Rome in July is a time of sweltering heat, noisy vespas, and packed trattorias spilling and clattering onto the cobbled streets. The Spanish Steps are naked of their florally pink get up of the spring time, but the 35 degree temperatures are no excuse to eat lightly in this big bellied city of food worship.
On this (my fourth) trip to Rome, TPG and I were sharpening up our Roman chops to attend the wedding of our favourite Italians, Alessio and Raffaella. (You may remember them from the Greedy Diva Bologna diaries).
If you ever have occassion to get married in Rome, I suggest you do it here:
The Villa dei Quintili - in Italian style Great Gatsby decadence, the bubbly flowed and friendships were formed over several courses of superb cuisine by candlelight (not to mention the extra antipasti and dolce stations scattered around the grounds) and gorgeous Italian wines. Just magic.
When we weren't busting dance moves at high fallutin' Italian weddings, we were generally eating quite solidly at other slightly less glamorous establishments around town.
Each day started with a coffee and pastry at the counter of a bustling bar - our favourite was Caffe Castroni in the middle of a beautiful food store not far from the Vatican at via Ottaviano, 55. Rub shoulders with the locals while knocking back a joltingly strong espresso served by a barista in a bow tie while gazing at the beautiful packing of Italian produce (2 excellent cappuccinos, 1 bombolone and 1 cornetto for 3.60 euros - you hear that, London?).
If it's the all time best carbonara in the world* you're after, look no further than Hostaria Romana (via del Boccaccio, 1, tel: 39 06 474 5284). This simple, old school restaurant in a hide away location is quite the Roman institution. Rammed with locals wolfing down the local specialties like salty fried artichokes, marinated sardines, plate upon plate of antipasti and bowls of pasta tossed with hot sauce right before service.
Hostaria Romana oozes character. From the graffiti clad walls (patrons scribble on them with texta) to the senior Papa Giuseppis waiting the tables with a glint in their eye, this was the place where, in January 2009 , while "trapped" for an extra night in Rome due to the snow storms in London (praise the Lord), we discovered the carbonara that left TPG in an awestruck silence for a good 2 days. The runny yolked egg and cheese is added to the mix of spaghetti and smoky guanciale by a waiter who looks like he's been perfecting the art since the Roman forum was built. Pure gastronomic gold. Pasta dishes are around 9 euros, and all is reasonably priced. Unfortunately it was closed randomly when we visited last week, but I highly recommend it as worth a meal (or two).
Another absolute favourite is Ristorante Piccolo Abruzzo (via Sicilia 237, tel 39 06 42820176), where for a set price of around 42 euro per head, you can enjoy an almost endless parade of local dishes brought out to you at the chef's fancy - there's no choice, but it's all good and fresh and you won't leave hungry. We missed it this time round, but were desperate to try get back after our experience in 2009.
The menu changes daily, but you'll start with a hefty plate of cured meats and antipasto, followed by at least 1 pasta, possibly a risotto, a meat and veg dish and, of course, dolce. I'm clearly a little hazy on the details, but I don't forget a friendly plate - this is good quality, homely cooking in a laid back, fun atmosphere. We easily finished the quaffable bottle of red on our table (which will be readily refilled when empty - also included in the set price), and were treated to digestivos of choice after our meal. The atmosphere is busy and festive - no tourists spotted on our last visit, but we were surrounded by lots of large tables of Italians. I believe they may do a cheaper lunch option. Highly recommended.
Ravenous after our arrival on day 1, we stumbled by chance upon a local trattoria on a busy side street near the Colosseum (Naumachia, 00184 Roma, Via Celimontana, 7). While TPG enjoyed a rich carbonara, perfectly al dente (our favourite of this trip), I was in luck with a summery, cold bowl of orechiette, dense with truffles and fresh, sweet tomatoes. Both dishes were under 10 euros each, and were completed with a caprese salad and an obligatory glass or 2 of red wine. And we finished most meals with a simple, refreshing chunk of watermelon. Bellissimo.
Other lunch stops included Antica Enoteca (via Della Croce, 76), a cooling cavernous wine bar near the Spanish steps. We lapped up plates of sweet, juicy melon nestled under a blanket of parma ham, and a caprese with a big ball of milky mozzarella on the side of chopped tomatoes and a single basil leaf. The food here is fine, but not earth shattering and in the past we have visited more to sit at the bar and sample Friulis, Barolas and Amarones over some antipasti or a bowl of papardelle with duck ragout (which is lovely). The atmosphere is usually lively, and the windows overlook a small fruit and vegetable stall.
Another enjoyable, more homely pitstop in the Spanish Steps area is Fiaschetteria Beltramme (via Della Croce, 39). Artworks clutter the walls of this small, single fronted restaurant which seems to escape the tourist hordes of surrounding cafes despite its prime location. We enjoyed (another) excellent carbonara (sensing a theme here?) and a spaghetti all amatriciana. Service is stony faced, but due to my pathetic Italian, I'm not up for prolonged chats anyway. Nearby plates of frutti del mare also looked rather ravishing. No phone or reservations - we rolled up for a late, post shopping lunch.
Naturally, when one dines with Italians in Rome, apertivo hour kicks off at around 8pm and to even think of taking a seat at a restaurant before 9pm would be an outrage resulting in much upper body gesticulation. Dinner is likely to finish around midnight - on a quiet night..and if there's no limoncello involved (which there often was).
We spent some time sipping Aperol con spritz in a funky Trastavere bar (try Freni e Frizione on Piazza Trilulsa for outdoor drinking in a wonderful atmosphere with an amazing array of gigantic, free bowls of food) before feasting on bread, pasta, meatballs, stuffed zucchini, lamb, gelato, sorbet, grappa and limoncello at a nearby trattoria.
While in Rome, we stayed at the Mercure Roma Delta Colosseo which I recommend if you like the idea of cooling off from the heat of the day by swimming in a roof top pool overlooking the Colosseum, Roman Forum and the beautiful rooftops and facades of Rome. This place was an absolute gem of a find. Rooms are very average (if spacious) but reasonably priced (given the pool) at 179 euros per night for a double. I wouldn't bother with it in the winter months, when sipping your ice cold sparkling by the pool might not be such an attractive option.
Stay tuned for Puglia, one of my new all time favourite travel destinations. Fabulous food, wine and beaches...
* TPG, an excellent cook, also makes a superb carbonara which he first started experimenting with after the inspiring events of Hostaria Romana. I encourage him to make it often.