Some Roman Restaurants, a Thanksgiving Visit to the Eternal City
What follows is a culinary record of a week spent in Rome over the Thanksgiving holiday, an excellent time to be there if one wants both to eat white truffles and avoid the worst crush of tourists. I in fact heard English at only two of the restaurants I visited, and their staffs, while anxious to talk about how miserable their economic and political systems are, could not have been more cordial. As has always been my experience dining in Italy, knowledge of Italian is useful, but even more important is appreciation for the traditions of cooking. Comment meaningfully on the quality of an artichoke or the texture of the gnocchi, and you will make immediate friends in the restaurants of Rome. As to assessing their quality, the Latin adage tot homines, quot opiniones might have been created to describe critical judgments. I once sat next to a group of Roman businessmen at lunch who spent the better part of an hour discussing the merits of the risotto they were eating in comparison to those prepared by other restaurants they frequented. Guidebooks are always a little out of date in recommendations for an enterprise where quality can change very quickly; the Internet is largely useless, with the exception of reports by the canny American expatriate, Maureen Fant. My own history eating out in Rome goes back some forty years now. I well remember the place where I first saw baskets full of porcini and studied the elaborate choreography of a well-run dining room. It was at Passetto in the Via Zanardelli that I learned about Roman food, and how to play my part correctly in the Italian culinary theater. Passetto remains, having weathered a major scandal a few years ago when two Japanese tourists were charged 700 euros for lunch. Had they been eating dinner at Heinz Beck’s Michelin starred La Pergola the bill would have seemed reasonable, but the police were summoned to Passetto, and now that the dust has settled their awning reads “Wine bar/Caffeteria”. I didn’t have the heart to go inside.
All serious visitors to Rome have a place that they always considered their personal find, but whose existence is inevitably revealed to the world at large, with a resulting change in ambience. Mine is Ristorante Pietro Valentini, just a few steps from the Hotel Portoghesi, where I have often stayed. This is the classic establishment of its sort – family run, and exactly seven tables in the place. But what set Pietro’s apart has always been the quality of the food and the supreme friendliness of Simona, the daughter-in-law of the family, who manages the room. Since the last time I was there the Internet had taken up the restaurant, and indeed some things were different on this trip. An American couple sent there by the concierge at the Excelsior sat in front of me. That did not bother me as much as the absence of two rituals that opened a meal at Pietro’s: one was given a chunk of parmigiano topped with a slice of truffle, black or white depending on the season, and Simona prepared the house aperitif, basil leaves muddled with scotch and cointreau, the resulting liquid then strained into a flute filled up with prosecco. Both traditions were gone, as well as the fresh fish that had always been on the menu. When I asked about the scampi that did appear Simona warned me off with that most dreaded of words in a Roman restaurant, surgelato. My assumption was that the economy had simply made these missing things too expensive, but miss them I did.
Still I ate very well on a Saturday evening. The fritti at Pietro’s are as good as any in Rome, the ball of squash purée especially delicious and unusual. Tagliolini in butter and a bit of cream topped with white truffle followed; an unmistakable aroma I had not experienced for several years very pleasingly wafted up from the plate. Simona said that making a strict selection of the truffles this season had been necessary, since it was not a very good year for them. (The porcini, she told me, had entirely failed, and every restaurant that was serving them had to bring them in from Spain and Tunisia.) Osso bucco was suggested for my secondo, more toothsome and gelatinous than we encounter in this country. And the dinner ended with Simona’s profiteroles with chocolate sauce, a pastry tour de force every bit as stunning as the famous millefoglie at Agata e Romeo. My wine was a rather uninspired Cesanese del Piglio, which put me off Lazio bottlings for the rest of the trip.
The next night brought me to one of my favorite restaurants in any city, Al Ceppo, outside the center in the Parioli district. It is a superbly elegant place with its warm boiserie, crystal chandeliers, and crisp linen tablecloths, a restaurant marked by a combination of style and ease that only Italians can seem to achieve without affectation. The Milozzi sisters from the Marche region are the owners, and the younger, Cristina, is a serious wine expert, which accounts for the depth of their list, presented at very reasonable prices. My meal began with a selection of Marche specialty meats and sausages, garnished with olive ascolane and the unique fried custard that is also eaten with savory dishes in the Emilia Romagna. Then a very neutral risotto (I didn’t ask, but suspect a vegetable stock had been used) with truffles shaved from a tuber the size of a baseball. It was brought to the table and ceremoniously weighed before and after being apportioned. Lamb chops scottaditto were next, which more often than not are burned to a crisp. These were deliciously medium rare, served with the traditional salad of puntarelle and anchovies. A chocolate mousse with chestnuts brought the meal to a close. My wine for the night provides a good anecdote illustrating how spontaneity and formality coexist with such ease at Al Ceppo. I was looking at Domenico Clerico’s 1999 Barolo Percristina on the list, but knowing that this was a very strong year I feared that the tannins were still too hard. My waiter said that Signora Cristina was not in the restaurant yet, but he would call her at home and I could ask her about the wine, which I did. She assured me that the style of the maker promised softer tannins even in ’99, and I could certainly drink it with pleasure. It was a beautiful example of the modernist type of Barolo, lush and fruity, perhaps needing a little time for the oak to integrate, but undoubtedly a lovely bottle. Altogether it seemed to me that the restaurant was working at the highest level I had ever known for it, and before I left I made a reservation to come back on Thursday.
This brings us to Monday night, when I dined with a former student now studying in Rome at a famous place I had walked by dozens of times but somehow never been in, Armando al Pantheon. The exterior is rather more chic than the inside – this is definitely a trattoria and not a ristorante, and a small one at that. Things began well with bruschetta topped with lardo di Colonnata and a walnut. It was a good reminder that bruschetta should be about the bread, in this case a hearty pane rustico. The layer of lard was thin, just enough to provide the bread with sufficient lubrication. Simple and quite successful. Next came a house speciality, spaghetti alla Claudio, with mushrooms and saffron. I found the dish a little too exotic and medicinal (and very al dente), but all was saved by the secondo, a selection of the day, pork sausage and shoulder stewed with beans in a tomato sauce. This is the kind of Roman cooking that has made the restaurant’s name, and deservedly so. It was one of the best things I ate during the week. Alas, the dessert was a disappointment, a semifreddo that had missed the right consistency and ended up quite grainy. I should mention that my dining companion had another house specialty, the duck in prune sauce, and thought it very good. The wine was an excellent 2005 Montepulciano Poliziano, a bright and vivid wine with good depth of flavor.
On Tuesday I wanted a fish restaurant, and was looking for someplace new, since both La Rosetta and Quinzi e Gabrieli seemed a bit tired the last time I was in them. I booked at a place called Tempio di Iside, in an out of the way piazza east of the Colosseum. I liked the look as soon as I walked in – white minimalist decor, and a splendid display of fish and seafood at the entrance. I will mention the wine first, since it is not seen in this country. The name is Fior Uva, and it comes from Amalfi. Made from a mixture of indigenous grapes it has a luscious, tropical character that married well with the sweetness of the seafood presented in the first two courses. In principle I am against the Roman craze for crudo, which is completely foreign to the city’s culinary traditions. But I wanted to see what the restaurant could do, and ordered two antipasti, one crudo and the other cotto. Both came on huge plates and both were outstanding. Oysters, sea urchins, beautiful gamberetti and a carpaccio of tuna on a bed of potato stood out among the crudi; calamari and a curious conical shaped mollusk the name of which I never did quite understand were delicious on the grilled platter. After two antipasti I decided to combine the next courses and so had a whole lobster with spaghetti in a garlic tomato sauce. Dessert was banana gelato served in frozen banana skins. This is a stylish restaurant managed by enthusiastic young people who have the highest standards in what they serve. A little hard to find, but worth the effort.
Wednesday brought a large lunch at the Salumeria con Cucina Roscioli, the celebrated wine shop/gastronomia/restaurant next to the Campo de’ Fiori (not to be confused with the much humbler, but also excellent Forno Roscioli in a side street facing the Salumeria. It belongs to the same family.—Ed.) A plate of mixed salumi with lardo Colonnata to start; then tagliatelle with truffles, nothing but butter in the pasta. Here at Roscioli the highlight was the wine, a 1978 Barolo Monfalletto from Cardoro di Montezemolo. The bottle must have been perfectly kept throughout its life; I would have taken it for a ten year old grand cru burgundy if I had to guess. Dark garnet color, soaring nose of raspberries and cherries, a hugely long finish, and tannins by no means completely resolved. Having eaten so much in the afternoon I needed something light that evening, and decided to investigate another new restaurant I had heard good things about, Il Kicco d’Uva in the lovely Piazza Coppelle, primarily a fish place. I began with an atractive timbale of eggplant, tomato, mozzarella, and parmigiano – how could something this good have turned into our eggplant parmesan? Then anchovies, both marinated in oil and vinegar and fried. I could not resist a white chocolate tiramisù to finish. Here is a spot I would look forward to visiting again for a longer dinner. I liked what I ate and I liked the staff—molto simpatici.
Thursday brought a return to the excellence of Al Ceppo. On this occasion I ate what was perhaps the single finest dish of my trip, appropriately for Italy nothing but the assembly of extraordinary ingredients. It was a salad of the subtly flavored ovoli mushrooms on a bed of tenderest celery hearts topped with shavings of parmigiano and drizzled with olive oil. Perfection. The primo did not disappoint either, spinach cappellaci stuffed with duck sausage, thyme, and a hint of lemon, which served to cut the richness of the duck. Then pieces of squid grilled to exactly the right point before they become rubbery. And finally a napolean of pear and walnut with pastry cream between the layers. The wine, a mix of chardonnay and trebbiano giallo, suffered from over-oaking; I would probably have been better off with French burgundy, of which there is an ample selection on the list. But the memory of my two dinners in this wonderful restaurant will not fade anytime soon.
Friday brought the last supper, which I decided to take in the restaurant of my hotel, 31 Al Vicario, a place that has a good independent reputation for the updating of classic dishes. A pleasant room, good service, and a good final meal. Some prosciutto tagliato a mano accompanied by an interesting black Romagnola sausage; then tagliatelle with veal sauce and chopped black truffles; an excellent stuffed loin of senese pork with thick crispy skin; finally a chocolate semifreddo. I took the waiter’s advice about wine and was happy with the 2007 Nero d’Avola Harmonium. This red grape is indigenous to Sicily and makes big plummy wines with sweet tannins. As with many of Italy’s grape varietals, only recently has it been singled out and cultivated intelligently for itself, by my example with good results.
The reader may note here the absence of all the classic Roman primi piatti: no carbonara, amatriciana, cacio e pepe, or pasta alla gricia. Unfortunately an aging stomach plagued by acid reflux (NB As a distinguished semi-professional tenor, Prof. Kubiak has not escaped “the singer’s disease.” —Ed.) can no longer process spicy or peppery foods, but I hope to have pointed out some of the many other gustatory delights of Rome in the Fall. Each time I visit I come away thinking that the saying applies equally to food as it does to art: Roma, non basta una vita.
Via dei Pianellari, 19
06 68 68 565
moderate to expensive
Via Panama, 2
06 84 19 696
06 85 51 379
Armando al Pantheon
Salita de’ Crescenzi, 31
Tempio di Iside
Via Pietro Verri, 11
06 70 04 741
Salumeria con Cucina Roscioli
Via dei Giubbonari, 21/23
06 68 75 287
moderate to expensive
Il Kicco (o Chicco) d’Uva
Piazza delle Coppelle, 54
06 68 67 983
31 al Vicario
Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 31
06 69 92 55 30