Rome: Getting your grub on in the Eternal City

Before going to Rome in December I spent a good amount of time practicing my Italian (food) vocabulary (“Il mio ragazzo è un vegetariano … mi dispiace, lui è strano”), studying up on my knowledge of Roman cuisine and scouring forums to figure out the all-important question of “Where the hell should we eat?” I am a somewhat spontaneous person but I don’t mess around with food when traveling, especially in this age of online resources and especially if you, like me, are hinged to a limited budget and don’t want any precious funds to go to waste on mediocre food. The resounding advice on many forums was rather depressing: “Rome doesn’t have a good restaurant culture.” I of course believed the throngs of ex-pats and locals who explain how every trattoria and ristorante is inferior, lacking in authenticy and tarred by tourism.

I tried not to fixate on the naysayers and kept reminding myself that even if we lived off rubbery pizza for a week, we were leaving to Sicily for Christmas where we would most certainly mangiare bene (huge post to come).

But, lucky for us, everyone was wrong about Rome.

Sure, Rome might be flooded with tourists, but there is a vibrant restaurant culture tucked away from the main piazzas and hidden down damp alleyways. I can promise you, that as someone who has eaten her way from Bari, Palermo, Napoli, the Amalfi Coast, Verona, Venezia, Sienna, Firenze and all the small villages in between, I can guarantee you that Rome is wearing its big boy pants. The key is to go off the beaten path, honor tradition and [wait for it] do as the Romans do (I give you permission to cringe…) But the adage is true. The majority of great places to dine at are located away from the main strips, serve locally-inspired fare and are filled with Italians (and I’m not talking about the strange hybrid-kind from Jersey.)

After a day of walking from the Vatican to the Colosseum  we wanted needed some hearty food to get us back up to the historic center. This trattoria pictured below, Taverna dei Quaranta serves simple, hearty, flavorful food and is highly recommended if you want to eat close to the Forum and Colosseum. We went during an “off” time (it was rather empty aside from a lingering party of Italians finishing their wine from lunch) but were treated kindly and left full and tipsy.

Before doing the whole Vatican thing one morning, Dhiren and I spontaneously stumbled upon the Italian version of Zabar’s, Castroni Caffe di Scaglione. This place is way cooler than any Willy Wonka candy shop. Your eyes (and wallet) will go nuts. Since we were in Rome days before Christmas, it was the perfect time to people watch and rummage through the seasonal products for Natale. After figuring out how to pay, we squeezed our way into a small spot on the coffee counter between a sea of morning”commuters” and had a perfect cappuccino and cornetto. We took an extra brioche stuffed with surprisingly-not-too-sweet-whipped cream to-go and received lots of stares from concerned Italians who had the misfortune of seeing us like this:

We were lucky enough to have stayed at a one-room B&B right in the heart of the historic district with ample dining options only steps away. One of our faves was Alfredo e Ada. Always a line out the door, this place boasts a cozy, dark atmosphere with a daily menu that changes according to what’s good at the market that day. Seasonal fare like radish and artichoke lasagnas, bacaloa and a to-kill-for carbonara are offered with no options for customization. In a world with way to many choices, this was happy news to me. Sometimes, all a type-A, over-analytical girl wants is to sit down, get comfortable and be told she doesn’t have options. EAT THIS AND SHUT UP. Yes, please.

I don’t care if it is 20 degrees outside, hailing or if I’m deathly sick: when I’m in Italy, I need gelato and good luck to anyone who tries to get in my way. I definitely ate an obscene amount of gelato on this trip. But out of all the places I dragged the boyfriend to, my favorite was hands-down Giolitti. Only after stumbling upon this place did we later find out its apparent history and popularity. The gelato is light, fluffy and topped with whipped cream. Highly recommended.

Another place that was relatively close to our B&B was Osteria de Memmo. We bumped into the place on accident while looking for another restaurant and now I know: this was an act of God. The food here is LEGIT. So legit, that I begged the boyfriend to bring us back a couple days later. It does have a radically different atmosphere compared to the working-class trattorias and pizza houses we typically find ourselves at. You will be surrounded by portly Milanese politicians eating piles of food, Italian desperate housewives with their Pucci clad, model husbands and sophisticated children eating swordfish. The clientele were too classy to stare at my boyfriend and I, who were poorly dressed, sweaty and brutish, lugging around a 5lb camera. The owner, Memmo, was really friendly, albeit intimidating in a “larger than life,” Godfather sort of way. We left with an extremely awkward photo with the man himself, although it won’t be seen here on account of our troll-like appearance.

The food at Memmo’s is fabulous. Flavorful pasta dishes and some of the best veal I’ve ever (or will ever) eat in my life. Though I didn’t try any of the seafood, from the looks of the place, it’s what you order here.

I’m a major pizza addict and snob and as such I knew that I had to try whatever great pizza Rome had to offer. (And to all those people who complain about how “You don’t eat pizza in Rome… it’s all about Napoli”: F You. Naples doesn’t have a copyright on good pizza.)

We were lucky to find Dar Poeta in Trastevere. First of all, this place is off the beaten path, down a dark alley in a hip part of town. Cool kids in leather jackets puff their cigarette smoke into the air while saying extremely witty and sarcastic things in Italian. Secondly, we were the only non-Italian speaking people in this place. Third, there was a long, long, awkward wait. All good signs. We sucked in our guts in order to shuffle into a tightly-packed room, sat down, chugged back a liter of wine  and enjoyed our mushroom and fresh mozzarella bufala pizzas.

Nearing the end of our week in Rome, we wanted to spend less money and eat some down-home, no-frills food. Our B&B owner recommended a place around the corner from Piazza Navona called Navona Notte. We were seriously skeptical, mainly because of the name and its proximity to the Piazza. We also made the mistake of trying to come here for lunch only to find it closed. Our B&B owner Luciano pointed out rather sarcastically that this restaurant has the word “Notte” in it for a reason. This is duly noted. When they were open, we were surprised to find a humble restaurant full of working-class Italians looking to get their grub on. The food is simple, cheap and delicious. They also serve pizza from a wood fire oven. I warn you that this place is located in a highly touristy area and so you will have several restaurant owners misguide you if you ask for directions. Many people will laugh at your face when they hear “Navona Notte” and try to distract and lure you by screaming “SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS!!!!” in your face. Do not falter my friend.

If you’re heading to Rome anytime soon, I recommend:

Taverna dei Quaranta
Via Claudia, 24  00184 Rome, Italy
+39 06-700-0550
(For great lunch and dinner fare close to the Colosseum)

Alfredo & Ada
Via dei Banchi Nuovi, 14  00186 Rome, Italy
+39 06-687-8842
(For their daily-changing menu. Fabulous spot for lunch or dinner. In the antique district.)

Castroni di Scaglione
Via Cola di Rienzo, 196, 00196 Rome, Italy
+39 06-687-4383
(For grocery products, sweets, souvenirs and fabulous pastries and coffee. Close to the Vatican.)

Giolitti 
Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40  00186 Rome, Italy
+39 06-699-1243
(Great for gelato & coffee; historic and quaint)

Osteria de Memmo
Via dei Soldati, 22/23, 00186 Rome, Italy
Phone:+39 06-6813-5277
(Great for a special lunch or dinner; fantastic seafood, meat and pasta in an elegant atmosphere)

Dar Poeta
Vicolo del Bologna, 45  00153 Rome, Italy
+39 06-588-0516
(Located in a hip, youthful neighborhood, fantastic pizza)

Navona Notte
Via del Teatro Pace, 44  186 Rome, Italy
+39 06-686 9278
(Great for a dinner on a budget)

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Orecchiette with Peas in a Creamed Corn Purée

True story: I actually searched “name for a cheesy corn sauce” in order to find a better way to title this recipe (the results weren’t helpful). The word “purée” reminds me of baby food and has always bothered me. Tonight I needed a recipe that utilized canned corn,  left-over heavy cream from my Thanksgiving creme brûlées, and frozen peas. I winged it and this turned out amazing.

I first pureéd the corn with the heavy cream in the blender. I boiled the orecchiette (which is one of my favorite pastas ever since Italy) and then in a separate skillet, I heated up olive oil and sautéed the onion, garlic, chicken stock and peas, respectively. Once the liquid in the peas reduced, I added the pureéd corn and let it simmer until the pasta was done. After draining the pasta, I threw everything together into the pot and added about a 1/2 cup of low-fat ricotta for thickening and salted it to taste.

This was amazing, and I’m really proud (and kind of astonished) that something I spontaneously created turned out edible! I’m normally a “follow-the-recipe” kind of girl; one of those people who obsessively weighs ingredients and fills up the sink with measuring cups.

I attribute my success to our recent trip to Italy & France. I’ve never tasted more creative and delicious ways to prepare and coat pasta. I don’t think the typical Americanized “red sauce” will ever satisfy me in any real way again. Our three-week trip was INCREDIBLE by the way. I took so many food photos and mentally drafted dozens of reviews, but alas…

we lost the camera on the plane.

So it was a tragic return to Los Angeles. I hyperventilated and cried for days. Eventually, I decided to put it out of my head and have been trying not to think about the loss since. We luckily got home with four out of the five videotapes, so I’ve been screen-capturing stills from that and making “polaroids”. And as a consolation prize I bought myself my dream camera and a snazzy new L-series lens (and am finalizing full-coverage insurance!).

So anyhow, back to tonight’s dinner. This turned out really, really good. It was rich, creamy and satisfying. So if you have two cans of canned corn, some orecchiette and some peas hanging around, give it a try and let me know how it turns out!