Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dining out in Rome

The view from La Pergola is expensive.
As you may have guessed, I'm a bit of an epicure - and while the partner unit is not, we were joined on our recent trip to Rome by a serious foodie, my friend Marie, who has been going with me to Stratford for years.  So the pursuit of great food was definitely on our Roman menu.

Of course, as is the case anywhere, a superb meal in Rome comes at a substantial price.  At La Pergola (view from its tables, above), or Agata e Romeo - Rome's internationally-renowned restaurants - dinner for two will set you back some $400-500.

And - well, we're crazy, but not that crazy.

Still, we're also serious about our fleeting taste sensations, so we were willing to part with significant amounts of cash for the occasional moment of culinary transcendence.  And we enjoyed quite a few such epiphanies in Rome.  In fact, I'd hazard the following generalization (which must come with the same caveats as all generalizations): in a smack-down between Paris and Rome as a "top food town," I might give the palme to the Eternal City - by a Roman nose, of course.  This is not because the top restaurants are better in Rome - I couldn't judge that, I haven't been to the most expensive redoubts in either burg.  But my personal experience is that, of the second tier of restaurants, as well as the average ones on the street, the Roman eateries are more reliable.  To be blunt, I've had some really bad food in Paris cafés - greasy, stale, you name it - but I didn't really have a single bad meal in Rome, and I had plenty of absolutely delicious dinners, with wine and dessert, for under $50 (a rarity in Boston).

Another generalization, though - what's missing in Rome, it seemed to me, were superb sommeliers.  I'm sure they're out there, but we didn't encounter any - you know, the kind who can match a wine precisely to each course, so that it clicks into place like some gustatory gear, revealing new horizons in both chalice and platter.  On the other hand, however, we never had any bad wine in Rome, either, and we were struck by how often even a 20 or 30 euro jug (which would retail for maybe $12 in the US) of a Montepulciano or some Piedmontese rosso would open out in the glass into something complex and delicious.  With so much pleasure readily available, maybe Romans don't need sommeliers.

Another surprise - the Roman idea of al dente is quite a bit sturdier than its limp American cousin; so expect to really chew your food in Rome.  But also expect pasta so fresh that it soaks up all its accompaniment, so the dishes taste like a kind of sweetly solidified sauce.  Yum.

But back to the chase - where did we eat, and how was it?  Well, I had to give top laurels to La Rosetta (left), just off the Piazza de la Rotonda (before the Pantheon, where a lot of people get more "rotonda").  And I'm hardly out on a limb here - it's widely hailed for Rome 's best seafood.  We sneaked out of a superb lunch for about $85 apiece (count on close to twice that for dinner), but that included both wine and a scrumptious sparkling rosé as an aperitif.  The room is elegant, the staff sophisticated and engaging (our delight in the food so charmed them that they gave as an extra splash of that rosé for free), and there's a refreshing lack of pretension to the place despite its standards.  And the food was indeed at the highest level - try the prawns with lettuce cream (which come nestled in a kind of sculpted flower), or the monkfish with orange sauce, if you're there; you'll remember both dishes for the rest of your life.

Only a step behind, I'd say, were Il Piperno, tucked away in the Jewish Ghetto, and Il Bacaro, just off the Piazza Navona.  Il Piperno is dedicated to Jewish Roman cuisine (as you might expect from its location), which is about as rich and pungently succulent as food gets.  Indeed, our repast was almost too rich - I all but overdosed on the vitello agnolotti, it put me into some kind of cream-induced digestive shock; Marie and I were both reeling on the walk home.  (Other highlights of the menu were the cheeses and the charcuterie, btw.) And I have to mention the setting - Il Piperno is literally hidden in a courtyard called the Monte de Cenci, near the Theatre of Marcellus; basically it's down what appears to be an abandoned alley (looking at it, Marie said, "You're kidding, right?").  But the tiny piazza itself - abloom with umbrellas - is exquisite, and the Il Piperno waiters kick it old school, in white jackets and bow ties.  It's a wonderful experience.

Il Bacaro (right) is more casual, although it too is hard to find - look for the canopy of vines at the end of the Via degli Spagnoli, just north of Piazza Navona.  If the focus was on preparation at Il Piperno, here the emphasis was on simplicity and freshness.  The dishes were sophisticated and beautifully balanced, though - and so fresh, I swear I thought I was nibbling basil and valerian straight from the vine.  The pomodoro sauce on my appetizer was fresher than any I've ever had, anywhere - fresher than I thought pomodoro could be, as were the zucchini flowers in my prawn-and-pasta primo piatto.  The only gap here is the wine list - actually, right now there isn't any wine list (they're reworking it); instead, there's a wine guy, who was nice enough, but as I said before, we never really found a great sommelier in Rome.  Still, even with this gap, I might give Il Bacaro a slight edge over Il Piperno - although be warned, it's a far busier nook than Il Piperno's hideaway.  But in Rome, you have to get used to dining in the street, and sharing space with mopeds, sedans, and the occasional horse.

Wait, though, I'm not done - here are a few recommendations that come with lower levels of sticker shock.  The closest we got to a postmodern wine list we found at Gusto, a whole gustatory complex near the Spanish Steps, which was not only up-to-the-minute in its influences but very reasonably priced to boot.  The only problem here was the almost amusingly indifferent wait staff, which pushed the always-leisurely Roman standards of service to some hilarious new height (or depth).  Other good bets in the same area (we were staying on the Bocca di Leone) were Palatium, an "enoteca" focused on very strong (but affordable) local wines and solid dishes, and Caffe Ciampini, that boasted only a standard menu but a wonderful view (from just below the French Academy and the Pincio Gardens, over the whole city; eat your heart out, La Pergola!) as well as charmingly antique atmosphere (vines, street lamps, a tinkling fountain - the works).

There were still more, far more restaurants where those came from; too many to count, actually - if there's a church on every corner in Rome, then there are two restaurants on either side.  Most of these, however, were more average - which meant they were fine, basically, and better than much of what you can find here in the Hub.  When in Rome, after all, you do what the Romans do - and what the Romans often do is eat.  If you doubt me, check out the image below of the Piazza de la Rotonda, before the Pantheon, after sunset - when the restaurants put out extra tables and transform almost the entire square into one big dining room.  If you imagined that those famous scenes of excess from Fellini's movies were exaggerated, think again - I've never seen such expanses of happy gluttony. But I have to admit, maybe food like this is worth a few hours in hell.


  1. Fantastic- thanks for letting me live vicariously!

  2. Good lord, this enough to make me want to book a flight tomorrow! Thanks for the mouth-watering tour!

  3. Thanks Michael and Jennifer - and by all means, book a flight tomorrow; late September and early October are the best time to visit Rome!

  4. Tom, I FINALLY got to read this and am A of all.) very jealous and B of all.) def booking a trip to Rome so I can eat and eat and eat. Love it!

    Joey P