Rome – Eating in the Medieval Centro Storico

The central medieval area of Rome includes the districts of Navona, Pantheon and Trevi, which are always filled with throngs of tourists photographing the sights and filling the eateries. Although it’s a bit of a jam at times, especially around Trevi, for me there are few things better than wandering the romantic streets around Campo Fiori and Piazza Navona on a warm summer evening soaking up the incredible atmosphere.

There must be hundreds of restaurants in this part of town but many of them are tourist traps that will happily fleece you of upwards of €100 without blinking an eye, so at least make sure you ask how much something is before ordering it. There are some good little places to be found though…

Fiaschetteria Beltramme (Intermediate A), 39 Via della Croce

A classic trattoria near the Spanish steps selling trad Roman dishes since 1889. It’s best to get here early at about 7.30 to beat the crowds because they don’t take reservations (hence the lack of a phone number). 

There are several tables set for four but as a lone diner I was seated at a large table laid for eight which I shared with a Japanese and American couple, two Finns and a German, all of whom turned out to be foodies who had hunted the place down. Conversation ranged from secret Roman restaurants and Yorkshire beer to Singaporean cuisine and cured reindeer meat. It’s amazing what you can learn through a shared love of food.

To start I had the soup of the day; a stew of chickpeas and pasta hoops in a hearty broth (A), and to follow, Pollo alla Romana, three chicken legs stewed with tomatoes , onions and peppers until the meat was falling off the bones, wonderful (A). On the side Carciofo alla Romana (artichoke heart braised with mint, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil), another tasty local classic (B). I had a quartino each of the house white and red with each course and both were very good for table wines. To finish Zabaione (aka Zabaglione)with two chunks of amaretto biscuit, also excellent (A). Total cost €48, very good value considering the location.

Il Desiderio (Intermediate B+), 23 Vicolo della Palomba, Tel; 0668307522

A Gambero Rosso recommend down a side alley in the old town. I had 3 courses and 3 wines here for €42, which is very good value given the location. The cuisine is modern Italian although the ambience is quite retro with distressed wooden tables and second hand fittings. They also found favour with me by having old cutlery from Sheffield (my home town). To start I had Alici in Prato (anchovies marinated in cider vinegar in a green sauce of parsley and green pepper) (€8) which were nice enough (B) but didn’t blow me away. I had a half litre of rather poor but still drinkable house (C) white ‘Calice’ (€7).

Things picked up though on the second course with the (A) Ravioloni di Orata al Pesto di Balsilico (pasta pockets of Bream smothered in a delicious basil pesto) (€9) which I demolished all too quickly.

Portions are quite small (for me) so I felt the need for a secondo of “Apuna” Arrosto di Vitella con Speck e Zenze (roasted veal with Chianti, brandy, speck and ginger) (C) (€10), which sounded great on the menu but looked rather unappealing on the plate. None of the constituent ingredients were particularly discernable and it failed to impress, however the potato puree that it came with was some of the nicest mash I have ever eaten (A+).  

I had this with a glass of excellent Morellino de Scansano red, a variety of Sangiovese from Tuscany (Aia Vecchia 2009) (B+) (€5), I also had a Grappa Riserva Marcati (B) (€3) which was disappointing in comparison to the Amarone riserva I’d had a few days earlier.

The food can be really good here but not every selection is a winner. What I appreciate the most though is the policy of trying to provide good innovative food at a reasonable price. All power to them.

Obika Mozzarella Bar (Intermediate B), 38 Piazza di Firenze, and many other locations.

One of the best things I have ever eaten was a still warm ball of super-fresh mozzarella, bought directly from the producer’s shop (in Aversa, Campania).  No other mozzarella has compared to it since but I still can’t resist trying to relive the experience whenever I see it on a menu. We’re talking the real stuff here of course, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. This bright modern place is part of a chain currently taking over the globe. Adapting the sushi bar concept to mozzarella and other Italian antipasti, they are now in several world capitals, including London and Tokyo, with swish bars that profess to specialise in this wonderful cheese.

You can find Mozarella here in several forms;  blobs, sheets and braids.  I went for the traditional balls with a tasting tray of three types, two named after the regions they are from; the Paestum (in Campania), the Pontina (in Lazio) and a smoked version (also from Paestum). The Paestum won it for me, having slightly more milky creaminess than its rival. However since coming here, I’ve decided smoking is a waste of good mozzarella. Its simplicity of flavour is its essence I’d say and the smoking dominates too much. The olives and cherry tomatoes were very tasty though.

However at €19.50 (€22 at Fiumicino airport) this is a bit of a rip-off really when you think that I paid €3 for a larger, fresher and therefore better tasting ball of cheese just a few kilometers down the coast at Sperlonga, in the Pontina region. Also a warm glass of Sauvignon cost me €4, not good. The service was so nice though that I forgave them just about everything.

On closer study of the menu, they did seem to have good value lunch trays for €12.50, using speciality cheeses and hams available from regions all over Italy. The cheese option has three other types of cheese and two marmalades (Mandarin and red onion) with oven baked crostini. The meat option has three cured meats, including a favourite of mine, Prosciutto di San Daniele with crostini and tomato pesto. There are lots of salads available so it’s probably a good place for veggies.  And in this square, a good spot for people-watching too with a large outside terrace and chairs of different heights, although the tables are a little cramped. One opening near you soon?

Il Gelato di San Crispino (Intermediate A), 3 Pizza della Madallena

The best ice cream in Rome according to some. I had a tub (they don’t sell cones) of their signature version which was great. Lots of other unusual flavours like whisky or fig. Several more places to try out before I decide…

Caffe Sant ‘Eustachio (Intermediate A), Piazza Sant ‘Eustachio 

Large famous coffee bar near the Pantheon that’s home to one of Rome’s most famous blends. Water is supplied to the cafe from a Roman aqueduct built in 19 B.C. and local espresso experts say this adds to the flavour. Who am I to judge, but it’s a better bitter cuppa anyway.  Probably cheaper to drink it standing at the bar than sitting down outside.

So this is just a little taste of a million things to do in the old town. There are so many I’ve yet to experience and I still  find something new every time I’m here. One of the things I like most  is just walking around and stumbling upon little surprises you weren’t expecting…

If you’ve got a soft spot for cats, as I have, then a visit to the Sacred Area on Torre Argentina is always part of the round. A huge colony of feral cats lives amongst the ruins, and there are literally cats everywhere you look.

One Response to “Rome – Eating in the Medieval Centro Storico”

  1. I’ll second the recommendation of the Beltramme: on a street (in an area) crammed with bad value tourist traps it stands out. Its daily specials often have interesting stuff. Fort example on a recent visit they were doing spaghetti carbonara esteve (summer carbonara) which was made by substituting pieces of fried zucchini (courgettes) for the usual bacon or pancetta. Excellent idea.

    And if you’re in this area you can also visit Antica Enoteca (also known as L’Enoteca Antica) further up the street at 76b. Cavernous, late 19C fittings (reminds me a lot of the old style Victorian pubs you used to find in London: all worn brass, dark wood and spotty mirrors), vast wine list (from Ligurian vermentinos to passito de Pantelleria), good range by the glass, reasonable restaurant attached and a tavola calda at lunchtime. Also Sky Sports on TVs and, the last time I went anyway, a music track of 80s UK synthpop (ABC, Erasure, Heaven 17, Phil O and co, Yazoo, etc, etc). The bar staff seem used to, or at least unphased by, people joining in the chorus to “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?”. Recommended. For some reason the bar staff ring a bell at 10.30, look at each other meaningfully and go round collecting up glasses. Quite nostalgic for those of us who remember closing time. Following this, however, they continue to serve drinks just the same as before, which recalls that other lost British drinking institution: the lock-in. God knows why but go here if you can. Order at the bar, collect your drink there, pay for it all at the cashier by the door when you leave.

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