Between my Return to the Pizza Belt and the experience that was Nennella’s, you’ve hopefully gotten a good taste of Naples (which I was surprised to learn was the second most populous city in the country). In what is likely to be my penultimate post about Italy (not sure if you’ll be happy or sad about that), let’s talk about Rome (which surprisingly is not the most populous city!).
The most important thing, and maybe the only thing, to keep in mind when reading this is that when it comes to a meal, time is no object. Unless it’s 6pm and you’re trying to eat an early dinner, in which case good luck finding something that’s open. Meals can and will last for hours. Though, even after all that time and with a line of hungry customers out front, you’re still going to have to be the one to ask for the check. It’s an approach to a dining experience that I’ve come to appreciate a great deal since the days when my family would (and still do) judge a restaurant partly on its ability to get us in, seated, served and out the door in 45 minutes or less. That, and whether they gave us a basket of bread or not.
I don’t think I could have had dinner in less than 45 minutes in Rome even if the staff all started their shifts with 4 shots of caffeine. But, I wouldn’t want to. Sitting outside on the street with delicious food on the table, wine in your glass and friends at your side as the sun goes down, it’s hard to imagine any place better. Anyway, with that said, let’s talk about the food.
I’m very well acquainted with all of the standard Italian-American dishes, and even for that matter many of the Italian-Italian dishes. There were certain foods that I knew I needed to try, and certain dishes that I was going to steer clear of (I’m looking at you chicken parmigiana). One of the former was a Caprese salad. I usually see the word salad and run away screaming, but I love a good Caprese salad. It’s simple. About as simple as you can get. Tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil all topped with a splash of olive oil and aged balsamic. It’s proof that you don’t need a lot fancy ingredients or spices to make fantastic food. The trouble, though I don’t feel comfortable calling it that, with such a simple dish is that there is no covering up poor ingredients. If any one of the ingredients isn’t fresh, the whole thing is ruined. Fortunately, the Caprese I had at Mamma Angelina’s, had some of the ripest and freshest tomatoes I’ve seen outside of those I’ve picked from the vine myself. And, the basil and the mozzarella were just as good! It makes me think there might be hope for salad yet.
The funny thing about a dish like this, and about images of Italian cuisine in general, is that the tomato is not native to Italy. If that wasn’t enough, neither is pasta. Nowhere in Europe could you find a tomato before European explorers started bringing the then exotic food back from the New World. Pasta too was inspired by Asian noodles (though not necessarily thanks to Marco Polo as the story goes). But then that’s the beauty of food culture; taking an ingredient from one part of the world, mixing it with ingredients from another and cooking it according to yet another region’s culinary traditions. It’s why we have many of the dishes we have today. But, I digress.
I mentioned previously that getting an early dinner (anything before 7pm) was next to impossible in Rome. Most places close after lunch and don’t open back up until 7pm. When you’ve got 30 minutes to kill before dinner, what do you usually do? Go to a bar and get a drink. Good luck with that! The Italians could definitely learn from the Irish about the appeal of the public house. With great, cheap wine at every corner, the beer scene in Italy has definitely played second fiddle. We did find one place, that surprisingly enough, was a Pittsburgh Steeler’s bar, owned by an Italian, in the heart of Rome. La Botticella, as you can see by the sign out front, certainly caters to an American crowd, but as I mentioned the owner is Italian, and is very passionate about his beer. Before traveling to Italy, the only Italian beer I had ever tasted, or for that matter heard of, was Peroni (which if I’m being honest, is not one of my favorite beers). La Botticella, with its selection of Italian craft beers (who even knew that was a thing), showed that there is an Italian beer scene, and although small, it is growing. I had a stout and an IPA, both brewed by Moretti (not quite a microbrew, its actually owned by Heineken) which I would consider on par with any beer outside of Ireland or Germany.
After killing some time, places were now starting to open for dinner. Second on the list of dishes I had to try was a whole roasted fish. Fortunately for me, Da Francesco’s was happy to oblige. We started with a focaccia topped with basil, sun dried cherry tomatoes and burrata. I’m convinced that fresh basil makes everything taste better. And the burrata… It’s fresh mozzarella (which is NOTHING like the stuff you’re probably used to seeing at the supermarket to begin with) and add cream. If that sounds delicious, its because it is.
The first real course was split between ravioli and black truffle linguine. I’ll be honest, it’s going on three weeks now and I’m having a hard time remembering what these dishes tasted like. Maybe I should start writing this stuff down?Finally, I got to my whole fish:
There’s something very satisfying about having an entire fish on your plate. Sure, it looks a little glutinous, but then hey, fish is good for you. Along with the fish (which I believe was a trout), were some mussels. It’s time’s like these you are glad the wait staff isn’t rushing you along.
About 25 minutes later, I finally finished. I must say, I’m pretty proud of the job I did. It looks like one of the fish bones you see a cat playing with in a cartoon. All, in all, I think this meal took about 3 hours from start to finish. And we still had to ask for the check when we were done.
Saving the best for last, the third thing I had to try was fresh, homemade pasta. As a proud owner of a pasta machine, I love homemade pasta. Dried pasta is good in a pinch, but there’s no comparison when you have the option of using homemade. Most places we ate had homemade pasta, but few of them had an old Italian lady out front making the pasta for everyone to see. Osteria da Fortunata did.
Up to this point, I had had pasta as a first course with just about every meal. By this time though, I was ready for pasta followed by pasta. The first pasta course gnocchi pomodoro, fettuccine carbonara, and sciavatelli arrabbiata (spicy tomato sauce). I expected to like the sciavatelli arrabbiata the best, but the carbonara with its crispy bacon and delicious cream sauce took the prize for this course. The pasta all tasted phenomenally fresh, and the sauces complimented the taste of the pasta perfectly.
Second course was more pasta! This time it was fettucine sugo di coda (oxtail in tomato sauce) and strozzapreti with bacon, vegetables and a light cream sauce (forget the fancy Italian name). The oxtail was fantastic!! I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one, but it was delicious. The sauce itself was a basic tomato sauce, but the oxtail itself had a great taste and went very well with the pasta.
Last, but not least, dessert. I’m not a big dessert person. I’d rather fill up on the savory stuff than save room for the sweet stuff, but some of the desserts that were coming out at this place were too good looking to resist. I went with the chocolate and ricotta cake.
When it first came out I got a little worried. It looked a lot like a regular chessecake, and I do not like regular cheesecakes. But then I took a bite and realized I had nothing to worry about. It is essentially the filling of a cannoli, turned into a cake, covered in rich, delicious chocolate and powdered sugar. I’m not usually much of a dessert person, but this was one I’m glad I didn’t skip!
As a P.S. I wanted to give out an award for the most surprisingly enjoyable food I ate all trip. It was a prepackaged sandwich, from a carnival type food trailer right outside of the Coliseum (this same booth seemingly followed me everywhere I went. It, or one just like it, reappeared outside every tourist attraction you can think of). It shouldn’t be good, it couldn’t be good I thought to myself as I reluctantly parted ways with €7.
I’ll tell you what, that sandwich hit the spot. A little mozzarella, a little pepperoni on a nice soft piece of bread – boy was I shocked! Sure, I was hungry and maybe my expectations couldn’t have gone any lower, but the first couple bites into that sandwich surprised me as much as any fancier dish ever has. So here’s to you, pre-packaged sandwich, you deserve it!
That just about wraps up my eats and adventures in Italy. There’s one stop left though, and it turns out to be what is actually the most populous city in the country. Whether you believe it or not, it’s Milan. Milan was a bit different from Naples or Rome. I didn’t try any trattorias or enotecas or osterias or ristorantes there. I tried an Expo, but I’ll get to that another time…