As usual on my way back from a workshop in my field, held in Sardinia, I spent a few days in Rome to collapse and recharge. A mix of old and new places visited.
For breakfasts, I went every day to Cristalli di Zucchero. The more I try it, the more I convince myself that you absolutely cannot do better for a cornetto. I personally have a soft spot for the crema ones, but they're all good; the technical execution is flawless; these are impossibly light, not the sock-like consistency industrial ones you find in so many caffes. While at it, I tried 2 chocolate cakes. One (Catalana) was a mousse cake with hazelnut and pastry cream. Awe-inspiring. The mousse had good strong flavour and the cream (as usual) was simply perfect. Cakes in this style aren't always my favourite but here I can appreciate why people love them. The other was a gianduja cake with raspberry. Can't say this one was as good - the flavour seemed a bit bland and unremarkable. Looks like the Catalana is now my fixture for chocolate cake in Rome.
Then there was Armando al Pantheon for a lunch. What need really be said about a Roman institution which continues to delight with each passing year? A mild remodel of the decor spiffs up the interior just a bit, but it's the same relaxing style, and with service that really is the epitome of graciousness. I must give a special hat-tip to the telephone staff taking my booking; in marked contrast to the often somewhat surly people in other Roman restaurants, the reply over the phone here is genuinely cheerful and welcoming. Why can't more places be like this. As for the food - as usual, lovely. I started with porchetta, decadently fatty (without being excessive) and full of flavour. Next a simple spagetti aglio e olio showed how even a simple dish can be elevated; as per the menu they put a little peperoncino in there and the result excites the tongue. Trattoria dining at its most classic. For a secondo, they had a sausage special, and I, for one, have never met a sausage I didn't like. So it went. Simply served on a generous bed of chicory, the sausages were cooked to moist plumpness, again, with full flavour, like you would idealise sausage in a restaurant to be like - yet so often are disappointed by. In fact, my only disappointment is not having room for a pudding - they had some lovely looking ones on offer - but after the sausage I'd reached the breaking point. One really has to sympathise with the staff who have to turn away inevitably many tourists who show up without a booking and hoping to be seated; I don't know how one could win in this situation; clearly they don't want to have to turn people away but here is a place that could book its capacity many times over each day.
For another lunch I went violently upscale - to celebrate major success at the workshop, and visited another "old friend": Il Pagliaccio. Like Armando, they've done a minor refit of the decor; a little less playful, a little more dignified. Service has improved that notch; if last time there was still a whiff of stiff formality this time I think they got the balance right between professionalism and personability. As usual they present a menu with difficult choices between good-sounding options, but in the end I went for seppia, sausage, broad beans and pear as a starter, ravioli filled with ossobucco as a primo, and pork, carrots, and radish salad as a secondo, with "strawberries and cream" as a dessert. This proved to be a parade of hits that emphasised relentless freshness and ingredients.
The seppia was the all-round highlight. Some dishes you'll remember for the rest of your life; this was one of them. Particularly the broad beans were impossibly fresh but so for that matter was the pear, and as for the seppia itself, artfully slitted and rolled into a cylinder that looked like a gear, they'd mastered the art of making the most of the texture while delivering the flavour. A dish that sung of spring. Il Pagliaccio has always impressed with the paste and yet again those ravioli didn't disappoint, with an ossobucco flavour that stood out in its richness; truly decadent. The ravioli themselves were of a beautiful supple consistency, another dish that will live in my memory for a long time. On to the pork which was very nice - I can still visualise it now - but it will be said not quite the equal to Marco Stabile's iconic "maiale morbido croccante" which still sets my Italian reference. However this was in part made up for again by the relentless freshness of the salad which wasn't over-fussed. Carrots could have been a bit better but it is getting a bit late for the best ones. Then finally we reach the pudding. OK, on the one hand the strawberries - proper fragolini - were decisively the best I've had in Rome at a time of year when this is THE thing to have. On the other I have to be honest and say, I've never quite got why people gush over Marion Lichtle. The cream - a straightforward panna cotta - was well executed but at the end of the day panna cotta is what it is. An accompanying rice biscuit and tonic-water granita just seemed incidental; they added nothing, really. Being truthful, I would say just give me a bowl of those fragolini with lots of panna on top and I would have been just as happy. Also being truthful in terms of concept and execution, Cristalli di Zucchero does a better job in pastries, at least as far as I've seen. Not that these at Il Pagliaccio are bad; on the contrary they're first-rate, but somehow they always seem mildly disappointing in the context of the savoury dishes which (as above) are consistently sublime. Theoretically, people say La Pergola is better still. From my experience I find that hard to believe - indeed, I find it hard to believe that ANY restaurant anywhere could consistently do any better than this. About the only thing La Pergola could do to be better is have better puddings - and as I understand it they're not the basis of *their* reputation. I still give Il Pagliaccio my emphatic vote as the best restaurant in Rome - and a perfect place for a celebration.
And then finally for dinner on the night of the Il Pagliaccio day I went to Da Baffetto. Really this is more about the Reliable Standby than the Dining Excellence visit. Pizze as usual creditable (I got 2: Marinara and Prosciutto e Funghi) although nothing to write home about. My only regret though is that the gorgeous single Italian woman I was seated with (to make a table of 2) I got little time to converse with as an adjacent American (it will be said, pleasant company) rather monopolised the talk.
I'd planned on a few more visits than actually happened, because halfway through the trip I got violently sick, but did manage to visit 2:
Osteria La Gensola. In actual fact, I'd been planning on going to Piperno but they were solidly booked and La Gensola are suitably nearby. Picturesque location. As many will know there is a Sicilian slant to the menu - all the more reason in my eyes to lean towards fish. I started with an amberjack carpaccio (they had a tuna one as well but as I understand it tuna is not in prime season) which was a nice, and unusual, way to begin. You couldn't fault the freshness of the fish, very nicely done, although to be honest I might have wished for something a bit more exciting on the flavour. No such troubles with the primo - a spaghetti with pine nuts and raisins, not what you usually think of but densely buttery and decadent. Slightly overcooked pasta, though, in comparison to Armando. For a second I continued the chicory blitz with anchovies over chicory. The anchovies were super-crispy and flavourful, though the chicory I felt was a bit over-oiled compared to the Armando version of the same thing with sausages. Still, this felt like the highlight of the evening. I finished with a chocolate torte, which sounded as though it could be good but turned out to be a rather disappointingly sweet version of a chocolate moelleux; would that it had been more chocolatey. Still, the meal was perfectly fine and would have been a satisfying evening had it not been for the service which was simply shambolic. The staff mean well and are very friendly, but couldn't seem to decide who was to take my order or what I ordered, forgot bread for a while, and generally seemed as though they were dealing with several unexpected panics. Maybe it was just a bad day - these things happen. But for a restaurant about which I've heard good things I think the overall impression I left with is "it was good to try but I don't think I'll be returning any time soon".
Pizzarium. Distance from the centre is a factor, although of course it's easy enough on the Metropolitana. Finally got out there after years of meaning to. Not surprisingly, this is of entirely another calibre from Da Baffetto, and with friendlier service as well. As soon as I walked in I saw what I wanted: a pizza with chicory and culatello, tomato sauce, no cheese. And what I can say is - superb. Soft, satisfying pizza with the flavours (and prime ingredients) really showing through, a great spot when you want something basic and fast, but rising above mass-market quality. Actually the queues aren't nearly as bad as I feared, so it doesn't take a huge chunk out of your day, of course particularly well-placed if you're visiting the Vatican.
In spite of sickness, then, I thought it on the whole a successful expedition - now I need to think about what new places to go next time