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By Patricia Boccadoro

ROME, 19 OCTOBER 2010 — Guidebooks are full of how to visit Rome’s "best," the countless museums and galleries, the 300 fountains, as well as the Forum and Colosseum, but the locals themselves seem unconcerned with all the ancient ruins that lie carelessly around every corner. They are more interested in their next meal; and quite rightly so, for eating out in Rome can be both a joy and an entertainment.

Traditional Roman cooking relies on the local markets, packed full of fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, where it appears to be spring and summer all year round. They are a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. Eating is taken seriously and, unlike in France, there is no such thing as a national haute cuisine. Food is la cucina di casa — delicious, regional, and soul-satisfying.

On a visit to Rome some years ago, I discovered a restaurant in the heart of the old city, just off the Campo di Fiori, the home of Rome’s most colourful and vivid outdoor market. To this day, I have not forgotten the Gnocchi di Patate alla Romagnola I ate there, preceded by a fresh Roman salad of crunchy green lettuce and rocket (arugula), the like of which can only be found in Rome. But leaving the restaurant, we spied a tantalizing layout of antipasti. There were tasty roasted red peppers and anchovies, grilled aubergines with peppers and cucumbers, chopped marinated mushrooms, the divine carciofi (artichokes)alla Romana, as well as tiny tomatoes stuffed with tuna, anchovies, eggs and capers.

Campo di Fiori fruit and vegetable market in Rome
Photo: Rome info

I know they were tasty because I went back to eat them the following day, after the salad and before the gnocchi. But just as we finished our meal, plates of grilled, aromatic white fish went wafting past — rombo (turbot), explained our waiter. As an arrivederci to Rome the next day, yes, we ate the crispy fresh green salad, the mouthwatering platter of antipasti, the gnocchi di patate alla Romagnola, the meltingly juicy roasted turbot, and rounded it off by a bowl of ripe fragole (woodland strawberries), which arrived in huge baskets as we sat there.

So on a trip to the Italian capital last month, imagine my feelings to find this incomparable trattoria no longer there!

But excellent food and drink are always to be found in Rome, and two cappuccinos later, plus a gelato at Giolitti's, good humour was restored and plans for the evening made.

Giolitti's gelato parlour in Rome

The Osteria del Pegno is a pretty, candlelit, atmospheric eating place that lies hidden in a patchwork of picturesque, narrow, cobbled streets near the Piazza Navona. And although the speciality there is l’Abbachio al Forno, (roasted milk-fed lamb, Roman-style), we enjoyed a perfect risotto. It was made with zucchini, and came close to being food for the Gods. Roman, of course. Seduced as much by the friendliness of the owners as by the crisp-fried wedges of artichokes on the trays of the waiters shooting past in all directions, this was the restaurant we opted to return to two days later.

Wise tourists might find themselves at Isidoro’s after a visit to the Colosseum, but we went there from the other side of Rome for the pleasure of the place. It is a noisy, gregarious little trattoria, where the waiters are only too happy to pull out chairs to squash you in around the crowded tables, full of feasting Romans. It owes its reputation to its risotti with nettles, which, belying its description, was scrumptious. The antipasti were again a delight for the eyes, while the desserts — all homemade, from the scamorza e miele (white cheese and honey), to the panna cotta with its coulis of red fruit, to the tiramisu — were irresistible.

Hostaria Isidoro al Colosseo, Rome

Checco e Carettiere is where the best of Roman cooking is to be found. It’s situated in the Trastevere, the area across the river Tiber, one of the most picturesque old quarters of the city. The food is strictly traditional, with plenty of meat, offal, fish and fresh fruit and vegetables available. Deliveries are made daily.

It’s where the average Italian family will congregate on a Sunday, devouring a succession of dishes, each more delectable than the next. After long deliberation, I opted for an immense platter of moist, pink, meltingly tender Parma ham, which I had spied being cut on the bone, sharing it happily with my companion who returned the favour, sharing the selection of those succulent grilled vegetables, crunchy salads, and skewered marinated lamb, chicken or fish titbits that, again, one can only find in Rome. The main course was a seafood risotto smothered with delicious juicy scampi, while the variety of desserts we polished off defied all reason.

Undecided between the tiramisu and the torta al zabaglione, a light, fluffy cake filled with a wine-scented creamy froth, we ordered both as well as a bowl of fresh raspberries, blueberries and strawberries spotted on the table next to us. But as it was Easter, there was an enormous chocolate Easter egg adorning the entrance to the restaurant that proved not to be a decoration at all, for one of the waiters brandishing a large hammer began to crack pieces off it which he then handed round to all the diners, accompanied by generous slices of the best panettone I’ve eaten. And eat it all we did. Generous glasses of limoncello were then offered around; a digestive.

However, no gastronomic visit to Rome is complete without a meal in a more adventurous setting, even though the menu offered might seem a little fearsome. Romans, despite their heritage of being surrounded by priceless art treasures and wealth, have not always eaten fillet steak, and a tradition of dealing with variety meats has developed.

Ristorante L'Arcangelo in Rome

L’Arcangelo, a smart, sophisticated restaurant in the upmarket area of Piazza Cavour has transported the cuisine of these "inferior" cuts into a fine art. Their short, chic menu boasts lamb sweetbreads and veal tripe with mint and pecorino cheese Roman style, while their "foie gras" menu would daunt the most cast-iron of stomachs.

Foie gras with jams and jellies paves the way for melon soup, then mortadella and foie gras, and then the main course of an escalope of grilled foie gras served with warm, salted brioche. The menu is capped by a hot chocolate fondant accompanied by a pear mousse with chili pepper.

I chickened out and ordered the classic rigatoni alla matriciana (pasta with tomato sauce), bypassing such culinary delights as baked squid and spicy pancotto (bread soup) with bitter chocolate, and scabbard fish escalope accompanied by black pork in colatura (anchovy sauce). I didn’t jump either at the white chocolate dessert with capers (the capers of which had perhaps escaped from the antipasti of warm octopus salad with olives, red wine sausage and capers), but I did wonder if I might be looking at a misprint on the menu.

However, each to his own, and l’Arcangelo is worth a visit, if only for trying their pasta, so al dente that it made my jaws ache for the next two days.

Osteria del Pegno
Vicolo di Montevecchio, 8
00186 Rome
Tel: (39) 06 68 80 70 25

Via San Giovanni in Lateran, 59/a
00184 Rome
Tel: (39) 06 700 82 66

Checco er Carettiere
Via Benedetta, 10
00153 Rome
Tel: (39) 06 58 17 018

Via Giuseppe Giocchino Belli 59/61
00193 Rome
Tel: (39) 06 32 10 992

Via degli Uffici del Vicario
Tel: (39) 06 69 91 243
One of the most famous ice-cream parlours in Rome. Excellent coffee too.

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque.

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