On being the only tourist in a restaurant in Rome

11 May 2015

spaghetti vongole 1

My clients often ask me where to eat. Some ask before coming to Rome, per email; some ask after the tasting, which makes things complicated. Some have budget concerns, some want the recommendations to be in a certain area, some are interested in specific foods and yet others have dietary restrictions they need to watch out for. But without an exception, what all of them ask for is a restaurant that is not touristy. Some mean this to be “not catering completely to tourists” and some would rather they are the only tourist in the place.

I get it, I really do. When I am traveling, I do not want to sit immersed in a sea of other travelers either - restaurants that cater only to tourists (whether by choice or by circumstances) sooner or later end up serving a certain type of global cuisine, maybe a bastardized, dumbed down, rounded-off version of the local food or an uninformed and unsuccessful version of a foreign one. For a long time I also followed the misleading guideline of following the locals, thinking where locals eat will be the best food. Trust me when I tell you: it ain’t so, almost nowhere and definitely not in Rome.

Let me give you some facts*: Rome has a population of 2,7 million. There are about 12 million tourists to Rome every year, about 8,5 of this foreign. Only about a quarter of Italians go out to dine at least once a month. Half of this is to a pizzeria. The money Italians are spending on eating out is constantly decreasing. (Indirectly related, the money Italians are spending on food in general is constantly decreasing, too). For most Italians eating out is a matter of convenience that needs to remain cheap. They do not expect great food, they want it to be something they recognize and acceptably well-cooked. Most Italians believe food cooked at home is the best (though the increasing consumption of cheap and processed food products belies this to be objectively true, that is a discussion for an other day).

So when you ask me where to eat, my criteria is first of all the quality of the food. I will then consider your budget, area, special interest and dietary restrictions as well as availability of the venue. The number of tourists frequenting the restaurant will not be a criteria. I will not send you to the restaurant by the Spanish Steps that only sees tourists, where they overcook their pasta, add cream to their carbonara, offer salmon dishes and artichokes in July because that is what the clients ask; but I will send you to the restaurant where I had dinner last week, although every single other diner around me was a tourist, and although I will not go back**, the food was good, actually very good. That is an extreme case, sure, but most places where I send you, there will be a couple of other tables with tourists. It is just statistically not possible for it to be otherwise, especially in the era of the internet. When you see them, smile, give a little nod acknowledging how lucky you both are to find a restaurant in Rome that has great food, and then enjoy your dinner.

If you really want to be the only tourist in a restaurant, looking at the above facts-paragraph, I’ll need to send you to a pizzeria in Tor Bella Monaca neighborhood of Rome, where you’ll need to take 3 buses and a train, traveling over 15k from the Pantheon in the center, taking about 1,5 hours. You can have a pizza for 5 Euros there, it will be rapidly leavened, with tomato sauce from China and an industrial cheese-like substance on it, will give you heartburn all night and make you drink a gallon of water. I just checked the reviews, they are in Italian, English, Spanish and Russian. I guess it is a unicorn, the restaurant in Rome that never has tourists.

*: I want this post to be easily read, understood and remembered.  I looked for the newest numbers, which are not always from the last year. I rounded the numbers. There is no precision in my numbers. But they do the job. I have sources for all of them.

**: The owners were so set in their ways, their explanation of dishes perfunctory, the wines they recommend catering to a perceived global taste, although the ingredients and execution of the dishes was very good and the cellar had some very nice wines. I presume this way of dealing with guests is born out of their dealings with tourists who do not care if they use pancetta or guanciale for the pasta dish or where the artichokes come from, i can really see how the best intentions can be ground-down in the daily struggle.

Female and Foreigner in the Italian Wine Business

17 June 2014

The Local interviewed me about starting my own business in Italy. You can read it here. Of course the word misogyny had to be spoken. From sales representatives caressing cheeks (not mine) to winemakers addressing only men in conversations, the Italian wine business is full of men who still think of women in wine only as eye-candy. Luckily, there are many a**-kicking female winemakers with fabulous wines out there. Come taste the best examples with us.

Straddling the Line

15 April 2014

Between cute and real. Style and substance. Modern and old-fashioned. Trastevere and Monteverde.

That is what I’ve been doing for the last 15 days. I moved (not the VinoRoma wine studio, which remains in its gorgeous Monti location - also straddling some lines, with the 21st century tasting room and the 11th century cellar, as I am just now realizing). I have been eating out a lot - returning to places I’ve known and loved for some time but also discovering new venues. Here is a round-up.

Ai Bozzi da Giovanni

carciofo giudia

On the day before the move, we needed a break from all the packing. The sun was shining, we were in a good mood, we wanted to sit outside, but not be in the maddening crowds. This place lured us by its almost complete lack of tourists although being only steps away from one of the main thoroughfares and surprised us by its really acceptable food (which is something you learn to appreciate in Trastevere). The fried artichoke was crisp and tasty, the spaghetti vongole fresh, just like the paranza, and service was very nice, if a bit slow. Would return (but not run).

Ai Marmi

olive ascolane carciofo

On the day of the move, furniture in place but no boxes yet unpacked, we had to have dinner. Ai Marmi is close, cheap and an institution. If I have to restrain myself from saying anything negative, I can only say: The pizza is thin, as the Roman style dictates. But I can’t restrain myself from saying the negative if it is the truth: We had heartburn all night. I remembered why we did not include it on The Rome Digest. Will not return.

Gatta Mangiona

pizza umami

The place I do keep on returning to. It is inconsistent, but mostly very good, and this pizza with anchovies, capers, olives, pinenuts and oregano sang to my umami-loving palate during my last visit. And Gatta has a great craft beer and wine selection, too.

Rumi

rumi salad

The first few days after the move were filled with boxes, pizza and panini. Looking for a place to eat some vegetables without really committing to a sit-down restaurant, we remembered this tiny organic shop run by a very friendly couple. They prepare great salads and other small dishes you can eat there, perched on stools, or take away. Almost anything can be customized to your taste (or allergies). Have returned, and will return!

MozzaRé

mozzaRe2

As we slowly unpacked and found our plates and cutlery, we moved on to having picnic-style meals at home. Along with Antica Caciara, which we love and has supplied us with great ewe’s milk ricotta and bread, we also relied on this new discovery just around the corner from us. In the past, we have had great problems finding consistently good mozzarella (i.e. fresh, not gummy, not dry, not stinky, not full of chemicals) in Rome, so after 5 tries I can pretty confidently say this place delivers. Their burrata is good, too and the buffalo milk ricotta is the creamiest we’ve ever had. They are not organic, but local and have a pretty good quality. We keep on returning.

Aroma di Mare

spaghetti vongole

We went in because I didn’t verify my initial research and thought a specific chef was working here - which was not the case any more, as it turned out. Luckily it was only a lunch, which we tend to do at places where we are not 100% sure, so we could escape without breaking the bank on a worse than mediocre meal. The amuse was dry (panzanella) and tough (octopus); the pasta had past its prime vongole and was devoid of any taste otherwise, the frittura di paranza was bordering on inedible. Not returning.

Mangiafuoco km0

mf plates

First Sunday after the move was a beautiful day - we had opened all boxes but didn’t feel like cooking, being outside was far more attractive. After a walk through Villa Sciarra (never been? Go right now, when everything is in bloom) and the beautiful residential area of Monteverde Vecchio, we walked by this place and were immediately taken. All fresh, local and seasonal products; nice service that handled our critique on some plates very well; and a promising execution in the kitchen (if a bit salt-free at times). Will go back, as we’d like to support the great idea and the effort.

Il Vascello dai Sardi

vascello

I have written about the “typical Roman trattoria” before (Reatina, which I used as a bad example); and this is technically not a Roman, but a Sardinian place; but it fits the bill in that it is close to our home, it is the nonno & nonna in the kitchen as well as in the service, the TV always runs showing a slightly porn-y 70s movie, there is bad art on the walls and not everything is good (skip the unnaturally-textured and -tasting creme caramel as well as the spaghetti with bottarga that has no chance against the burnt garlic that reportedly is always included) but you know you will get a pretty decent meal on a night when you are too lazy to cook. Will return.

Cesare al Casaletto

totanetti

I believe I was the first to write about this trattoria in English (almost exactly 2 years ago!) and though admittedly I was at first mostly taken by its awesome wine list (occupational hazard), I soon came to regard it as the best trattoria in Rome. I still think so. Leonardo, the owner and sometimes chef, is the perfect host, the food is consistently very good and the wine list is stellar (i.e. offers a great selection of very good - mainly “natural” - wines at very affordable prices). We never shied away from the 1 hour / 2 bus commute to Cesare, and now it is just one short tram-ride away. Would I return? Friends joke I must have a designated table there already.

Litro

tagliere

Find of the year. Within a week, I have been there four times already. We joke that we moved because of Cesare (see above) but discovering that the much-hyped litro is so close to us was definitely the bonus. Great coffee, nice selection of pastries, carefully sourced (mostly D.O.L.) cured meats and cheeses and a small but very nice, all-natural wine selection (what’s with the prices, though?) kept pulling me back. And the really very nice staff. Now I just have to try the famed mescal-based cocktails. Have to return.

vej

we have to talk about this wine. come taste with me at VinoRoma.

on the check back / check out list (T: Trastevere / M: Monteverde):

Taverna Trilussa T

Dot. da Simone T

Meridionale T

Le Lumie di Sicilia (great expectations on this one) M

Homebaked M

Il Focolare M

Il Cortile M

L’Antica Roma M

Osteria di Monteverde M

Le Tre Zucche M

Osteria Palmira M

Tutto Qua M

One of 15 Reasons to Visit Rome

8 April 2014

Olive March 2014

In its March issue, Olive Magazine named VinoRoma as one of the 15 reasons to visit Rome - we are honored to be among such great names, and if you want to know: number 9 is our number 1!

Earlier in the year, we were also included in New York Magazine’s “five-point weekend escape plan” to Rome under “what to do”; as well as being featured under “play” for the “insider’s guide to Rome” of cruiseline’s Bon Voyage Magazine.

We are very happy and honored - let us educate you about Italian wines during your next Rome trip!