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Eating in Rome: The Best Restaurants

Cultural and aesthetic experiences are never in short supply in the historic center of Rome. From the Pantheon you can stroll through cobbled, winding streets and piazzas, then across the Tiber--lined with London plane trees--to St. Peter's. Nearby is Castel Sant'Angelo, where Tosca jumped off the battlements at the end of Puccini's opera. Look back over the river, and you can spot a monument to the theater where two of Verdi's operas premiered. What are in short supply, however, are highly recommended restaurants between the Pantheon and the Vatican.

Rome is unlike any other world capital. The drivers are worse--red lights are treated merely as suggestions--and nobody can agree on where to eat. Three distinct culinary traditions flourish in this city, embodied in the delicate fried food of the Ghetto, or Jewish quarter; in dishes using organ meats, for which Romans have a passion; and in the relatively new seafood cuisine of the surrounding Latium region (known as Lazio in Italian). Though the food can be as good as or better than that of London or New York, there is simply no consensus among the residents, the local food critics, and the many guidebooks as to which are the best restaurants.

The main reason for this is inconsistency. Unlike Turin, Milan, Venice, and Naples, Rome doesn't have a lot of eating places that worry about being considered professional. Romans go out to have a good time. Food has always come second, although this trend is changing a bit. The restaurants that many knew from the dolce vita of the sixties had become the (wildly expensive) preserve of politicians who were doing deals, not dinner--until anti-corruption campaigns closed many of these top-end spots by depriving them of their clients. Only the less flashy, more food-based establishments have survived.

Professionalism has never been much of an issue, because most of the dishes served in restaurants are also featured in good home cooking. Some cooks who do care about professionalism practice cucina creativa--not a strawberries-with-fish aping of French nouvelle cuisine, but an attempt to standardize, refine, and extend Roman food traditions. Sometimes, when the dish lends itself to it, the cucina creativa plate is decorated. But how can you paint a picture on a bowl of pasta?There is, it seems, a built-in safeguard against excess.

The order of the menu, for lunch or dinner, is always the same: antipasto; followed by a primo piatto of pasta, rice, or soup; followed by the secondo piatto of poultry, fish, or meat, with vegetables and salad ordered as side dishes. Cheese--superb in both quality and variety--comes before dessert, which can be pastries, sweets, or even ice cream (though ice cream usually isn't part of a meal but is eaten on its own in a gelateria). Fruit is also common for dessert, and a peach peeled by somebody else can taste surprisingly good.

It's perfectly acceptable for two people to share the antipasto and first course (though this usually means an additional charge), and in a good restaurant the waiter often suggests it. House wines have improved beyond recognition; the white wine from Frascati is so much better than when I first drank it 30 years ago that I can scarcely believe it is made from the same grapes. And Romans dress up to eat out, even in the most modest osterias--I've never seen so many men in ties.

The following places are all located in the center of Rome. Whether they are decorated with faux marble or handsome frescoes, adored by the locals or ignored by the restaurant guides, they share one trait: they offer food of such quality that any visitor to the city should take note.

 

La Rosetta
Most authorities agree that Rosetta is the best of Rome's fish restaurants, but I think it is the best, most professional, and most stylish place to eat in the city. And yet I didn't find dinner there outrageously expensive (as I'd been warned). That was probably because the headwaiter, on hearing that my wife and I had had a large lunch, suggested we share one portion of both antipasto and pasta.

Curving, bold wooden arches dominate the dining room and the handsome bar. Unlike most Rome restaurants, which have hit-or-miss decoration, the place seems to have benefited from the services of a good designer; the tables are generously spaced, the chairs good-looking and comfortable. We began with a warm insalata di frutti di mare, with bits of squid, octopus, lobster, clams, and shrimp in shellfish broth delicately laced with oil and lemon. Next we had spaghetti with scampi, squash blossoms, and grated pecorino, for which the headwaiter supplied the recipe when we asked whether it was cooked with butter (it wasn't). A second course of grilled shellfish contained a generous half-lobster, two scampi, and two huge red shrimp, plus a dollop of unctuous stewed eggplant.

The torta di ricotta is a tall cake, with honey and a layer of grape jam, and the frutti di bosco included wild strawberries, small raspberries, and blueberries. A complimentary aperitif of Prosecco was appreciated, as was the excellent Moscato d'Asti that comes with the desserts; before that we drank a bottle of the fine Frascati, Castel di Paolis 1993. Chef-owner Massimo Riccioli, a former film director, took over La Rosetta from his parents seven years ago; his Sicilian father, a sports journalist and boxer, is said to have won the place in a bet. Some wager--the restaurant is just steps from the Pantheon.

Agata e Romeo
You ring the bell to get through the locked door of this small, white-walled restaurant. Inside are spacious tables laid with mirror tiles for place mats, each topped by a lace doily.

Romeo Caraccio takes and serves your order while his wife, Agata Parisella, prepares her cucina creativa, which in her case means fairly traditional Roman dishes. Though the plates are decorated, portions are generous. Among the antipasti, for example, was arzilla lessa con uvetta, noci, e pignoli: a heap of poached skate, as fresh as any I've ever had, unobtrusively garnished with raisins and nuts. Skate is a Roman specialty, but somewhat uncommon; if you see it on a menu, do order it.

Our best primi piatti were a wonderful crisp sformato, a phyllo pastry parcel with mozzarella, Parmesan, and eggplant, and a very Roman soupy dish of borlotti beans with mussels, clams, and scraps of eggless pasta called maltagliati. The fish dishes offered as secondi piatti, both notably fresh, both the poached turbot and the thinly sliced rolled-up swordfish stuffed with capers and olives, were notably fresh, while the wonderfully aged beef fillet was cooked rare, sliced, and served with arugula and balsamic sauce. Desserts were almost the best part: millefoglie--light custard layered in shreds of puff pastry and flaked almonds--is the restaurant's signature sweet, and the latte cotta (literally, "cooked milk") is simple and refined.

Romeo is opinionated about wine, which you'll understand when you see the size of his wine list. While I quarreled a little with his recommendation of a 1995 Alto Adige Sauvignon Blanc, he also chose a Pinot Nero for us that was uncomplicated, and gave us a glass of a sweet Moscato di Pantelleria that smelled and tasted of oranges. Such finesse does not come cheap.

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