Rome…eternal city….ahh the ides of March, beware them (see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for a good explanation), but do not avoid the food. Seek out any and all in this most magnificent and tasty celebration of culture, both pop and classical, where every street corner is some testament to all that is sexy and Italian, where you walk out of Fiorucci and around the corner and there it is- the Colosseo, the real one, the one from your history books. The markets, the Vatican, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Campo dei Fiori, Via Veneto, the Pantheon, the Trastevere, the works of Michelangelo… it just goes on and on and on and on and on. Rome is truly one of the most amazing places on this or any other planet I have ever been to…. but what is really mind boggling is the food. Every speck of it is divine inspiration, from the piles of artichokes and trimmed puntarelle at the open-air markets, to the wine bars serving porcetta sammies at 10:30 in the morning. The restaurants are amazing and filled with the beautiful Romans, all hanging out, laughing and looking effortlessly cool.
My very favorite restaurant in Rome has consistently been Checchino (via Monte Testaccio, 30, tel. 06/5746318), located in the old slaughterhouse and meat-packing district. Checchino is justly famous for serving the quinto quarto, or the fifth quarter, which refers to the entangled fifth quarter of an animal that has been traditionally drawn and quartered… the organ meats. Here in Rome, you’ll find the love for all of the unmentionable parts that make Babbo one of the restaurants whose website you like to peruse. The best of these meats is la pajata. La pajata is the intestine of a suckling calf, cut into pieces meant to mimic penne and cooked in a spicy tomato sauce until the undigested milk cooks into ricotta. I know this is a jump, but leap blindly if you see it, tossed with penne or rigatoni as a pasta course…. each bite is a religious experience. The wine list at Checchino is killer, and the two shy brothers Mariani that run it have become friends of mine over time. The oxtail (coda alla vaccinara) here is also spectacular; as is the cool salad of celery and calves feet (insalata dei zampi)… you get the idea.
But it does not have to be only meat in Roma. There are also infinite variations on vegetables, including the famous Roman-style and Jewish-style artichokes, puntarelle, cardoons, endives, zucchini flowers, asparagus, etc., each served in abundance during its growing season, and celebrated by chefs and home cooks alike. My friend Paola di Mauro’s wine maker son, Armando, has a great restaurant called Ristorante il Sanpietrino (Piazza Costaguti, 15, tel. 06/606471). It is delicious and simple and managed by his son. Another fave of mine is Antico Arco, (Piazza le Aurelio 7, tel. 06/5815274) where the comfortable setting provides a fitting backdrop for honest and delicious food that mingles perfectly with a great wine list. The odd modern dish sometimes seems out of place here, but at Al Bric, (via del Pellegrino 51, tel. 06/6879533), the modern and traditional work well together, and the staff is super friendly.
At al Ceppo (via Panama, 2, tel. 06/841 9696) you walk in past the kitchen, past the incredible hearth where they cook many of the secondi, and then into a series of two or three exquisite dining rooms filled with beautiful Romans, and know you are in the right spot. A lot of trendy concierges are trashing Sora Lella, (on Isola Tiberina at Ponte 4 Capi 16, tel.06/686 1601), but I love the multileveled dining rooms, literally located in the middle of the river. On my two most recent trips, I found the cooking to be delicious and classic. Apparently all of the journalists in town go to a simple trattoria called Al Ponte della Ranocchia (Circonvalazione Appia 29, tel. 06 7856712) where I had the best tripe of the trip, and a fried baccala to make the saints cry. It is definitely a place from the 30’s, and a great find,if little off of the beaten path.
I love seafood, and one of the disputed great restaurants in the city is La Rosetta (on via Rosetta in the shadow of the pantheon) where the baby octopi are carried through the dining room in the middle of lunch and everyone stops the waiter to order some as quickly as they can. The raw fish is tasty and pricey, but how often do you get to eat within 50 feet of the Pantheon, so splurge. I loved the spaghetti with red shrimp and squid ink, the bucatini with tuna and herbs, and the orata with porcini and fennel. But everything is lovable here…it is Rome.
In Roma, as in the rest of Italy, it is all about the seasons, so walk the food markets and look what the locals are lining up for. Then order it for lunch…. anywhere the menu is not translated and there is no wine list will be cheaper, but do not mistrust the Roman trattoria…it is the place where dining culture was born.