There must be hundreds of restaurants in the Centro Storico but many of them are tourist traps that will happily fleece you for upwards of €100 without blinking an eye, so make sure you know how much something is before ordering it. There are some good places to be found though. All three of these restaurants are quite near each other in the district of Ponte or nearby in Campo Marzio. They’re all on the east bank between Ponte Umberto I and Ponte Cavour.
Neighbourhood map here. City map here.
La Campana (High Intermediate A), 18 Vicolo della Campana, between Via della Scrofa and Piazza Nicosia, www.ristorantelacampana.com, closed Monday
This is Rome’s oldest restaurant, founded by Pietro de la Campana around 1518. It’s a traditional but quite refined trattoria tucked down a side street.
The well-provisioned antipasti buffet looked tempting but I started with a local classic; Carciofo alla Giudia, a deep-fried artichoke, which is a classic dish from Rome’s Jewish ghetto (B). There was a huge outcry locally when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel ruled that artichokes weren’t kosher.
I followed up with another local classic, Coda alla Vaccinara, or stewed oxtail. I wanted to compare it with Rabo di Toro, a very similar Spanish dish which personally I prefer. It was still pretty good though (B). To drink a bottle of Cesanese, a typical Lazio red (B) and a shot of Gentiana, a digestive made from a flowering plant of the same name (B). It’s a principal ingredient in drinks such as Aperol and bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s.
My choices were fine but I’m sure you could score better than me by just ordering what you like rather than slavishly eating local dishes as I do. Definitely a restaurant I’d return to.
Il Desiderio (Intermediate B+), 23 Vicolo della Palomba, Tel; 0668307522
A Gambero Rosso recommendation, down a side alley in the old town. I had three courses and three 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 for having old cutlery from Sheffield (my home town). The lady owner said she’d picked it up second hand at the Sunday market in Trastevere.
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 white ‘Calice’ (C) (€7). Things picked up though on the second course with the Ravioloni di Orata al Pesto di Balsilico (pasta pockets of Bream smothered in a delicious basil pesto) (€9) which I demolished all too quickly (A). 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 discernible 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 dish is a winner. What I appreciated the most though was the policy of trying to provide good innovative food at a reasonable price. All power to them.
Obica Mozzarella Bar (Intermediate C+), 38 Piazza di Firenze and many other locations, obica.com
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, not the cow’s milk version. 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, and look set to continue to grow.
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.
This map shows the main areas of mozzarella production in Italy.
On further inspection of the menu, they also had good value lunch trays for €12.50, using speciality cheeses and hams available from regions all over Italy, and there are lots of salads available so it’s probably a good place for veggies. The big outside terrace is a good spot for people-watching.
There are lots more places in the area that I haven’t tried. Look at my map for suggestions.
Cafes and gelatarias next…