This article about Rome is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage
Rome’s dining out scene may not be as multinational as London’s, but there is still an incredible depth that is hard to appreciate in just a single visit. This is due not only to the sheer quality of so many eateries, but is also down to Italy’s regional cuisines which are far better represented in the Eternal City than in London. My original plan was to sample as many specialities from Lazio, the region surrounding Rome, and other nearby regions as I could. This plan was quickly derailed though as I got sucked into the city’s fine dining options (separate reviews of those restaurants will be coming soon) and by a fast-developing and frightening gelato dependency. What follows is therefore a greasy-chinned, pot-bellied travelogue that reflects not only some of the gastronomic pleasures to be found in Rome but my own peculiar desires. I’ve also included a few mini restaurant reviews that weren’t quite substantial enough to justify their own stand-alone reviews.
Porchetta, in a nutshell, is a deboned hunk of pork layered with fat, skin, stuffing and herbs, rolled up and slowly spit-roasted. I’ve only seen porchetta available in London from Lina Stores, Blackfoot and The Italian Farmers but none of them can quite match the porchetta I had in Rome.
I Porchettoni is a neighbourhood restaurant located in Pigneto – the closest Roman equivalent to Shoreditch, although that’s stretching it. It’s more like Peckham. Anyway, in addition to a hole in the wall serving porchetta sandwiches for take away, I Porchettoni also has communal benches inside and a full menu.
Served at room temperature in 100g portions, I Porchettoni’s porchetta was surprisingly lean with only occasional hits of fat and rind. The intense flavours of rosemary, fennel and thyme more than made up for this though.
Sadly, one cannot live on porchetta alone. Pork jowl is an under-appreciated cut of pork in London, but it seems to crop up a lot in Roman food. Pasta alla gricia pairs cured pork jowl with pecorino cheese and I Porchettoni’s version is pretty good. Seasoned with only a bit of pepper, the chewy, meaty jowl and large, firm pasta tubes make for superb comfort food.
If that’s not enough meat for you, then the coppiette is definitely worth having – as long as you don’t mind the idea of eating horse jerky. Dense, chewy, peppery and surprisingly beefy, it’s a must for jerky fans. Have dessert elsewhere though – the tiramisu was a creamy, billowy fluff of a dish that merely looked like tiramisu rather than tasting like it.
Street food doesn’t seem to have taken off in Rome, at least not to the same extent as it has in London and New York – there don’t seem to be nearly as many street food markets for example. I did stumble across a market stall selling porchetta by weight at Biodomenica, a very occasional street fair promoting organic produce that had taken up temporary residence on Rome’s Via dei Fori Imperiali. It was, surprisingly, better than the porchetta from I Porchettoni – fattier and more moist with bolder herbier hits too. The crispy crackling and chewy rind only added to my visceral enjoyment. At about €3.50 per 100g, it’s almost twice as expensive as I Porchettoni’s, but it was twice as good. Annoyingly, I’ve lost the trader’s card and email queries to Biodomenica about their identity have (so far) gone unanswered. I’ll update this article if I receive any updates – alternatively, if you know who they are then chip in via the Comments below.
Panifico Bonci is a neighbourhood bakery that also sells porchetta apparently made by an outside supplier. It’s a takeaway and eat somewhere else kind of place, unless you can grab a one of the standing room-only counters outside. Still, despite this and the lack of crackling the porchetta from Bonci was easily my favourite of all the ones I tried in Rome – meaty, moist and lip smackingly fatty with a stronger than usual taste of fennel.
Suppli are similar to arancini – stuffed rice balls coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Panifico Bonci’s suppli were crisp, free from excess oil and filled with an eggy, umami tomato stuffing. Like scotch eggs, they’re beguiling in their deceptive simplicity and layered goodness.
Just north of the Vatican, Pizzarium isn’t too far away from Panifico Bonci and in fact shares the same owner. Although this hole in the well only has a handful of outdoor seats and stand-up counters ill-suited for the lengthy queues of hungry customers, this inconvenience is well worth putting up with given the excellence of its pizzas and the low prices. Rectangular and sold by the slice at around €4-5 each, the crisp and airy crusts are far lighter than any I’ve encountered before.
Toppings change frequently and can be quite inventive, deviating from the usual Neapolitan dictates. Gently salty anchovies, milky cheese, nutty sesame seeds and surprisingly sweet and herby slices of cucumbers proved to be a saliva-inducing combination that just didn’t grow old. If that all sounds a bit too much, a combination of milky ricotta and richly umami, gently spiced tomato sauce was simple but highly effective.
Even better was a pairing of fatty, gently salty prosciutto with a similarly rich tomato sauce. The only disappointment in my quartet was the combination of woody cheese and grassy veg, a match that was just a little too subtle – especially when compared to the blockbusters that came before it.
Although it shares the same moneyed distict as Metamorfosi, this long-established restaurant is very different and apparently specialises in dishes from the Marche region on Italy’s east coast. The front half of Al Ceppo has an intriguing mix of modern and turn-of-the-last-century decors, but the rest of the dining room is decidedly more fusty and pedestrian. Service was brusque but generally efficient – at least until it came to settle up. Half an hour to get a coffee and the bill is almost enough to set my teeth on edge. The high quality of the food more than made up for this relatively brief sluggishness though.
The smoked swordfish was very meaty despite its thinness. The smokiness was more gentle than I expected, but still very pleasing. The overall effect is a little too similar to smoked salmon, but it’s still worth having.
I could eat raw red prawns all day, every day – especially when they’re as tender, juicy and zesty as the ones at Al Ceppo. They’re even better when taken with firm spaghetti in a thin yet moreish sauce.
Tender slices of duck cooked rare had a gentle fattiness which was enhanced by the subtly fruity sauce. A more pronounced fruitiness was present in the spinach – sharp, sweet grapes countered the gentle bitterness of the greens while slices of lightly malty bread provided some carby bulk.
The cannoli pastry was deeply uninspiring and stodgy, especially when compared to the quality filling. The light cream had a zesty burst courtesy of candied orange. The accompanying pistachio ice cream was merely so-so though. While suitably nutty, it was too icy and lacked the elasticity I’d come to expect from eating my own weight in gelato from elsewhere in Rome.
‘Gelato’ may simply be the Italian word for ice cream, but the Italian way of making it (less fat in the base and less air introduced in the churning process as I understand it) can produce ice cream with such a remarkable smoothness, elasticity, lack of iciness and strong flavours that it has ruined all other ice creams for me. Of the London gelaterias that I’ve tried since, only Gelupo and Le Gelateria come close to the same level of quality. There are far more gelato vendors in Rome than one person could safely eat in a single lifetime – I ended up seduced by a handful of chains. Gelato is an eminently affordable treat too at around €4 for a tub or cone of three or four flavours.
The superb smoothness and elasticity of the gelato at Fatamorgana made up for the relative lack of punchy flavours. The lapsang souchang chocolate and Kentucky tobacco chocolate variants, for example, tasted little different from a standard chocolate. Far better were the creamy ricotta, distinctly flavoured almond with rosewater and the smooth and tangy liquorice. The passion fruit gelato actually tasted of said fruit while the vanilla with apple and raspberry tasted strongly of sweet and sharp fruitiness, albeit at the expense of the vanilla.
My favourite gelato at Fatamorgana though has to be the ginger chestnut, honey and lemon. The strong flavour of ginger proved to be surprisingly refreshing, while the undercurrent of honey and lemon added another layer of flavour that prevented the ginger from becoming a little monotonous. If only it could cure colds.
Vice matched Fatamorgana for smooth and elastic gelato, but was generally far better in the strength of its flavours. Lemon was powerfully zesty, while strawberry was both sharp and refreshing. The coconut was very distinctive, unlike the vast majority of coconut ice creams elsewhere. The sharp cheesecake flavour was more like a very creamy yoghurt, while the dark chocolate was sensually bittersweet. The dark chocolate was second in my affections only to the mandarin – the very sweet and sharp taste was not only refreshing but instantly evocative of the fruit itself.
Venchi is probably the best known of the three chains here as it has an international presence including a branch in Covent Garden. Its gelato was by far the most disappointing though – although still quite elastic, it was much icier than expected. The mango flavour was muted, while the chocolate and chilli was limp on two counts – bland chocolate paired with a barely present spicy kick. The least worst of my trio was the stracciatella, a fine grained but still tame tasting chocolate chip concoction.
Located in Pigneto not too far away from I Porchettoni, Necci has a buzzing bar alongside its restaurant. Both have outdoor seating, while service was friendly, warm and efficient. Things got off to a rocky start. Pumpkin flowers deep fried in a stodgy, soft and slightly chewy batter were deeply unimpressive. It was partially saved by the sharp-tasting zucchini stuffed inside each flower, but battling my way through all that fried stodge wasn’t quite worth it.
Far more satisfying were the big pillowy ravioli stuffed with salt cod. A lightly spicy sauce enhanced the tang of the fish, while the accompaniments of fennel and broccoli were pleasingly bitter and not too soft.
The Lensman doesn’t like it when I eat rabbit, so he should turn away now. Necci’s rabbit saddle was a thing of beauty – firm rolls of bunny cooked medium rare with a salty, moreish cream of peas, porcini and prosciutto that enhanced the meatiness rather than detracting from it. The creamy mash felt homely, while the lightly salted asparagus had just the right amount of bite.
The biggest disappointment of the evening, even more so than the deep fried pumpkin flowers, was the ricotta semifreddo. Bland, icy and hard, only the crunchy pistachios coated in a chewy chocolate casing and drizzled with sweet caramel provided any enjoyment.
Rome. Can I go back already?
– The Picky Glutton