The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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My Rome Dining Cheat Sheet
February 9, 2017, updated on April 1, 2018 -- Because I'm frequently in Rome, folks naturally ask for dining tips. I'm happy to oblige, but there's a problem: My list is getting as thick as a phone book.
If you want a thick-as-a-phone-book compendium of Roman gastronomy, I commend you to the magnificent list maintained by Maureen Fant, whose writing in The New York Times informed my earliest trips to Rome. Maureen also has a knack for describing a restaurant's zeitgeist in a pithy phrase.
Instead, permit me to offer a cheat sheet for a few days in the Eternal City, which, by the way, does not have an eternal dining scene. I own a Gourmet magazine guide from 1971 and virtually all of the places mentioned are gone. Ditto for the Pan Am-fronted guide from 1972. But you're a business traveler: You know better than to take food tips from dead airlines, right?
MY FIRST STOPS
I'd never tell you that you "must" visit this place or that. But I will tell you where I "must" go in Rome. When I arrive, I get to my apartment or hotel, shower the travel off me and then head for a late lunch at Cul de Sac. It is one of Rome's original wine bars and still one of the best. Its wine list is a book-length read. The fresh cheeses and salumi are always spot on (left) and folks like the lasagna and housemade pates. I'm fond of topik, a chick-pea terrine; Nduja, spicy, spreadable sausage from Calabria; and cream of red lentil soup. Cul de Sac opens nonstop from 11 a.m., a rarity in Rome, so that's why I go for late (post-3 p.m.) lunches, when the place is quiet, I can score an outdoor table and savor a few Frascati Superiore. ... My other Roman "must?" Pizza rossa from Urbino in Piazza Costaguti. Urbino's pizza rossa is my breakfast every day in Rome. Period. (Well, period with a side of fior di latte.)
AROUND THE PIAZZA NAVONA
Just a few steps up the Via Governo Vecchio from Cul de Sac is Gino e Pietro (Number 106 at the corner of Vicolo Savelli; phone: +39 06 686 1576). If you want pasta, come to this unassuming, family-owned spot. Even after a renovation, it still qualifies as "homely" in the best sense. Daily pasta offerings are all housemade. Nice risotto, too. Prices are inexpensive given the location.
NEAR THE CAMPO DEI FIORI
Try Emma for top-notch pizza, but also excellent Roman pastas and great salamis and cheeses. ... Ditirambo is fabulous: artisan salumi, fine pastas, creative entrees and excellent desserts. But reservations are a must and you'll wait anyway. ... Pesce Fritti is very Godfather, as in "more Greek than Italian," as Michael said about Apollonia. The fish is great and the fried appetizers are perfectly done and wrapped in brown-paper cones.
NEAR THE LARGO ARGENTINA
Try Sant'Anna, hidden down a small side street. The antipasto "buffet" selection is very nice and makes an excellent starter for two. There is a fairly priced wine list. Pastas are good, so is the risotto. Fish is a specialty and let the chef decide how to prepare it.
Try Matricianella, a lively trattoria popular with government types. Traditional Roman menu with the expected pastas, lamb and artichokes. Matricianella's fritto misto, a mix of vegetables, mozzarella and potato croquets fried in batter, is light and delicious. Try the amazing fried ricotta (ricotta fritta). The radicchio risotto is also very tasty.
IN THE ROMAN GHETTO
Try Nonna Betta for classic Roman-Jewish cuisine. Wonderful, straight-up dishes done right. Artichokes, of course, but the pastas and main courses are excellent, too. ... Ba'Ghetto Milky is one of three newish places that cross Middle East cooking with classic Roman Kosher. The mix is intriguing and this branch is a favorite of young Roman families. ... At first glance, Beppe e i suoi fromaggi looks like a Roman cheese shop, which it is. But for lunch and/or a light dinner, you can indulge in wonderful salumi, cheeses and nice wines. It also does a tasty, untraditional breakfast.
AROUND THE PANTHEON
Try Armando al Pantheon, one of the classic trattorie of Rome. All the dishes are models of what classic Roman cuisine should be. The trick? You'll need a reservation for lunch or dinner and the place is now wildly popular with the tourist set. ... Grano is as modern as Armando is classic. You'll recognize the food as totally Roman, but totally 2017 instead of 1917.
NEAR THE SPANISH STEPS
Try Ristorante 34 just off the Via Condotti at the foot of the steps. Great grilled items and polished staff. Prices are higher and reservations are a must.
Try Perilli, the kind of place where locals have eaten for generations. The pastas are fabulous and main courses such as sausage and beans are superlative. If you want to feel like a local, you come here. ... Checchino dal 1887 is Rome's classic place for offal. But the meats are fine, too. (Testaccio is the city's former meat packing district.)
NEAR THE TRAIN STATION (TERMINI)
On the Via Marsala side of this sprawling terminus, try Da Nazzareno (Via Magenta, 35; phone: +39 06 495 7782) because it is the kind of place where Romans love to eat night after night. Great antipasto buffet followed by perfectly done classic pastas and Roman main dishes. ... Alternately, try the Mercato Centrale food hall that has opened on the Via Giolitti side of Termini. (If you're already inside the station, walk through the Coin department store to reach the complex.) You'll find a pizza outlet fronted by Gabriele Bonci, Rome's pizza-maker of the moment. You will also find a branch of Il Trapizzino, the Roman food fad of the moment. There is a sit-down restaurant upstairs and stalls selling everything from burgers and ramen to panini to salads. It's quickly turned into the upscale dining and entertaining hub of the gritty Esquilino neighborhood that surrounds the station.
AROUND THE VATICAN
Nothing bores me more than this part of town and the dining is notoriously uninteresting, too. But try Nuraghe Sardo. It is probably the best Sardinian restaurant in Rome. Sardinian food is heavily based on fish. Its pastas are unique, too. And its flatbread (usually scented with rosemary) is wonderful. ... Or if you're not already tired of the long Vatican lines, wander over to Pizzarium, the font of the aforementioned Bonci's success. You'll wait on long lines here, too, but the payoff (pizza with very creative toppings) is better.
NEAR THE COLISSEUM
Try Enoteca Cavour 313, another of Rome's justly beloved wine bars. Hundreds of bottles to taste with a polished kitchen to go with the salumi and cheeses. ... Taverna Romana does home-style Roman cooking in a small, atmospheric dining room. Excellent pastas, grilled lamb chops and meatballs.
For reasons that confound even me, I rarely dine in Trastevere, which sloppy travel writers somewhat inaccurately call the "place where Romans really live." You've undoubtedly heard about Roma Sparita because Anthony Bourdain raved about its cacio e pepe. It's too crowded with tourists now and the cacio e pepe is too salty. If you really want to eat well, head to Suppli, an honest-to-goodness hole in the wall that draws throngs of locals to its side-street location. Pizzas and pastas are excellent, but the stars are fried morsels: suppli, Roman rice balls; zucchini flowers stuffed with anchovy and mozzarella; baccalà, Italian salt cod; and the cheesy croquettes.
PIZZA AS A MEAL
If you crave pizza, please consult my treatise on the topic. Pizza has its own chapter in my When In Rome series.
NOTABLE DESTINATION RESTAURANTS
If you're looking for the ultimo of Roman dining, try these two places. You'll pay lots, but the experiences will be unique.
LA PERGOLA is Rome's best, nestled in the Waldorf Astoria Cavalieri and fronted by a German chef named Heinz Beck. The prices are as high as the views from the patio, but the dining is divine. It's a kind of bucket-list place, so you must have reservations months ahead. And do not assume residency at the hotel will guarantee a table.
ANTICO ARCO is on the Janiculum Hill and you'll need a cab and a reservation. But this polished place offers uniquely local but extraordinarily creative dining. Everything is done to a turn. And I believe the best thing I've ever put in my mouth anywhere in the world is Antico Arco's ultra-creamy, ultra-rich cacio e pepe with zucchini flowers.
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