of the week. It wasn’t baked: rather, it was boiled lasagna noodles tossed with mozzarella, pecorino, and a ground-beef-and-tomato sauce.
Via del Pelligrino, Campo de Fiori neighborhood
Al Bric is the most expensive restaurant we tried, offering modern rather than traditional Italian. We had tonnarelli with broccoli and pecorino: the sweet broccoli, the salty cheese, and the thick pasta complemented each other. We also had pappardelle with wild boar sausage, and the thick and ragged pasta picked up the meaty sauce very well. As a main, we had a pastry filled with broccoli served with crumbled grilled spicy sausage and a creamy pumpkin sauce. The pastry was paper-thin and in a pyramid shape, like a nearly transparent samosa. The combination of flavors, color, and textures made this the most interesting dish of the trip. Finally, we asked for the gorgonzola gelato, which was on the menu as an accompaniment to another dessert but was also available solo. Being a fan of salty ice cream, I found this heavenly. The gorgonzola was so prevalent that the ice cream was light blue with blue-veined flecks. Wow.
Via della Rotunda, Pantheon neighborhood
Gelato. I had chocolate sorbet with whipped cream – cremolata cioccolata con panna I think it was. The sorbet was dark and rich, and the cream cut it perfectly.
Piazza Cairoli, Campo de Fiori neighborhood
This was our regular breakfast place. The coffee was as good as at Sant Eustachio and Tazzo de Oro, the two places that get the most attention for their coffee. The pastries set this place apart. The cornetti (croissants) were the best among several places I tried, especially when sliced open and served with a schmear of whipped cream. Other winners there were the donuts – I forget the Italian name – and a pistachio tart that was so green I thought at first it was basil.
Via del Giubonnari, Campo de Fiori neighborhood
Bought cheese, salumi, and prepared vegetables from this high-end deli that also has table service. Great for provisions. Also has a bakery around the corner.
Also very good meals
Via del Leone, Tridente neighborhood
This well-reviewed restaurant served the best bucatini alla amatriciana I tried all week and a very good pasta with mushrooms and chicory. The whole fried artichoke and the saltimbocca, however, were both disappointments.
Via Portico d’Ottavia, Ghetto neighborhood
Amazing whole fried artichoke, which is fitting since carciofi alla giudia is a Jewish Roman dish and Da Giggetto is the big restaurant in the Jewish section. Excellent roast lamb – abbacchio arrosto – as well. Spaghetti alla gricia (cheese, bacon, pepper) was good. Service was abysmal.
San Lorenzo neighborhood
Modest trattoria with very good fried anchovies, spaghetti alla amatriciana, and a bresaola/arugula/grana salad. However, fried anchovies were not quite as good as La Campana’s fried seafood, and amatriciana was not as good as Matricianella’s. A plus: open Sunday for dinner.
Piazza dei Cinque Scole, Ghetto neighborhood
Tiny trattoria, no sign, chaotically run. Another amazing fried artichoke: my three data points suggest that the secret to great carciofi alla giudia is proximity to the big synagogue. The pasta was unusual here, extremely eggy and very thick. In our meat agnilotti, the dough was so thick and the filling so dense that they were more like northern Chinese potstickers than anything Italian; the heavy dough worked better in fettucini with pesto.
Two forgettable meals
Via del Grotte, Campo de Fiori neighborhood
Crowded with tourists and locals, this is an OK place for quick pasta. The amatriciana and carbonara were both solid but unexceptional, which means they didn’t stand out by Roman standards but were better than nearly any version of either I have tried outside of Rome.
Piazza della Cancelleria, Campo de Fiori neighborhood
Odd place featuring lots of whole-wheat pasta and vegetables. Whole-wheat pappardelle with rabbit and sun-dried tomatoes was good if a little jarring in the combination. “Bread pasta,” made with farina rather than semolina, was very similar to Ethiopian injera or Sephardic matzoh; served with pesto, it was more interesting than it was tasty.
Some general thoughts on eating in Rome
1. I never had a bad pasta dish. The least-good pasta dish I had in Rome was far better than nearly any pasta dish anywhere else.
2. Even if service is surly, restaurants are very accommodating. Despite the structured menus – antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni – it was always totally fine to order whatever we wanted in any order and in any amount. Our typical meal was two pasta dishes and two other things – two contorni, or one contorno and one secondo, or one secondo and one dessert.
3. Prices in guidebooks are misleading. I think they give prices assuming each person orders every course. We found that we typically spent one-third less than what guidebooks told us to expect since we never ordered every course.
4. The best source for restaurant advice was the series a few years back in Gourmet magazine. Several of my favorite places were mentioned there and nowhere else. The recently published Osterie e Locandi d’Italia – the English version of the Italian slow food guide – was helpful but not essential.
5. Both the pasta and the main at Al Bric listed “broccoli siciliana” as an ingredient. I was hoping that meant broccoli rabe, but it was actually just regular broccoli. In my week in Rome I never saw broccoli rabe (or rapini, or cime di rape) on a menu. Not in season, perhaps? Chicory, however, was ubiquitous: sautéed, it showed up as a side, as a pasta sauce, as a pizza topping, and as panini filling.