On Rome’s 2765th birthday, I was pondering the source of my discontent. My azalea bush struggled to bloom, a poignant reminder of azaleas frothing down Rome’s Spanish Steps. I got my limoncello from the freezer, raised my glass to Roma, and fired up my computer. The cursor slid to my frequent flier program.
Two weeks later, I celebrated my return to Rome at an outdoor table with a view of the two-thousand-year-old Porta Octavia rising ghostly in the moonlight. This has been my favorite restaurant for years, both for its ancient roots in the Jewish Ghetto and its cuisine. After soggy bruschetta and pasta carbonara with the consistency of boxed macaroni and cheese, I told the waiter, “No bene!” He looked concerned, but not surprised.
The next morning, I was heartened by Mark Twain’s, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The decline of one restaurant indicated others had risen to take its place. A Roman friend met me for lunch at Taverna Romana, via Madonna dei Monti, 79, a cobblestone street near the Forum. Close to the restaurant, I stopped, sobered by twenty brass plaques, four-inches square, set into the cobblestones. Each plaque is inscribed with the name, birth and death dates, and place of execution of Holocaust victims who had lived in the house.* Lina, age 5, was assassinated in Auschwitz, two months after deportation from her home on this lovely ancient street.
I was still thinking of Lina when I entered Taverna Romana. Its rustic décor is typical for an eatery that caters to neighbors, not tourists. For the past two-hundred years, it has been run by the same family. Produce is purchased from local farmers daily, and all dishes are prepared on-site. My friend and I enjoyed bruschetta on crispy toast (finally!) before moving on to gnocchi so light it nearly floated off my fork. The roast veal with mushrooms had a taste so fresh, I thought of spring meadows. When I looked at the desserts, I envisioned a little girl tugging on her mother’s arm as they passed Taverna Romana, begging for a sweet while her mother clutched coins for freshly baked bread.
Based on my friend’s recommendations, I discovered two restaurants rooted in history and worthy of the most discriminating diners. DivinPeccato (Piazza della Rovere 84), is close to Vatican City and overlooks the Tiber. The name, Divine Sin, is swiftly parsed on entering the restaurant. I saw a humble wine bar with a few tables on a linoleum floor. The wine selection and snacks elevated the small sin of enjoying a few glasses of wine to a delicious indulgence. The “divine” portion of the restaurant is upstairs. In the intimate dining room, spotless napery went ignored as I gloried in the view of the Tiber from two windows and the frescoes on the walls and beamed ceiling. In the restaurant’s last incarnation as a Chinese restaurant, the frescoes were boarded over and florescent lights were affixed to the lowered ceiling. The 18thCentury frescos, discovered during restoration, are from the building’s upscale apartment days.Divine Sin
For an appetizer, my companion ordered a selection of local cheeses served with fruit jam, nuts, and honey. It looked so good I was sorry I had been tempted by “zucchini milfoil with buffalo bresola and very young cheese with mint pesto.” This delicious smelling stack of food would not make an attractive photograph. However, after one bite, I handed a forkful to my friend and smiled smugly. Young cheese, the waiter explained, is buffalo mozzarella before it forms into balls. A small dish of it was included on my friend’s cheese platter. We decided that buffalo mozzarella balls are a marketing convenience, because the young version is tastier if more problematic to plate.
For pasta, I opted for “rigatoni with Piceno sausage, tomatoes, milky cream and basil” while my companion ordered my appetizer. The sausage, from the Le Marche region of Italy, added a spicy note that enhanced without overpowering the welcome taste of fresh tomato and basil. The waiter recommended a bottle of Pinot Nero Meczan. This food-friendly wine was especially congenial with our selections. Satisfied, but not stuffed, we decided against dessert. We really should have ordered the “eulogy to hot chocolate,” for that is all we speculated about as we walked around Piazza Navona.
From Caesar To Rachael Ray
The next restaurant is Spirito di Vino (via dei Genovesi, 31), in Rome’s Trastevere. Every building has a story to tell, and what better way to hear a good story than over dishes that have won the Slow Food medallion thanks to the efforts of Chef Eliana Catalani. According to her husband, a gregarious raconteur, this family-owned restaurant has been a synagogue, convent, foundry, residence, and warehouse over the past few centuries. The basement was excavated down to its two-thousand-year-old floor. Several archeological treasures discovered here are on display in the Capitoline and Vatican Museums. Now, the basement is a wine cellar with 5,000 to 7,000 bottles ranging from 6 to 800 euros. This is the domain of Francesco, the Catalani’s son, who waits on tables as well as recommends wines.
The menu includes a reincarnation of a dish enjoyed by Julius Caesar prepared from the original recipe. This pork shoulder is cooked with apples, onions, honey, vinegar, red wine, and spices. Instead of salt, Chef Eliana remains true to the ancient recipe by using an anchovy sauce. I did not detect a hint of fish, just perfectly seasoned pork that has been pleasing imperial and other discriminating diners for two millennia. Prefaced by homemade chicken liver pate with wild apple jelly and ending with creamy ricotta with honey and cinnamon in a crisp, almond -flour crust, the meal was a timeless delight.
Francesco, who recommended a robust il Casolare Rossa from Italy’s San Lorenzo Winery, assured us that Eliana is the only cook allowed in the kitchen and that all dishes and sauces are made on the premises. Produce is organic and the meat free-range. Eliana never uses frozen or precooked ingredients. The secret to her delicious bread is a 250-year-old yeast starter. Unlike Caesar’s cook, she is not concerned about losing her head; however, she is dedicated to maintaining Spirito di Vino’s reputation. No wonder Rachael Ray tweeted that it is her favorite restaurant.
From Bites to Bytes
While Romans preserve ancient culinary traditions, travel guides have leapt into the electronic age. According to TripAdviser, this year nearly half of U.S. travelers will use travel apps on their mobile and tablet devices. I met with Flaminia Chapman who has created an app titled “Rome Insiders Guide” for Apple products (iPhone, iPad & iPod touch) available athttp://sutromedia.com/apps/Rome_Insiders_Guide. It also works with Android phones, www.sutromedia.com/android/Rome_Insiders_Guide. A resident of Central Rome, Flaminia keeps the app updated and is constantly adding new information and photos. She also offers personalized tours for individuals and small groups and can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.
For people with little patience for guided tours but crave in-depth information on art and historic sites, I highly recommend Jane’s Smart Art Guides, available for available for download to iPods and Smartphones (www.janessmartart.com). Her Rome guides include St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura, and Sta. Maria del Popolo, an extraordinary, but often over-looked church filled with artistic treasures. I previewed a draft copy of her nearly completed guide to Rome’s Fountains and was pleased that my favorite fountain is also the author’s, Le Tartarughe (Fountain of the Tortoises) in Piazza Mattei. The tortoises, added 70 years after the fountain was unveiled, add a whimsical touch to this playful fountain. Behind the fountain is a story of love gone terribly wrong that Jane discovered in her research.
The whimsy of the Romans is often overlooked, but there is nothing whimsical about their food. When it is good, it is memorable; and when it is bad, it is time to find another restaurant.
*Created by Cologne artist Gunter Demnig, the Stolpersteine are set at homes of Nazi victims to trip the memories of passers-by. The memorial project commenced in the 1990s and now includes more than 20,000 stones in Europe. Rome’s first stumblestone was laid in 2010.