Friday, July 5, 2013

Italia - Roma

Ah, Roma. By far my favorite place in Italia. Perhaps my favourite city in the world, which is quite a pronouncement. It is a sprawling city, with meandering alleys and grand avenues. Walking through Roma is like taking a trip through a history book. Turn a corner and you are suddenly at the Pantheon. Around another and you're at the Trevi fountain. Oh look, there's the Coliseum! Over there is the Vatican and some of the most amazing artwork in the world. But Roma is so much more than just a historical city. It is living, breathing, and eating.

There are amazing little trattorias and osterias on every piazza. And there is a piazza on seemingly every block. Pretty much anywhere two or more streets come together, the Romans will find room to set up some tables and start serving. And at those tables you will find startlingly good food.

Fresh off the train ride from Florence and I am hungry (and still a bit hung over from our epic meal last night). Before we start exploring we need a snack. As I said before, the pizza improves as you move south through Italia. In Roma the dough is getting thicker and the toppings are getting better. Here they bake the pizza in long rectangles and put all the different kinds on display for you.  You point to what you want and indicate how big a piece - they'll cut off that amount and weigh it. Pizza is sold by the kilo, not the slice or pie.  They fold your slice in half and wrap it in paper, perfect street food. And I have to say, this was the best pizza we had in all of Italia. Lovely bits of fennel sausage on a light and airy dough, with beautiful, deeply flavored red sauce and just a hint of melty mozzarella underneath.


artichoke fritter
I am a sucker for anything that comes from Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential was one of my favorite foodie books, and I've watched just about every episode of No Reservations.  No matter where he goes, he always manages to find a good place to drink and some kind of delicious pork product. His Roma episode was one of the best. Shot all in black & white, it is a love letter to the eternal city. I staked out a few of the places on his list - one of them was called Nonna Betta, in the Jewish ghetto section, famous for their carciofi (artichokes). 

artichoke carpaccio
It's a cool area of the city. All of a sudden the signs start turning to Hebrew, and there is a different feel to these blocks. You are still in Roma, but somehow transported to a more ancient tradition. Nonna's is bright and welcoming. There are seemingly too many servers for this small space, constantly whizzing by with plates of enticement. It is a kosher restaurant, so there are two menus - one for dairy and the other for meat. 

We started with some crispy fried artichoke fritters, cooked to a deep golden brown. Huge chunks inside, covered with just enough batter to keep them together. The carpaccio di carciofi, a plate of quickly blanched and thinly sliced artichokes, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil, then scattered with ribbons of pecorino and asparagus was one of the best vegetable dishes I've had.

An incredibly simple and wonderful plate of pasta - the carbonara with zucchini. Shreds of parmesano reggiano and ribbons of shaved, bright green zucchini. The cheese and pasta water mix to create a perfect sauce, just enough to dress the pasta and give it some salty tang. The squash is almost sweet and the grated cheese brings it all home. Every bite makes you close your eyes and appreciate all that is good in this world. This is a dish to be eaten s…l...o...w...e...l...y.  

Hiding under that bubbly layer of cheese are more artichokes. Baked in an earthenware clay pot that looks like it's as old as Roma. If you can manage to wait for it to cool to a non-molten state and not burn your mouth, you are treated to oh so tender hunks of artichokes smothered in a creamy mix of parmesan and mozzarella. 

Nonna Betta e il Giardino Romano
Via del Portico d'Ottavia, 16, Roma


Breakfast, Italiano style.  They don't do eggs and French toast here. It's a quick coffee or cappuccino, and maybe a pastry. We found a great little coffee bar just down the street from our hotel that we stopped at every morning.

Basically an Italian danish, filled with a sweet cheese something like mascarpone. And of course a perfect little cappuccino. It's only a couple euros for breakfast like this, which is a bargain in Roma. Plus you'll be doing enough eating throughout the day that you don't need anything huge. Save room for the pasta.

A proper coffee bar. Starbucks ain't got nothing on Italia.

On our second full day in Roma, we decided to leave the city all together and head towards the coast for a cooking class. Readers of this blog will know that this has become somewhat of a tradition for us. Every country we visit I seek out a cooking class to learn the local recipes and meet some people who actually live there. After much research we settled on Spicy Italian Life. It's an odd name, but they were half the price of anyone else, I suspect because they are not in the city proper. They picked us up from the metro station and drove us out to their family house by the sea. It is a family operation with a couple cousins, an aunt and grandparents all helping to teach, prepare food, cook & clean up. They have a little orchard in the back yard, fresh herbs that we picked for our class and a beautiful little outdoor kitchen.

We learned how to make bread from scratch and bruschetta with nothing but tomatoes and olive oil. They taught us fresh fettuccini & gnocchi (above), a basic tomato sauce, stuffed croissants with pancetta & asiago, and even tiramisu. Alessandro (the chef) is very passionate about local ingredients, organics, and not eating mass produced filler. She showed us the difference between a factory crushed flour and one that came from a small producer that still has the wheat germ. Guess which one is better for you? She also taught us how to taste olive oil (it's pretty funny looking), explained the different varieties and producers. Extra virgin is the only thing she cooks with. It should always come in a can (light is terrible for the oil) and be stored in a cool place. It's basically the same rules that apply to wine or beer. Be gentle with it.

And now we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor! A big Italian family meal with literally pounds of pasta, the bruschetta (above), fresh bread out of the oven, those little croissants, our tiramisu and of course lots of wine. I couldn't believe how much food there was. Every person there left with a food baby. It was basically a late lunch, but we didn't need dinner that night.

I absolutely love doing cooking classes when traveling abroad. There is no better way to learn a culture. When in Rome, look up the Spicy Italian Life crew and book a class.  


Our last great meal in Roma. One more Anthony Bourdain stop on the tour. Roma Sparita is "Restaurant X" in the episode, where he gets the cacio e pepe and compares it to his first sexual experiences and some of his best acid trips. I have to say that he was not exaggerating much. This is the best pasta I've ever had, and quite probably one of the best dishes I've eaten. Cacio e pepe is a deceptively simple dish - it only has 4 ingredients - pasta, butter, cheese, pepper.  You pour some pasta water into a pan of melted butter, toss in some pecorino romano & cracked pepper and let it melt together, then toss in the pasta.  Voila.

You can get this pasta all over Roma.  But Roma Sparita takes it up a notch by serving theirs in a crispy cheese bowl.  In a separate pan, they melt more of the pecorino romano until it starts bubbling, then let it cool and form it into a bowl.  So, as you eat the staggeringly good pasta, you get to nibble on hunks of crispy, salty, delicious cheese bowl. You're eyes will roll back in your head. If I ever took heroin, I imagine it would be something like this. You could definitely get addicted to this.

Roma Sparita
Piazza Santa Cecilia, 24, Roma


Unlike other cities we visited in Italia, I don't feel like we've "done " Roma. There always seems to be more to explore. Another monument to see. A new shop to check out. A different alley to wander down. Another trattoria to eat at. Roma feels like the kind of place that you could live all your life and never see it all. I don't know how you could come here and not fall in love with this city. It is the epicenter of western culture. It's where everything started, and you can feel that. All roads lead to Rome. And there is some incredible eating when you get there. Salute! 


  1. This sums it up for me: "I don't know how you could come here and not fall in love with this city." Yet somehow I still come across people who rave about Florence but don't get Rome. Really? That's a dealbreaker, ladies.

    BTW I think it is worth noting that the pizza you describe is one kind of Roman pizza - the takeout/cafe variety. If you go to a sit-down pizzaria, the pies are round, whole and paper-thin. Baffetto is my all time favorite, but Acchiappafantasmi ("Ghostbusters") is very good too.

    As for Roma Sparita's cacio e pepe, it is that good.

    Still kicking myself for walking through the ghetto and not getting a fried artichoke (We had just gotten lost and were in pissy moods.) Alas, a reason to return!

    1. Such an amazing city. I'll have to go back for the other pizza. hanks for reading Mike!