A chef once insisted to me that you can’t get a bad meal in Italy, showing the kind of hubris that the gods love to smite. More than once during my recent trip, they conspired to prove him wrong, most spectacularly at a highly recommended place in Rome, where I watched the chef go down in flames. No, really: he was actually setting things on fire. Ironically, he sent from his inferno plates of half-raw pasta and cold, greasy tongue, which was, admittedly, very good for making people laugh by pretending to make out with it. Dinner was painful that night, though I suppose better than being forced to fight a Hydra or something.
It’s important to remember that there is no place where all the food is always amazing. I think that’s ok. That’s part of the deal. It’s important to take it all with grace; we’re guests. That said, of course, there were places where I had remarkable food that I want to tell you about.
If you’re into dudes, or if you’re traveling with people who are into dudes, it will be especially easy to enjoy Trattoria Monti (Via San Vito, 13/a Roma Tel. 06.4466573), where the waiters are charming and good looking, resemble one another, and yet represent totally different versions of masculinity. It’s as if Jude Law, Clive Owen, and Zac Efron were brothers, and Mama’s in the kitchen making ravioli filled with sea bass, as convincing an argument as there ever was for putting together fish, butter, and tomatoes. Meanwhile, I took advantage of my friends’ swooning distraction to sneak three or four extra bites of tortellone, an enormous raviolo of sorts, oozing orange egg yolk and covered with truffles. The secondi were a bit disappointing after the phenomenal pasta, but… you know, I just can’t think of a joke about meat funny enough to be worth making here.
But speaking of meat, get thee to a gastronomia, essentially a high-level deli. Probably any gastronomia will do, but at Volpetti (Via Marmorata, 47 Roma Tel. 06.5742352), in the former butcher’s neighborhood of Testaccio, within minutes of your arrival someone will be plying you with a slice of cheese he just cut, or maybe a piece of Cinta Senese prosciutto, its flavor briskly salty and then beguilingly sweet. It wasn’t long before they built up such a reservoir of trust that the salesman started pulling jars of tomatoes, artichokes, whatever, from the shelf and I was just saying, “Si,” without even looking at it. PLUS, here’s a real word to the wise: I know you’re in Italy and the prosciutto is incredible, but remember that you’re also in Europe, and in Europe, you can get Spanish jamón Ibérico. The stuff is so nutty, so buttery, so mouth-filling with mellow, blooming flavor, funky and round. If you ever hear a man in a butcher’s apron say the words “jamón Ibérico,” you follow him and do whatever he says.
A few blocks away, in the Testaccio market, you can find my friend Winnie’s Tomato Guy, Carmelo D’Agostino, who runs the Il Pomodoro (Piazza Testaccio – Tel. 333.7952084) stall, loaded with dozens of types. It doesn’t take much mastery of the language to get him to pick out a kilo or so of mixed specimens, from candy-sweet to earthy and umamilicious. My love of the tomato is well documented, so I’ll spare you from my pro-tomato blather, but be assured that Mr. D’Agostino will make you happy. And if he doesn’t, email me and I will come take those tomatoes off your hands.
We went back to Volpetti to ask for advice on where to eat, which is not a bad strategy for getting around. They pointed us next door to Perilli (Via Marmorata, 39 Roma Tel. 06.5742415), assuring us that it is “very typically Roman,” and we there we found ourselves sitting among fusty ceramic bowls, each big enough to fit your head, the pastas within them equally dowdy looking. They didn’t have a speck of garnish, not a dusting of pepper or a sprinkle of parsley, utterly monochrome and wonderfully straightforward. The carbonara tasted purely of guanciale, cheese, rich eggs, black pepper, and wheat. This is cooking of confidence and tradition. And yet, the sauce that came with an involtini of beef was so stunning I almost didn’t want to eat it. Bite after bite, overwhelmed by its goodness, I lost focus. But every time I came back to it after a minute of rest, the garlic, tomato, and sweetly nutty peas reasserted themselves. For a moment, their flavors were weighty and clear before dissolving back into a delicious murk.
And it was experiences like this that were often the most exciting and satisfying I had while traveling, the neighborhood places you come across, not the destinations I read about in guides. The bowl of strawberries that a corner espresso bar just happened to have. A piece of lettuce, sweet and crisp and pleasingly bitter, stuffed unceremoniously into a sandwich at a bakery. It’s the regular stuff that tastes good, the regular stuff that convinces you of what life might be like here.