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Eating in Rome: The Best Restaurants

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'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.


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