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Rome Restaurant Reviews
In Rome, the Eternal(ly culinarily conservative) City, simple yet joyously traditional cuisine reigns supreme. Most chefs prefer to follow the mantra of freshness over fuss, simplicity of flavor and preparation over complex cooking methods. Here, it’s always the old reliables everyone falls back on, the recipes time-tested by centuries of mammas that still manage to put meat on your bones and smiles on your faces.
Rome has been known since ancient times for its grand feasts and banquets, and though the days of the emperor's triclinium and the Saturnalia feasts are long past, dining out is still the Roman's favorite pastime. But even the city's buongustaii (gourmands) will be the first to tell you Rome is distinguished more by its good attitude toward eating out than by a multitude of world-class restaurants; simple, traditional cuisine reigns supreme.
It has been this way ever since the days of the Caesars. Today, you can still dine on a beef-and-citron stew that comes from an ancient recipe of Apicius, probably the first celebrity chef (to Emperor Tiberius) and cookbook author of the Western World. For the most part, today’s chefs cling to the traditional and excel at what has taken hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years to perfect. This is why the basic trattoria menu is more or less the same wherever you go. And it's why even the top Roman chefs feature their versions of simple trattoria classics like pasta all'amatriciana (pasta with a tomato, Roman bacon, chili pepper, and pecorino cheese sauce—sometimes with onion, although that's an issue of debate). To a great extent, Rome deliciously is still a town where the Italian equivalent of "what are you in the mood to eat?" translates to "pizza or pasta?"
La Cucina Romana
Hearty, unflinching, and proud, la cucina romana originates from all of the various geographic and cultural influences on the city over more than 2,000 years. This has led to an emphasis on meat, since Rome's Testaccio area was once a central zone for the butcher trade in this part of the country, resulting in some tongue-tingling "soul food"—the ubiquity of guanciale (cured pork jowl) in Roman pastas, as well as meat dishes like abacchio (baby lamb) and porchetta (roast pork).
From this grew the famed (or notorious) old-school Roman dishes of the quinto quarto, or "fifth quarter": offal and throw-away parts that were left after the butchers had sold the best cuts to paying customers. This gave birth to coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stewed with celery and tomatoes), pasta with pajata (baby lamb or calf intestines with the mother's milk still inside), coratella (a mix of lamb innards including heart), and trippa alla romana (tripe boiled in a savory tomato sauce).
But Roman cuisine takes as much from the sea as it does from land, as the Mediterranean—Ostia and Fiumicino being the closest towns—is only 25 kilometers (15 mi) from the city center. A variety of fish, including seabass, turbot, and gilthead bream, is served in local restaurants, cooked simply in the oven, on the grill, or baked in a salt crust. And crustaceans, from gamberetti (baby shrimp) to scampi (langoustines) to spiny lobster are served alongside a family of calamari, cuttlefish, octopus, and small and large versions of everything in between.
And the produce! Heading to an outdoor market anywhere in the city will educate you on exactly what is in season at the moment, and what the bounties of Italy, and particularly the Lazio region (where Rome is located) have to offer. Rome has always loved its greens, whether it's chicory or spinach or arugula, or dandelion, beet or broccoli greens. Not to mention beans (string, fava, and broad, to name a few), as well as squash, zucchini, pumpkins, broccoli, and agretti, a staunchly Roman green that resemble sturdy chives and taste more like spinach—if you ask for it outside of Rome, vendors will look at you as if you come from another planet.
Speaking of outside of Rome, the most delicious strawberries (and teeny, fragrant wild strawberries) of the region come from Nemi, a hill town in the Castelli Romani outside of the city. Rome in the summer has an abundance of stone fruits and seasonal treats (fresh plums, apricots, and figs are nothing like their dried counterparts and should be tasted to be believed), and great citrus in cooler months, like the sweet-tasting, beautiful blood oranges arriving daily from Sicily, which are often fresh-squeezed and served in tall glasses at Roman caffè.
Like the Florentines with their cuisine and the Milanese with theirs, Romans go out to eat expecting to "eat local." Forget about Thai stir-frys or Brazilian-style steaks, even the bollito (boiled meats) from Bologna or the cuttlefish risotto from Venice are regarded as “foreign” food. But Rome is the capital city, and the influx of immigrants from other regions of the country is enough to insure there are more variations on the Italian theme in Rome than you'd find anywhere else in the country: Sicilian, Tuscan, Pugliese, Bolognese, Marchegiano, Sardinian, and northern Italian regional cuisines are all represented. And, reflecting the increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the city, you'll find a growing number of good-quality international food here as well, particularly Japanese, Indian, and Ethiopian.
Oddly enough for a nation that prides itself on bella figura (“looking good”), most Romans don't care about the background music, other people's personal space, the lighting, or the fanfare of décor. After all, dining al fresco in Rome can place you smack dab in the middle of a glorious Baroque painting.
While the city has some pretty restaurants, and legendary ones that are noted for their historic surrounds—Romolo’s, Osteria del Orso, and the Casino Valadier pavilion in the Pincio park—you'll lose count of the osterias that have walls lined with cheap reproductions of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling or Raphael's cherubic angels. You'll have to overlook the garish lighting that illuminates pallid skin and every wrinkle and blemish you never knew you had.
The best, most legendary places are almost always overstuffed, with uncomfortable seating and harried service—and there are never enough menus to go around.
But if you can get past this, if you can look beyond the trappings as Romans do, you can eat like an emperor—or at least a well-fed member of the Roman working class—for very little money. Then, the comraderie and friendships and conversations that arise are just a bonus; it's not unusual to share wine with neighbors, or have a forkful of pasta offered to you by the old man sitting on his own at the next table (he probably eats here three times a week). You'll discover there is unmeasurable joy in allowing someone to fare una scarpetta (literally "make a little shoe," meaning to sop up sauce with a piece of bread) in your pasta bowl, if only for the satisfied grin on the person's face afterward.
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