Rome itself is as varied with boroughs and areas as Italy is with regions. Each possesses its own unique feel and, most relevantly for me, its own cuisines. All have their wonders but as a rule of thumb avoid the densely tourist-thronged areas. The number of Nikon Cameras around is adversely proportional always to the quality of the food served. Spot a picture in a menu, run a mile. Statue of an emperor outside the door, same call. Being touted by a waiter in the street, immediate evasive action. Go a few streets back, head up some side passages and always, always eat as the Italians do. This way you’re likely to get a much better meal. Some say it is impossible to get a bad meal in Rome. That is a lie, I’ve had plenty. But do what I say and you should avoid these.
As I said, Rome has several different areas. This blog explores a day in the area around the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. This is one of my favourite parts of Rome to eat. Full of cobbledy streets lined with small, local delis and a total lack of server spoken English – always a good sign. Avoid the restaurants lining the Piazza della Rotunda, in front of the Pantheon; though they offer an undeniably stunning view, the prices rocket and the quality plummets. I’ll show you how to put to use what they can offer later
9am beckons and it’s an early start to make the most of Rome’s sights. Drag yourself up from your pit and head on over to Tazza d’Oro, just round the corner from the Pantheon, a Roman institution and reportedly the best cup of coffee in the city. Which arguably makes it among the ranks of the best in the world. I’d be hard pressed to disagree. Certainly it’s in my top 2. Pay at the counter and take your billet to the espresso bar to be received by a cheeky Italian who’ll coo platitudes at you while whipping you up a stunning brew. Ahh bella. It’s before 11am so feel free to order cappuccino, though after 11 in theory this is frowned upon. It’s seen as a morning drink. Coffee, or caffé in Italian, is seen differently in Italy than in England. To the Italians it is a drink for on the go. Most coffee shops don’t have chairs, only a bar. You rock up, order, shoot your coffee down and then it’s back on the road for you. FYI, don’t try and order a latte either. This is an Anglo-American thing. In Italy latte just translates as ‘milk’. I kept getting very confused when I repeatedly was brought a glass of hot milk during my first few trips here. Don’t follow my lead on this one; cappuccino is the closest you’ll get. But it’ll be a perfect cappuccino. Nutty, deep coffee and perfect milk that is velvety smooth. So thick and creamy it’ll feel like you could weave a throw out if it. Grab a cornetti, a croissant like pastry, and dunk it in your coffee. Devour and you’re good to go.
Meander around Rome’s many fabulous sites in the area. Head inside the Pantheon and see the tomb of Raphael or marvel at the largest unsupported dome for over 1,300 years. Head over to the Area Sacra di Torre Argentina and check out the remains of four very ancient Roman temples, the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination in the Theatre of Pompey and the modern day cat sanctuary which has rather incongruously been combined with the prior.
Before you know it, time will have spun by, Rome’s magic your senses hypnotised and lunch time now beckons. Head to Il Bacaro,
up a discrete little side street on the Via Degli Spagnoli
, near to the Pantheon. This a perfect, intimate and wonderfully Roman spot centred in one of the city’s many hidden courtyards and is very reasonably priced. The main meal of the Italian day is generally dinner so save yourself, but grab yourself a quick pranzo
(lunch) to fuel you up for the rest of your day. For lunch I tend to go for a primo piatto
, but if you’re not that hungry/are weird stick to antipasto
. For notes on the Italian meal structure, click here
At Il Bacaro you can get absolutely beautiful pasta – I think perhaps the best I have eaten in Rome. Order tonnarello cacio e pepe, handmade pasta with cheese and pepper, perhaps. It’s a quintessential Roman dish – artful in its simplicity and almost painfully exquisite. Or maybe try the mezze maniche con guanciale salvia r pecorino, short sleeves pasta with bacon, sage and pecorino cheese. This is almost a take on a traditional carbonara and is made in the same way as it, a combination of eggs and cheese cooked by mixing with hot pasta. Guanciale is simultaneously similar and different to bacon – it’s an unsmoked bacon made from the cheeks and jowls. It is delicately fatty and with a great salted crunch. This particular dish rocked my world somewhat. I have a major boner for carbonara and its terrible deviations in most British restaurants are one of my pet peeves. Newsflash; a real carbonara doesn’t have cream in it. But I’ll save this rant for another time. The take on it served here was perhaps one of the best pasta dishes I have ever eaten. Make the trip. But all of Il Bacaro’s pastas are fantastic and are always served at a perfect al dente, firmer than we tend to serve it in England. Al dente literally means ‘to the bite’ referring to the increased need to chew for it.
Continue your day around Rome. Maybe visit some of the brilliant shops in the area. It is particularly good for leather goods and artisan stationary. Beautiful inks and printed paper shops dot the area. The area also boasts some of the best boutique fashion shops too with stunning knits, chunky flowing coats and cashmere blends flirting at you from windows everywhere. Not cheap but nowhere near as bad as Paris.
If you haven’t spent all of your money, when it reaches 3pm I’d say that it was time for merenda, an afternoon snack. Rome is full of fabulous bakeries but my favourite lies on the Via Della Stellette, the appropriately entitled Dolci Biscotti. This bakery introduced me to something wonderful that I had never tasted before: Brutti ma Buoni, literally meaning ‘ugly but good’. These little babies are a sort of Italian Meringue cookie, also baked with nuts and their discovery shook me to the core. Chewy and dense like a good meringue, yielding, sweet and doughy, strong in almond flavour and just one f the tastiest things I think I’ve ever eaten. Truly superb. Grab a handful of these and maybe some Bocconcini del nonno, cookies with nuts, and head back to your lodgings for a quick rest and a brew before later.
Now it’s time for the most important part of the day: dinner, or cena. Rome is full of fantastic restaurants and so is this area, but my favourite is Al Duello on the Vicollo della Vaccarella. This is a newly opened little gem that has managed to coax stubborn locals away from their old haunts to sample the husband and wife duo’s fare. I can credit this place solely with my present love of Ricotta. In England the Ricotta we get tends to be kind of vile. Either hard and a viable weapon for use in assaults, or crumbly and sour. The first time I ate here chef served me simply a whole ricotta cheese, with a chilli jam on the side and told me to believe and to eat it. A revelation. Who knew that ricotta could be so creamy, so complex. Soft, wonderfully textured, as smooth as silk.
This visit I dined on tortino di alici con broccoletti servitor con salsa al pecorino; rapini (or turnip greens) with anchovy, a pecorino sauce and a pecorino crisp. Modern techniques merging seamlessly with traditional, rustic Italian flavours. The original carbonara that awoke me to the dishes wonders, I always eat here. What can I say – it is perfect. If you’re a fan, maybe try the traditional variation of it with artichokes, rather than bacon. The smokiness of it works very well with the salty, pungent cheese. One additional highlight of this restaurant is its olive oil, produced by the chef’s uncle in Tuscany. It really is the lifeblood of this kitchen and its quality serenades you from each plate.
yummy homemade biscotti
Before bed take a stroll down the Via Della Maddalena and grab a gelato from the gelateria Della Palma. Its glass fronted cases hold over 150 different flavours ranging from the classic to the innovative. Chocolate fondant to pear & cheese. I usually settle for a compromise. Try their sesame e miele combination, sesame and honey; its similar to caramel and pecan and is always one of my top picks.
Scoffing it down
icecream selection – one of the cabinets
Meander, gelato in hand, down to the Piazza della Rotunda
and admire the evenings view from one of the square fringing cafes. As I said at the start, never order food but here is a good opportunity for a night cap. Be prepared to pay top whack for the view, but the staff can hardly mess up a grappa
and it is undeniably pretty.
Stuffed to the gills, sated and probably not walking in a wholly straight line, potter back to your lodgings and get some sleep. Rome has got so much more to offer tomorrow and so do I. My next blog checks out a new area and a whole new feast. Ciao belli.