Rome isn’t a city that throws itself at your feet. It holds lots of little secrets, coy hidden corners and delights you have to work to discover. Yes, there are the great sights and dramatic buttressing of the ancient and the just very old, but to uncover any inkling of the Rome that the Romans live in, is a bit of a puzzle. And the Romans are understandably reticent to let you invade their last remaining strongholds of life without the chatter of tourists and their flashing cameras. It’s like they’re saying, yes, you can have our Colosseum and our Spanish Steps, but leave just a little something for us, please. During the past week I’ve desperately tried to uncover just a tiny corner of Rome away from the hordes and have succeeded here and there. I’m going to share some of my triumphs and admit to a few failures. (Google any of the names in bold below and you’ll find more info on addresses, hours and the like.)
Lunch the first day was really, really delicious. La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali is located in the Monti district, sort of a bohemian enclave just east of the major ancient sights of Rome. It looks a little bit like a tourist trap from the outside, checkered tablecloths and chianti bottles holding candles, but the food is outstanding. To start we ordered a buratta and cherry tomato bruschetta – it came with one salty anchovy filet draped over the top. Then I had a delicious gnocchi with veal and porcini ragout. Terrific! My lovely husband got his favorite pasta putanesca and declared a new love for capers as the ones in this dish were plump and popped in your mouth. The menu has many of the old favorites, but I would recommend looking at the 10-12 specials that they offer daily and make your pick from those. A good start!
Not far away, well, nothing is really that far away in the center of Rome, is the Campo de Fiori market. Lovely bunches of artichokes were for sale at every stall alongside piles of dark greens, many of which I wasn’t familiar with. I think there were ramps on offer, wild garlic, beautiful lettuces. Some Romans were doing their shopping here, but this is quite a famous market, so many of the products are geared towards the tourist – shrink wrapped to be carried in your luggage. I even watched from afar as an Indian man demonstrated fancy ceramic peelers to a group of Americans (in English) with the panache of a infomercial star. Tiny butchers and fishmongers are located in the “streets” that snake their way into this main square, but my favorite find of the day was Antica Norcineria Viola, an all-pork shop right on the market square, offering sausages of all shapes and flavors.
What does a girl need after a long day of avoiding puddles in the cobblestone streets and getting splashed as the motorcycles whizz by just a hairsbreadth from her? Why a cannoli, of course! On the hunt, we marched the long way around the Palazzo Venezia to a bakery I’d read about called Cristalli di Zucchero. It didn’t look like much from the outside but the pastries here are delicious. My cannoli filled with pistachios on one end and candied orange zest on the other (because, really, who can decide what flavor to get?). My lovely husband ordered a cheesecake and a pistachio white chocolate mousse that had a lovely nougat center. A little tea alongside and the only thing that could have made me happier was a chair. As with many cafes here you stand at a counter, lingering is not encouraged. We caught a taxi outside so we could linger in our hotel and recover before dinner.
Sadly, dinner was a big miss. Renato e Luisa came highly recommended on several food sites. I think it was perhaps an off night because people do give it raves, but I feel duty-bound to report our mediocre experience. I was thrilled to be getting stuffed zucchini flowers that I’ve seen on offer at many of the markets around the city. Ricotta and mozzarella filled, lightly battered….delicious. Nope! First of all they were gritty inside, not properly cleaned. Secondly, the filling inside wasn’t hot – they hadn’t fried them long enough to warm all the way through, therefore the cheese mixture was a stodgy lump, not a delightful, oozy mixture. Also, there was no seasoning, no herbs used. All of this, combined with the sandy grit made them inedible. We also ordered a bresaola starter, wrapped around mozzarella. It was also a failure to my mind as it was doused in a very odd soy sauce that didn’t work at all. My oxtail pappardelle tasted like it had come out of a can and the meat was almost non-existent. The filling of the cod ravioli my darling ordered was terribly dry and the tomato sauce tasted tinny. The staff could not have been nicer, but we declined any offer of dessert and ran for the door. I felt despair as I wondered if this meal was representative of the quality we’d get during our stay.
A sunny sky greeted me the next morning and I thought that I best get away from the center of town and the tiny cobblestone streets. The Roma Farmers’ Market in the Testacchio neighborhood is known for it’s local produce – and when I say local, I mean from the Lazio region just surrounding Rome. Located in the old slaughterhouse of Rome, the building is seriously cool, with the hooks that used to carry the carcasses around the building still hanging from the metal beams in the ceiling. I found the stalls to be remarkably specific about what they were selling – limited to what they farm and that’s it. Because my Italian is limited to Grazie and maybe ten other words, I didn’t join in the fray of bargaining and gesturing that was going on, but I did stop to look at some beautiful orbs of black truffles and settled on a small jar or truffle paste to mix into my pastas at home. It’s not a big market, but it’s cheap and fun to watch the natives in their element.
From the specificity of the Lazio region to the generosity of the entire Italian culinary repertoire, that’s what I found at Eataly. When I heard there was an Eataly in Rome, yes the same Eataly as you’ll find in Manhattan, I thought there must be some mistake. I mean, it makes sense for their to be a store devoted to all things deliciously Italian in New York, but we’re already in Italy, why do we need a similar model here? Well, I don’t know that they NEED it, but it’s an incredible sight to behold. Four floors of a repurposed train station stuffed with food. And while I’m not entirely sure about this, I think part of the reason this works here is because it brings together all things edible from ALL of Italy. This is something curious I found while in Rome, the food is purely Roman and they are proud of it. If you want to really try something different, you hunt for an Umbrian restaurant, for the Umbrian version of pasta and meat which is entirely different from Roman pasta and meat (at least in their minds). Yes, they are different, and so here you have Eataly where you can source all of the ingredients you need to make this seemingly endless array of Italian food. An entire section devoted to dry pasta, another to olive oils, balsamic vinegars of all ages, shelves of prepared pestos, and lots and lots of staff preparing artisan mozzarellas and pastas. Magnificent. All of the joys of eating in Italy at your feet!
Sunday isn’t an easy day to be a tourist in Rome. Many things are closed and with the weather barely cooperating I was feeling a little disheartened about heading out to spend the day traversing the cobblestone streets again alone. I walked past the Spanish Steps and wanted to find the Piazza Navona which I had yet to lay eyes on. Once there I felt deflated. Yes, it’s a gorgeous square and I admire the Bernini fountain in the middle, however getting a good view of it was almost impossible for the gangs of men selling fake handbags in front of it. Not to be completely undone I headed away from the piazza onto the little side streets and came across the most lovely church, Santa Maria della Pace. Just around the side there is an entrance to the Choistro del Bramante and the tiny cafeteria located on its upper floor. I ordered a salmon salad which was as gorgeous as it was delicious, and ate while looking out over the 15th century courtyard below and up to the open sky above. Heaven.
Equally difficult, is finding a restaurant serving dinner on Sunday night. We were meeting friends, so the pressure was on to find something good, and I settled upon Primo al Pigneto in the hot foodie neighborhood of Pigneto. It’s the Hackney, the Mission District, the Williamsburg, of Rome. I had hoped to go out to the pedestrian-only main thoroughfare, Via del Pigneto, and take a look at what all the hype is about, but the weather did not cooperate. We did get a little look at things as we searched for the restaurant and I have to say it was a little rough looking – I was glad to have my strapping husband alongside me. For the second time I found the room lit like an operating theater not a restaurant (one of our friends made the observation that Italians preferred to see what they were about to eat instead of flattering mood lighting). I can see their point, but this is brighter than many restaurant kitchens I’ve worked in, and somewhat off-putting. Primo’s food was ok, but not great, and it’s said to be the best in the neighborhood. I had fried artichokes to start with that I found over-fried and under-salted. My beef cheeks with polenta were very dry – I thought that the polenta would be lovely and creamy but it was served in a block that I could have bounced on the floor like a rubber ball. There was no sauce to speak of, no vegetables, and the meat wasn’t cooked long enough. From the reactions around the table it seemed that I wasn’t alone in my lukewarm feeling about the food. For dessert I ordered a pistachio mousse with chocolate and all I have to say is, meh.
Sunday’s rain gave way to a lovely Monday. Near the cloister where I had lunch the day before, I had noticed a sidewalk full of tables with delicious looking pizzas and calzones being served. I made a beeline for it (and by now was able to navigate the maze of streets with ease). La Focaccia has no sign out front, but is definitely worth looking for. Apparently the word is out, because we rubbed elbows with two tables full of American priests here for the conclave, gossiping about the upcoming Pope vote while chewing on pizza crusts. A little weird, truth be told. Anyway, we started with a plate of fried zucchini – simple and yummy. Next came our pizzas which were not quite the thin Roman style I had eaten before (and not worth writing about here) and the dough was ever so slightly sweet. It was the simplicity of it all that was so good – perfect salty tomato sauce, lots of parmesan cheese, a nice base of mozzarella. Really, very good if your’re near the Piazza Navona.According to one guidebook, the original owner of Felice a Testaccio used to put reserved signs on all of the tables in his restaurant so he could turn away any customer he didn’t like the looks of. His sons have since taken over and they say the grouchy atmosphere is all but gone – however, the food remains as delicious as the books promise. I would guess we were the only tourists in this spot located not far from the farmers’ market I had been to a few days before. Like the other restaurants, it was so brightly lit that it was almost uncomfortable but all the better to see the locals by. I loved the buzz in the room and the almost diner feel of the place, like not much has changed since it opened in 1936. As soon as we sat down Alex read us the menu (in English) and by god, if you didn’t pay attention you missed out! There were about 8 pasta starters and the same number of main dishes. I decided to try their speciality, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, a homemade egg pasta with sheep’s milk cheese and pepper. My love tried a similar dish but with tomato sauce. Throughout our ordering, Alex stopped to yell across the room at a beleaguered looking Max. There was swearing (lots of “catso!”) and then Alex told us that he’d told the manager that if one more thing went wrong that night, Max was gone. “Max!” was the evening’s chorus. Then it was on to the mains which were all meat. I chose a meatball covered in breadcrumbs, fried and served with lemon. My better half chose the roasted veal. Now, you have to watch the video here. When our pastas arrived Alex mixed them tableside with great panache. Please watch and take special note of the rhythmic clacking of the fork and spoon and just imagine the aroma coming from it. The pasta itself was a wonderful texture and the cheese and pepper mixture simplicity itself, and just perfect. I don’t know how the Italians retain any semblance of sveltness given how they eat (we discussed this at length as we watched table after table eat multiple courses when we were stuffed after our pastas). But it really was a fantastic room for people-watching as large groups of locals jostled one another as they did a lovely dance to find their space in the room. Our main dishes arrived and I could barely imagine eating more. But persevere we did (just). I envied the woman behind me who had only an enormous pile of sauteed spinach for her main course (it wasn’t offered to me as an option). The presentation was non-existent, just two fried meatballs on a plate with some caponata on the side. It was very good but just too much for me. The veal was similarly yummy, but overwhelming. That said, I had to order dessert, a Roman speciality: ricotta and cherry jam pie. The pastry crust was light and flaky, the cherry jam lovely and tart. I think making little tartletts like this will be something I try at home.