Between Christmas and New Year, I decamped with my wife and two children (8 and 12) to Rome and Venice. Ostensibly we were just whiling away the time before skiiing in the largely snowless Dolomites. I had a hidden agenda, though: to introduce my children to the world of small Italian family-run restaurants as a quirky and humane counterpoint to the global media miasma in which children grow up these days.
The experiment turned out really well, not least due to the incredible help I got from Maureen Fant, PBSF (Venice maven), Jen Kalb and many others on this board. I wish I could repay the favour by doing a serial review of our meals, but as soon as I tried, I realised that the reports seemingly dashed off by so many regulars actually require considerable skill and effort. So I decided to put down eight pointers for food crawling in Rome and Venice with young children in tow. Once in a while, a particularly good experience or dish will get a mention.
1. Walk, walk, walk, talk, talk, talk. The biggest surprise was our kids’ stamina for walking hours on end and the evident joy from being in these beautiful locales. I would not recommend this for children under eight, but here goes: stay in the Centro Storico, find restaurants within walking distance, or on routes that will appeal, and work up an appetite. For our kids, lunch at Antiche Carampane was memorable less for the food (see below) than for the meandering route we took through the back-canals of San Polo, finding ourselves in an untouristy, enigmatic and beguiling Venice. Kids have an eye for detail, and the smallest oddities and surprises are pleasing. One can combine walking and talking with individually guided tours. Here I’ll slip in a sighseeing tip: www.rometourswithkids.com has the distinction of a perfect five-star average on Tripadvisor from a hundred genuine reviews, one of them mine, and wholly deserved: ask for the erudite and child-friendly MariaClaudia. After the Colosseum and climbing the Palatine Hill, take a quick cab ride to Testaccio for a carb-restoring lunch.
2. Be a purist some of the time. Rome is Rome, Venice is Venice. They should taste the food of the city they’re in. If they like something, they will order it again, and before you know it, will be comparing and contrasting like a veteran Chowhounder. My 8-year-old son, whose entire eating repertoire at home consists of three dishes, all made in very large factories, had much to say about the relative merits of polpotte at Cesare al Casaletto and that in Flavio al Velavovodetto in Testaccio. Flavio, by the way, really worked for my family, with the interior windows on heaps of broken Roman urns and large tables of Italian families ordering lots of food. Almost everything was tasty and memorable. Carciofi, straciatella and anchovy, rigatoni carbonara, the polpette, and lovely ravioli with ricotta salata, tamatoes and herbs. Back to comprative eating: my daughter had a ball with cacio e pepe and its variants. Even tiramisu can elicit a conversation: custardy in Rome, creamy in Venice.
3. Don’t be a purist all of the time. I discovered something about myself. Much as I enjoyed the classics I have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to be a true purist. I enjoyed Sicilian food in Venice (at Aquapazza), and the ecumenical menu at Il Sorpasso was a delight after another excellent tour with MariaClaudia at the Vatican. A surprisingly tender octopus and potato starter, delectable strozzapreti with eggplant and tomato. A simple variant on a classic, grigia with cafciofi, was perhaps the most satisfying ‘Roman’ dish I had all week. And my children continued their polpette adventures with ones embedded in a soft bread, for all the world a kind of pre-Ellis-Island hamburger.
4. Take the No 8 Tram. Having just dissed tradition, you should not for a moment hesitate to put your children on the No 8 tram to Cesare. For one thing, it takes you way out of the tourist Rome to a real city with real people riding with you on the Saturday tram. The ride is comparatively short, and fun for kids who do not know trams. And once they arrive, the husband and wife of Cesare are relaxed, welcoming, open. Somehow, children pick up that the food is made with concentration and care. If the group is big enough, they love experimenting with a dazzling array of starters, taking as much or little as they want. When I ask my children today about their favourite meal in Italy they say Cesare, despite its understated and unflashy style, and all the well-heeled couples around us tasting each other’s dishes in a kind of reverent silence.
5. Don’t get upset if you kids order spaghetti bolognaise at Antiche Carampane. I’m not sure that 2 January is the best day to eat at as serious a fish restaurant as Antiche. The style of cooking demands a level of freshness that may almost have been there. Nonetheless, from raw fish starters, through pasta with extraordinarily savoury miniature octopi, and ending with a silky torino mousse, the whole experience left us enveloped in a palpable sense of well-being. I think the small scale of the place, and the warmth just a word away for even an itinerant guest, had something to do with it. Of course, my children will need to return to Venice to know what Antiche’s fish tastes like! I would certainly return every time.
6. Stay in an apartment and cook something. For this I should thank PBSF: shopping at the Rialto market, picking up vongole veraci, john dory, cheese, pasta, walnuts, surprisingly reasonable vegetables. And cooking at home, with the little clams smiling open-mouthed at their anxious and ingenu cook when he finally lifted the lid to see how his sauce was doing. You and Maureen were right, the veraci are better! Anyway, for children it is sometimes nice to just stay in, putter around the kitchen, watch an arbitrary movie left behind by earlier guests, and chat to their parents. This is my No 1 tip to families travelling in Italy: stay in an apartment and sometimes cook for yourself.
7. When all is lost, there is great pizza. To be honest, Pizzeria Emma does not feel like a family restaurant at all, it’s large and vibey and modern. But it was the only place in Rome where we ate twice. I know too little to make definitive statements about pizza, Roman or otherwise. I do know that sometimes I am quite ready to hop onto a 10-hour flight just to have another Superbio at Emma: very simple tomato, mozzarella and basil, but sastisfying in every respect. There is also a lovely pizza with tomato, extraordinary anchovy and no cheese. So simple, so pure. We also ate once at Obica, a pizzeria with similar ambitions and an outlet on Campo di Fiori. Not as memorable or fun as Emma, but it did sport one marvellous pizza, topped with straciatella and spiced salami fried in little crispy filaments.
8. Ask. Finally, be bold: ask about places to go, on Chowhound. It worked for us. And once there, ask proprietors and waiters what to order. They know things we don’t! Thanks again to all who helped and gave advice.