The Food Maven Diary
Rome in the Winter
Ah, Rome in the winter, the first week of the New Year. I love it. I come in every season, so I can say with some authority that in certain ways this may be the best time to visit. Many trees may be bare, but the grass is green and Rome is filled with umbrella pines and date palms, other evergreens, and shiny dark acanthus growing under the brush of embankments and parks, the leaf that is inspiration for countless ancient columns (Corinthians), consoles, and Baroque curlicues. It's enough green for me, and in winter the bay leaves (laurel) from the many bushes all over the city are particularly fragrant. I pick them from the shrubs that enclose the street-side restaurant and café seating on almost every block, crumble them and sniff them. Even in winter, Romans sit outside, albeit under gas heaters set under umbrellas. Red, pink, and white cyclamens are everywhere.
True, the weather is a bit of a drawback. The days have been rainy and warmish alternating with sunny and coldish.
Maybe best of all, however, hardly anyone is out and about. There are very few tourists, and just enough Italians to give the streets life. Air fares are at an annual low. It is lowest possible season, hence prices, for hotels. You can walk into the Vatican museum without standing on an hours-long line that goes around the block. You can get a bench seat in the Sistine Chapel, the best and most comfortable viewing spot to gaze at Michelangelo's magnificent ceiling. Everywhere you go, you can get thisclose to the great works of art and no one will shove you away. You don't need a restaurant reservation, even in the most popular places. It's not really gelato weather, but all the gelaterias are open. You don't need to buck the hordes in the Piazza Navona, or at the Trevi fountain, or anywhere for that matter. On the rainy days you can go to churches and museums. On the sunny days you can walk your feet off. All the stores are having sales - as much as 50 percent off - although, with the terrible state of the dollar, prices are high even when they are reduced.
If you don't want to spend money, you can just drink in the beauty all around you. Every street of Rome has an inspiring surprise. Around every corner there is something stunning, ancient or not. Even the 19th century buildings here are gorgeous and well-kept.
For the last week, after two days in Naples and a week with our Cook at Seliano group, Bob Harned and I have been giving my niece, Rachel Alexander, and her fiancé, Max Protzel, the St. Louis Jewish deli man, an intensive, whirlwind tour of the city. Bob, who has a masters degree and near PhD. in classical archaeology, and knows the streets of Rome very, very well, made a list of all the essential things to see. Somehow, even with a Roman rest period in the afternoon, we did them all - the Coliseum, the Forum, the so-called Market of Trajan (after hundreds of years of thinking it was a market, the historians recently decided it was actually an ancient office building), the Campidoglio and Capitoline museums, and the Pantheon, both during the day and at night, when it is gloriously illuminated. We sat and watched people take pictures of each other throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain. Bob and the kids climbed the Vittoriano, the huge, strikingly white building that Romans both disparagingly and affectionately call "the Wedding Cake," because that is sort of what it looks like. The view from the top is spectacular. We spent a half day in the Vatican -- in the museum, which leads one to the Sistine Chapel, then in St. Peter's Basilica itself, the largest church in the world. Max was particularly impressed with the Vatican, and he doesn't impress easily.
We walked around the Largo Argentina, where Julius Caesar was assassinated and which still has remains of ancient temples, although it is a major modern city hub.
(By the way, Argentina does not refer to the South American country, but comes from Argentoratum, which was the name of a Roman military outpost that is now modern Strasbourg, residents of which settled in this part of Rome 2,000 years ago. The Romans were perhaps describing the fact that silver mines were near the post in what is now Strasbourg, or that the water of the river was silver in aspect.
We visited with our friend Iris Carulli, Rome's best personal guide, in her residential neighborhood, Monteverde. We walked across Via Condotti, the fanciest shopping street, looking in the windows of Prada, Gucci - all the usual suspects - to the Piazza di Spagna (the "Spanish steps"), then up Via Babuino, my favorite, the antique and home furnishing store street, to the Piazza del Popolo, the grandest Roman square of all. From there, we walked down Via Ripetta with all its lovely shops. We strolled around the Bernini fountain in the Piazza Navona at night. Typical Italian - although the fountain is under restoration and surrounded by a wall of plywood, there are big windows in the wood so you can still see the awesome fountain sculptures, albeit without water spouting and flowing.
We walked into churches. We took a guided tour of the Jewish museum and the main synagogue (there are others), one of the largest and most beautiful in the world. In a kosher bakery in the Jewish quarter behind the synagogue, we bought "Jewish bread," which is actually fruit and nut-studded cake. Needless to say, we have been eating too much.
We stayed at fabulous Caesar House, where I am still ensconced with Bob. I am writing to you on my laptop in my extremely comfortable room, where I have the ultimate luxury, wireless in the room, not to mention satellite TV with many English language stations. Our host, Giulia Barela, has become our friend over the many years we have been staying here and recommending Caesar House to our friends and Cook at Seliano guests. She thinks of everything, from fabulous whole wheat croissants (cornetti in Italian) for breakfast to terry cloth slippers in the bathroom. Although her mother, an interior decorator, has furnished all the rooms in what I'd call modern-classic traditional, the halls and rooms are filled with Giulia's contemporary art collection. I told her this afternoon that I feel so at home here, I might move in. Her staff is the best and kindest. Rossana is concierge and greeter and helps you find whatever you need in Rome. Youni and Dany make and serve breakfast, keep everything tidy and clean, including the small gym and steam room, and take care of your every other need. They all speak English, too.
Caesar House is also very well situated and less expensive than a full-blown hotel. Its alternate name is Residenze Romane, Roman Residences, and it is situated on the second floor of a large building, not in a building all its own. You wouldn't know it was here unless you knew it was here. It is just down the street (Via Cavour) from the ruins of the Forum, the center of ancient Roman life, and two short blocks from the Coliseum. But it is also on the edge of a strictly residential zone called Monti, which has become a chic place to live but remains untouched by tourism, even though it is behind the Market of Trajan and borders Via Nazionale, a very main thoroughfare.
I have to confess that as many times as I have stayed here I have never explored Monti until now. What with some days of crumby weather, however, we've wanted to keep close to home a few nights. I am lucky to have friends who lived here for four months last year. This past summer and early fall, Mary and Jack Cantor rented an apartment in Monti and, with additional consultation from Giulia and Rosanna, I have benefited from their eating recommendations.
One night we went to Taverna Romana on nearby Via della Madonna dei Monti, a very simple place run by a husband and wife, Tonino and Lucia, "a crusty old couple," as Mary described them. (Well, Mary, they are only a little older than we are.) Rossana also said that she is sometimes reluctant to recommend it because that word "crusty" can be interpreted as rude. Still, they couldn't have been sweeter to us. The tiny restaurant has some local atmosphere, too, mainly provided by diamond-mullioned windows, cork walls, and a big iron chandelier. I ate rigatoni cacio e pepe, a typical Roman pasta dish that is nothing more than pasta dressed with grated pecorino (cheese) and pepper and sometimes olive oil. This is one of those simple dishes that can be heavenly or horrible. Taverna Romana's was celestial. The carbonara was very good, too, as was the fettuccine with Genoese pesto, the familiar basil pesto. Max ordered delicate tortellini in a rich chicken broth. As a deli man he knows from chicken soup, and he loved it.
At Jack Cantor's recommendation, I ordered the baby lamb chops as a main course. They are called scottadito in Italian, because you are supposed to eat them holding the bone in your hand even though they should be so hot that they scorch your fingers. These were hot as hell, but so good, so lamby and well-cooked, that I was willing to sacrifice my digits. The meatballs in tomato sauce were excellent, too. The veal scaloppine were two slices of tender, white meat in a simple white wine sauce, but nothing to write home about. That's one thing you can get very good in New York. They had puntarelle for salad, a very typical and almost exclusively Roman specialty, a type of chicory of which you eat only the white rib/stem; the green part is trimmed off. It is always dressed with an anchovy sauce, the fish usually emulsified into the garlic, oil, and vinegar base. This one had bits of anchovy in it, too.
Except that Rachel had to try the good looking cake of puff pastry layers filled with pastry cream and rimmed with chopped almonds, which turned out to be soggy because of the humidity, we skipped dessert. Instead, we walked down the street to Ciuri Ciuri, which means Fiori Fiori (Flowers Flowers) in Sicilian dialect, the gelateria that Mary Cantor says is her favorite in Rome. I can see why.
Rachel and Bob had to have gelato at least twice a day. Max easily gave into their urges. Of course, I am not supposed to be eating gelato (the diet!), so I stoically resisted most of the time, except for taking sampling licks from each of theirs. That amounted to three licks twice a day, already too much. But I succumbed totally at Ciuri Ciuri, which is just a few blocks down from Taverna Romana, where Via Maddona dei Monti crosses Via Serpenti and changes its name to Via Leonina. I ordered my own small cone with two flavors.
Ciuri Ciuri is a Sicilian gelateria and pastry shop, and as Sicily is duly famous for gelato and pastry, I figured this was not going to be run-of-the-mill. Indeed, the pistachio was among the best I've ever had. It is studded with chopped pistachios and has an intense nut flavor, even though the color is suspiciously a pleasant green. In my experience, the best pistachio is a total turn-off gray-green, indicating that no artificial color has been added, and probably no artificial flavor.
I don't think you can go wrong with any of the flavors, although I haven't tried them all. The dark chocolate (fondente) is the essence of chocolate - deep, dark, powerful, and creamy, creamy, creamy. The milk chocolate is also as good as it gets, although one of my Roman friends thinks it is "too heavy." I don't think I want light gelato. What would be the point? Ciuri Ciuri also sells pastries, which we didn't try except for the excellent cannoli, which comes filled (on the spot) with either classic ricotta cream, chocolate cream, or pistachio cream. I only took a bite of Rachel's, so maybe I have to eat one of those before I leave. I love going to this place, if only to joke around with the delightful Sicilian boys behind the counter.
The price is right, too. It's only one euro and fifty cents for a small cone or cup. That's $2.25 at the current terrible rate of exchange -- $1.50 to the euro. Other gelaterias, much lesser gelaterias, are charging two euros, or, in the tourist areas, even more.
We also tried Mary and Jack Cantor's recommendation for Roman pizza, which is very different from Neapolitan pizza. Roman pizza has a thin, crisp crust, while Neapolitan has a pillowy frame and soft center. Alle Carrette is just across the street from Caesar House, so on a night when the rain was torrential it would have been a godsend even without such good pies. I particularly like their house topping of Taleggio cheese and bits of pancetta on a tomato base, or with cherry tomatoes, depending on who is manning the pizza oven. Alle Carrette also has very good fried stuff, a traditional first course to a second course of pizza. If you need some protein, there's batter-fried salt cod (baccala). If you want something very Roman, there are meat-stuffed, breaded and fried green olives - olive Ascolane. If it's pure delicious starch you want, take the potato croquettes. Unfortunately, the one night I ordered the suppli - Roman style rice croquettes - they were sour, meaning they had turned while being left out all day.
I suppose I have gone on quite long enough today. Basta cosi: Enough for now. I will post this on my website with addresses and phone numbers, and internet links when they exist and apply. Obviously, we have eaten more than just in our Caesar House neighborhood. I will have to update my Rome restaurant guide as soon as possible. I just looked at it and I see it needs an overhaul. I have additions, deletions, etc.
Now I need to hit the streets and enjoy the beauty of the city while the sun shines.
Via Leonina, 18/19/20
Outstanding gelato, Sicilian pastries, chocolate from the famous chocolate town of Modica in Sicily, also (not tasted) Sicilian fried snacks, such as arancini, rice croquettes
Via della Madonna dei Monti, 95
(second entrance: Vicolo delle Carrette, 14)
Open 7 p.m. to midnight
This pizzeria and beer hall (bireria) has among the best thin-crusted Roman-style pizzas in the city. Also good fried items.
(aka "La Taverna" da Tonino e Lucia)
Via della Madonna dei Monti, 79
Home-style Roman cooking in a small, atmospheric dining room. Excellent cacio e pepe and other pastas, grilled lamb chops and meatballs, among other things.