Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Italy: Eating in Rome

Barzilai on Via Panispurna is, to my mind, an almost ideal Roman bistro.
It offers lunch and dinner specials, has cold beer, a good wine list and
a mostly Italian clientele. The first two times we were there, our original
server had to find someone who spoke English to deal with us. I had
excellent eggplant parmigiana at one lunch and cacio e pepe
one evening for dinner. It's standard Italian fare done well.

Food and wine were, of course, things Jane and I looked forward to as we planned a lengthy trip to Italy.  Italy did not disappoint. When we tired of pizza and pasta, which we did, there was Chinese
or sushi in Rome. Or hamburgers. Or steaks. Or roasted chicken.

Very good wine can be very inexpensive or very costly. We tried to find the former. We discovered an unfamiliar white in Rome that became our go-to white for most of the trip: pecorino, named for the grape in it. It's often from Abruzzo or Marche on Italy's eastern coast. Dry, slightly floral without being fruity. Wine is made from more than 2,000 varieties of grape in Italy, so there's always something new to try. Another good white is grillo, again named for the grape, usually from Sicily. I developed a preference for Sicilian whites and reds. They're almost never fruity and they're usually among the least expensive wines on any list. The ones from Mount Etna vineyards tend to be very minerally, which to me is a good thing.

Although we had an apartment with a full kitchen for six weeks, we didn't eat in except for breakfast -- usually locally baked bread, locally made yogurt and cheeses from our weekend farmers' market. Lunch (pranzo) and dinner (cena) were usually at  restaurants. With more than 40 lunches and 40 dinners, we had the opportunity to return to places that we especially liked.  We ate (or at least drank) at all of the restaurants and bars listed below more than once, and while we can't whole-heartedly recommend each, we can at least say why we went back for another meal.

Most of these offer sidewalk or garden tables, always our first choice.  Although all of these have dining rooms and, I think, all are air-conditioned, between open doors and an Italian reluctance to turn thermostats to temperatures that Americans consider comfortable, we thought we were better off outdoors where there's the chance of a breeze. In April, some evenings could be downright chilly and many sidewalk tables had the familiar propane heaters or offered blankets. By the time we left Rome at the end of May (and when we returned for two nights in mid-July), the city baked during the day and didn't start to cool down until 7 or 8 p.m. Still, even at lunch, a table in the shade of an umbrella was comfortable.

We often relied on Tripadvisor when deciding where to go for dinner (for lunch we just eyeballed menus as we walked around), and found that restaurant ratings are close to meaningless. Jane says the key is to read the most recent reviews. She also discovered that some restaurants offer discounts through Tripadvisor if you make a reservation online, and we took advantage of this when we could. The discounts may be seasonal -- some that had discounts when we were there don't seem to offer them now. Even without a discount, reservations are advisable at most restaurants. Once every table has been booked, restaurants tend to start turning people away even if some diners are near the end of their meals. You'll find that many diners linger at the table long after the last coffee cup or dessert dish has been removed. You get seated at a restaurant and you're welcome to stay at the table all night.

We had many wonderful or at least interesting meals, but details for most are lost in the mists of time. It's hard to remember what was eaten where. We talk about keeping a food diary, but so far neither of us has. We do remember, however, whether we liked or didn't like a place and why. The listings below are merely our impressions.

La Fata Ignorante (click HERE). The names means "The Ignorant Fairy," and I suppose there's a story behind it that I don't know. This is a long walk from central Rome and most diners seem to arrive by car. It's a block south of the Piramide rail station. There are a handful of sidewalk tables, which is where we ate our first time here. Servings are on the small size, but this is Italy and diners are expected to order two or more courses. The second time we were inside. Both times we ordered appetizers and main dishes, skipping the pasta course.  Jane remembers liking a wild boar dish.

Hams ready for the knife at Emma.
Emma Pizzeria with Kitchen (click HERE). This is one of the first places we ate at in Rome, stumbling upon it after buying an Italian smartphone. It's near the Largo Torre Argentina ruins and Campo de'Fiori.  Both times here we were seated in a bright and airy lower-level room. Since this was my first real meal in Rome for this trip, I chose a classic pizza Napoli with anchovies. It was salty beyond the salt the anchovies added, but I came to learn that Italian restaurant food is often over-salted in the kitchen. The specialties here are plates of ham and cheese. The restaurant includes a store selling a range of prepared foods, sauces, cheeses, etc.

Sushi e Noodles Aventino (click HERE). This is on Viale Aventino south of the Colosseum and Circus Maximus area, a long walk from central Rome but not so far from our apartment. The name says it all. I had eel and salmon hand rolls each time I was there. It's on something of a restaurant row with a lot of international choices (French, Brazilian and more), so we felt pretty safe not making reservations. Judging by how many of the other diners seemed to know each other, I'd say this area caters to its locals, not to tourists. We didn't encounter other English speakers here.

Alla Fratte di Trastevere  (click HERE). All visitors to Rome should spend time wandering around and getting lost in Trastevere. There are a number of good places to eat, and this is certainly one of them. I had grilled calamari my first time here (at lunch) and thought it very good until I had the same dish that I liked better elsewhere. We came back for another lunch and I had pasta, which is good everywhere in Rome. Service was fine on the first visit and very slow on the second.

Edoardo (click HERE). This is a quirky place, even overlooking the homoerotic art. Both times we had dinner here, there was a well-worn sign saying that they temporarily could not accept debit or credit cards, so you had to pay in cash. The first time we watched as one table argued with the waiter and insisted on paying by card and it appeared that eventually a card was accepted. During our three months in Italy, we encountered no other restaurant that was cash only, though some museums, galleries and bars accepted only cash. As for the food, this is where I had the best grilled squid and came back for it a second time. It's close to Piazza Campidoglia and Piazza Venezio, hidden in a maze of alleys.

In Roma (click HERE). This was just down the block from our apartment, and we ate here a number of times. It specializes in spaghetti carbonara, the egg-and-bacon-and-cheese dish that every restaurant offers, but here dried pork cheek replaces the bacon. Far too rich to be healthy but very good. My favorite dish was much lighter: spaghetti with smoked swordfish. Never had anything like it anywhere else. The spaghetti with swordfish roe and the pasta Bolognese were also good. Your fellow diners will be a mix of locals and tourists.

A quiet morning at Piazza Pasquino. The umbrella in the distance is Cul de Sac.
Cul de Sac (click HERE). We ate here a couple of time years ago on our first visit to Rome, and we were happy to see it still in business. It's in Piazza Pasquino, just off the southwestern corner of Piazza Navona, and if you can get a sidewalk table, the people watching is great. Better still is its lengthy wine list (with many by the glass) and its staggering list of cured meats and Italian cheeses. Try the beef carpaccio. This is a place where you can go for aperitivos and end up eating so much that you have to skip dinner.

Catinari (click HERE). We found this place by chance when my sister-in-law and niece were visiting. We thought we could waltz into the Jewish Ghetto and find a table anywhere. Well, the one place that could seat us was a place we had tried before and didn't like. Others had waits until, on the western edge of the Ghetto, we came upon Catinari. It shares its sidewalk dining area with a hamburger place and it was unclear at first which of the two we were at. Catinari has most of the standards of southern Italian cuisine, and one dish with a twist: spaghetti with crispy anchovies. My sister-in-law and I were curious and we split an order of it as appetizers. On my second visit here, it was my main dish. The spaghetti with deep-fried anchovies is an intensely flavored dish, satisfying without being too rich. I haven't seen it anywhere else.  Each time we were there, Jane ordered pan-fried fish, which she said was light and perfect.

Max Roma (click HERE). This is one of the places that offered a discount for making a reservation online. Usually, that's a turn off, but it shouldn't be in Italy. Some very good restaurants make the same offer -- discounts of 30 to 50 percent.  Like Sushi e Noodles, this is on Viale Aventino, but closer to the Circus Maximus. It has two or three rows of outdoor tables on decks stepping down  from the sidewalk to the glass-fronted restaurant, which may sound good but actually give it little curb appeal. This is not the place if you're looking for atmosphere, though I found that the company at my own table and the quality of the food made up for its lack of style. We ate here several times and returned again when we had guests. Pasta with red tuna and pistachios, pasta Bolognese and fish were highlights here. The menu lists a fish of the day, but a waiter explained that the fish of the day is always two fish, a tuna steak or a swordfish steak, each coming with the best eggplant ratatouille I have ever had. And the fish were always seared just right and not overcooked. At one meal, our foursome twice had to send back bottles of wine that had gone bad, and the waiter was very gracious about it.

Osteria Circo (click HERE). This uniquely situated restaurant is across the street from the Circus Maximus, where chariots once raced and where scenes for the movie "Ben Hur" were filmed. At least one barrel-vaulted dining room extends into or under the Palatine Hill, where Caesar Augustus held court. Since it was about a five-minute walk from our apartment, we ended up here several times. Oddly, our first meal was our worst, with Jane finding the lamb greasy and me not liking the barbecue sauce on my brisket. But it was so convenient that we gave it another go and never had another disappointing meal. Favorites were hamburgers (the best we had in Italy) and basic pasta dishes. I also remember it as the place that introduced me to Moretti La Rosso beer, a very refreshing and malty amber.

Le Lanterne's outdoor tables turn Via della Pilotte into a one-lane street. On the left
is the edge of the Colonna Garden, connected to the palace by bridges.
Le Lanterne (click HERE). If you visit the Colonna Palace (open only on Saturday mornings), this is the perfect spot for lunch afterward. Via della Pilotte is a quiet street though it's only a few blocks from the Trevi Fountain. Its dining room is in the ground level of the Colonna Palace and bridges that connect the palace with the Colonna Garden are overhead. We had lunch here twice, and both times I had chicken salad ... a large mixed salad with generous amount of warm chicken and a scoop of mayonnaise. Excellent both times.

Barzilai (click HERE). This was another place found by accident. We were wandering around the trendy Monte district with a friend from Colorado and ended up having lunch here. My eggplant parmigiana could not have been better. We came back with our friend's husband for another lunch and, on our return to Rome in mid-July, for dinner. Friendly service, though this place gets few tourists and there might be a wait for them to find an English-speaking server.

Maxella (click HERE). On Via Coppelle a few blocks from the northeast corner of Piazza Navona, this place specializes in aged beef.  Surprisingly for a place that seems quite upmarket, it offered a discount for online reservations.  Some meat dishes are priced by the kilogram, so there's some math involved when you order. Two-hundred grams (about seven ounces) is the minimum order, so figure you'll pay at least a fifth of the per-kilogram price. I've forgotten the cut I had, but do remember thinking it was very good.

Anima Mundi (click HERE). This lounge bar (that seems to be a category of bar-restaurants in Italy) offers flights of Negronis. The classic Negroni is equal parts gin, bitter Campari and red vermouth. One flight here changes the liquor -- one fairly generous drink with the traditional gin, one with mezcal and one with bourbon. The last version is a drink in its own right called the Boulevardier, which I developed a taste for in Rome. The other flight uses three different vermouths. Anima Mundi also has a half-dozen German beers on tap and serves simple food such as grilled chicken with couscous, Caesar salads and hamburgers. Usually OK but once a salad was inedible. The charge was deleted and we got a free dessert. We were there often enough that I was given a "resident" card with a permanent discount on dinners.  The setting is memorable, just off Via d. San Tedoro on Via d. Velabro in a walkout basement, with outdoor tables and lounging furniture overlooking the fourth-century Quadrifronte Arch and the seventh-century Chiesa di San Giorgio al Velabro. Perfect place for raising a glass to the Eternal City.

That's my Boulevardier and Jane's rose wine along with complimentary snacks at
the Otivm Hotel Rooftop Bar. In the distance is the top of the Vitorrio Emanuele II Monument.
Otivm Hotel Rooftop Bar (click HERE; website is for hotel). This is where I had my first Boulevardier (equal parts Maker's Mark, bitter Campari and dry red vermouth, garnished with orange peel). The hotel had just opened its rooftop bar, under the direction of a Brazilian-Italian named Enrico, when we found it. Its location, on our route walking between central Rome and our rather isolated neighborhood behind the Piazza Campidoglia, made it a great recharging station. The hotel isn't very tall -- six or seven stories -- and the view isn't great. But it is a treat to see a lot of sky, which isn't common in Rome, and there is a unique view of the Piazza Campidoglia and the top of the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, the big wedding cake of a building that dominates this part of Rome. We think we were Enrico's only customers who weren't hotel guests, and at the time maybe the only customers who came back week after week, sometimes bringing our friends.

Gregory's Jazz Club (click HERE).  This club is off the beaten track a bit, though it's an easy walk from busy Via Tritone and from the top of the Spanish Steps. There's a downstairs bar and some dining tables, and an upstairs listening room with sofas and cabaret seating. The cover charge for upstairs varies by the night and start time and includes your first drink. It's cheaper to go at 7:30 and hear the first two sets, after which you leave, than to go at 9:30 for the final sets with different music. Check out the website to see who's playing and don't skip it if it's "just" a piano player. If it's Leonardo Borghi, you're in for treat. Expect virtuoso riffs, mostly on songs from the great American songbook. Dinner here is a possibility. We ate here the first time at a cabaret table and were not impressed with the typical Roman fare. We were told the menu would be changing to bar food, which may or may not be an improvement. Fortunately there's a good Chinese restaurant around the corner on Via Capo le Case.

Charity Cafe (click HERE). Via Panisperna is a small street with a large number of restaurants (see Barzilai, above) and bars. Although this is a "cafe," I saw no coffee or food served here. It's a tiny space with an eight- or 10-seat bar by the door. Squeeze past it and you'll find three rows of bleacher-style seating at the back facing a stage so small that some musicians end up sitting on wooden blocks intended as tables for the first row of bleachers. There is a one-drink minimum; we were never charged a cover here. Music one night was a three-piece (piano, bass, drums) straight-ahead jazz ensemble. Another night it was two Italians singing blues in English so convincingly that I thought they were Americans until they spoke. The main vocalist stuck with guitar while the other fellow moved from drums to keyboard to trumpet, sometimes playing all three at once. Our last night in Rome we were here for an honest jam session, with audience members and people on stage trading places. The snippet below (this blog platform allows only short videos) was made that night. Music starts around 10, so you can grab an early dinner nearby.

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