EVERYTHING… IMPECCABLY CRAFTED. NOTHING REFINED.
I opened my eyes and stared into a rustic, antique wooden-ceiling. It’s an unusually early hour for me to wake up to but both the street-washing vehicle just outside the window and my jetlag demanded it. This was a morning as routine as any. We woke up, cleaned ourselves and got dressed. But instead of a solitary morning of me courting my coffee machine, we walked down one flight of antique stone-steps into another world and strolled to the piazza-next-door for a cup of cappuccino with anticipations of company. People were there as promised, gathering in front of the cafe bar chatting. We funneled through the cappuccino crowd as you would in a big family getting through the morning in an orderly chaos. Two cappuccinos, one cornetto. As usual.
Then we moved on, wondering if today we’d bump into an ancient new friend. One lost turn and the skip of a corner, the narrow alley opened up and there we saw her. Strangely tucked in a time she no longer belonged to, a structure with all her 2,040 years of magnificence and glory, yet she stood quietly and reserved. Like she had seen it all, watching the rise and fall of men who created her and the play that we were now a part of that kept unfolding. There was not the usual mockery and cynical remarks because her solemnity and every erosion on her colossal limbs demand submission. We entered and sat on the bench watching the timeless dome with lights and shadows cast from the opening above. I silenced and marveled. Men in the vain pursuit of divinity has in itself created mighty things. The Pantheon in my mind is the only monument in Rome worth gushing.
And then just another day in Rome. You don’t aim you just walk, letting street fountains big or small and clips of time far or near sneak up and pass. Time and rhythm seem to have a stronger presence here than anywhere I’ve been, in every inches of stiletto-deathtrap pavement and every bite of food. To have a good time here, you have to follows its distinct tempo. Fourteen cappuccinos and seven cornetto later, we didn’t find Mario Batali or Michael White here. It seems like modernism and 3-D plating haven’t caught up to this corner of the world, but every unexpected depth of flavor that came through was the result of years or even decades in the makings, surpassing and beyond its rustic and unpolished facade.
Everything was impeccably crafted. Nothing refined. And it was just the way Rome intended.
As it seems to have become an accidental tradition here at Lady and Pups, before I start with the delicious things we stumbled upon, let’s get the unworthy out of the way first. I’ve spared you a few disappointing meals on our trip, including a Mozzarella bar in Campo de Fiori, a Sisilian restaurant somewhere in an ally and forgetful things here and there. Mostly I’d say go walk on Ponte Cestio, the oldest bridge in Rome but pass Sora Lella. Overrated period.
But the biggest let-down on this trip was not by the under-delivery of some restaurants, but in our own failure to
reach try one. Despite alarming expressions from the locals we asked for directions from (one lady looked at the map and drew blank, another waved her arms dramatically away from herself and said, “lontano lontano!”), we I insisted on the mission to progress to the outskirt but “up and coming” neighborhood called the Pigneto area. I should’ve known that “up and coming” is just sugar-coated for “ghetto”, because as we finished munching at I Porchettoni (great pork jerky btw) and circled around a block of scattered/sleepy shops, we soon realized that we had already done with the “happening” part of it. But we persisted onto the 30 min of painful, graffiti-lined walk towards the true purpose of this trip – Osteria Betto e Mary, serving genuine Roman cuisine, only to find out that it doesn’t open until 8pm. It was 6. The idea of loitering around this neighborhood for another 2 hours just ached me. We came. We saw. We took a picture. Don’t tell me how good I’ve missed.
We picked the cafe closest to our apartment as our morning cappuccino joint because I think more important than seeking out the “best” cup in Rome, the appeal of cappuccino is about familiarity, comfort and habit. We were lucky enough to have one that’s a 70-year-old neighborhood establishment, and nothing would get you in the Rome state-of-mind than a cup of attentively prepared cappuccino and a chocolate or cream-filled cornetto.
ANTICO FORNO LA STELLETTA
There are plenty of sandwich/pizza shops in Rome and we came across this one on our way to the Pantheon. Situated quite conveniently in the Old Center, it is a good place to pick up an Italian-style sandwich in between traveling from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance.
L’ISOLA DEL PANINO
The line-up of young students outside this unseemly sandwich shop at lunch time caught our attention and we joined skeptically. But as it turned out, the porchetta sandwich w/ sauteed onions, red radicchio and chicory was unexpectedly moist, flavorful and one of those times when it’s good to be wrong.
CAMPO DE FIORI
An open market in the middle of the Jewish Ghetto selling goods ranging from seasonal produce, spices and preserves to kitchen wares, flowers and touristy
junks souvenirs. Don’t go to the “mozzarella bar” if you saw one, instead go to the Forno Campo de Fiori, two bakeries side by side teeming with customers at lunch time offering great sandwiches and pizzas. The fried green olives stuffed with tuna is also a satisfying treat worth trying.
The only 24-hour eatery in Rome we came across but believe it or not, it wasn’t half bad. Delicious fried anchovies, lamb sweetbread with artichokes and scrumptious braised ox tails. The flexible hours allow you to avoid the lunch-rush from 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm, and dinner-rush from 8:00 pm to 9:30 pm. Apparently no Roman eats on any other hours except on these exact dots, because when we first came at 12:30 pm for lunch and got directed to the basement seating despite the completely empty dining room upstairs, I got a little self-conscious (I swear I washed myself this morning….). But at EXACTLY 1:30 pm ON THE DOT, the humming sound that could only be recognized as a large crowd started to pour from upstairs and when we left at 2 pm, the restaurant was JAMMED PACK. Then of course when we went back the second time at 4:00 pm another day…
Server: “I remember you guys. Are you the couple who came in the other morning?”
“Uh… yeah..haaa… (I’m certain it was called noon), I guess nobody eats at 4 pm either uh?”
Server shakes his head: “Nooo. They nap.”
Bonci to Rome is like Lahey to New York, but dare I say with an even more magical crust. The Pizzarium showcases more than a thousand different seasonal toppings but then in the end, it is all about its dough. Forget thin-crust, Bonci’s pizza comes with an unapologetic thickness with the most tenderly tenderly soft and chewy center in between the thinnest, crispy crust imaginable. It almost doesn’t matter what he put on it and it’d be
good great. The polpette fritte (fried meatballs) with stewed gelatinous beef instead of ground meat is also a highlight that demands attention.
If you are looking for something more fancy, Roscioli at the heart of the Jewish Ghetto is a safe bet. You get welcomed with a basket of exceptional breads and mini molds of the house-special ricotta. The deli counter offers a dazzling array of cheeses, prosciutto, salami, head cheese, etc. Their cacio e pepe was great, and the meal is finished with complimentary cookies with chocolate ganache. The freebies alone will win your endorsement. But if you were going to have one thing and one thing only at Roscioli, it is the burrata that will dwarf the others in comparison. Have it with sun-dried cherry tomatoes (the other choice of anchovy overpowers) and it is easily one of the most indulgent and satisfying thing we’ve had on this trip. One plate will set you back €20. Hey, it is worth it.
Just a few steps away from Roscioli restaurant in the alley across from it, is the Roscioli bakery. The breads served in the restaurant come from here and on top of which, they also offer exceptional pizzas.
I call this our “neighborhood joint” because it is only a few minutes walk away from our apartment and they serve dishes that are exactly what my imaginary Italian grandmama would make for me. Their house special fresh pasta with peas and mushrooms, tripe stewed with tomato sauce, tagliatelle with meat ragu and lambs stewed in white wine sauce. Nothing is deliberately styled and the plating is as 2-D as plating gets, but the the warmth, comfort and flavors that come through every bite is anything but flat. Don’t even bother going during lunch/dinner rush (1:30~2:20pm and 8:00~9:20pm) because you won’t get a seat.
GELATERIA DEL TEATRO
I pretty much stopped at 1 in every 2 gelato shops I walked by and among them, I thought I’d pick 2 that are pretty awesome. This is one of them.
Tucked in an alley very close to the Trevi Fountain, this was the favorite gelato I had. Try the zabaione and honey together. It’s pretty darn perfect.
So it went like this:
“One cannolo, please”
“Yes, thank you sir. That would be six euros.”
“(involuntary facial tremor with slightly enlarged nostrils)… you kidding…”
“It is PERFETTO.”
Savor every crumb is what I say.
This time in Rome, the Old Center is filled with roasted chestnuts vendors on the sidewalk. They weren’t cheap, running at €5 for 7~8 chestnuts, and I can’t say they were mind-blowingly delicious because… chestnuts are chestnuts. But there’s something about holding a brown-paper cone filled with hot and steaming chestnuts while strolling through the winter streets in your knitted scarfs and gloves. I’ll let you decided if it’s worth it.
You can’t leave Rome without smuggling some of their many famed narcotics and when you do, Volpetti will be your best partner-in-crime. Located slightly away from the center in a mostly residential neighborhood, this is a salami/cheese/olive oil/balsamic/basically-everything-Italian wonderland. I was unexpectedly pleased by the excellent service that gave me no shit despite my request to divide every salami and cheese into 2~3 pieces then individually vacuum-packed. All done in a swift and smiley manner with “Of course Ma’am.” at the finish. The French could learn something from the Italian.
Armed with pork jerky from I Porchettoni and fried olives stuffed with tuna dangling in our pockets, we were ready to part with Rome. We had no schedule or certainty on if or when we would return here. No organized list of places we came and missed, or any unrest in the sense that I didn’t get that one perfect shot of the burrata. I think Rome would agree that I’ve been a good student.