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)

Now bring us some figgy pizza!

I should totally be going to bed right now, especially since tomorrow I’ve sworn to wake up at the crack of dawn and begin damage control. The past two weeks have been pure overindulgence excused by Easter and the big news that I will be attending UCLA in the Fall on a full Fellowship! I’m in a constant state of shock. This will mean a new apartment and completely new life in L.A. come September. I plan to savor my last few months here in Costa Mesa, for as much as people love to complain about Orange County, I’ve really enjoyed my life here over the past couple years.

 Some of the food highlights from the past two weeks include an exorbidant amount of See’s Scotchmallow eggs, lunch out today at The Counter in Marina del Rey (see below!), dinner with Leah at Paco’s, pasta night with Iris, dinner at Mozza’s in Newport Beach, salmon eggs benedict for Easter at Dad’s, Nana’s Ham & Yams, and oh yeah….  8 pies I baked as gifts in my small kitchen the Friday before Easter [post to follow later this week].

So anyhow, back to this pizza! Two weeks ago, we literally ate pizza four nights in a row… we are complete pizza addicts. Dhiren made a pizza with goat cheese & figs and it was SO good that I made it again the following day.

Ingredients:

Basic pizza dough
Figs (fresh are the best, but since they were out of season, I used dried)
Goat cheese, crumbled
Honey
1/2 Onion
Olive oil
Mozzarella, grated

1. Prepare your dough! I will put a basic pizza dough recipe up in a couple days for those of you who are curious. For years I bought Trader Joe’s dough, but now we make our own. Not to knock Joe’s, but it always seemed impossible to get a crunchy, perfect dough with their pre-made, refrigerated kind…

2. Caramelize the onions until they are sweet and a deep golden color.

3. I recommend soaking the dried figs for a while prior to heating them up. I didn’t have time to soak them, so I just threw them on a skillet for about 5-8 minutes and heated them with about a tbsp of honey prior to putting them on the pizza.

4. Preheat your oven to about 400 degrees.

5. Roll out your dough as you like it, and brush with olive oil. Crumble goat cheese on top, and grate mozzarella on the entire pizza. Arrange the onions and the figs.

6. Stick it in the oven until the dough is crunchy and cooked (our dough doesn’t LOOK ready in this photo, but it was perfect!) I always use the touch-test with doughs, since looks can sometimes be deceiving.

I love combining sweet and savory flavors, and this is the PERFECT pizza for that. Hope some of you try it out!

Gifted Food: Delicious Cheeseless Pizza

Showed up to a student’s house one weekend last month and they gave me some delicious, homemade cheeseless pizza. The mom mentioned that this was a traditional recipe she learned when she was in Italy. It was really, really good, and it’s on my list of “foods to recreate.”

Anyhow, Dhi and I are heading out for a walk to enjoy the cool weather (at 7am we were woken up by intense thunder storms and heavy rain, but now it’s totally clear and gorgeous out). We are then heading out to a recital for some of our students, and then we’re driving to my hometown to spend the weekend with family for some belated birthday celebrations. We’ll be there all weekend, so I wanted to catch up on a post before I go. Have a great weekend full of food and friends!

[The next post will be on our ravioli adventure from last weekend! Stay tuned…]