There was a time when it was impossible to get bad food in Rome. And gourmet food was something Italians scoffed at as French. Boy have times changed!
Having been to Italy many, many times over the last 15 years, my food experiences have covered a very broad range. Everything from basic pizza to specialty pastas to rare and exotic meat dishes. And lately some really aweful offerings, possibly due to giving the tourists what they want or are willing to accept. The rule today is either you get food or ambiance. Good food in out of the way places, or bad at the Piazza’s so you can people and site watch. My rule has always been only go where the locals go.
Time was that no food was really bad in Rome, even at tables along famous piazza, such as the Piazza Navona. In general it was all edible and authentic. And the waiters were actually Italian and spoke as such. Some years ago, my wife and I took my mom on a whirlwind tour of Rome, Florence, and Venice. We had always raved about the food, knowing most Americans don’t really believe Italy’s pasta is better than local supermarket pasta. My mom anticipated great food, amazing sites, and lots of walking. We delivered on all counts, but there is a disappointing food story here as well.
The Food Lowpoint
We flew mom (First Class) from California to Milan. My wife and I were already in Italy so we picked her up at Malpensa airport. Even in First Class one gets very tired and exhausted spending 15-20 hours in the air. With no sleep in maybe 24 hours, we whisk mom in the backseat of a nice Audi from Milan to Rome. The countryside is beautiful but mom naps a lot. Besides I drive fast so scenery kind of blurs by. We arrive in Rome late afternoon. Mom is hungry. The Piazza Navona is a very short walk from our favorite hotel, so we go and see if we can get some pasta. All the good, locals places are now closed since lunchtime is over (after 3pm). How bad can it be?
As I said before, years ago it was mostly impossible to get bad pasta in Rome. Even along the piazza it was acceptable, so I was optimistic. Turns out even American supermarket pasta would have been a delight. Yikes, thin sauce and soggy pasta. Great if it came from a can…maybe it did. So lesson learned, stay away from piazza side tables. We got the point, and now know better.
As an aside, mom looked forward to Venice so she could pick up some t-shirts for people back home. Ha, we tell her, they don’t sell such junk in Italy. Wrong again. The visit to Venice revealed tacky tent-carts full of cheap junk. And you guessed it, t-shirts. I thought Italy had tradition that never changed?
The Food Highpoint
Normally on trips to Italy we don’t splurge on high end food, only high end places to stay (I prefer suites). On a subsequent visit to Rome, my wife and I were celebrating a wedding anniversary. So let’s go crazy and see if we can find the most expensive place to eat in all of Rome. Success! Just around the corner from favorite hotel (Portoghesi) is a very inconspicuous place called IL Convivio. No signs or windows so you have to know it’s there. We secure a reservation, a must, for later in the week. How good can it be, and how much can it cost? How exciting.
Dinner in Italy is normally late, typically after 9pm. So after hours of siteseeing we clean up, dress up, and prepare for something special. We are elegantly seated at a nice private table in a corner of a lovely, well decorated small room. Quite romantic. As my wife sits an attendant brings out this really cute, small, velvet stool and places it at my wife’s side. A foot stool we reckon, but why was it situated at the side of the chair? Turns out to be a “purse cozy”, so the typical Italian leather purse doesn’t get soiled sitting on the floor. That’s a first for us. From that point forward we’re convinced an over-the-top evening is underway.
Dinner treats include green pasta with duck ragu sauce, rolled veal, etc. And for desert, amazing chocolate cake with dark Italian chocolate sauce. And maybe the best tiramisu we ever tasted. Great food, great wine, and great ambiance. Great anniversary celebration. And great (meaning large) price. Worth every lira, if just for the purse stool story.
Since it was our anniversary we decided on a second high end meal adventure. We heard great things about a place locals go to celebrate called Papa Giovanni. Not far from the Pantheon, and another place requiring reservations. We book a table, again for late PM. Strange place, this, since it seems quite casual inside and yet the food is rated gourmet class? We shall see.
Coffee flavored pasta with walnuts, green tomatoes over gnochi, stuffed veal with cheese and truffles. And ceme brule with ginger for desert. Every bit as good as IL Convivio…and every bit as expensive. But, alas, no purse cozy. Well you can’t have everything. A great place nonetheless.
Since I have been to Italy, and Rome, maybe a dozen times or more I do have my favorite haunts. I never miss 2 places, and normally I do lunch. Eating dinner after 9pm after hours and hours of walking doesn’t appeal to me. Besides having lunch means it’s OK to consume vast quantities of wine at mid-day, and another similar quantity in the evening. I do love my wine, but only red.
Anyway back to my favorites. Near Piazza Navona, where the antique district begins, is a small place named Tre Arche (3 arches as you might guess). It’s really small (maybe 10 tables) and real authentic. Usually only locals. Run by the same family forever, this place has simple pasta dishes that are some of Rome’s best. They also do good meat dishes, and on holidays like Easter, maybe lamb. Great preparation and sauces, but typical Italian meat…not always as good as US meat. If you can speak a little Italian here you get treated as a local. Nice.
Another place I never miss is Cannavota. Never! No English spoken here, which is strange since they are on a very large, main street just across from St. John Lateran church. Lateran is actually the Pope’s real church and there is an alter there that only the Pope is permitted to use. Back to Cannovota. The best Amatriciana pasta dish I ever tasted! Perfect tomato sauce and plenty of red pepper spice. This is maybe my favorite dish in Italian cooking, and Cannovota’s makes the best “Amatrice”. My wife has tried other pasta here, including seafood pastas, and they are all really awesome. Just be aware you’ll need to use your hands to order if you cannot speak Italian. They do however have a few menus in English, but the 2 brothers that work the tables refuse to attempt English. And mama who works the cash register also speaks only Italian. Some tradition still lives!
Several other places of note in Rome are worthy of your tourist dollars (Euros). Here is a short list. Check your guide book for locations, but typically most of them are not far from Piazza Navona.
> Osteria dell’Antiquario – in the antique area. Great food, outside tables, but a bit pricey.
> Monteforte AI Coronari – again the antique area. Somewhat elegant, pricey, but open on Sundays and Holidays.
> Terra Di Siena – south of the Piazza Navona. Really good Tuscan style food.
> Tullio – another Tuscan place.
> Giolitti Cafe – maybe the best Gellato and pastries. Sandwiches too. And great espresso.