A Taster's Journey is a newsletter on food, wine and travel. After 15 years of studying, tasting, teaching, and selling wine, I created this newsletter to not only share my passion about wine, but of food and travel as well. Each month I hope to share wines that I am drinking, food that is in season, restaurants that I have enjoyed, and places I have traveled. Enjoy!"

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Eating in Rome

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

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