Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pizza and Gelato: the best Roma has to offer

I can think of no better way to end this stream of posts on a memorable, food-filled Italian vacation. Pizza. Gelato. Two of the best foods in the whole world, unbelievably found in their highest forms in one city. If you can’t cite pizza and gelato as two of the most convincing reasons that Rome is one of the greatest food cities ever, then, well, you just don’t know what you’re talking about.

Phil’s satisfied smile says it all.

But let me back up. Most people think they know a thing or two about pizza. Everyone has their favorite pizza style, be it thin crust or deep dish. Arguments are raged over whether the crust is the most important part of the pizza, or whether the toppings are the star of the show. Cheesy or not; saucy or not; pepperoni or ham and pineapple – pizza is definitely a food that everyone, food lover or not, has an opinion about. So I think it is fitting for me to describe to you my ideal pizza pie, and how I came to find that pie in Rome.

Without a doubt, my perfect pizza must have a crispy thin crust, and must come from a wood-fired oven. The sauce must be well-seasoned and made with high-quality tomatoes, but it can’t steal thunder from the cheese and other toppings. I am vehemently opposed to sweet toppings such as pineapple, and can’t resist pepperoni’s salty, oily contribution. Now, I have certainly enjoyed many a pizza that do not fit these requirements, and I’ve written about them before. But throughout my trip down the Italian peninsula, I was on the search for a thin-crusted, wood-fired, cheesy, salty pie that would forever live in my mind as the ultimate pizza standard.

On one of our first evenings in Roma, we grabbed a few pies from a charming joint down the road from our hotel. Da Francesco was always crowded with lively locals when we walked by, with tables spilling out into the street. We luckily snagged a table indoors. Phil ordered a pizza with prosciutto and it was certainly good, with a crispy crust from the wood oven and a great cheese-to-sauce ratio.

However, it wasn’t as good as the prosciutto pizza Phil ordered in Como, which had a sweeter sauce. The Como pizza also seemed to come from a wood-oven that was fired at a higher temperature, and that made the cheese more caramelized and the crust more bubbly and crisp around the edges. My mushroom pie was also good, but just not great.

Phil and I were both disappointed that Da Francesco didn’t offer salame as one of their toppings. Overall a good pizza experience at a very reasonable price in an animated local spot. But, I was still on the search for THE pizza.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to look too hard. The lines snaking around the block outside Pizzeria da Baffetto offer the first clue to the quality of pies. Almost every website, travel book, or blog I ran across claimed this place has the best pizza in Rome, and I must say that da Baffetto is all it’s hyped up to be.

As we waited in line, I drooled through the window and watched the pizzaiolo turn out pie after pie. Here’s the view of the kitchen and front dining room as seen through the three inches of non-postered window space on the front door.

After about 30 minutes, we were seated upstairs at a communal table with a pair of friendly British tourists on one side and a gruff Italian couple on the other. Da Baffetto is all business, and table turnover was on our waiter’s mind, so we were sure to quickly relay our orders. Not much time elapsed before we were graced with THE KING of all pies! Each had a paper-thin, crispy crust that miraculously held up to the toppings.

Phil was able to pick up the slices to eat them, but I did as the Romans and ate my pizza with knife and fork.

I ordered the pizza alle vegetarian with zucchini flowers, zucchini, and eggplant. The vegetables were cut very very thinly so they were perfectly cooked after a short time in the incredible heat of the wood oven. They were also nicely seasoned with salt, an important touch that some pizzerias neglect.

The pizza with pomodoro, mozzarella, and salame ordered by Phil just blew our minds. I mean, just LOOK at it!!!

I had FINALLY found my pizza Mecca!

Speaking of Meccas… Italian gelato is spectacular throughout the country, but some way, somehow, Roma has the best. We tried innumerable gelati during our trip and it became so common that I stopped taking photos, but the Gelateria del Teatro in Roma stood out.

Wow. I’m not a fan of super sweet or fruity desserts, so the pistachio and double chocolate gelati I ordered from Gelateria del Teatro constituted my idea of an ideal dessert.

Impossibly rich and creamy… and just very flavorful, very pistachio-y and dark chocolate-y, not milky or icy like some ice creams can be.

I was so engrossed in mine that I neglected to notice what flavors Phil and Laurie were enjoying. I am sure they were equally yum!

Pizza and gelato. Best way to end my tale of this Italian trip. Now it was back to the States for some a that good ole American grub I’d been missing for the past year and a half…

Da Francesco

Piazza del Fico, 29
00186 Roma, Italy
+39 066 864009

Pizzeria da Baffetto

Via del Governo Vecchio, 114
00186 Roma, Italy
+39 066 861617

Gelateria del Teatro

Via di San Simone, 70
00186 Roma, Italy
+39 06 4547 4880

Saturday, June 27, 2009

More classic Roman cuisine and Jewish specialties

Our second day in Roma found as at the Pantheon mid-morning.
Not one to resist a fancy food shop, I made a mid-morning snack out of a prosciutto, mozzarella, and tomato panino from a shop in the Piazza della Rotonda.We strolled through the streets of Roma, finding ourselves near Piazza Barberini. I remembered reading about a highly regarded place nearby, so we took a few turns and found ourselves having an excellent lunch at Hostaria Romana. The restaurant’s picture windows provided a lot of sunlight in the dining room, and we were greeted very pleasantly both by the waitstaff and the tables heaped with various platters of grilled, fried, and marinated antipasti. We each got a glass of bubbly and loaded our plates with little tidbits of veggies and cured meats like fried zucchini, arancini, potato croquettes, marinated mushrooms & artichokes, roasted & marinated peppers, roasted and marinated eggplant, breaded and fried onion, salame…. I really do love Rome.Since artichokes were in season, I couldn’t pass up the carciofi alla giudea, even though we’d have them at dinner the night before.

The 8 euro antipasti would have been plenty for lunch, but we also each ordered a pasta: ravioli with ricotta and spinach in a bright tomato sauce……spaghetti with clam sauce…
…and penne all’arrabiatta. All were simple and exactly what you wanted them to be, and we received the best service of any restaurant we visited in Rome.
We weren’t so lucky with service when we dined in the Jewish Ghetto at Da Giggetto, and food was hit and miss. Jewish food in Rome is working class cuisine and the specialties at Da Gigetto are undoubtedly the carciofi alla giudea - that fried artichoke flower I’ve raving about – along with fried salt cold (baccala) and suppli al telefono. We ordered all three for an antipasto.
The fried baccala was coated in a batter of perfect thickness and was fried beautifully. I quite enjoyed the suppli al telefono, fried risotto balls stuffed with a hunk of mozzarella cheese. They are aptly named, as the cheese strings out like a telephone cord when you bite into the little fritters.Our first courses were also very good: bucatini alla amatriciana…And cannelloni filled with ricotta and spinach and baked in a gratin dish with b├ęchamel and romano cheese.I thought it was impossible to go wrong with lots of gooey melted cheese, and the cannelloni really hit the spot but Phil’s eggplant and tomato casserole (ordered as a main course) was really just too overwhelmingly cheesy. Gosh, did I just say that?
Yes, I swear there was some eggplant and tomato under all that cheesy goo.

The fried baccala and suppli were such good fried starters that I decided to go with the fritto misto, mixed fry, for my main course. Heck, I’m only in Roma every once in a blue moon, I can eat as much fried food as I want!! Well, I was so disappointed in this fry that it makes me wanna cry. Ugh. There was just no love whatsoever put into this greasy mess. I had been so pleased with the batter coating the fried baccala, but the batter for the mixed fry was certainly not from the same batch. It had no seasoning and was soggy and made the zucchini and mushrooms very limp and to top it off wasn’t even hot when it arrived at the table. And should I even mention the fried lambs’ brains? I actually quite like lambs’ brains (the ones I ate at The Salopian Inn in McLaren Vale come to mind) and was excited to try them here, but all I can say is EEEWWWWWWW. Like a whiny little kid. Ew. They were gray. And grainy. And the texture was awful – they just dissolved away into a mucus mess in my mouth.
Laurie’s lamb chops were almost – almost – as bad. They had the lowest meat to bone ratio I’ve ever seen, and most of the “meat” was actually inedible fat. The lamb didn’t even seem of a good quality – it was the greasy stuff that leaves a film on roof of your mouth that doesn’t seem to go away even after a good tooth brushing.The service was at best slow and at worst nonexistent, but hey, that’s what you get in Roma. You can’t let it bother you or you’ll never enjoy a meal. What bothered me was the quality of the main courses we ordered. Being tourists, I guess we just didn’t realize that when you come to the Jewish ghetto, you eat Jewish artichokes, and you eat fried baccala. Don’t make the same mistakes we did. I suppose the restaurant couldn’t have been more clear about its specialty – check out the artichoke display on the sidewalk outside the door.Final verdict: don’t bother with the main courses. Fill up on fried goodies: carciofi alla giudea, suppli, bacala. And wine, if you can get that waiter’s attention.

Hostaria Romana
Via del Boccaccio 1 (Via Rasella), Roma
+39 06 4745284

Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia
Via del Portico d’Ottavia 21/a-22, Roma
+39 06 6861105

Friday, June 26, 2009

... as the Romans do

Of all the cities we visited on our trip to Italy, I was most excited about Roma. I had spent a few weeks in the city a few years ago with Roman friends. While mostly I enjoy the thrill of visiting new places, lately I’ve realized the merits of visiting one place again and again. On the first trip you can get all of the must-see stuff out of the way in a touristic whirlwind, but on successive trips you can let yourself relax and just let the vibe of the place slowly seep in.

We decided to begin our time in Rome feasting like, well, like Roman emperors. Of all Italian regional cuisines I’m most passionate and knowledgeable about Roman food, so we prepared ourselves for four days of gluttony and indulgence! After this first night’s meal at Matricianella, Phil’s mom Laurie said traveling with us is like an endurance test. I think she was referring to her belly.

Matricianella is a popular spot with both locals and tourists alike that serves classic Roman cuisine. Although we had a reservation (which by the way is essential here), we weren’t able to snag one of the outdoor tables lining the street. Nevertheless, the inside dining rooms were very cozy, with checkered tablecloths and wooden fixtures, most notably the wood beam ceiling.

I think it’s safe to say that the wine “list” at Matricianella was one of the most impressive I’ve come across. The wine “list” wasn’t really a list at all – more like a Bible-length tome.

It was overwhelming to say the least, but we chose a 2005 Madreselva for extremely oenological reasons: because our Madre, Laurie, was traipsing around Italy with us, and because she lives on a street that’s called Selva something-or-other.

The menu offers a comprehensive sampling of Roman cuisine, and boy we tried a lot of it. I am a sucker for fried food and the Romans really are experts in the art of frying. They love to fry up wonderful things like brains and testicles but I thought Phil and Laurie should be eased into trying those sorts of delicacies. So instead we ordered a fritto misto of zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella, Romanesco broccoli (a spiky broccoflower, cross between broccoli and cauliflower), potato croquettes, bacalao (salt cod), and mozzarella. GUESS WHO IS HAPPY??!!!

We also couldn’t pass up trying the carciofi all giuda, Jewish-style artichokes. Although these are best sampled in restaurants of the Jewish ghetto, these artichokes are one of my favorites and I certainly wasn’t patient enough to wait until we made it to the ghetto. Jewish Romans have a knack for choosing the perfect small, tender artichokes for this dish. Cooks continuously turn the artichokes as they dexterously trim and crush them so the leaves open like a flower. Then they fry the artichokes so they maintain their flower shape and become crispy.

After our fried food extravaganza, we each ordered a first course. My spaghetti cacao e pepe, or cheese and pepper spaghetti, is the best proof that simple preparations are often the most exquisite. The dish is quite simply pasta dressed with the water it was cooked in and an abundance of parmigiano cheese and freshly cracked black peppercorns.

Laurie’s rigatoni with bacon and white wine was equally simple and satisfying.

Phil’s gnocchi alla romana stole the show and was certainly one of the best dishes of the night. The gnocchi themselves were impossibly tender and really did melt in your mouth. Yet somehow they managed to stand up to their cheesy b├ęchamel blanket and retain their delicate texture after they’d been baked.

At this point I must admit that the fried antipasti and first courses ended up being the highlights of our dinner at Matricianella. This confirms my theory that Romans are the undisputed masters of fried goodies and pastas!

Of all our main courses, my coda alla vaccinara stood out as being the most flavorful and well-prepared. I am sure it benefited from being made earlier in the day or even the night before, as the flavors were well developed. The dish is essentially slow-braised oxtail in a tomato-based sauce.

Phil’s saltimbocca alla romana was good, but didn’t impress him. I think it was just impossible to live up to that gnocchi! Plus, I often prepare a similar dish of thinly pounded veal, prosciutto, and sage in a Marsala wine sauce for quick dinners at home, so this dish was less special than something he doesn’t often eat.

Laurie was very pleased with her braised lamb with artichokes and roasted potatoes and found herself cleaning lamb bones with her fingers.

After such an epic meal, a simple dessert of strawberry sorbet was wonderfully refreshing.

If you’re looking for traditional Roman food done well, Matricianella is your place. We topped off the night with a drink near our hotel in Campo de Fiore, and yes we did sleep very well!


Via del Leone 4, Roma

+39 6683 2100


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Eating around Tuscania: Siena, San Gimignano, and Chianti

With Florence as our home base, we explored towns in the surrounding Tuscan countryside…
…including San Gimignano…
… with its towers that appeared like skyscrapers over the horizon.We also paid a visit to Siena where we drooled at shop-window displays of panforte before enjoying a satisfying lunch. Panforte, a spicy fruitcake, originated in Siena.
We left blue skies and sunshine and ducked into Al Marsili, a cavernous restaurant located in a palazzo cellar. The restaurant claims that the wine cellar dates back to the Etruscan period.
To start, we ordered a warm pecorino toscano with honey and walnuts. The pecorino toscano was softer than the more common Roman pecorino and melted easily. It reminded me of a sharp provolone.
We each opted for pasta dishes. My pici all cinghiale was certainly unique. Pici is a thick, hand-rolled spaghetti that is typical to Siena and mine was made in-house. It stood up well to the wild boar ragu.
I came to think that Tuscans are obsessed with wild boar. Every few blocks is a shop with a stuffed boar head staring you down.The pappardelle alla lepre was notable for its thick and flavorful hare sauce.Laurie’s rigatoni with broccoli and sausage was on the lighter side.
We admired the gothic architecture as we licked away at a chocolate gelato.
We discovered more wild boars in Greve in Chianti. Laurie got a little too friendly!
We also poked into some wineries between Florence and Siena to sample Chianti.
We learned that the gallo nero, or black rooster, on the neck of many bottles of Chianti Classico is a guarantee that the wine is locally produced according to strict rules. Once we were aware of the rooster symbol, we began to notice it everywhere.
Ristorante Enoteca Al Marsili
Via del Castoro 3, 53100 Siena, Italy
+39 0577 47154