A Gourmet Roman Holiday
By Beverly Stephen
Is it okay to admit we basically went to Rome to eat? We did meet up with some family for a reunion, but by unanimous consent, it was a pasta-fueled one. Blame it on Stanley Tucci. His “Searching for Italy” series stirred up cravings.
We did manage to work in some historic sights between long leisurely lunches and late dinners. When you think about Rome, the whole city is a museum.
We hit the ground running at Giggetto in the Jewish Quarter with one of my favorite foods Carciofi alla Judea, Rome’s signature crispy fried artichoke. The artichokes are trimmed and salted, then fried in a lot of oil. After about 20 minutes, they are removed and opened in the shape of a rose.
(Pssst! They are on the menu at New York City restaurants Lattanzi and Bottino.)
There was a flavorful special with fava beans, peas, and guanciale as well as stuffed zucchini flowers and anchovies. We started to make a dent in our goal to taste Rome’s four classic pastas—Cacio e Pepe, Carbonara, Amatriciana and Gricia. I don’t think we got to the Carbonara. There was some wine involved. And a lot of catch-up conversation. We were off to a good start.
One reaches the historic Jewish Quarter via the remains of the Portico d’Ottavia, an ancient walkway built in 131 BCE. Way back in 161 BCE the Jews of Palestine asked Rome for protection against a Hellenistic king. The population grew to about 40,000 in less than a century. As time went on, oppression raised its ugly head. It’s a familiar story. By the 16th century, the ghetto was a walled quarter, and the gates were locked at night. The residents faced violence and discrimination until the end of the Fascist Era in the late 1940s. A series of stumbling stones on Via della Reginella bears the names of people who perished during the Nazi/Fascist persecutions.
From the Quarter, it was an easy walk to Campo De Fiori where a market was in progress and numerous sidewalk cafes beckoned. I normally don’t drink during the day, but an 8 Euro Negroni was calling my name. Eight Euros is approximately $8.56 U.S. Considering that drinks in New York are running $18 to $20, this was a bargain not to be missed.
More days led to more piazzas, more fountains, and more food. I’m not going to bore you with a laundry list of restaurants—just a few outstanding tables.
Between Campo de Fiori and the wonderful Piazza Navona is one of Rome’s most amazing fish restaurants, Assunta Madre, featuring a fresh selection from the nearby Tyrrhenian Sea. It’s allegedly Robert DeNiro’s favorite Roman restaurant which may explain why it’s on the pricey side. Piazza Navona boasts monumental fountains and an archaeological museum. Somewhere near there we visited a fascinating exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions, including his flying machine, a parachute, and a precursor to the helicopter. One can only wonder what he would think of today’s busy skies.
One of Rome’s most charming neighborhoods is Trastevere. Our family members had booked an AirBnB there with a terrace the size of a New York studio apartment. It was a short walk to many sights such as Santa Maria one of Rome’s most spectacular churches with mosaics, a gilded ceiling and granite columns from the 12th century. Trastevere is home to Bar San Calisto, one of the most famous bars in Rome. This is the place Tucci had a caffe and a maritozzo (a brioche with mounds of whipped cream). In the heart of Trastevere is Osteria da Zi Umberto, a rustic, wood-beamed spot serving the classics such as my personal favorite cacio e pepe.
We were lucky to snag a reservation at Antica Pesa whose menu showcases a more upscale version of traditional dishes and boasts a deep wine cellar. An important thing to know about Antica Pesa, if you’re a New Yorker, is that it has a sister restaurant in Brooklyn where it’s possible to get an authentic Roman pasta fix without buying a plane ticket. An addictive puntarelle salad with tuna bottarga and raspberries, a silky Carbonara, and a honey glazed pork filet with wild chicories were just a few of the items we sampled. And there was more wine involved.
One can’t go to Rome without visiting a market. The Trionfale market is replete with all the produce, meat and fish needed for any Roman kitchen. Outstanding is the freshly roasted porchetta and the overflowing mountains of artichokes some with stems, which are edible, about two feet long. Castroville, California bills itself as the artichoke capital of the world, but Rome might beg to differ.
Venturing out of the expensive historic center can yield different menus. The residential Monteverde area is becoming known as a food hub. At the unassuming L’Osteria di Monteverde, young chef Roberto Campitelli offers creative tasting menus that might feature zucchini flowers with ricotta, veal tongue with salsa verde or tagliolino (ribbon pasta) stuffed with duck. A chef friend in the know had recommended it.
I had some of the best lamb chops I’ve ever eaten at Cesare al Casaletto, an airy trattoria also in the Monteverde area. And one of our companions tucked into the offal selections.
Tiramisu is a staple on most of the menus and we sampled it numerous times. The espresso-soaked lady fingers, whipped crem, and mascarpone concoction enjoyed 15 minutes of fame in the states and even had a cameo mention in the 1993 movie “Sleepless in Seattle.“ Tom Hanks’ character worried that some woman was going to want him to do it to her and he had no idea what it was. It endures as a classic dessert in Rome.
We did take one of the hop on and hop off tour buses to refresh our memory of the basic sights such as the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill. Sometimes the lines of tourists were impossibly long—over two hours at the Vatican Museums. We had marveled at that on a past visit so skipped it this time. Instead, we were delighted at the enormous Basilica of Saint Mary Major which hardly seemed to attract any tourists at all. This magnificent basilica is the oldest church dedicated to God in honor of Mary. Saint Jerome and several popes are buried there. And of course, one always walks down the Spanish Steps and throws three coins in the Trevi Fountain.
Is it Aperitivo time yet? Aperitivo is a delightful Italian custom somewhat similar to happy hour. Since dinner is taken late in Italy, it’s a good time for a drink and a snack around 7 p.m. or so. The new W Hotel offers a lovely version with a view on its rooftop. Aperol Spritz is the most popular drink. And the snacks can be incredibly generous, so much so that you wouldn’t really need dinner. Unless you had come to Rome to eat.
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is now co-owner of Flavor Forays, a culinary travel company.