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Very very very very long Rome report


Restaurants & Bars 17

Very very very very long Rome report

Sarah Pourciau | Mar 5, 2005 07:02 AM

This is the very long (and long, long overdue) report of a trip my boyfriend and I took back in October. Since we really only went to places that have been around for a while (and been written up several times), I doubt the information I have to share has become outdated through my tardiness. And there are no memory problems as far as the food is concerned. (I forget places, dates, names, birthdays, movie plots, and even, occasionally, my own age. Food tends to stick.) What I don’t remember with any degree of exactitude are the prices we paid. We’re both poor graduate students, though, and our travel budget was correspondingly diminutive, so I’m quite sure we never spent (much) more than Euro 15-20 per person. Usually significantly less. (Going for broke even once would have meant skipping a meal somewhere else, an eventuality to be avoided at all costs.)

I think the format I used is pretty self-explanatory. I’ve included the names of the various guidebooks where the different restaurants appear, for reference. Thanks to everyone at chowhound for all the Rome tips and advice—I read and enjoyed every post I could find!

Gelato: I’ll start here, since I no longer remember which days we ate which gelato and hence can’t really integrate these places into my restaurant list.

San Crispino
Via della Panetteria 42 (off Via del Lavatore); closed Tu
Gambero Rosso, Great Eats Italy, Lonely Planet, Chowhound

Recommended by every source to which I had access as some of the best gelato in Rome. We went twice and tried four flavors each time. Highlights were zabaglione (marsala and egg yolks) and lemon and Calvados. The house flavor, on the other hand (honey and cream?), was pretty dull—just bite after bite of unmitigated sweetness. All in all, I would have to say we were less impressed here than elsewhere, though the quality was clearly very high. Maybe we were expecting too much? Or maybe the flavors were just too subtle for us. I tend to prefer my dessert calories fairly explosive.

Via Uffici del Vicario 40 (near the Parliament House at Palazzo Chigi)
Gambero Rosso, Great Eats Italy, Chowhound

We actually preferred the gelato here to San Crispino’s, though the shop itself is larger, more crowded, and generally less likeable. All the standards were very good—coffee, vanilla crema, cherry, chocolate, hazelnut. Giolitti tends to get cast in the role of overrated, overexposed, overpriced big brother to the smaller, subtler, more artisanally-run San Crispino. Frankly, in this case, I’d go with the crowds.

Le Café du Parc
Piazza Porta San Paolo; closed Su (never in summer)
Gambero Rosso

This tiny little place trapped between a park and a thoroughfare (we nearly got killed trying to get to it) was the best of the bunch, in my opinion, though it’s actually not a legitimate comparison, since they serve cremolati (ie, made with cream, I assume) rather then gelati. The chocolate had a depth and purity of flavor I’ve never experienced in an ice cream before. Almost black, as strong and heady as perfectly brewed espresso, with just the faintest whiff of sweetness to bring out the otherwise undiluted chocolaty essence. Mmm. Too bad it wasn’t my cone. My normally very generous boyfriend allowed me only two very modest tastes. I had a wonderful lemon scoop, and a very competent coffee one. They were out of figs in whisky. I bet that’s good too.

And now on to the main event . . .


Pizzeria al Leoncino
Via del Leoncino 28; closed W; open weekdays for lunch (unusual for a decent, traditional pizza place)
Great Eats Italy, Lonely Planet

We flew in late at night, and hence started out a short walk away from our hotel (just off the Piazza di Spagna) at Pizzeria Leoncino. It was midnight, and they were closing, but the ovens were still hot, so when we asked in our broken Italian if they would feed us, they took two chairs off one of the tables, brought us two large, watery Italian beers that nonetheless tasted glorious, and about three minutes later two pizza margheritas. I have only been to Italy twice in my life and can still wax ecstatic about that first taste of real pizza, where it suddenly hits you that you’re on foreign, and foreignly delicious, soil. My boyfriend, who spent at least half of his childhood vacations in Italy (he’s German, and the Germans are nuts about everything Italian), ranks those bites-upon-arrival among the premier experiences of his life. All that by way of saying: the bites we enjoyed among all the upturned chairs in the tiny and stifling (no windows—very Roman) Pizzeria al Leoncino did not disappoint. This was pizza as pizza should taste. Roman crust (ie the ultra-thin, slightly charred version, rather than the fluffier Naples kind), with just the right ratio of strong, defiantly unsweet sauce to light, springy cheese. Mmm.


Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina 29; closed Su
Gambero Rosso

On our way down the Via del Corso the next morning (and pretty much every morning after that), we hit Piazza San Lorenzo and the café Ciampini for cappucini and cornetti. I’m sure you can get both cheaper elsewhere (Ciampini is old, famous, and—in the mornings—full of fashionably dressed Romans on their way to work), but damn, do they make a fine cappucino. Silky texture, perfectly blended espresso/milk flavor. Cornetti are not really my thing, but Ciampini’s tasted fine. Fresh, flaky, warm. The piazza is beautiful, though if you want to drink your breakfast at one of the outside tables you’ll pay double or triple what you’d pay at the bar. (And miss the espresso-flinging show inside.)

Enoteca Cavour 313
Via Cavour 313; closed Su for lunch
Great Eats Italy

Lunch was this enoteca in the general vicinity of all the really old stuff (Forum etc.) They reputedly have an amazing wine list. Wouldn’t know. Can’t afford real wine. But I can vouch for a wonderful, bright salad of carpaccio with rucola, parmesan and lemon, and a perfectly nice platter of assorted antipasto meats and vegetables. A pretty place—dark, cool, lots of wood. Only cold food, as far as I remember.

Osteria Bassetti?
Somewhere along Via del Governo Vecchio (around the corner from Da Baffetto, see below)
Lonely Planet

For dinner that night we hit our first culinary low point, though all things are relative, and the food wasn’t bad. I don’t remember the name of the place. I think it’s recommended by Lonely Planet under the name Osteria Bassetti; it was recommended to us by friends who had lived in Rome as “the place on Via del Governo Vecchio that always has a line outside.” (The name on the menu was Da something or other.) There was indeed a line, and as far as we could tell, everyone either eating or waiting was speaking Italian. We saw no English menu. Décor was fluorescent lights and soccer posters. Windows nonexistent. Food dirt cheap. It would be hard to imagine a place less likely to trap tourists. But tourist traps can serve fine food and “authentic” does not always equal tasty. In this case, both our pasta dishes were mediocre (regular dried-from-the-bag rigatoni; arrabbiata sauce fine if a bit weak, carbonara far too cream-heavy) and the beef involtini we split as a secondo were leather tough. That said, some of the other secondi which we did not order looked pretty good (a roast chicken and what looked like a lamb chop dish spring to mind), and as far as we could tell almost no one else was eating pasta. So maybe we just ordered poorly. Tough to say. The waiter was sweet.



The next day we took the train out to Ostia, the ruins of a 1st century port town just outside of Rome. Incredible. But that’s another story, and off-topic for a food board. There was no escaping the cafeteria food, since it was unthinkable that we could make it back to Rome for lunch. (Perhaps the highest possible tribute to those stunning 2,000 year old piles of stone: I did not begrudge them the missed meal.) Perfectly ordinary, non-disgusting plates of pasta with tomato sauce and leek quiche got us through until dinner.

Pizzeria la Montecarlo
Vicolo Savelli 12
Gambero Rosso, Great Eats Italy, Lonely Planet

Dinner: a long-awaited and cramped little outdoor table at Pizzeria Montecarlo. It was 10 at night, the place was packed, the waiters impatient, the air full of cigarette smoke, the weather beautiful. It was enough to make me wonder (aloud) why the whole world has not long since immigrated to Rome. The mixed salad was fine (with a few rucola leaves thrown in for good measure). The house red was on the drinkable side of mediocre. The pizza (Roman style again) was great. I had the Pizza Montecarlo—a kitchen sink version with sausage, peppers, artichokes, onions and a sunny-side-up egg. Pizza purist boyfriend looked askance and ordered a very sedate salami pie. We were not as impressed with these pizzas as we had been with Leoncino’s—mostly a crust issue, though the sauce seemed a little blander too—but I enjoyed mine more this time around because of all the fun toppings. We tried to sit around for a while after scarfing the pizza in order to finish our wine (we’d ordered a refill in the interim) but were hustled out by the owner/manager, who very unsubtly directed our attention to the (still very long) line. Left an unpleasant taste at the end of a fantastic day, but hey—it’s a pizzeria, and without his bad guy tactics we would probably still have been standing in line ourselves.


Sora Margherita
Piazza della Cinque Scole 30; closed S and S, open for lunch only
Gambero Rosso, Great Eats Italy, Lonely Planet, Chowhound

Lunch in the Jewish ghetto at Sora Margherita’s, the most-frequently written up “secret” treasure in Rome. It showed up in nearly every restaurant guide I read (and that’s saying something) as the embattled beacon of a disappearing, Jewish-Italian culinary tradition: definitely an example of the authentic relic-as-tourist attraction phenomenon. There is no name outside. There is only a little red curtain door in the middle of a stone wall that looks about to topple. The room was tiny, the wait staff friendly, the public half foreigners and half lunching locals. We were asked to fill out little membership cards at the outset—apparently the place is literally as well as figuratively a cultural institution, and in order to maintain its (probably tax-free) status has to restrict itself to serving “members.” So members we became. And reaped the benefits: gnocchi was fluffy (“pillowy” in food guide parlance), agnolotti (ravioli with meat filling), was satisfyingly eggy, and zucchini blossoms were expertly fried. Everything was very good, very cheap, and very homemade (there were only two women in pocket-sized kitchen, and we could watch their every move). Plus it apparently counts as sight-seeing.

Cacio e Pepe/Da Gianni
Via G. Avezzana 11 (a 5-10 minute walk from the Lepanto subway stop, across the river from the center); closed S/S
Gambero Rosso, Lonely Planet

Dinner was one of those highpoints that you can’t stop talking about even long after the vacation is over. Every once in awhile at the breakfast table, or over coffee, or while cooking at home, one of us will turn to the other and sigh, “Remember Cacio e Pepe”? (Only we say it in German, because we live in Berlin.)And then we will share a moment of silence dedicated to the memory of the following menu:

1 half portion of cold cheese tortellini salad with spinach, tomatoes, and lots of garlic; tortellini were tiny, delicate,and clearly recently hand-crafted
1 half portion of cacio e pepe, the traditional Roman pasta dish with parmesan and black pepper; eggy, wiggly worms of beautiful, fresh bucatini slicked with two of my favorite ingredients in the entire universe—WOW (I should note that this was my first experience with the dish; boyfriend, however, knew what to expect and was equally impressed).
1 half portion of spaghetti carbonara; this was pancetta, not pig cheek carbonara—totally simple, devoid of all extraneous ingredients and so good we took one bite and immediately ordered another half-portion, to the pleased amusement of our waitress.

Pasta is clearly the high point at a restaurant known as Cacio e Pepe (the actual name, apparently, is Da Gianni), and we were already full, since the half-portions there were every bit as big as full portions at most other places. But we decided to split a secondo anyway because we weren’t ready to stop eating. Our waitress extolled the virtues of the rosemary-roasted potatoes, but refused to recommend any of the main course options, since all her favorites had already been scarfed up by the hungry, cell-phone and cigarette wielding Romans around us. (The roast chicken that the couple next to us consumed post-pasta looked FABULOUS.) We chose saltimbocca. It was competent and tasty, if a bit tough. The potatoes, on the other hand, elicited a fork fight, despite our aforementioned lack of hunger.

We skipped coffee and desert because we weren’t sure we had enough cash on us to cover it (we never saw a menu, and hence had no real idea what our bill would look like). We needn’t have worried: the grand total for the dishes described above, plus two half liters of house wine (one white—bad, one red—decent), a liter of mineral water, a mixed salad, coperto, and two complementary shots of limoncello, was 21 Euros. Absurd. We left a 9 Euro tip (we were pretty sure after studying the cryptic sums scribbled on our tablecloth that our waitress had forgotten to charge us for the salad), and still made our way back to the hotel feeling like we cheated somebody.

Disclaimatory note: you should all take my glowing tribute with several grains of salt. Circumstances conspired on this one occasion to create a kind of magic that would be difficult to replicate--and the food was only the most important of the many factors involved. (Not far behind in impact was our extraordinary waitress, who happened to have lived in Germany, adopted us the second she heard us speaking German, and coddled us through the rest of the meal.) I have no intention of raising Cacio e Pepe to the level of Rome’s fine dining establishments. It is what it is. A tiny, profoundly traditional kitchen in a residential neighborhood just far enough from the center to turn tourists into a pleasant novelty. With DAMN good pasta.


Pizza Re
Via Lucullo 22
Gambero Rosso, Great Eats Italy

We headed off the next afternoon for an 8-day interlude on the island of Sardinia, which meant that we had time for only one fairly quick meal, and we had to eat it near the train station. (An off-topic parenthetical note: we spent the morning at the Museo Nazionale for Greek and Roman sculpture, just a block or so away from the station, which, if we hadn’t been so locationally constrained, we probably would have skipped. That would have been a mistake—it turned out to be the best-labelled and most pleasant museum we visited in Rome, and one of the sight-seeing highlights of the trip.) Given those requirements, we were very happy with the results, though I would never advise anyone to make a special trip in order to experience Pizza Re. It’s an ultra popular mini-chain (I think there are two or three different branches) which specializes in serving very good Naples-style pizza very fast to a very boisterous office lunch crowd. Décor is Olive Garden-esque, and the bathrooms are Olive Garden clean. Squeaky, spanking, sparkling American-style clean. We ate pizza margheritas and drank water, quickly and with relish. The crust was airy and tasty, the sauce bold and slightly sweet, (in a good way); the basil contributed its familiar bite. Overall much more filling than Roman-style pizza, and to my mind much less revelatory.(An inexplicable and unjustifiable bias having to do with crust consistency. I feel the same way about the slightly fluffy, Naples-style pizza of New York--it might taste delicious, but it will never transport me.)


Enoteca Corsi
Via del Gesu 87/88 (off Via del Plebescito) lunch only; closed S/S
Gambero Rosso, Great Eats Italy

We returned from Sardinia (via overnight ferry) in time to hit the Pantheon and eat lunch. Enoteca Corsi is a low-key place off one of Rome’s main drags, clearly very popular with the working lunch crowd (lots of suits and overalls), where we both very happily consumed large plates of shredded beef with rucola in gravy. Flavorful and comforting in a home-spun, long-cooked beef sort of way, with a little “this is Italy and I’m not pot roast” kick from the rucola. The soups looked great too, and somebody across the room from us had a dumpling-type dish that caused me to bemoan (for maybe the millionth time) my limitations as a single-stomached being.

Al Fontanone
Piazza Trilusa 46 (as you cross Ponte Sisto); closed Tu, W for lunch
Great Eats Italy

Our first attempt at negotiating the quaintly lovely tourist trap that is Trastevere, and by our (very high) standards a disastrous failure. This place comes very, very highly recommended by Sandra Gustafson of Great Eats Italy, and in deference to her I am going to assume that it has changed hands since she wrote that review. It was THE culinary low point of the entire trip. Pasta-from-the-bag, not even properly boiled (mine was crunchy), topped with uninteresting if edible amatriciana and carbonara sauces. Bruschetta was uninspired and uninspiring, service irritatingly pushy. The other patrons were, as far as we could tell, fellow tourists who all seemed pretty content, and in all fairness I have to admit that the meal was not in and of itself memorably bad; it was, however, memorably bad in comparison with nearly all the other food we consumed in Rome (I’d put it on par with the cafeteria meal at Ostia). Not, in any case, to be recommended.


Da Gino
Vicolo Rosini 4; closed Su
Gambero Rosso, Lonely Planet

The right reward for a morning spent battling hordes at the Vatican, and the perfect antidote to Al Fontanone. It’s tucked away on a little side street in the heart of the tourist center, and there were plenty of tourists, together with great numbers of lunching suits (no overalls at this place). The spaghetti cacio e pepe was as good as the version at Cacio e Pepe (if about four times as expensive). Eggy, peppery, wonderful. And the secondo we split, a special off the chalkboard, was the secondi high point of Rome. Polpettini (mini-meatballs) and meat-stuffed zucchini swimming in a wonderful, muscular tomato sauce. The meat, which certainly involved veal, though maybe not exclusively, was so finely ground it was almost silky (I know that’s a bizarre adjective to use when describing hamburger, but I promise it’s accurate.) And I don’t know what else was in them, but I do know that these were the meatballs of my dreams. The meatballs I now imagine melting away on my tongue every time I cook or order meatballs (which I do frequently—I’m a big meatball fan). The platonic ideal of meatballs, descended from their platonic meatball heaven to assume fleshly form on my plate at Da Gino’s. Alas, their status as daily special means there’s no guarantee they’ll be around the next time.

Tram Tram
Via dei Reti 46; closed M
Gambero Rosso, Great Eats Italy, Lonely Planet

This was the closest we came to a splurge. It’s a small, family-run trattoria in San Lorenzo (the somewhat seedy-looking student quarter east of the train station) known for innovative, Puglian cuisine and wonderful homemade desert puddings. Apparently, it also has quite a wine list—we sat next to the bar and eavesdropped on a very learned-sounding conversation between one of the owners and a couple from Seattle who drank and analyzed their way through several bottles. We stuck to the house white, and it was quite good. The space itself is sweet and cozy, with yellow walls and lots of tram memorabilia. We started with a delicious salad of pears, parmesan, rucola and lemon vinaigrette (it would be tough to screw up a salad with that combination of ingredients), went on to very good but non-revelatory pasta with baby calamari (fresh tasting, with the emphasis on the calamari), and finished with an excellent lemon pudding. All in all a really nice meal, but something of a come down from the ecstasy of those meatballs. We probably should have ordered a secondo in order to see what the place could really do, but we were just too full.


Da Augusto
Piazza de' Renzi 15 (no sign!); closed Sa (for dinner) and Su
Gambero Rosso, Great Eats Italy, Lonely Planet, Chowhound

Another, much more successful stab at Trastevere, this time with an old guidebook standby, Da Augusto. We sat outside on the sweet little piazza and ate delicious homemade ricotta-filled ravioli. Definitely the right choice--the other options for the pasta course appeared to involve the same institutional-style rigatoni we’d eaten at Osteria Bassetti. The Italians were all eating the bean and pasta soup, which looked tasty, inasmuch as a soup can “look” tasty. Da Augusto is cheap, and it was our last day, so we both ordered secondi. Boyfriend ate roast chicken with a side of potatoes—fine, moist chicken, potatoes only ok. I ate lamb cacciatore—tough, stringy meat stewed into tender and flavourful submission. Very good, if a bit on the greasy side.

Da Baffetto
Via del Governo Vecchio 114; open only for dinner
Great Eats Italy, Lonely Planet, Chowhound

Another guidebook favorite: a pizzeria near Piazza Navona popular with both tourists and Romans (to judge by the languages being spoken in line). We got there at 10:30 and still waited for what seemed like forever. But it was worth it. Oh, was it worth it. What a way to end. This was the pizza to end all pizzas. Really. Pizza purist boyfriend was even more enthusiastic than I was (he does not tend to wax rhapsodic—at least not about food—but this crust left him shiny-eyed and superlative-spouting). I had the kitchen sink pizza again (he had the mushroom), and can therefore say with certainty that the difference in quality between Montecarlo and Baffetto was not a matter of toppings. Montecarlo was good. Baffetto was the paradigmatic Roman pizza. Mixed salad was fine and house red utterly drinkable. We sat outside next to a group of burly Roman men who cast sidelong looks at us and cracked very loud jokes (probably at least occasionally at our expense) through our entire meal. It rained, briefly, and then it stopped. Motorcycles sped by at irresponsible, breakneck speed and left trails of foul-smelling fumes in their wake. And we ate on, simultaneously registering everything and nothing—utterly absorbed by our pizzas, yet also acutely aware that we could only be eating pizza like this here, in the middle of this particular city on this particular corner.

Oh, Rome.

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