Monday, October 17, 2011

eating italy part 1: roma

This was our version of a pilgrimage. Our long belated honeymoon came almost exactly one year after we actually got married, and it was well worth the wait. This is my favorite country, my favorite food, and is now my favorite trip ever. J-Cat had never been to Italy and I had a feeling he would love it as much as I do. I was right.

First stop: Rome. I'll spare you the gazillion photos of the Vatican and the Colosseum and the Pantheon and the fifty thousand beautiful fountains. I know we've all seen that before. And in any case, the most important sights were the foods. Within a couple of hours of stepping off the plane, we were already eating what would probably be my favorite plate of pasta of the whole trip, the Spaghetti Carbonara at Ristorante Roscioli near Campo de Fiori. An offshoot of their famously fantastic bakery Antico Forno Roscioli, this salumeria/vineria/trattoria was just a couple blocks from our hotel and getting a lot of talk amongst the Roman food community for their impeccable versions of simple Roman classics made with meticulously sourced ingredients. We lucked out by arriving on the late side for lunch when there was no wait for one of the tiny tables tucked in the back of the little salumi shop, surrounded by walls of wine bottles. The carbonara was absolute perfection - rich, smooth, incredibly flavorful, with homemade spaghetti and crisp chunks of guanciale. This was the best carbonara I've ever had and I do not say that lightly seeing as how I worship Michael White and still dream about his carbonara from the sadly departed Convivio.

J-Cat chose another Roman classic, Cacio e Pepe. Like the carbonara, the homemade spaghetti was cooked to perfection and it was bursting with flavor, though we did find the intense amount of additional pecorino on top made it a touch saltier than it should be. I missed getting pictures of our antipasti (sooo hungry right off the plane) but we got a simple plate of salumi and cheese. The salumi was all unbelievable, not surprising since that is the specialty of the shop. The cheese was mostly good, but I must admit we were faced with one hunk of particularly stinky cheese which did us in. Now, both J-Cat and I love our cheese and it takes a lot to best us in the stinky/funky category, so that should be an indication that whatever this cheese was, it was supremely stinky and funky. I should have asked what it was called, but I was still in a plane daze and my limited Italian skills were not cooperating just yet.

Despite the funk, this was an unbelievable meal, and a perfect way to start our trip. Next time we are in Rome, Roscioli will be a must eat.

I of course managed to forget to take pictures of many of our meals, because I was usually too distracted by the food to stop and pull out my camera. So here's what I missed: Gelato. I was terrible about taking photos of gelato. Probably because it was hot out and I wanted to eat it before it melted. Day one was easily the best gelato I had in Rome, at Il Gelato di San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain. Known for supremely natural gelato, the owners use no unnatural flavorings or short cuts, from the fresh fruits to the excellent nut flavors. I started my daily gelato treats with my favorite - pistachio, matched with a fior di latte. The afternoon also included the best coffee we would have in Rome at Caffe Sant' Eustachio near Piazza Navona.

For our first dinner, we were not particularly hungry because we were still so satisfied from our pasta lunch at Roscioli. We decided to seek out something light and less carby, so we wandered over to the old Jewish Ghetto neighborhood and took a table at La Taverna del Ghetto. And we did indeed not eat any pasta or other intense carbs, however, light would not describe our meal. Taverna del Ghetto is known for the their fried appetizers, especially the classic Carciofi alla Guidia. The deep fried artichoke is crispy and delicate, not as greasy as you might think. We also tried a battered and fried fish, perfectly fried. The highlight, though, was the fried stuffed zucchini blossom. Because Taverna del Ghetto is Kosher they do not serve dairy on their meat-focused menu, so rather than the classic ricotta stuffing, the zucchini blossom was stuffed with a delicate finger of fish. I don't know what kind of fish it was, but it was very mild and creamy. It so perfectly stood in for cheese that I was confused when I first bit into it.

I also missed taking photos at our dinner the following night, at Da Olindo in Trastevere. A small family-run Osteria tucked on a quiet street away from the racous Friday night Trastevere crowds, we had a simple, delicious meal of antipasti and pasta. My Cacio e Pepe and J-Cat's Bucatini all' Amatriciana were both solid versions, especially considering they were just a few euro per dish. The mixed vegetable antipasti were the highlight of the meal, though, particularly a dish of marinated canellini beans that I could have eaten a huge bowl of and called it a night.

Day three was our Ancient Rome day, so we started it off early at the Colosseum, then the Forum and Palatine Hill. Then we thought our feet would fall off, so thankfully we only had a short walk to Bar Benito, a small, no-frills luncheonette. They serve lunch in the style of a Tavola Calda, or hot table. A small menu that rotates through the week, I took my chances on the Pasta del Giorno having no idea what it would be. I was rewarded with a truly delicious plate of Amatriciana (above), done with rigatoni instead of the classic bucatini. This plate was all of 5 Euro and it was a perfect lunch. Despite calling it a Tavola Calda, the pasta was clearly cooked to order and not kept hot or rewarmed. J-Cat tried a plate of sausage with spicy cabbage, which seemed Germanic in inspiration and was a nice, tasty surprise. In all, we didn't even spend 15 Euro on a really great meal.

And finally, our last night in Rome. We saved our last night for the restaurant that David Downie, author of "Food, Wine, Rome", calls the one trattoria in Rome that you must go to, Da Gino. We loved this place. We arrived promptly at 8PM for our reservation, early by Italian standards but not for Gino, because it was packed to the gills - with Italians - by 7:57. This tiny, bustling trattoria sits on a little alleyway across from the Parliament building, with walls painted with what you might call "cheesy" Italian countryside murals, tables squeezed in NYC-style, convivial waiters who spoke not a word of English but who managed to tease us when we hit both a food and wine wall late in the meal. This was an entirely enjoyable dinner.

J-Cat, craving some spice, went with a Penne all' Arrabiata (above), while I decided on the house specialty Tonarelli alla Ciociara (below). This pasta dish - featuring homemade tonarelli, guanciale, fresh peas, and mushrooms - is said to have been invented at Gino and has become so popular that it is not uncommon to find it on menus at other restaurants. It is fast becoming another Roman classic, for very good reason.

By the time we got to the secondi, the Osso Bucco, I was fading fast. To be fair, we had also had an antipasto plate, quite a bit of wine, and I ate every bite of that pasta dish. Our waiter mimed to me that I had to eat more meat. I did my best.

In the end, Rome was perfection from beginning to end. We saw all the important sights, and aside from a quick snack of "pizza" at the Vatican Museum cafe (we had 20 minutes until the Scavi tour and hadn't eaten in hours, give us a break!), everything we ate was truly fantastic. Could we top this portion of the trip when we moved on to Florence? Well, we were definitely up for it.

1 comment:

betty said...

I am really jealous! I wish I could be there and eat all that! everything looks delicious and I bet you are having a great time, enjoy!