Archive for January, 2005

Eating in Rome

Thursday, January 27th, 2005

Fresh Porcini

Fresh Porcini

Every time I travel to Italy I am rewarded with fantastic meals. Although the cuisine varies significantly in Florence, Venice, and Rome, a commonality is that each cuisine is based on the freshest local ingredients. This past November I visted Rome again, and the first morning I walked through the outdoor markets in the Campo dei Fiori to see what was in season. I saw four types of mushrooms, and the porcini looked amazing. There were also bushels of fresh zucchini flowers and artichokes that I feasted on all week.

Although I can become enamored by four star chefs like Thomas Keller in N.Y.C. and Joel Robuchon in Paris, I find that I prefer the simpler dishes in Rome. Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent high end restaurants in Rome, for example La Pergola and Il Convivo, and they serve delicious food with a modern flair. However I prefer the “cucina tipica” which are those classic Roman dishes prepared by Nonna (grandma) in the small trattorias. My experience has been the “simpler the better”. Let me explain. This last trip I ate Cacio e Pepe, a classic Roman pasta dish, in five restaurants. The most upscale, highly rated restaurant’s version was too rich and overpowering, while the simplest trattoria served a dish of pure heaven. At this same fancy restaurant I also ordered one of my favorite dishes, fried zucchini flowers. They are typically stuffed with a little mozzarella, battered and fried. Unfortunately this restaurant wanted to add a twist, so they stuffed the flowers with mascapone and bananas. The result was so sweet and rich that it totally obscured the taste of those delicate zucchini flowers. I may have unfairly skewered this restaurant, Antico Arco, but I want to make a point. In fairness, Antico Arco is a beautiful restaurant that serves some very good dishes, I had rigatoni carbonara with black truffles, and it was outrageous. But in general, on a trip to Rome, I would recommend the simple tried and true classics, and here are a few places I would return to:

Cucina tipica restaurant

Cucina tipica restaurant

I was in Trastevere one day for lunch, unfortunately it was a Monday. The restaurant I was heading towards was closed, so I needed an alternative. I asked an elderly lady for her recommendation, and she pointed to a large touristy type restaurant and said “pizza”. Thankfully a gentleman came along and translated that she thought all Americans eat pizza for lunch. Some authentic Roman pizza can be delicious, but I explained that we wanted pasta, and would like a place where the locals eat. He suggested Osteria da Olinda, and it was perfect. It was a tiny place with only nine tables, and very little ambiance. The menu was very simple, and it listed six pastas, each for 6 Euros. We tried the Cacio e Pepe and the Arribiata, two classics both perfectly prepared. The house wine was served in a carafe, and it was a perfect compliment on this rainy day. I was however envious of the minestrone soup that was served to the table next to us. It was piping hot and looked fabulous, but it was not on the menu and we are not locals. Although this restaurant was “no frills”, it was a homerun because it excelled at classic pasta dishes.

Matricianella

Matricianella

Another favorite, located near the Spanish Steps, was Matricianella. Although larger, and with a more extensive menu than Osteria da Olinda, I loved this restaurant because they also focused on classic dishes, and every dish I tried was outstanding. Rome is known for its fried dishes, and Matricianella had some excellent fried vegetables. I ate the fried porcini mushrooms with a cornmeal crust and they were fabulous. The fried zucchini flowers were another hit. I also had a carciofi alla Romana, which is a steamed artichoke, and it was as good as any I have eaten. Matricianella’s pastas were also delicious, my favorite being the fettuccini with black truffles.

Sora Margherita

Sora Margherita

One of my favorite lunches was at Sora Margherita in the Jewish Ghetto. If you arrive early, don’t be surprised that there is no sign. Actually it is a building without windows, the only clue that you are in the right place is the small “30” on the wall signifying the address. At about noon, the door swings open and there are red streamers hanging in the doorway. Inside the family is erecting card tables, and setting up wobbly metal chairs. If you prefer a restaurant with plush seats and atmosphere, then this is not the place for you. But the restaurant has character, or maybe I should say is full of characters, and the food will make it all worthwhile. First you must join the club (it is free), because the area must not be zoned for restaurants, so it is a club. Then I was asked if I would like the English or Italian menu, after asking for one of each, we received Italian menus and the waitress translated. The table of six next to us must have ordered everything on the menu, I was so jealous. But I started with a carciofi alla guidia (fried artichoke) that was superb. Their pastas were also great, especially the agnolotti with meat sauce, which was my favorite pasta of the entire trip. To finish we had a great plate of cheese, which was a great excuse to get another carafe of wine. Eating here was certainly an interesting experience, but the food was unsurpassed.

Two other trattorias that I enjoyed, both located near the Campo dei Fiori, were al Bric and Ditaramba. Although I felt these restaurants were better than average, I think they were a bit more inconsistent than the other restaurants that I have recommended. It should be noted that al Bric also has an outstanding wine list.

There is a classic restaurant that varies greatly from the above trattorias that serve “cucina tipica”, Checcino dal 1887. This restaurant is located in the Testaccio section of Rome near the old slaughterhouses. One of its specialties if offal, the fifth quarter of the meat, in other words what is left for the butchers (intestines, hooves, snouts etc.) Now that you have cringed, let me tell you their food is terrific. We met friends here for dinner on Thanksgiving and had a feast. One of the signature dishes was Invaltini di Carni, beef rolled around carrots, onions and herbs and braised to perfection. You even get a plate (Buon Ricardo) as a souvenir, however that is not why I recommend this dish. We also ate veal saltimbocca, rabbit and lamb that were all delicious. One adventuresome soul in our group had the bolito misto, a mix of boiled tongue, trotters (hooves), and beef breast. The dish was interesting, but I would prefer the meat from the first four quarters and not the fifth. Checchino dal 1887 also had an extraordinary wine cellar, allowing you to select a wine to make your visit truly special.

I am starving, as I am reliving all these fantastic meals. Rome is a great city with awesome sites, but I am glad to report that in between the visits to the Villa Borghese, the Sistine Chapel, and the Forum there are some excellent places to eat. So, do as the Romans do, and savor the classics. And after you have had a great meal, please email me; I’d love to hear about it.

Rome Restaurants

al Bric
Via del Pellegrino, 51-52 tel. 06.6879533
Checchino dal 1887
Via Monte Testaccio, 30 tel. 06.6871626
Ristorante Matricanella
Via del Leone, 4 tel. 06.6832100
Antico Arco
Piazzale Aurelio, 7 tel. 06.58115274
Ditiramba
Piazza della Cancelleria, 74 tel. 06.6871626
Sora Margherita (lunch only)
Piazza della Cinque Scole, 30 tel. 06.6874216
Osteria da Olindo
Vicolo della Scala, 8 tel. 06.5818835

Books to Whet Your Travel Appetite

Wednesday, January 26th, 2005

I wish I could travel every month, but that’s not realistic. So to transport myself to a foreign land, I read books. Books can relate the author’s experiences climbing Mt. Everest, watching the Medoc marathon, or farming. As you might expect in these travel stories, there is usually also a focus on food. Here are a few of my favorite books:

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer is a fascinating story about climbing Mt. Everest. Obviously it is an experience few of us will accomplish personally, but you will gain an appreciation of the difficulty of this feat while getting a glimpse of this natural beauty. After reading this book, who wants to climb Mt. Everest?

Too Much Tuscan Sun by Dario Castagno is yet another book on life in Tuscany, but it is different than the Frances Mayes style. Dario grew up in Tuscany and gives tours to Americans and other foreigners. These tours focus on historical tours around Siena combined with winery visits and great lunches. We are treated to an interesting mix of Tuscan history interlaced with a hilarious recap of many of the tours, as well as the characters that were his clients.

On Rue Tatin by Susan Herrmann Loomis provides a fascinating window into life in Northern France. Although it contains the common theme of rebuilding a home in a foreign land, it provides a beautiful description of the people, culture, and food of the region.

French Lessons by Peter Mayle is another book about France, but very different. Each chapter, broken down into the months of the year, focuses on a different food festival. The marathon in Medoc is one of these chapters, and this is not your typical marathon…it is a party. Runners drink wine and eat oysters during the race, and most dress in costumes similar to those worn on Halloween.

Dirt Under my Nails by Marilee Foster describes life in Sagaponak. Although this area is better known as one of the chic areas in “the Hamptons”, her perspective is as a farmer. Having experienced first hand the obnoxious wall streeter racing his Ferrari through this town, Marilee almost turns back time with a beautiful description of the natural landscape.

Worth Seeking Out…

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005
  • Two Roman cookbooks that will help you recreate your favorite Roman dishes are: Cooking the Roman Way by David Downie and In a Roman Kitchen by Jo Bettoja.
  • A mixed case of wine is a great way to find some new house wines for the coming year. Ask your favorite retailer for 12 different wines in your desired price range. If your retailer does not know the types of wines you like, then find a new retailer.
  • It is hard to find fresh fruit in N.Y.C. this time of year, but I have found the boxes of clementines to be juicy and delicious.
  • Grape seed oil is an excellent choice for those dishes where a subtle oil taste is preferred. For example, coleslaw recipes often call for vegetable oil, and although more expensive, I find grape seed oil to be a better choice.

Wine Of The Month: Vieillefont 2001 ($14) Domaine Mouthes Le Bihan Cotes de Duras

Monday, January 24th, 2005

Vieillefont is a red table wine made in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France, southeast of Bordeaux. This rather unknown region is better known for inexpensive bulk wine than fine wine, however I think I found a real gem. Although this winery only began in 1997, and their initial offerings were less than stellar, their hard work has paid off. Vieillefont is made from 20 to 30 year old vines, and is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec. They age the wine for a little more than a year in oak, but use a low proportion of new oak thereby making the oak influence more subtle. The result is a medium bodied wine that is luscious and smooth. It has a dark purplish color, and has a nose similar to that of a Bordeaux. I loved this wine. It is a mix of dark red berries, with a hint of cocoa and spice. This rich round flavor is perfectly balanced with light tannins and acid. This is a great everyday wine, and I am going to order another case today.