We stayed at the Intercontinental, a beautiful hotel situated at the top of the Spanish Steps. They upgraded us to a room with a balcony, and every night we would walk back and spend some time sitting on the Steps, people watching. The view from the 8th floor terrace restaurant was almost worth the €22.
Armando al Pantheon
Our first meal was at Armando al Pantheon, an amazing little old-school restaurant, 2 blocks away from the pantheon. They are known for many things, including their carbonara, which was worthy of the praise. Creamy, rich and cheesy, it was studded with delicious pieces of guanciale (pork jowl). This was the pasta of my dreams.
We also shared a veal saltimbocca, a side of potatoes, and a side of chicory, a common Roman vegetable that I have heard of but never tried. The chicory was delicious- it is a wild Roman green, a little bitter like broccoli rabe, but more mellow. It was sautéed in olive oil and garlic and was a perfect accompaniment to the rich pasta.
We also had tiramisu that night, but I wasn't that impressed. I actually really love my own tiramisu recipe.
We were seated next to two older women, and we started talking to them, only to discover one was from Natick. They have been coming to Italy for two weeks every year for the last three decades. We talked about different restaurants and what they recommended. I had mentioned that I really wanted to try Jewish style artichokes and they suggest a restaurant to me that I had also read about elsewhere. That is how we decided to go to Sora Margarita the next night.
Sora margarita is technically not a restaurant, but a membership club. I think it has something to do with getting around the regulations about the size you need for a certain amount of tables. There is no sign, you just have to know to look for the doorway hidden behind a red braided curtain. It is the best kind of hidden gem/ hole-in-the-wall discovery. We arrived fairly early, and we're seated at a table for four and minutes later another couple was seated next to us.
A small Italian Jewish woman came to our table and started speaking Italian to me. With my broken Italian I understood that she was offering to bring us a sampling of their best known dishes. I told her I definitely wanted the artichoke and the cacio e pepe. She nodded and walked away and the woman who was sitting next to me asked if I had just ordered for them as well. I told her I had no idea what I had done and if I did order for them I was sorry. We laughed and luckily the waitress came back and then spoke to them as well.
The parade of food started with carciofi alla giudia - artichokes in the Jewish style. The artichoke is trimmed and then deep fat-fried so it looks like a sunflower blossom. You pull off the artichoke leaves and eat them whole, like crunchy artichoke potato chips. They were unique and delicious.
We received more artichokes, this time in the Roman style. These are trimmed and then braised in white wine and wild Roman mint. How do I know? Because in my cooking class, earlier that day, I had made the same artichokes. I ate more artichokes that day than I have in the last year put together. They were also delicious, but the fried version was better (isn't it always?).
Next was cacio e pepe, the classic Roman dish of pasta, cheese and pepper. It is deceptively simple, yet the synergy from these three basic ingredients created the best single dish Steve and I had all trip. To start, Sora Margarita uses fresh pasta, and their twist on this classic dish includes a dollop of fresh sheep's milk ricotta on top. The delicious, tender pasta, with the sharp bite of the pecorino cheese, the spice of black pepper and the creaminess of the fresh ricotta all mixed together created a perfect harmonious dish. For the rest of the trip, we would eat something and we declare not as good as the cacio e pepe at Sora Margarita. I am salivating as I type.
A meat ravioli in a meat sauce arrived next and any other day, any other meal, we would have been happy with the ravoli, but after the cacio e pepe, it just failed to impress. Plus, we are also getting pretty full and I was trying to figure out how we could tell the waitress to stop bringing us food. I managed to cobble together enough Italian to tell her that we are full. She asked us if we wanted just one more dish and said it was meat, so I acquiesced to one more course.
We were rewarded with the fluffiest, most tender, veal meatballs I've ever had. My only wish was that they would be served in a tomato sauce instead of olive oil. The acidity would've cut the richness.
Halfway through the meal, I looked across the restaurant and who did I see? Our dining neighbors from the night before. I went over there to say hello and to thank them for bringing us to the home of cacio e pepe.
On Thursday, we headed out to Vatican City for the museum and pizza. Pizzarium is renowned throughout the world for its pizza al taglio (cut pizza). There were gorgeous trays of pizza, piled high with luscious ingredients are on display. I was tempted by a sardine and bitter greens pizza, but ultimately I decided to go classic with prosciutto, mozzarella, and basil. Steve had the same sans prosciutto. The pizza was delicious - The crust was light and airy with the perfect chew. I really loved it at the time but it ended up not being the best pizzas the trip - more about that later.
Our last dinner at Rome was at Perelli, another traditional trattoria, in Testaccio. We started with the carbonara, which was not as good as Armando's, I had a puntarelle salad. Puntarelle is another type of chicory that is served raw. It has a little bit of bitterness and is traditionally served with a very heavy anchovy dressing. I don't know if I loved it, but I'm glad I tried it.
The star of the meal was the roasted pork shoulder; the pork was meltingly tender and flavorful. Steve said, "It was a monster," Our side of chicory was also good but like the carbonara, not as good as Armando's.
Mordi e Vai
I set off early to the Testaccio Market in pursuit of the tripe sandwich at Mordi e Vai. Rome has a tradition of quinto quarto ("fifth quarter") cuisine, food specializing in the cooking of offal. I found Mordi e Vai amidst produce stands and other food stalls. It was nine in the morning and the tripe was not ready, so I wondered around the market. I saw zucchinis the size of my arm with blossoms to match.
I came back 10 minutes later and enjoyed a panino trippa alla Romana. Roman-style tripe is long simmered in a thick tomato sauce and the sandwich involves a generous helping served on a crusty roll. It was an excellent breakfast.
Cooking Classes in Rome
I decided to take a cooking class while I was in Rome. I really wanted a nonna to teach me how to make pasta from scratch, but since I wanted the class during the day, my choices were limited. I took a 5 hour class through "Cooking Classes in Rome" (I know, it is not the most original name for a cooking school) with Chef Andrea Consoli. Chef Andrea was great; he was knowledgeable and funny. Our menu included: artichokes (Roman style), Cavatelli alla Norma, Beef Scallopini with mushrooms and fresh peas, and lemon pudding. The class was conducted in English and had 12 people, an eclectic international crowd including two Russians, two Norwegian women, one woman traveling alone from Denmark, a couple of Americans, and a couple of Americans living abroad. We all took different prep tasks, but everyone learned to trim artichokes and how to make the cavatelli. The cooking took about 4 hours and then we all gathered together to eat the fruits of our labor. I really loved learning how to make fresh pasta. The cavatelli was time-consuming, but worth it. I am not one to buy tchotchkes, in fact, during the whole trip I only purchased two items, but I couldn't resist purchasing a small cavatelli making board (the other was some white truffle oil from Florence). I would definitely recommend taking a class if you're in Rome and have the time.
We are leaving that afternoon, so I had one more morning to enjoy Rome. I woke up early and walked to Campo di Fiori to go to Forno. They specialize in pizza blanca (cut white pizza without tomato sauce). You order by the weight (100 grams is a good sized snack). I got two slices each of plain, margarita, zucchini, and potato. I started walking back to the hotel to share the pizza with Steve. However, since the pizza was still hot from the oven and I couldn't resist trying some. I started with the potato. I nearly swerved in the middle of the street as I discovered how delicious it was. I was already three blocks away and I was torn – should I turn back to get more or was the one the slice of potato pizza all that I would get? It occurred to me that I had plenty of pizza for Steve and he would never know if I ate his. But I refrained; I guess that's what love is - not eating your husband's pizza. For the record, the zucchini was outstanding as well, but the potato was a whole other level.
We stopped at a different place each night. All were good; the first night was at Gelateria San Crispino, which was slightly too sweet.
The second night we hit the historic Giolitti Gelateria which has been scooping since 1890. The gelato itself was okay, but I did enjoy the dollop of unsweetened whipped cream on top of the cone.
The last night we went to Fatamorgana and we declare this to be the best gelato of our whole trip. Steve is still talking about the toasted almond gelato.
Next is Florence - stay tuned!