Restaurants & Bars


Roman Memories--Long


Restaurants & Bars 66

Roman Memories--Long

rneeno | Oct 10, 2008 01:21 PM

Here are my thoughts about a wonderful honeymoon in Rome a couple of weeks ago; to cut to the chase, we loved everything about the city.

My Beloved Wife and I arrived in Rome in the evening of the 21st to celebrate our honeymoon. I had been to Rome 31 years earlier as a college student, however, that experience really did not provide me with more knowledge than my BW, who had never been to Rome. It was a wonderful, eye-opening experience, and it bore little resemblance to my time years ago.

In preparation for our trip, I read ALL of the Chowhound postings regarding restaurants and food in Rome. As a result, I compiled a list of over 250 restaurants, pizzerias, enotecas, gelaterias, coffee shops, and specialty food stores, organized by neighborhood, and ranked based on reviews of select Chowhound posters. We hadn’t left for Rome, but I felt qualified to answer most questions posed regarding food in Rome.

We rented an apartment on Via dei Pettinari, across the street from the Hotel Ponte Sisto, with a rooftop terrace. The location was brilliant: three blocks from the Piazza Farnese, four blocks from the Campo, and steps from the bridge to Trastevere. What I didn’t realize from the maps is how small the “blocks” are, as well as the streets. I had the impression that Via dei Giubbonari was a significant street, and it is, but I didn’t realize that a Smart Car would barely fit within it. We consistently walked beyond our destinations because we couldn’t appreciate how small an area the Centro Storico truly is.

I only made three dinner reservations prior to leaving for Rome, on the premise that our plans were fluid, and I didn’t want to tie us to a specific neighborhood in advance. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, we ate at Agata e Romeo, Il Convivio Troiani, and Checchino dal 1887 respectively. Agata e Romeo hadn’t been on my original list of three, but we took a cooking class with Roberto Donna (formerly of Galileo in Washington, DC) and he raved about the restaurant, and said that it was the one place that we couldn’t miss. While reading the reviews of restaurants in Rome, I developed a severe attraction to Convivio, and I decided it was the one restaurant that I couldn’t miss. I decided on Checchino as the best example of classic Roman cuisine. This left us with about two dozen restaurants that I had highlighted from my list, as well as the best pizza places and wine bars.

To get directly to the essential point of my review, we have decided that for us, less was better in terms of restaurants in Rome. While we are accustomed to fine dining, we had a hard time justifying the prices paid at Agata e Romeo and Il Convivio. Perhaps we took the wrong perspective, given that these were two of the finest restaurants in Rome. But despite having dined frequently in NYC, we are not accustomed to spending $450 for dinner for two with the least expensive bottle of wine possible. Our experiences may have also been colored by the formal, exquisite, service that caused us to try and live up to the service by constantly sitting up straight. We just didn’t enjoy our time at these restaurants as much as we felt we should have based on the expense.

In fairness, I have to say that my BW felt that the red pepper risotto at Agata was the single best thing that she ate in Rome, and I have never had anything like the foie gras crème brulee. The tasting menu at Il Convivio contained some wonderful items: the veal with guanciale slaw was amazing; and the sea bream cooked sous vide in a jar was a delicious play on the technique. In both cases, the attention to detail was superb, particularly at Il Convivio. What Il Convivio spends on silverware per customer must be a fortune. Nonetheless, it was hard to find appropriate value in the meals, as all the food was not of mind-blowing quality or quantity. We just didn’t leave the restaurants thinking that regardless of the cost, we had never eaten like that before.

To return to the travelogue, we walked everywhere and had the most fun exploring the warren of small streets that make up the Centro and Trastevere. We always looked forward to returning to “our neighborhood” when we spent time around the Vatican or Prati or Veneto where the streets widened, and the shops became world renown.

We found that the food at restaurants of little regard in Rome equaled or exceeded most anything that we could find in our part of the world (Wisconsin). We ate at the Restaurant Campo dei Fiori on Monday night out of expediency, and the amatriciana was perfectly fine, the fried fresh anchovies were nicely prepared, and the pasta with porcini needed seasoning, but was good. Nothing was revelatory, my amatriciana is as good, but we had no expectations when we sat down, and the food certainly wasn’t bad, and we had the spectacle of the Campo right in front of us.

Wednesday we had a late lunch at Enoteca Roscioli after visiting the Colosseo and the Fora. We started with an appetizer of mozzarella with anchovies and sun dried tomatoes. The tomatoes were unlike anything we have ever had, filled with flavor and not as tough as those we get at home. We suspect that what we had were the semi-dried tomatoes that we later found at Volpetti, but they were amazing whatever they were. I had pasta with shrimp and bottarga, which I loved, but I love fishy-tasting things. My BW didn’t love my pasta, but she thought that her amatriciana was excellent (but still not as good as mine). We loved everything about the restaurant; we enjoyed shopping the walls of wine, olive oil, balsamico, and other foodstuffs. As would be expected, the bread was the best that we had in Rome, but I should note that we were surprised by the poor quality of most of the bread served in Rome.

In the evening, we crossed the bridge, and wandered through Trastevere. We walked down San Francesco a Ripa, stopping at the Fabbrica di Cioccolato for some wonderful, and relatively inexpensive treats. As we wandered, I saw Pizzeria San Calisto, which was on my list, and next door was a nice looking restaurant facing out on to the tiny piazza (we loved how anything slightly larger than a four-way stop can be called a piazza). We looked at the menu, which seemed quite reasonable, when I realized that this was Restaurante Paris, which rated a “1” among my list of restaurants in Trastevere. The restaurant was virtually empty when we entered at the same time as a couple of American monks. As a side note, we ate between 8 and 9 p.m. each evening, and we never encountered a restaurant that was full. We even saw people walk into Il Convivio without a reservation. I think Agata might have been the only restaurant where a reservation may have been necessary. We sat outside, and had a lovely evening. We ate Roman classics such as carbonara, and caccio e pepe; we also had the friti misti, and some veal with porcini. The tiramisu was nothing short of incredible. We contrasted this meal with the previous evening at Agata, and we came to realize that we were much more in our element at Paris, and we had a much better time, even if the food was not earth-shatteringly good.

On Thursday we took a 6-hour tour of the Vatican and the museums (we spent the morning touring the Vatican gardens, which were not special, but being able to wander around behind the scenes was great). There was a break for lunch, and we stopped at a tavola calda that was far enough away from the Vatican that it did not feature pictures of St. Peter’s on the walls, or “Vaticano” in its name. The pasta and gnocchi were not what an epicure would consider good, but we still found it far better than what we could find in the United States given a similar location and price. Besides, that evening we went to Il Convivio and we certainly experienced the highest levels of service and ingredients that anyone could expect from a restaurant.

We had late afternoon reservations at the Galleria Borghese on Friday, so we planned to take all day while walking in that general direction. With time in hand, we walked over to San Eustachio for a coffee. We thought it was quite good, but that Tazza de Oro had been better when we had stopped earlier in the week. We then ate dessert first by stopping at Tre Scalini for tartufi con pana. The whole place was way too touristy and mass-produced for my taste, but the tartufo was good. Sitting in the sunshine in Rome has compensations even if it is in the Piazza Navona amid the crowds. We then backtracked even farther to Pizzeria Montecarlo for lunch. The friti misti were entirely forgettable, however the pizzas were outstanding. The crusts were almost ethereal, just wisps supporting the toppings. I loved the capricciosa, and my BW enjoyed the prosciutto. They were everything that had been claimed about the Roman thin crust pizza.

We continued back to the north, and we stopped near the Spanish Steps in order to say that we were there, and found them almost as filled with tourists and revolting as the Trevi fountain. I bet we could have walked on people all the way up without touching stone—which would have been just about the only way to get to the top. We walked up the Via Veneto, comparing it to some of the boulevards of Paris, and admiring the boutiques. We greatly enjoyed walking through the gardens of the Villa Borghese, and the collection was amazing.

In the evening, we walked down to the Piazza del Popolo, and then to Via di Ripetta. As we walked back down from the Piazza, I noticed Enoteca Buccone, which was on the list. We stopped in for a glass of wine and a bite to eat. We were entranced by the store, and its walls of wine and spirits from around the world. We had glasses of ciro and nero—two varietals that were completely new to us—which were wonderful. We also had prosciutto unlike any that we had ever had before. The meat was moist, and soft, and had a beautiful mild flavor. It was astoundingly good. Nothing that I later tasted at Volpetti came close. The plate also contained mozzarella, which was also good, but it got lost compared to the prosciutto. We highly recommend Buccone, the staff was very friendly, the wine choices were endless, and the rest of the food also looked good.

We should have stayed and made an evening at Buccone, but we pushed on, looking for another place to extend the evening. Unfortunately, we were approaching miles 10 to 12 for the day, and my BW was so exhausted that even food in Rome held no appeal.

On Saturday we slept in, stopped at Bar Farnese for a couple machiati doppio, then meandered around the Campo and the adjacent streets. We loved walking around the area, looking at all of the stores, marveling how people could make a living selling out of 50 square feet. After window-shopping, we got in line at the Forno Campo dei Fiori, and had a few etti of pizza—good, different from Montecarlo, but satisfying in a basic sort of way.

We then walked over to Testaccio, and caught the tail end of the market, and then headed to the ultimate destination: Volpetti. I expected a big store, and I was taken aback by how small it is. I had expected a sampling orgy, but the guy behind the meat counter was ready to go home, and didn’t seem interested in engaging us. We bought some prosciutto and cheese, and then started looking around on our own. We then caught the attention of a small man, who started offering us samples of cakes that he brought out from the kitchen. He then brought out a plastic pail, called us over, and opened it up. Inside were several dozen white truffles. The aroma was intoxicating. Then he started giving us samples of truffle salt and olive oil. He combined them with 20 year old balsamic. He sold us a bunch of great stuff. Then he showed us his picture in Maureen Fant’s cookbook (on the front counter), and we realized that we were speaking with Emilio Volpetti. By the time we left, we had had our complete Volpetti experience, and it was what I had imagined while anticipating our trip. The only negative was that I bought some guanciale, which didn’t make it through customs.

We were fortunate to have an apartment with a rooftop terrace overlooking the Palazzo Farnese, and with a lovely view of the dome of St. Peter’s. I had a list of all the rooftop bars and restaurants, but we never saw the need to leave our rooftop. We spent a part of Saturday afternoon on our roof, watching the sun set over Trastevere, drinking a bottle of Chianti, and making a picnic of olives, prosciutto and cheese from our trip to Volpetti.

Dinner that evening was at Checchino dal 1887. Once again, the restaurant was almost empty at 9:00, and never did completely fill. I had the Storico menu, since I don’t know where I could find pajata in the United States. My BW had the menu of Buon Ricordo (We noticed that at almost every other table in the restaurant, the man received the book given along with the Storico menu, and the woman received the plate given with the Ricordo menu). We appreciated the attention provided by one of the owners, who served as maitre ‘d and captain. We did notice, however, that the service provided by the two waiters who followed behind the owner was rather sullen, and lacked such basic grace as not reaching across one guest to serve another.

We thought that the food was good, but I had the sense that since we ordered off the set menus, that the kitchen might be doing things by rote, and the quality is not the highest. I can’t say that I was crazy about the calf’s foot salad, but I did like the pajata—too much pasta, and not enough pajata in my opinion. My BW greatly enjoyed her pasta with oxtail ragu, and I liked the coda vaccinara. We had a very nice bottle of ciro based on our experience at Buccone. It was a good meal, well executed, not amazing, but it could be that a meal of classic Roman cuisine is supposed to be hearty, filling, satisfying, but not amazing.

I had told each of the restaurants with which I made reservations that we would be celebrating our honeymoon. The owner of Checchino was the only person who made note, and he delivered liquor-filled chocolates to us with his best wishes. He also walked us out to our cab, and opened the door for us while shaking our hands and wishing us well. We had better meals in Rome, but we were never treated better than at Checchino. The next time we visit, we will order a la carte, and maybe the food will improve, but regardless, I have no doubt that we will enjoy the experience. It is the place that I would take my parents if I wanted them to feel comfortable in Rome.

On Sunday, we decided to walk back to Piazza del Popolo since we had walked through it in the dark on Friday, and it looked worthy of further investigation. Santa Maria del Popolo was nothing short of amazing; the hordes will go crazy once Angels and Demons comes out as a movie. We stopped for lunch at Buca di Ripetta, and had a wonderful meal. We started with pastas with clams and mussels respectively, and they were both outstanding. The clams were a fairly classic white clam sauce of olive oil, parsley and garlic; but the mussels were in a sauce made of pecorino romano, which violated the rule of my favorite waiter in NYC that seafood should not be mixed with cheese. Nonetheless, it was outstanding. We then had rombo and spada, which were lovely. We split a nice bottle of wine, and we proclaimed it our best meal of the trip.

We did some more wandering since it was our last day in Rome. We stopped at Giolitti for excellent gelato—maybe the best, but it is hard to say since we never had bad gelato. We went to San Eustachio for some coffee beans since Tazza de Oro was closed. Even though most stores were closed, we delighted in walking the streets, admiring details such as doorknockers, chandeliers in second floor apartments (an amazing one above L’Osteria del Memmo), and just taking in the beauty of the age of the city.

We continued to walk into the evening, crossing back and forth into Trastevere. Finally, we made our way to Al Bric, which had long been our intended destination for Sunday dinner. We arrived shortly before a horrendous extended family from New Jersey exited, so we watched, horrified, as their children wandered around the restaurant, listened as they complained about the price of hotels in Rome, as they used their cell phones to divide the bill individually and collect cash from each person, and then listened as cars honked while their cabs blocked Via del Pellegrino as all of this was going on. We tried to tell out waiters that we were (almost) from Canada.

Once peace was restored, we found a beautiful bottle of wine, and settled in for a great meal. We started with the pate maison, which was quite good, but I couldn’t place a key flavor. Then I realized that it tasted of Mexican chorizo, and had a similar consistency. An unusual flavor for Rome, but we liked it. My BW then had ragu castellano, which she enjoyed greatly. I had a ragu of boar and sausage, which was superb. We took our time, and enjoyed everything about the meal and the service. Then we walked the four blocks home.

Looking back at the trip in generalities, we never ate anything that was less than good. Even when we lined up with a bunch of high school kids for cheap pizza by the Piazza Minerva, it was good. We didn’t find a lot of food that qualified as revelatory, but the overall quality exceeded what we would expect in restaurants of similar quality and price in the United States. We were impressed by how essentials like coffee and gelato were actually less expensive than in the United States—and so much better. We were surprised that the bread wasn’t of better quality. We were pleased that wine was generally a good value given the ages of much of the wine offered. We couldn’t imagine how some CH correspondents plan on eating two big meals each day at the best restaurants in the city (we walked 6 miles or more everyday, we live to eat, but three courses with wine twice a day? Forget it). We were amazed, and a little dismayed, by how much English everyone seems to speak in Rome. It was a telling experience when French customers, and the Italian waiter at Il Convivio spoke English to each other as a means of communicating. On our next trip, I will substitute Antico Arco and Trattoria Monti for Agata and Il Convivio. I regret that we didn’t get the chance to stop at Cul de Sac, Obika, Palatium, or Biscottificio Innocenti. We were thrilled by how much we fell in love with the city. It was the perfect backdrop to a wonderful honeymoon.

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