Rome: where vegetables come first
I could quite happily eat nothing but Roman food for the rest of my life, a position I probably share with most Romans. So what is Roman food? Lots of vegetables: perhaps the best artichokes in the world--which come in various guises and, unlike California artichokes, do not have chokes, eggplant that is similarly sliced and diced and dressed in innumerable ways, plus all those sharp winter greens--spinach, chicory, Swiss chard, broccoli rabe--that get lightly boiled and then "saltato" (i.e., jumped) in a hot pan with garlic and olive oil and maybe a dash of hot pepper.) The water buffalos of the Campania are not far away, so figure plenty of delicious mozzarella. And the sea is just down the road, so good fish and seafood if you go to the right restaurants. So all in all a friendly place for vegetarians of every sort. And meat eaters as well.
A word on pasta in Rome: Romans are very fond of dry, commercial pasta, as opposed to fresh pasta which they find rather heavy. And they have their favorite ways of dressing it up: Carbonara, Amatriciano (even though Amatricia is a good ways away), pasta and fagioli, caccio pepe (a peasant dish made with sharp cheese and pepper), spaghetti alle vongole, which in Rome is usually made with white wine, rarely tomatoes, and never cream, Puttanesca which is, of course, the delicious and quickly prepared spaghetti that a working gal can throw together and gobble up between tricks. Some sauces are seasonal: porcini mushrooms, artichokes. There are lots of other pastas on offer. But why not start with the classics? When in Rome . . . And if it's a self-respecting restaurant, see below, you will be sampling the genuine article and not its Americanized cousin.
A friend of mine who lived in Rome invited Romans to her house for dinner, a bold more since many Roman's have a narrowly defined aesthetic when it comes to cooking. Bolder still, she decided to serve spaghetti carbonara as a first course. The wife tasted the dish, looked up thoughtfully, and then remarked, "This is quite good. A bit like our spaghetti carbonara." But clearly not the same. So do not make the mistake of judging Italian pastas but the standards of your local Macaroni Grill.
And then there's the secondo, or second course. Romans over the centuries have seen their best cuts of meat shipped to the Vatican while they have had to make do with odd bits: tripe, tails, cheeks, tongues, sweetbreads. In a pinch, since I'm not a great meat eater, I stick with recognizable things: meatballs, veal chops, lamb chops, a tagliata (sliced, grilled steak). Though my favorite secondo is a plate of sharp greens "jumped" in a frying pan, with a slice of mozzarella on the side. And the beauty of dining in Rome is that you can have exactly what you want!
And then, of course, there is fish, the queen of Roman and indeed nearly all Italian dining: always expensive, always discussed sotto voce, usually very good. Moreover most Italian waiters could probably fill in as as surgeons, such is the skill with which they separate the bones from the silky tender flesh. While turkeys and roasts generally grace holiday tables in America, in Italy, a feast, more often than not, draws its inspiration from the sea. The Feast of the Seven Fishes, the traditional Christmas dinner in many Italian homes, has one requirement only: that seven different fish figure onto the menu. Though housewives confess that they they usually go well beyond seven. One can only imagine the riot of activity at local fish mongers on the days leading up to Christmas. So figure a special dinner in an Italian restaurant will, per force, be fishy. And indeed it is interesting to note that Italians rarely mix in meat and dairy products with anything from the sea. Not even when it comes to the dessert. Hence the delightfully perfect culmination to a fishy feast: sorbetto al limone.
A quick word about fish and dairy: never in the same meal. The sophisticated traveler knows not to ask for parmigiana with clam spaghetti, a combination that is stomach-turning to most Italians. But why? The English and the French have no inhibitions. Think only of the Englishman's creamy fish and potato pie or, across the Channel, a poisson au beurre blanc. My answer to this? Think only of the liturgical calendar which, in centuries past, was an intricate sequence of feasting and fasting. During a month of "feasting," the goal was to stock pile--hence meat and dairy and, for frying, lard, a substance which, arteries notwithstanding, knows no equal. This in anticipation of the fasting--think lent--that was yet to come. Good Catholics were meant to follow the rules, but NOT to starve.
My high school, like most in America, usually served fish sticks or fruit plate for Friday lunch. Yes, those were the days when good Catholics still ate fish on Friday. A day of fasting, so to speak. And such a sacrifice! In Rome, it's interesting to note, that Thursdays, when citizens might be feeling uneasy about the fasting that lies ahead,is even now the day when restaurants traditional serve gnocchi, a doughy substance that sticks to most surfaces, but especially to ribs.
In Venice, where the feasting part of the pre-Easter calendar is taken very seriously, the start of Carnevale is marked by the appearance throughout the city of fritelle, delicious bundles of dough, often laced with currents, and always freshly fried in lard. Eating fritelle, or should I say caving into the irresistible lure of fritelle, is part of being a good Catholic. Catholic or not, my first winter in Venice I got quite into the habit of ordering a warm and sugary fritella with my morning cappuccino until one morning this delightful confection that had blanketed the city, disappeared. Where are they? I asked. Ah, I was told, today is the first day of Lent.
And yet, they had not disappeared entirely, as I discovered when an errand took me into the Ghetto. There, oh joy, I found a coffee bar with fritelle fresh and piled high on the counter. Hosanna!
A word on desserts in Rome: as far as I know there is no classic Roman dessert. Many restaurants serve good cakes and puddings "fatto in casa," but none stands out as essential. A fresh Macedonia (fruit salad) often seems like a good way to bring a meal to its conclusion.
The Restaurant List, in no particular order:
Note: Because we like to stay in the heart of Rome's historic center and in the shadow of the Pantheon, most of these restaurants are in that neighborhood. Let me add my conviction that when foreigners are visiting Rome, they should eat Roman fare. (There are exceptions on this list, which should be considered ethnic cuisine.)
Trattoria Abruzzi on via del Vaccaro off the Piazza Santissimi Apostoli is a classic Roman trattoria with excellent antipasto and pasta. They are duly famous for their Carbonara that they make with deliciously fresh eggs, which you can usually find a table of priests tucking into. (For years I swore they added food coloring to the carbonara but now believe they have somehow found eggs with remarkably yellow yokes.) I go strait for their antipasto table. And then, if there's room, a pasta or perhaps a mezza portion if you are eating with a friend. Nice Piranesi-like prints of Rome on the walls so you can reevaluate whatever it is you'd been looking at in the morning. Also convenient to the Forum, Capitoline Hill, and Trevi fountain, which you can take in for dessert.. There are a handful of tables out-of-doors that should be booked ahead. Via del Vaccaro 1. Phone: +39 06 679 3897 Moderate. Closed Saturday so a good place to dine on Sunday when all the antipasti are fresh fresh fresh.
Archimede Sant’Eustachio is in the piazza by that name. Good Roman/Jewish fare. All the classic pastas done by the books. Family-owned for generations and waiters who have been there as long as I have been going to Rome. Or maybe their sons have taken over for them. They started out old and have remained so. While I started out young. Do not expect innovation or spontaneity, but rather traditional dishes about which there is not a whiff of the nouvelle. Usually quiet and very brightly lit. Little romance but you can read the menu and you can hear yourself think. Very pretty outdoor dining space. Closed Sunday. Near the Pantheon in Piazza dei Caprettari, which is in fact an extension of Piazza Sant'Eustachio. Phone: +39 06 686 1616 Moderate
Armando al Pantheon, in the shadow of the Pantheon, is a charming, intimate restaurant with traditionally Roman fare, sometimes presented with unexpected flair. In recent years it has become VERY popular, so this needs to be booked, preferably on line, with a credit card. Ugh. So I rarely dine here. Too bad. Also, as with most popular spots, it's usually full of Americans, albeit of the sophisticated type that book meals ahead. To Armando's credit, fame has not altered their food. Closed Saturday evening and Monday. Salita dei Crescenzi, 31. Phone: +39 06 6880 3034 Moderate. To book: http://armandoalpantheon.it/en/
Fortunato al Pantheon, serves all the classic Roman dishes plus very good fish. And, they are open 7 days a week. A hang out for politicians. A few tables outdoors. Very near the Pantheon at via del Pantheon 55 Phone: +39 06 679 2788 Moderate to expensive.
Pompiere is on the spacious and airy first floor (piano nobile) of an old palace in the ghetto. Again, expect all the standard Roman fare plus some of the classic Jewish dishes: fried artichokes, zucchini flowers with anchovies, bacalao and, for the real diehard, a frittura, i.e. place of fried things. You can get a vegetable frittera or a meat frittura, with an emphasis on lambs.. Nancy waxes eloquent over the lemon pasta. I like most everything, and in particular the atmosphere which is very mid-century Rome, further proof that I am truly stodgy when it comes to dining out in Rome. I even like the "modern" paintings on the walls. Gifts from patrons? Closed Sunday. In the ghetto on Via di S. Maria de' Calderari, 38. Phone: +39 06 686 8377 Moderate
Orso 80 for an avalanche of antipasti. Truly everything you could imagine. And it keeps coming, one delicious plate of pickled onions after roasted red peppers after mozzarella after a slice of egg and vegetable frittata, mozzarella, eggplant, zucchini, meatballs A real opportunity to "survey" the staples of Roman antipasti. No need for anything else though they do serve lost more, including pizza. Just above Piazza Navona at via del Orso, 33. Phone: +39 06 686 4904. Closed Monday. Reasonable.
La Pollarola, just off the Campo dei Fiori, this modern-sh restaurant serves traditional Roman fare—albeit updated in a way that this curmudgeon actually approves of. The best artichokes in the Jewish style that I’ve had in a very long time. Excellent seafood--cooked or crude. On my last visit I had a second course of grilled octopus with humous that I am still dreaming about. Clean, modern styling. Closed Sunday. Piazza Pollarola. 06 688 01654. Moderate to expensive.
Colline Emiliane, a bit further afield, off the Via Tritone, serves food of Emilio in Northern Italy: think fresh pasta, think butter, think platters of cure meats, think rich creamy desserts, think sparkling Lambrusco wine for the diehards. Here is another restaurant that needs to be booked ahead of time, but in this case, in order to dine among Romans "stepping out of the box" for some Northern Italian fare. Sheets of fresh pasta are rolled out everyday--no pasta machines! Save room if you can for dessert, all of them made on the premises by the signora in charge. A place to celebrate and to indulge. Closed Monday. Via degli Avignon's 22. 06 481 7538.
Angolo Divino, is a nice wine bar where you can get a light meal and some very good wine. Just off the Campo dei Fiori on Via dei Balestrari 12. Open 7 days a week.
La Campana is the oldest restaurant in Rome and a perennial favorite of Italian Journeys. Very good, very traditional Roman cuisine. Closed Monday. Vicolo della Campana 18.
Ditirambo in the Piazza della Cancelleria is a lively restaurant that has carefully updated very traditional Roman dishes. Fresh, local ingredients. Open every evening of the week. Casual and very good.