My husband and I just returned home from a visit to Rome, Amalfi, and Naples filled with wonderful eating and wonderful touring.
o Three or four nights, we opened the restaurant at 7:30. (We were either still adjusting to the time zone change and we needed to eat early our last night because we’d be waking up at 2:15 a.m. to make our flight from Naples) In general we ate dinner between 8:00 and 8:30 p.m. The Italians arrived in restaurants between 8:30 and 9:00. Years and years and years ago, we famously ruined a trip to Madrid by dining on Madrileno time – 10:30 p.m. – and wiping out our morning’s worth of touring with late bedtimes and correspondingly late wake-ups. We’re more experienced travelers now and we’re more interested in meeting both dining and touring needs than in dining at the fashionable time. If we’re the only diners in the restaurant for 30 minutes, so be it.
o Maureen Fant has often posted that restaurants that are well-regarded for specific dishes can also produce some indifferent versions of other dishes. We had conversations with the waiters to increase the odds of a good meal. I don’t recall any clunkers among our meals, but not every dish was sublime even enlisting the waiter’s advice.
o Consulting the waiter produced an interesting phenomenon. Each restaurant’s best dish tended to be something local. Since we stayed in each location several days, the waiters at succeeding restaurants often recommended the same dishes. Sometimes we had fun comparing several restaurants’ versions of a dish; sometimes we wanted a change so we ordered whatever spoke to us from the menu. (For example, Paccheri Genovese and Scialatiella Frutti di Mare were the two leading pasta dishes on the Amalfi Coast and in Naples and we became minor experts. Both are delicious dishes incidentally!)
Now the specifics for restaurants in Rome (Installment 1):
Taverna dei Fori Imperiale: (Via Madonna dei Monti 16) This is a small restaurant with stereotypical decorations -- down to the red checked tablecloths -- and a very friendly atmosphere. One particular waiter has excellent English and he stopped by our table often to check on us. The chef also visited with us, proudly explaining that he was the third generation in this restaurant and his children already in the business. The food wasn’t flawless, but we ate well.
My husband really enjoyed his primi: tagliatelle with veal ragu and truffles. My linguine with baby clams earns mixed review. The taste was amazing. The sauce consisting of clam juice, wine, and olive oil was super, but the clams themselves were quite gritty. Eating the linguine or mopping up with sauce with good crusty bread was a taste treat. Eating the clams was off-putting because of the grit. My husband enjoyed his braised pork shank, but he said that since he really likes pork shank, he was willing to overlook the flaws in the dish. The pork was unevenly cooked with some parts being moist perfection and other parts being dry and overcooked. My dish of bass with tomatoes, olives, and onions was totally incredible with no flaws. The sauce was full-flavored without overwhelming the fish.
Fiammetta: Much has been written about this restaurant north of Piazza Navona, especially the eggplant Parmesan. We’ve been eating lunch here off and on for several decades, although always outdoors. In the pouring rain that marred Rome’s birthday celebrations, we were driven indoors for the first time. The Sunday lunch atmosphere was very friendly: family groups or group friends mixed with tourists. Everyone got equally warm, attentive service. My husband and I shared orders of eggplant Parmesan, calamari with artichokes, and a side dish of asparagus with butter and Parmesan. The calamari dish consisted of a saute of slices of artichokes and calamari/cuttlefish. Really yummy combination of flavors. The least successful dish was the asparagus since the vegetables were thoroughly cooked. I’m used to asparagus being very lightly blanched so the fully cooked version was not particularly appealing.
Note: We had a lovely experience meeting Maureen Fant in real life. (Details in installment 2) She explained that Italians either serve their food raw or cook their food. There's none of this American approach that fleetingly exposes food to steam. The Italians and I will agree to disagree on the topic of asparagus.
Incidentally, the daily specials are written on chalk boards hung in several locations. However, if you’re eating near the end of meal service, you may wish to glance at the lone small chalk board that posts the discontinued specials.
The list of daily specials stated “calamari” but judging from the shape, I think the dish actually used cuttlefish. I tend to identify calamari by the ring shape and seppie by its strip shape. Are these useful or useless clues? I love both.
(Finally, does anyone know what has happened to the Rance soap and cosmetic store that used to be located on the street exiting Piazza Navona on the way to Fiametta? I love their everyday “Marseille” soap and had been looking forward to buying some. The google.it web site still shows the store in its familiar location, but reality tells a different story.)
Piccolo Abruzzo: (Via Sicilia) Our Tuscan friends had recommended Café Brancaleone which is run by the wife (or husband) of the person who runs Piccolo Abruzzo. We thought Brancaleone was closed on Sunday, so we defaulted to PA. In addition, we’ve never dined at a restaurant where we cede all choice to the chef and we thought it might be fun to try. In fact, although we ate the set menu, we observed some people picking and choosing from among the offerings to create a personalized meal. Here’s the staggering list of food on the set menu: (I have no idea whether the list changes seasonally)
Antipasti consisting of prosciutto, three types of salami, mozzarella, bruschetta with tomatoes, slices of cold marinated wild boar and fried pizza. The star dish for this course was the chingale. Exquisite. The prosciutto was not as sweet or delicate as the DOP version from Parma, although it was pleasant enough. The salami was quite good. The mozzarella was good but would later be surpassed by the mozzarella in Naples. The fried pizza was a big zero.
Two primi courses: gnocchi al gorgonzola and tubetti with a tomato sauce simmered with lamb. The gnocchi was simply the best we’ve ever eaten – ethereally light. The gogonzola sauce was really, really assertive. The aggressiveness of the sauce was somewhat overpowering for the delicacy of the gnocchi, but scraping off some of the sauce created a better balance. Besides, I happen to really like strong gorgonzola. The tubetti pasta was really appealing – not reaching the heights of the gnocchi but not problematic either.
Secondi consisted of braised rabbit. This was delicious – moist and flavorful.
The price of the meal also includes a choice of dessert, water, wine, and lemoncello or grappa. We selected fruit salad after our eating extravaganza.
There’s a bit of showmanship included with the meal; the chef comes out of the kitchen to show each table a large saute pan of the coming course. Since we were ahead of most diners, our food was always prepared exclusively for us. Somewhat later, when the restaurant was more filled, the chef would show the food to several tables simultaneously. The diners who played “Let’s Make a Deal” and created a meal from among the set menu lost the presentation step.
Bottom line: There was enough really yummy food among the offerings that the meal wasn’t exclusively about quantity.
L’Angoletto: I’m thrilled to report that our sentimental favorite is still turning out wonderful food in spite of a change in ownership. The new owner is the chef who has been at the restaurant for 30 years, so -- to tweak a familiar phrase -- we could go home again. (This was the restaurant where we ate our very first meal in Italy.)
Our lunch meal consisted of a platter of grilled/ marinated vegetables, fried baby octopus (moscardini) and sauteed clams and mussels in a Pernod-tomato broth. Awesome!
The vegetable platter included sauteed zucchini slices, marinated red cabbage, and marinated fennel. The octopus dish took honors for the second lightest frying during our trip. The octopus are about an inch long and they’re served with a generous wedge of lemon. (If you caught my post on another thread, Da Dora in Naples won top frying honors and Bucca di Bacco in Positano took the bronze.)
The broth in the mixed sauteed shellfish elevated this dish into sublime heights. I wrote “Pernod” because that was my husband’s and my best guess to describe the taste, but I assume there is an Italian equivalent. At any rate the oomph of the added liqueur was a wonderful dimension to this dish. We got our money’s worth out of our pane/copperto charge mopping up the delicious broth in this dish!!
Colline Emiliane: As much as we enjoyed the dense hearty pasta of the south, the delicate pasta of Emilia-Romagna remains our favorite. As a result, we swooned over the tagliatelle at this restaurant. Paper thin. Perfectly cooked. Loaded with flavor. Wow! My husband had his with Bolognese sauce and I had mine with diced asparagus and prosciutto. We had sharp disagreement over the culatello. The restaurant’s version was much, much drier than any we were served at restaurants throughout Emilia-Romagna. I was put off by the texture and thought the sweetness was lost in the drying process. My husband was a huge fan of this version, pronouncing it better than any he ate in E-R. Can this marriage be saved?
Harmony was restored in our shared opinion of the pear tart. Truly a life-altering dessert! I knew I’d be ordering this the instant I walked into the restaurant and saw the tart on display. I make poached pears in wine for dessert at home, although my version is sweeter than theirs. (And gussied up with Grand Marnier.) The restaurant’s pear tart consists of a quality tart crust piled high with red wine poached pears, raisins, and pine nuts. Incredible.
Time to do some laundry. I’ll post on our remaining restaurants in Rome – Agata e Romeo, Antico Arco, and Checchino dal 1887 -- in my next installment.