Eating in Rome: The Best Restaurants

Eating in Rome: The Best Restaurants

The restaurant scene here is famously inconsistent-- and no one, it seems, can agree on where to dine. Paul Levy sets the record straight.

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.


Enoteca Corsi
This lunch-only, high-turnover place, sometimes called Osteria Fabrizio Corsi, has the snappiest service in Rome. It was full of office workers, lovers, men with babies--all having fun. Though we reserved a table, there's no need; just wait your turn, and the English-speaking waitress will find you a place in this large, paper-tablecloth restaurant. The terra-cotta light fixtures and plain tile floor are smart and functional; the menu, posted by the door, is short enough to memorize. Friday, when we were there, is baccalÀ (codfish) day all over Rome, and here they did it three ways. We started with great ceci e pasta soup with light ham stock and a slight kick of chili, then had fine, firm penne with tomato and tuna sauce. Finally, the baccalÀ: we chose it roasted, with potatoes, olive oil, and a hint of garlic, rounded out by a half carafe of good vino rosso. We ended with respectable ricotta cake. The food was honest, inexpensive, and good.

Il Convivio
This cucina creativa establishment, run since 1989 by the three Troiani brothers (Angelo is the chef), shows just how new the concept of a world-class restaurant--with its touches of luxury accompanying good food--is to Rome. Riedel wineglasses share the table with thick, commercial service plates; the white marble floor is at odds with the awful canned music; pink walls and smart modern sconces coexist with an assortment of pictures that includes a poster of the Mona Lisa. We were greeted with a free aperitif: an Umbrian white wine mixture of Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, La Pallazola '94; soon some indifferent bread arrived. The menu was mercifully brief; the wine list was not, but it was complemented by superb service and helpful advice from one of the two brothers who work the dining room.

The food quickly made up for the misguided decoration. A warm seafood salad consisted of a slice of white fish with clams, mussels, squid, and a giant prawn on a scattering of al dente julienne carrots and zucchini with a heavenly "mayonnaise of the sea," a fragrant lemony sauce. Ricotta romana calda--three warm ricotta dumplings with crunchy bits of salty bacon-like guanciale and sliced porcini--was topped with a dollop of tomato sauce to make a great dish. Slices of lightly roasted rabbit stuffed with a purée of potato and porcini were remarkable; the sauce was intensified with anchovy and fennel and strewn with shards of black truffle.

Desserts were exceptional, especially the surprising pistachio-flavored semifreddo of zabaglione drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar.

We drank a half bottle of a local white, a fine Frascati, Castel di Paolis '94, fleshy and aromatic, followed by a fairly priced Lungarotti Rubesco '90, substantial enough to partner both the pasta and the meat.

Il Pellicano
Though it may be unprepossessing from the outside, this place near the Piazza Navona is a treat. Once you get past the grim façade, the room is welcoming; starched white tablecloths and good modern flatware redeem the fake marble and wood paneling.

We began our meal with bruschetta and tiny mussels stewed in tomato, garlic, and chili. Then came a plate of firm, cold seafood salad with microscopic pieces of celery, red pepper, and zucchini in a little too much olive oil. Soup arrived, thick with lentils, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, and rigatoni, flavored with fish stock and another welcome hint of chili--a fine variation on the Roman fish-and-beans soup theme. A superb fritto misto with tender chunks of baby octopus, shrimp, scampi, and squid was followed by a generous bowl of lamb's lettuce with a fine Gorgonzola dressing.

I was a little disappointed when I saw chef Maria Romani scooping up what looked like vanilla ice cream for our dessert. Shame on me--it was frozen zabaglione with a large helping of liqueur. With no extras on the bill except water and wine (the house white, a fruity Colli Euganei '95, from the Veneto), this fixed menu was a terrific value. Though Il Pellicano is ignored by many guidebooks, I thought it quite a find.

Alberto Ciarla
This restaurant in trendy Trastevere is a member of the Buon Ricolta Association (each participating establishment has a single item on its menu that comes on a souvenir plate you take home with you), and I was delighted to be awarded a decorative plate for having unwittingly ordered the prize dish: baccalà; guazzetto, the Roman specialty of salt cod with tomato sauce, currants, and pine nuts. It was the best baccalà; I've tasted, the fish silky, the pine nuts plump and fresh.

Though the night was cool, we were happy to be seated outside at well-lit tables with blue tablecloths and red napkins--especially after we saw the inside, all black and red marble and Plexiglas, done to reflect a particularly unfortunate epoch in the history of restaurant style.

We were either wise or lucky in our ordering: we shared a piatto misto containing many of the house-special first courses: smoked tuna, swordfish, sturgeon, salmon with ginger, marinated raw sea bass, sea bream, and three kinds of shrimp, plus a touch of caviar. One portion of spaghetti alle vongole verace was also enough for two. Romans count as their own this dish of pasta dressed simply with oil, garlic, a speck or two of parsley, and the clams and their juice. In addition to the salt cod main course, we had a fritto misto with three kinds of shellfish coated in semolina and fried in extra-virgin olive oil.

Piperno
Piperno's specialty is the artichoke. It is a Jewish (but not kosher) restaurant in the Ghetto, featuring the dish in which this edible flower bud, found at its best in the Roman Campagna, is (to quote from the menu) "thrown into boiling oil, smooth as a billiard ball," and "comes out like a chrysanthemum with petals open, distilling its pleasant perfume."

Piperno is near the enormous Cenci Palace, where an infamous act of parricide took place in the 16th century, supposedly casting a permanent gloom over the little square on which the restaurant is located. The interior, however, is anything but gloomy, with bottle-green fabric and interesting frescoes lining the walls of the dining rooms where white-jacketed, black-tied waiters do their very professional thing: filleting fish, checking peaches for ripeness when a customer orders one for dessert, inspecting the porcini and taking them to the kitchen to be prepared.

We were encouraged to start with the house specialties, not only the carciofi alla giudia but strips of tender young artichoke in the fritto scelto all'Italiana with variety meats. Even better was the fritto misto vegetariano, which consisted of the artichokes plus supplì; (a rice croquette with melted cheese inside), some chunks of mozzarella, and best of all, the stuffed squash blossoms. You wouldn't believe fried food could be so ungreasy, but you can pick it up in your fingers without a trace of fat. But then the art of frying is said to be a hallmark of Roman Jewish cooking. Run since 1963 by the non-Jewish Mazzarella family, Piperno is generally considered the best but most expensive of Rome's Jewish restaurants. It's worth the money.

Checchino dal 1887
For more than a century Checchino has stood across from the Mattatoio, the famous former slaughterhouse. The location provides a clue to the menu: this restaurant is for dedicated carnivores. All the dishes are served in great style, in a room with wrought-iron chandeliers, woven-rush seats, good silver, and very correct wine service. Vegetarians will want to stop reading here.

We began with the testina di vitello (veal brawn, or headcheese) and a wonderful warm insalata di zampe, a salad of slightly gelatinous shredded meat from calf's trotters mixed with creamy beans and vegetables. The pasta was unusual handmade tonnarelli--large square egg noodles--in a tomato-based oxtail sauce, and bucatini alla gricia--the long, hollow noodles that are impossible to eat tidily, flavored with oil, garlic, and guanciale. Here we had our best trippa alla romana, meltingly tender tripe in spicy tomato sauce. We were awarded yet another souvenir plate, this time for a dish from Lazio that pre-dates the tomato's ascendancy: abbacchio alla cacciatora, baby lamb stewed in olive oil and garlic with lots of black pepper. The cheese trolley was magnificent, as was the wine list. There's a dessert menu matching unusual sweets with appropriate wines, such as hazelnut ice cream with bitters splashed over it. The formal service is much appreciated by a clientele that includes a lot of visitors to the city, but this is no tourist trap.


Little Meals in Rome

Replay Café This is the original genuine Cal-Ital eating place, with one branch here and another in L.A. When you can't face a traditional lunch menu and need a light meal near the Piazza Navona, this is the place: cool, comfortable, and California casual, with great vegetable and meat antipasti, good crisp-bottomed omelettes, frittatas made with whatever ingredients you choose, excellent bread, its own well-chosen wine, and superb coffee.

Dal Bolognese The fruit and nut ice creams at Dal Bolo-gnese are the best desserts in Rome. Among the choices are walnut shells filled with walnut ice cream, a fig halved and topped with fig ice, sorbets of mandarin oranges and pears in their own skins. (That's not to say the fun Dal Bolognese doesn't serve terrific pasta.)

Pepy's Bar The best tramezzini (stuffed sandwiches) we've seen--beautiful to look at, with imaginative combinations of fillings.

Volpetti Wonderful deli and food shop, part of an empire that comprises a bakery and a self-serve restaurant, Volpetti Più, around the corner, where you can taste many of the great meats, cheeses, and breads (the pizza bianca is to die for). Nearby is the Piazza Testaccio, home to one of Rome's best food markets.

Sant'Eustachio Terrific coffee bar with both take-out and sidewalk table service. The granita di caffÀ is fabulous, and the roast coffee beans are a bargain.

Giolitti Some say this is the best ice cream shop in Rome. As at most places, you pay first, then give your ticket to the person who scoops it for you. The chocolate is deep and dark; the riso is the most unusual--you'll love it if you like rice pudding.

Hemingway A welcoming bar near the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, with outside tables and three beautifully furnished, windowless rooms. A fine place for an aperitif, and a good-taste alternative to the many nearby Irish pubs.

Taverna Le Coppelle You know that this clean, cheap, and cheerful place is good because of the line of locals waiting for tables. A wood-burning pizza oven produces thin, dinner-plate-size pizzas that are done when the outer edge just starts to char.

Ecco! Don't Miss The Pasta Museum!
Amazingly well organized, this museum displays the pasta-making process in detail and encourages all of us to eat more of this "perfect food." An excellent English-language CD guides you from room to room. As a bonus, the gift shop sells the best postcards in Rome.


Agata e Romeo
45 Via Carlo Alberto; 39-6/446-6115, fax 39-6/446-5842;
dinner for two $120.

Enoteca Corsi
89 Via del Gesù; 39-6/679-0821;
lunch tor two $30; no credit cards.

Il Convivio
44 Via dell'Orso; 39-6/686-9432;
dinner tor two $120.

La Rosetta
8 Via della Rosetta; 39-6/686-1002, fax 39-6/687-2852;
dinner for two $145.

Il Pellicano
8 Via dei Gigli d'Oro; 39-6/683-3490;
dinner for two $120.

Alberto Ciarla
40 Piazza San Cosimato; 39-6/581-8668;
dinner for two $135.

Dal Bolognese
1 Piazza del Popolo; 39-6/361-1426;
dinner for two $80.

Replay Café
43 Piazza delle Coppelle; 39-6/6830-7895;
dinner for two $55.

Pepy's Bar
54 Piazza Barberini; 39-6/487-4491;
lunch for two $15; no credit cards.

Volpetti
47 Via Marmorata; 39-6/574-2352;
Volpetti Più
8 Via Alessandro Volta;
dinner for two $30.

Sant'Eustachio
82 Piazza Sant'Eustachio; 39-6/686-1309;
coffee for two $7.

Giolitti
40 Via Uffici del Vicario; 39-6/699-1243;
ice cream for two $5.

Hemingway
10 Piazza delle Coppelle; 39-6/686-4490;
drinks for two $15.

Taverna Le Coppelle
39 Via delle Coppelle; 39-6/6880-6557;
dinner for two $15; no credit cards.

National Pasta Museum
117 Piazza Scanderberg; 39-6/699-1120.

Prices do not include tax, tip, or drinks.

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