Posted on Tuesday, 9th October 2012
After Naples I made tracks to Rome. The wealth of research out there on Roman restaurants is staggering and it would take months to eat at all of them to work out the truly good ones from the not so great. So if you do go to Rome, it’s best to do your research and then hope that your picks are for the best. Anyway here is my round up of five of the mid-range restaurants I tried, some of which proved better than others.
PRIMO AL PIGNETO
Primo al Pigneto was an absolute cracking find. Located in the new grungy/trendy area between via Casilina and via Prenestina in the South East of Rome and away from the tourist hordes of centro storico, it means you have to travel a little. But I assure you the travel was well worth it.
A little taster of a deep-fried meat ball (veal and beef) was amazingly flavoursome. This was followed by a generous starter of warm tagliolini tossed with raw sea bass, lemon peel, coriander and parsley (€15) that was also fabulous. Fresh and aromatic, the fish had been combined in such a way so as to let its freshness sing. Lightly cooked veg of carrots and cucumber running through the noodles gave the dish a hint of crunch.
The main of fillet of beef (€22) was glorious. Wonderfully cooked to medium rare, it was perfectly seasoned with hints of truffle on the side. To finish was the lightest of thyme mash and some sweet fatty marrow.
Dessert of tiramisu in a chocolate shell with Atlantic sea salt (€6.50) didn’t quite hit the same high notes. It was good, but there was no decadence of alcohol to really pack a punch and the salty flavour was somewhat lacking.
There was something incredibly endearing about this restaurant. In the vein of a modern trattoria – the food was polished, well executed and cleverly constructed. The restaurant was casual, comfortable and inviting – what a find.
Price range: About €50 for three courses per head. Excludes drinks and service.
Roscioli offers a fabulous selection of salamis and cheeses, but they also boast a rather delicious sounding contemporary menu that was both extensive and varied. You name it, fish, meat, pasta, salamis etc. As an add on to the restaurant, the front section operates as a deli area selling specialty salamis, cheeses and breads to the public.
We kicked off with some home baked bread. Most restaurants charge for bread in Rome, and on occasions when it hasn’t seemed worthwhile I have declined it. But this bread basket (€3) with focaccia and other breads was hard to resist for it was really good.
A starter of hamburger di mozzarella (€14) was a knockout. Layers of buffalo mozzarella from Paestum with grilled Praga ham on toasted bread and drizzled with a rich sweetened balsamic vinegar made for something giddily good. The quality of this dish won my heart.
Spaghetti carbonara (€15) was perhaps less successful. It was reasonably tasty, but did not wow, and the saltiness of the ham with the parmesan made this dish a touch too salty.
The staff wasn’t all that friendly, but with dishes of the quality of the mozzarella and Praga hamburger, Roscioli has proven that it has much to offer the discerning diner. The menu was also very extensive. One need not even have a main – you could just go and nibble on some quality cold cuts. The vibe was buzzy and eclectic. One of the better choices around touristy Campo di Fiore.
Price range: About €35 to €65 for three courses per head. Excludes drinks and service.
Spirito Divino won me as a fan when, after having wandered around Rome for a couple of hours trying to secure a decent table on a Friday night (note to reader: you must book in Rome on a Friday night), they decided to take me in even though they didn’t have a table free either. As I was a wee bit grumpy by this point, they then proceeded to give me a free glass of wine so ‘ I wasn’t waiting for no reason’, feed me, and then not charge me even at my insistence that I pay. How was that for hospitality?
But there is more to this restaurant then it’s charm. A family run restaurant, it has an interesting background in that the matriarch chef Eliana Catalani use to hold down a career working with Nobel peace prize winner Rita Levi Montalcini before turning her hand to the kitchen.
Also interesting is that Spirito Divino is a member of the Slow Food Movement and uses only organic produce. Everything is home made and there was a certainly quirkiness to its menu which included a slow cooked pork shoulder prepared according to an ancient recipe of Gaius Matius who was a cook of Julius Caesar.
Cooked with apples, onions, honey, vinegar, red wine and spices, it also relied on fish sauce for seasoning instead of salt. Although it was reasonably tasty, it was perhaps not quite as intriguing in flavour as it sounded, and it lacked for some sides such as veg to round off the dish. Homemade tagliatelle with ricotta and truffle was creamy and rustic.
On the whole the food was good in a homely kind of way. It wasn’t a mind-blowing meal, but Spirito Divino gave me fond memories nonetheless.
Price range: About €35 for three courses per head. Excludes drinks and service.
Ditirambo has some interesting and diverse choices including a reasonable amount of veggie (and very cheesy) options. They also dabble in regional specialties including the likes of Calabrian aubergine and Piedmont beef tartare.
Given the variety of choices, the tasting plates provide a good way to try lots of dishes. Take the trio of starters which included smoked duck breast with melon and almonds, Piedmont beef tartare with truffle oil and Castelmagno cheese, and zucchini flower with ricotta (€15). The smokiness of the meaty duck really worked with the sweetness of the melon, and the truffle added aroma to the beef, although the zucchini with the ricotta proved dull.
Another tasting plate included the vegetarian appetisers of the day (€14), which included the house specialty of crispy potatoes with cheese fondue and truffle that was comfortingly good. There was also a tasty aubergine roll, although the deep-fried aubergine with cheese and zucchini parmigiana in batter were both a touch oily and heavy.
A Piedmontese dessert of bonet (€6.50), an eggy, milky set pudding with macaroons and cocoa was beautifully made.
The cooking was heartfelt and tasty if a little rich and stodgy. It’s not the most refined food, but there was diversity in the menu and some nice cooking to be had. Mains and pastas were generously sized and prices were reasonable. The waiting staff were nice too, and the setting is casual, cozy and welcoming. A reasonable choice around touristy Campo di Fiore.
Price range: About €40 for three courses per head. Excludes drinks and service.
Colline Emiliane is one of those Roman restaurants that has obtained a status in local food guides as being a ‘go-to’ restaurant, helped in part by a high rating in Zagats and a good write-up in the New York Times. With it’s location near the Trevi Fountain, you can be assured of lots of tourists.
But truth be told, I found it difficult to understand all the fuss. The restaurant is indeed very charming and looks every bit the traditional trattoria, but the food lacked soul.
Beef (proclaimed as fillet) carpaccio with rocket and parmesan (€17) was cut too thick to be considered decent. It was also a bit too chewy in a way that fillet beef shouldn’t be. This was an ill-prepared dish.
Slow-cooked leg of veal (€18) with a cream sauce and mashed potatoes was reasonably tasty if a little stodgy.
A simple dish of ceps, roasted with nothing else, was beautifully sweet. But €25 for a small portion was steep, and I think its tastiness was more a reflection of the quality of the ceps than the cooking.
Desserts of lemon meringue and a ricotta cheesecake (€7) both bore a weird texture and tasted artificial. The lemon meringue looked to have colouring in it and it hadn’t been set properly such that it collapsed on the plate. These were the kind of desserts you’d expect from a bad canteen.
Colline Emiliane was founded in 1931, and I imagine back in the day it may have been a solid, local restaurant. But too much hype has created a certain popularity that has led to many tourists and I suspect a complacency and a drop in standards.
So I mention this restaurant as a place not to go should you come across it in your research of restaurants in Rome. Ok, it wasn’t really that bad – the ceps were stunning, albeit expensive. But it didn’t live up to the hype, it wasn’t that cheap and you can simply get better elsewhere.
Price range: About €50 for three courses per head. Excludes drinks and service.