May is a great month for travel to Europe. There is a slipstream just before high season when the weather is peak to enjoy sunshine cooled by soft breezes..
It has been over twenty years since I have visited Italy, mainly because I tend to take annual trips to Spain, dabble in France, and vacation in Mexico or El Caribe. I was handsomely rewarded this time around.
As with any great culinary city, my attack plan was simple. Plan meals around the sights. Research great wine bars (business interest), and long evenings al fresco (a fiori). Eat local wine, salume and cheese. Hit the sweets circuit. Espresso down.
Rome provided an ideal venue for my game plan. Roma is Eurocosmo, a neologism I like to use referring to a city with style, sophistication and tradition in food and wine, a culture who lives to eat. Roma is built for long walks peppered by golden cups of espresso, lazy late afternoon lunches climaxing in the joy of artisanal gelato.
My own personal view on sightseeing is simple. Be around structures and museums accidentally, enter if I must, but plan all the eating and drinking around the environs of said must see attraction.
On my last trip, the Vatican left a lasting impression, so before the weekend crowds made a visit unbearable, the Vatican was the first target. As it turns out it is difficult to find any good eats around this tourist mecca, but I found great respite at a ham and wine bar called Passagui, where I sampled some great Pata Negra. The resto features a tiled encased ham slicing room/station, featuring many legs which curiously held on to its own curly tails, and the signature black hooves, of course. Despite the euro vs. the dollar, wine prices are about a third less than in New York. For example, Falanghinas were listed between 16 and 22 euros per bottle, and Valtellina Superior from 28 to 35 euros.
Thank goodness for a solitary rec from my good friend Pete, an honorary Roman, at Giarrosto Toscano, where my gal and I lunched correctly. Toscano, a place popular among locals doing nothing special, but offering correct pastas and aged beef. Cacio y pepe, bucatini alla amatricana followed by a nice t-bone. All a fiori of course. Nice waitstaff. We returned for dinner later on in the trip and were treated as regulars.
A short walk from the Pyramide (truly an uninteresting structure), there is a gold mine of a diner called Volpetti where the business model is split in two. Alimentari extraordinaire on the corner, adjacent to mom and pop prepared foods with inexpensive wine resto. Sample it all, from the antipasto to the meatballs to the pizze. Nourishment for the Roman soul.
Near the Trevi Fountain, a small trattoria named Piccolo Arancino offers classic roman fare. The menu is vast and comprehensive. The ravioli arancino is a specialty. Then head over to the Pantheon to San Crispino for some artisanal gelato, a cut above the rest.
At Campo de Fiori you can get lost in all the noise and hullaballoo created by the raging youthful crowds, but a block therein lies a well established wine bar called L’Angolo Divino. Skip the food, which is mediocre. But do sit in the wee hours for a great selection of Ar.Pe.Pe and fabulous boutique wines from great producers.
A walk through the Greenwich Village of Rome, Traversere, is charming and leads to the Jewish quarter, a line up of Roman Jewish food where the stalwart Giggetto stands out from the rest. Order the artichokes, zucchini flowers, and on to the roasted lamb. A real treat down the road at one of the entrances to the quarter is a wine bar named Beppe, where the owner makes many of the cheeses. Choose wine from the shelves and have a 20 euro tray of marvelous cheese. Order salume if you have the room. Real mortadella here folks. A nice ’04 Produttori di Barbaresco nebbiolo was drinking well and a steal at 35 euros.
Coming back to Traversere, a fine meal could be had in a romantic setting at Trattoria Teo’s, or a more expensive formal meal at L’Asincotto with the only drawback being indoor seating only.
A trip to the Pantheon can be treacherous for food, but a nice trattoria, Il Bacaro, on a tiny side street, pretty and draped by flowery trees of held its own with a nice antipasto selection and solid pastas.
A quick jaunt to Napoli, the armpit of Italy, but worth it just for the best pizza in the world at Da Michele for a whopping five euros. We also spent a few nights in Sorrento and Capri, where the food was nothing to write home about. The seafood was incredibly overpriced compared to let’s say, Spain.
The highlight of the trip was getting a tip from a nice bartender at Ris Café, where a decent martini can be crafted. We were directed to a true speakeasy, The Jerry Thomas Speakeasy on a piccolo street called Vicolo Cellini 30, complete with password and no sign. Enter and find a civilized adult setting that could be in Williamsburg. No stumping the bartenders here. Professional and correct. What an absolute treat to watch Romans discovering cocktails and its ingredients with wonder and enthusiasm. I dare say a movement is on the way.
Next stop Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, for a look at the state of sherry and perhaps some of the best jamon in the world.