Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

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

Rome – a City to Return to

Sunday, November 28th, 2004

Neptune Fountain

Neptune Fountain

Rome is a magnificent city steeped in history and tradition. Visiting the Forum and the Colosseum will transport you back to the time of Julius Caesar. The Basilica of San Pietro will totally overwhelm you with its size and beauty, while the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museum will open your eyes to the sheer magnificence of Michelangelo. But the true joy of Rome is to return again and again. This way you can visit the lesser known churches, enjoy a café in a piazza, and meander through the neighborhoods. Around each corner is another hidden gem: a beautiful sculpture, a quaint church, or a shop with an artisan selling his wares. Here are a few of the things that I enjoyed on my last trip.

If you have been to Rome then you must have walked through the Piazza Navona. A large piazza with three dramatic fountains, two of which were designed by Bernini. The largest and most famous of the fountains is Fontana di Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the four rivers), and the Neptune Fountain is the other Bernini. Although these fountains are beautiful pieces of art, they are also places where people congregate. There are the tourists snapping pictures, but also locals chatting with each other to catch up on the day’s events. It can be fun to sit in the piazza at one of the many cafes and watch the street life. While you are sitting, look up at the buildings that surround the piazza and admire the architecture, it’s unbelievable. A couple blocks from the piazza is an interesting church, Santa Maria della Pace. I enjoyed it because it has a very dramatic baroque façade with a semicircular portico that dominates this small piazza. The church has a beautiful cloister, which is a quiet getaway in this city overrun with Vespas.

Zucchini Flowers

Zucchini Flowers

Campo dei Fiori is another
piazza alive with energy. Every morning there is a market setup with flowers, fruits & vegetables, meats, and fish. The zucchini flowers, artichokes, and numerous mushrooms will make you wish you lived in Rome. But the people make the market even more special. An old man is hunched over his stool meticulously cleaning artichokes with his knife. Two old ladies are destemming baby spinach leaves, and there is a blazing fire a couple feet from their chairs to warm them during the morning chill. Another lady is strolling the Campo with strands of fresh garlic hung around her neck. Actually she looks a bit pazzo (crazy). Each afternoon the stands in the market are removed, and the cobblestone streets are cleaned. The Campo then transforms into a nighttime hangout. I enjoyed the Vineria Reggio, a wine bar with a great selection of 20 wines by the glass. It is filled with locals, very crowded and extremely smoky, but is fun, low-key, and a great place to hangout.

Just outside the Campo dei Fiori is the church Sant’ Andrea della Valle, which has the second highest cupola in Rome. On a sunny day, light steams in through the cupola highlighting the gilded interior and accentuating the beauty of the statues and the frescos.

Another church that was truly impressive was San Giovanni in Laterno. The land was taken by Emperor Constantine to build Rome’s first Christian basilica. Before the popes moved to Avignon in 1309, the adjoining Lateran Palace was the official papal residence, and until 1870 all popes were crowned in this church. The church is massive with two aisles to each side of the nave. Although destroyed and rebuilt many times, it is magnificent. Only the Pope can celebrate mass from the main altar, which is a splendid Gothic canopy glittering in gold and decorated with frescos. The statues, artwork, Cosmatesque floor, and cloister will keep you entertained for hours.

On the east side of the Piazza di San Giovanna is Scala Santa (holy staircase) which is part of the old Lateran Palace. These 28 steps were said to be those that Christ ascended in Pontius Pilate’s house during his trial, and were brought here from Jerusalem. No foot may touch these holy steps, so worshipers ascend the steps on their knees. The day I visited the church there were over 30 people climbing these steps. This is very touching, and certainly worth a visit.

It is interesting that we also visited another church, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, where people would climb the steps on their knees. In 1348 a huge flight of steps were built to thank the Virgin Mary for saving Rome from the plague. Up until the 19th century, some Romans would ascend all 124 steps on their knees reciting Ave Maria. There was no one on their knees during my visit, but it is a pretty church, and there are beautiful vistas of the city from the top of the church stairs.

Speaking of views of the city, there is none better than from the top of the dome of St. Peters, which is 435 feet high, and the highest point in Rome. It is quite a few steps to the top, but it is worth it. Besides, you will probably need to work off some of yesterday’s pasta. From the top you have beautiful views of the Vatican Gardens, and an overall panorama of the entire city.

Fontana delle Tartarughe

Fontana delle Tartarughe

Although aerial views give a fabulous perspective of the city, you must walk the streets to truly see Rome. I was walking through the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood on our way to lunch (the ghetto is a must area for anyone that likes fried artichokes) when we came upon a small piazza with a great fountain Fontana delle Tartarughe (fountain of the tortoises). This charming fountain was built in three stages. Giacomo della Porta designed the original fountain in the 1580’s. Then Taddeo Landini added four bronze slender youths, which added grace and charm. About a century later an unknown artist added the tortoises.

Another neighborhood that is great to visit is Trastevere. Santa Maria in Trastevere is the main church, and it’s lovely. But put the map away, and just wander the streets. The small piazzas are charming, the pocket-sized stores are fabulous; and you can just feel the warmth of a neighborhood.

Via Giulia

Via Giulia

Across the Ponte Sisto (bridge) from Trastevere is one of my favorite streets – Via Giulia. As opposed to the typically curvy street of Rome, Via Giulia is as straight as an arrow. It is lined with beautiful buildings, many of which have antique stores on the first level. The highlight is the Farnese archway which spans Via Giulia, and was built to a design by Michelangelo. The ivy dripping from the archway is stunning.

At the north end of Via Giulia you begin to enter the main shopping district which runs toward the Spanish Steps. Although Via Condotti is the most famous shopping street with many famous designers, I find some of the smaller streets like Via Governo Vecchio and Via Margutta to be more interesting.

The Spanish Steps are fun and alive with energy. It seems like a melting pot of twenty nations, and everyone has a shopping bag. North of the Spanish Steps is the Borghese Gardens, a beautiful park that I love to visit. You can walk down tree lined paths for miles. You will see horseback riding, a zoo, museums, and a lake with children sailing their toy boats. The highlight of the park, however, is the Villa Borghese, which is my favorite museum. The Villa Borghese designed in 1605 has two floors, the sculpture collection occupies the ground floor, while the picture gallery is on the upper floor. Two of Bernini’s finest sculptures are in this collection: Apollo and Daphne & Pluto and Persephone…pure brilliance.

Note that all the artwork in Rome isn’t the sheer perfect of a Bernini statue, some can be quirky and fun. In Santa Maria in Cosmedin, set into the wall of the portico is the Bocca della Verita (mouth of truth). This is a drain cover dating back to the 4th century, and it looks like an ugly face with a large mouth. Legend has it that if you place your hand into the mouth, the jaws will snap shut on those that tell lies. Nearby you must walk up to Circus Maximus which dates back to the 4th century BC, where up to 250,000 watched chariot races. What is interesting to see is that it still has the sloped sides to the arena where the spectators sat around the oval track, but it is now a park. Runners circle the dirt oval track and dogs run on the grass . In the early years, Circus Maximus was the arena, and the Palatine Hill was the elite living area. According to legend, Romulus and Remus were raised here by a wolf in a cave.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

Traces of Iron Age huts dating back to the 8th century BC have been found here. The area is dominated by the ruins of the Domus Flavia and the Domus Augustana, two parts of a huge palace built at the end of the first century. The condition of these ruins is amazing. On the far side of the Palatine Hill, separated from the ruins by some beautiful gardens, is a vantage point with perhaps the best views of the Forum and the Colosseum.

I can’t wait to return to Rome. Each visit becomes more interesting and meaningful. I am not superstitious, but I wanted to ensure my return to Rome. So, before I left, I visited the Trevi Fountain and tossed in my coin.

Three tiny gems… museums

Friday, February 27th, 2004

The Louvre, the Uffizi, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art are certainly some of the finest museums in the world. However I prefer the tiny gems. The small museums that focus on only one, or perhaps a handful of artists; yet their collections will amaze you. I have three favorites: the Villa Borghese, the Frick, and the Rodin.

The Villa Borghese, which is located in the Borghese Gardens in Rome, is absolutely breathtaking. The Villa was designed in 1605 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese and exhibits sculptures on the ground floor and artwork on the second floor. The collection of Bernini sculptures, including Apollo and Daphne, is the most impressive I have ever seen.

The Frick Collection on Fifth Ave in New York City is housed in a mansion built for Henry Clay Frick in 1914. Paintings and sculpture are placed throughout the mansion in much the same way as Henry Frick did when he lived here. It is this relaxed atmosphere that makes the Frick so unique. The Living Room, Dining Room, East & West Gallery are adorned with such masters as Rembrandt, Degas, El Greco, Turner and Vermeer.

The Rodin museum in Paris is another treat. A beautiful chateau built around 1730, surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens, provides a great venue to appreciate the works of Rodin. He actually lived there for 6 years prior to his death in 1917. He donated all his work, including his private collection with pieces by Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh. Rodin’s sculptures are fabulous, and the collection includes The Thinker and The Kiss. During the warmer months, a walk through the garden of boxwoods and roses intermixed with sculpture is particularly enjoyable.

Sometimes it is much more moving to visit a tiny museum and appreciate just a few pieces of exquisite art, than diluting the experience by being overwhelmed by too many choices.

The Outdoor Food Markets of Europe

Saturday, January 24th, 2004

When setting up an itinerary for a trip to Europe, it is understandable that one starts with the famous museums and churches at the top of the list of places to visit. I urge you, however, to find time to visit the outdoor food markets. Locals visit these markets to buy the freshest of ingredients for their meals. These markets will give you insight into what’s in season while opening your eyes to a smorgasbord of local delicacies. But you will also find that it is not just about the food. They give you insight into the local culture as well.

Traveling through Provence on the way to the popular antique market L’Isle sur la Sorgue, we stopped at a local farmers market in Coustellet. One vendor had a rotisserie cooking chickens and pork. After several nights of magnificent meals at great restaurants, we thought it might be nice to pick up a roast pork and enjoy it on the terrace of our hotel. Another vendor at the same market had some olives, cheeses, and sausages; perfect for our first course. There was also a gentleman selling wines. Not the homemade type, but a delicious Chateauneuf du Pape. Eating this feast while enjoying the vistas of the hills of the Luberon was truly spectacular.

The market on Rue Cler in Paris is another enormous feast for the eyes. If it’s a nice day, why not pick up a baguette and a camembert and have a picnic in the Tuileries? This will certainly help make you feel like a Parisian.

One Sunday while walking through the Trastevere section of Rome, we found a small market overlooking the banks of the Tiber. I found a vendor selling olive oil. It had no label, it was green and cloudy, yet it was spectacular. Talk about bringing home a memory

When I visited the outdoor market in Helsinki, I found it fascinating to see a large salmon nailed to a cedar plank cook slowly over wooden coals. What was so interesting is that the fish was only cooked on one side. Sometimes these markets teach you more about the culture than any museum possible could.

So whether you are buying olives in Provence, caviar in Helsinki, or mustard in Paris, it is always a treat to visit the outdoor markets for a taste of the local cuisine.