If you read our desultory food interview, Chewing the Fat, Italy is by far the most popular answer when we ask people to name their favorite food country from their travels. It’s a carb-lovers paradise—the home of pizza and pasta!—and we intended to eat very well during our two weeks in the country; I probably gained five pounds just planning our eating itinerary, and it’s safe to say that from a culinary perspective, there was no country during our jaunt through Europe that we were more eagerly anticipating. Our expectations were sky high.
Well. You know what they say about expectations…
At the risk of losing all of my foodie cred, I must admit that when I think back on the food we actually ate in Italy, I feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction and frustration. It was a country ripe with promise, where we were certain every dish would be a grand slam. I’ve always known the cuisine was one that prized bold but simple flavors, where recipes were handed down through the generations and each dish was meant to celebrate the purity and beauty of the component ingredients. I couldn’t wait to tantalize my tastebuds with pure, unadulterated Italian cuisine.
And yet. Meal after meal in Rome, we’d slump from the restaurant, shoulders stooped in a posture of disheartened defeat as we left another lackluster dining experience in our wake. Back home, we always had a hard & fast rule that we would never go out to Italian restaurants because I reasoned that I could make the same food (or better) at home for a fraction of the price. You can imagine how much it hurt when time and again we came to the same conclusion in the motherland.
Our angsty relationship with Italian cooking reached its apex (or, depending on how you look at it, nadir) in Rome. It’s long been accepted that Italy’s capital city is choked with tourist trap restaurants dishing up insulting slop to uneducated masses who will unquestioningly proclaim a meal fantastic using the infallible logic that because they are eating Italian food in Italy, it must be good. I did my research, poring over renowned local food blogs and the food posts of other Romaphiles so that we could make the most of our five days in the city and seek out the best food that we could for our budget. I didn’t just research where to eat, I also made a list of what we should order where, because apparently even the best Roman restaurants are notorious for doing just a few things well and all sympathies to the sucker who orders blindly when in Rome.
Hardly the glowing intro to a food post, I know, but at least some of these dishes photographed well? And if nothing else, maybe this post will serve to temper others’ expectations when visiting Rome…
Our first meal in Rome was at Pastificio, a pasta shop that masquerades as a bare bones eatery at lunch time. Located on a quiet side street near the Spanish Steps, it floods with hungry locals at 1pm who come for the magnificent lunch special: as the sign out front amusingly proclaims, €4 gets you a heaping portion of either of the two pastas of the day (one vegetarian, one meaty), a fork, a plate, a napkin, and unlimited tap water. It’s the opposite of fancy—you eat standing up at a counters around the shop—but it is cheap… I daresay that gelato aside, it’s one of the cheapest meals you can get in Rome. And, despite my preliminary grousing, it’s actually pretty tasty (if not mind-blowingly so). On the day we visited, we got a plate of carbonara (pasta slathered in a cheesy egg-based sauce, punctuated with crispy nuggets of guanciale ham) and a plate of the pomodoro (basic tomato sauce). As would befit a pasta shop, the pasta was top notch, particularly impressive on the pomodoro (though the sauce itself was nothing special). Overall, the carbonara was the clear champion of the two, though Tony loyally declared that he prefers my version. If you’re lunching in Rome, eat here; the food is solid and for €4, you can’t really complain.
In something of a carb coma, that evening we were in the market for a lighter repast. Because we are North Americans through and through, we could never get used to having dinner at 8pm or later like most Italians seem to prefer, so we quickly discovered the ideal solution for hungry budget travelers: aperitivos! Like the equivalent of American Happy Hours (only better), many bars and restaurants in Italy offer aperitivos, where a boozey drink is often accompanied by nibblies. If you do your research, however, you’ll learn that some places go all out and offer full buffet spreads with any drink purchase. Our wanderings brought us to the trendy district of Trastavere where we found the hipster paradise known as Freni e Frizione, an old mechanic shop that has been converted into a trendy cocktail bar and famed for its vegetarian aperitivo buffet. Tony ordered a bourbon and I went with the irresistable Scottish Fold, a delightful concoction of Apple Juice, Green Tea Infused Sugar, Lemon Juice, Gin and St. Germain. For less than €20, we filled our bellies and got pleasantly sloshed. The drinks are clearly the big pull here as the buffet dishes were rather hit or miss, but view the food as merely something to soak up the booze at a place Romans go to see & be seen and you’ve got the right idea. (Additional resources: Rome’s best aperitivo spots.)
No trip to Italy would be complete without copious quantities of pizza, and Rome seemed as good a place to indulge as any. The city is somewhat famous for this cheap and portable snack, as you can barely walk a block without passing a shop that sells it by the slice (known as pizza al taglio). What constitutes a slice varies—some places sell them pre-cut, but in others you’ll specify the weight—but all of these shops will have a wide variety of toppings on offer, from minimalist Margheritas to more elaborate offerings. There are countless lists offering up the city’s best al taglio joints and unlike gelato in Florence we didn’t make it our mission to thoroughly investigate those claims. All I can say is that our favorite pizza in Rome was found at Pinsere, not strictly an al taglio joint, but of a similar enough style. Pinsere is a little shop beloved by backpackers that is tucked in the back alleys around Termini train station. The guys behind the counter were friendly and enthusiastic, and we dug their innovative flavor combinations: We split an order of fig & blue cheese, and spicy pepper & olive. It should be noted that the spicy pizza was not in the least bit fiery, but then again, nothing we had anywhere in Italy that claimed to be spicy ever was, so that probably shouldn’t be held against them.
We popped into another random shop on our last day in Rome where we got some slices of Margherita pizza (mozarella, tomato & basil), eggplant (good, but would have been even better if it had been hot), and potato pizza (meh… a Roman standard, but quite starchy and tasted akin to cardboard) and ate them al fresco in a rather dodgy neighborhood. Nothing fancy or exciting, but a hell of a lot better than the scuzzy pizzas we picked up at a shop just around the corner from the apartment we were staying in…
I had always believed that there wasn’t really such a thing as bad pizza, but… this was bad pizza. Come on. Just looking at it you can tell that’s not good pizza!
At this point, you are probably wondering why I was so crotchety in my intro since nothing I’ve shared up to this point has been abysmal. Well folks, those were really the highlights (save for two more, I’m saving for the end!). Now things get a bit grim. One afternoon Tony and I ventured over to the Testaccio neighborhood, an old-school Roman neighborhood known for its cheap eats and air of hardscrabble raucousness. We headed to the market to try the much-touted Mordi e Vai, a stall that serves up classic Roman secondis in sandwich form. We ordered the panino con l’allesso, essentially slow-cooked pulled beef, which looked absolutely lush… and tasted like mush. Pap. Pablum. Whatever you want to call it, this sandwich tasted like sadness.
Still hungry and not to be deterred, we prowled a couple of streets over to Trapizzino (also called 00100, it would seem) for their namesake dish: the trapizzino. It’s essentially a pita pocket made up of focaccia bread and stuffed with various carnivorous fillings. Tony got the polpetta al sugo (essentially meatballs in marinara sauce), which tasted like a delicious meatball sub (as you might expect). I ordered the lingua in salsa verde (essentially, tongue in green sauce) because when have I ever seen tongue on a menu and not ordered it? Sadly, the tongue was reminiscent of the lampredotto (tripe sandwich) we had in Florence, which is to say, utterly flavorless. I ate my trapizzino in something of a daze, musing after each bite that I didn’t know it was possible to make tongue taste so utterly unlike anything.
We also ordered a suppli, essentially a oozing ball of leftover risotto and cheese that has been breaded and fried. At this point a tour group came into the shop and I sort of eavesdropped on the guide as she explained the origins of suppli and what makes the ones at Trapizzino so special; if memory serves, the ones at Trapizzino are a bit scandalous because they are not filled with a tomatoey meat sauce, but are instead just cheese, rice and other little tidbits like asparagus. I don’t know what to tell you—you deep fry anything and it’s going to be better than if you hadn’t, and that rule seems to hold true here too. This suppli was good, but not the best iteration of “deep-fried thing” I have ever had.
Feeling a bit bereft by the utter lack of exceptional food we had been sampling in Rome, we decided to go big and splash out on a guaranteed good meal. Based on several “best restaurants in Rome” articles, I actually went to the lengths of making a reservation in Italian (thanks, Google translate!) so that we could dine at Osteria Bonelli. Apparently this is a locals-only place that serves remarkable food at surprisingly low prices, so we decided to give it a shot.
Alas, the best part about our meal was the hilarity that ensued when I tried to make a reservation in horribly butchered Italian. Many years of French lessons and three years of high school Latin allowed me to muddle through the basics on the phone of saying I would like to make a dinner reservation for two people for the following evening. But when they asked me when I would like to eat, and I said 7:30 pm, this cause such a kerfuffle that I got flustered and eventually had to ask if someone spoke English and could help me out. Turns out the problem is that Osteria Bonelli doesn’t open until 8pm! Ahimè!
Anyway, we made the reservation and then managed to get lost on the way to the restaurant but did find it in the end. Perhaps it would have been better if we hadn’t. I ordered the burrata-stuffed ravioli with local mushrooms, Tony ordered the coda alla vaccinara (oxtail in tomato sauce), and a carafe of the house white wine. My dish was good, though once again, seemed under-seasoned, lacking even basic salt or pepper. Tony’s dish, on the other hand, was a complete disaster. The oxtail was chewy and stringy and a complete chore to saw/gnaw through. We should have stopped there, but we were both still hungry and thought maybe dessert could help and we could end on a sweet note. On the suggestion of our waitress, claiming it was the house specialty, we ordered the tiramisu. You guys, it was so bad. Dry and flavorless, I have had grocery store tiramisu that was miles better than this sad little dessert.
As seems to be the way of these things, our meal at Osteria Bonelli was our most expensive dinner in Rome, and is also the meal that stands out as being the most disappointing. At €30, you could certainly spend much more on a meal in Rome, but it was enough of an outlay that we couldn’t help but feel we got nowhere near our money’s worth.
To end with something sweet, although we didn’t go to the same lengths as we did in Florence, we did still eat a fair amount of gelato while in Rome. Having read accounts that the best scoops were served up at FataMorgana, that’s where we hit up first.
I was charmed by their unusual and creative flavors, things like creamed corn & caramel popcorn and wasabi chocolate, but ultimately we decided to go with one standard scoop (my go to: pistachio!) and one a little more creative (ricotta & fig). We didn’t go full-blown scientific on this tasting, but we both concluded that the ice cream was good, but nothing especially memorable or worthy of rhapsodic praise. It seemed to be another case of the hype overshadowing the reality of the Roman food scene.
To make sure that there wasn’t something supremely wrong with our taste buds, we sought out a branch of our favorite gelateria from Florence, Grom, and ordered up two scoops of cantaloupe and strawberry gelato. They were just as good as we remembered, their bright clear flavors outshone the comparatively meek flavors from FataMorgana.
But by far, our very favorite gelateria in Rome was the sleek and modern artisanal shop, Come il Latte. The gelato here was sinfully creamy and each bite was bursting with the pure, clean flavors of the primary ingredients. We went back two or three times, and tried scoops of peach, cheesecake, raspberry, and some devilishly delicious combination of pear and nuts and all were fabulous. And, as an added bonus, you can get your gelato topped with a crispy wafer, whipped cream, and a drizzle of dark chocolate sauce completely free of charge!
So, what’s the takeaway from our tasting tour of Rome? I can’t tell whether my copious amounts of research were for naught, since I wouldn’t go so far as to say we ate badly in Rome… but I can’t in good conscience say we ate excessively well either. It is true that the places we researched in advance generally tended to serve up slightly better food than the ones we just wandered into when our spirits were low and we couldn’t be bothered to trek across the city to what would likely be another underwhelming meal.
I guiltily confessed our less-than-enthusiastic to the food we had had thus far in Italy to an Italian friend while in Rome, hoping she could tell us where we were going wrong and could set us back on the path of Italian culinary nirvana. I speculated that perhaps all of our time in Asia has well and truly done our palates in and irrevocably rewired our taste preferences… how else to explain why meals in Italy were largely an exercise in bland? It’s true that we didn’t really eat anything that tasted bad during our time in the country, but that’s likely because most of what we ate didn’t really taste like much of anything at all. You can imagine my surprise when she simply nodded her head in sympathy, saying that after traveling extensively outside of Italy as well, she too felt the same. The dishes are never spicy and after nearly two years of treating our tastebuds to the wide spectrum of punchy flavors found in Vietnamese, Thai and other Asian cuisines, Italian food seemed one-note in comparison and fell flat on our tongues.
As with Paris, maybe we didn’t go to the very best places or order the exact right dishes at the places we did go. Maybe we should have just stuck to gelato. (Yes!) But I tend to think that finding delicious food shouldn’t be so hard and require hours of research. And we tried REALLY hard to eat well in Rome. There were lots of dishes we meant to try (like cacio e pepe) and didn’t because we ran out of time and enthusiasm for the local food scene, instead choosing to eat at home.
It feels sacrilege to admit how unimpressed we were with the food in Italy, and to say that for all its charms, Rome was by far the worst offender on this front. But I can’t escape the fact that through all the pizza and pasta and bread, the taste that lingered after most of our meals in Rome, and continues to do so months later, was one of disappointment.
Tell Us: What are we missing when it comes to Italian food? If you had just one dish to convince us to recant, what would it be? Or do you agree that Italy is overhyped as a food destination (or, at least, Rome is)?