The first day I arrived in Rome to meet my fellow crew members my motivation was starvation. However, most of my crew members were motivated by price and location. So, when I arrived at the hotel we walked a couple of blocks and ordered pizza at a sidewalk cafe. That 4-Euro Pizza Margherita tasted like a hundred dollar-steak and lobster dinner after an entire day of airplane food. Almost anything would have tasted like a feast at that point.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I had just eaten a meal that I would now rate as mediocre. Hey, but at the time I was jet lagged, starving and dealing with what seemed to be super pollen production of Roman proportions. I was congested and sneezing so how much could I really taste that pizza anyway?
One evening we ventured out to the Pantheon area of Rome, where the piazzas are lined with small cafes with what I call Italian Carnies. You can’t walk by a piazza restaurant without someone trying to hustle you into eating their pasta.
The first thing that I noticed was the menus were all basically the same, and seemed to cater to tourists. The second thing I noticed was that the prices were almost all the same, with few exceptions. I used the basic Pizza Margherita as my yardstick when looking at menus, and it almost always hovered around 4 Euro.
We randomly picked a place based on nothing other than the fact that we were tired of getting harassed by the Italian Carnies. I specifically remember ordering Spaghetti Vongole that night. And I specifically remember getting a plate full of spaghetti and three, yes three, tiny clam shells with little clams in them. At that point I knew I would never eat at a piazza near a major Roman monument again. It’s akin to eating at Denny’s.
The best sources for restaurant recommendations are taxi drivers, waiters, and people who have eaten their way through Italy before. If you take recommendations from friends, relatives and random people you meet on the plane, ask them to elaborate on the meals they’ve had at the establishments they’d recommend. I’d be much more likely to take the recommendation of someone who described a Tortelli di Zucca as “swimming in butter,” than I would someone who recommended a pizza that was “pretty good.”
One of the crew members had a list of recommendations she had gotten from someone on her flight over to Rome. One Sunday evening the two of us ventured out near the Trevi Fountain to look for a restaurant called Il Chianti. The person who recommended the restaurant had given only the following directions, “Stand facing the Trevi Fountain, walk down the street to the right, look for the restaurant on your left.”
We walked up and down what we thought was the right street but couldn’t find the restaurant, so we finally asked someone, who told us exactly where it was. Turns out we had walked by it several times and missed it because it was set back from the street a bit and there were very few people sitting outside. Not usually a good sign.
We noticed a waiter standing outside the entrance and approached him to ask for a table for two. “I’m sorry but we are closed on Sundays,” he said. “Drinks only.” This was my friend’s last night in Rome and she wasn’t going to get to try the one restaurant she really wanted to try. Then we got the brilliant idea to ask the waiter for a recommendation. He perked up immediately and said, “Piccolo Arancio. First small street on the right.”
You always have to wonder if a waiter or a taxi driver is recommending a place just because their cousin owns it, or if they are really pointing you to something wonderful. We were pretty sure this particular waiter was genuine, and we were willing to take a chance, so we walked up the street, turned onto the first little street on the right and found a sliver of a store front tucked away off the beaten path.
We were one of the first people seated, but it wasn’t long before the staff was fetching tables and chairs out of the storage room across the street to accommodate the constant flow of dinner guests. It was a quiet little street, thankfully absent of the constant flow of moped and motorcycle traffic you get on most streets in Rome.
I scanned the wine list and found exactly what I was looking for: a Banfi 2003 Brunello for Montalcino. I have my priorities.
The waiter brought the wine and a plate of fresh Parmesan to go with it. We ordered the bruschetta, which looked like a pile of freshly diced tomatoes until we cut into it and found the the warm thick slice of bread hiding underneath. My friend had the lasagna, which she rated as “fabulous” on a scale of Never Again to Outstanding. I had the Fusilli alla Malanzane (eggplant) which was simple and perfectly prepared. At the end of the meal we both agreed we had just experienced an Italian culinary orgasm.
The last of the crew members flew back to the U.S. the next day, so I was left to wander the streets of Rome on my own. I made my way back to the street just to the right of the Trevi Fountain, and back to Il Chianti for lunch. It was open, and the Tortelli di Zucca was indeed molto bene and swimming in butter.
Il Chianti – Piazza Fontana di Trevi 81 / 82a
Piccolo Arancio – Vicolo Scanderbeg, 112 00187 Rome, Italy