Flavors of Old Rome

(Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2000

By the time my husband and I lugged our suitcases up four floors to our slightly bohemian sublet, we were exhausted. The cupboards were bare, so Franco and I sought whatever restaurant was nearest our apartment in Trastevere, the old, working-class neighborhood of central Rome.

That turned out to be Hostaria La Botticella, a most fortunate choice. What was so appealing wasn't just the food but also the friendly, informal atmosphere. The restaurant is around the corner from beautiful Piazza Santa Maria. It has no more than 10 tables, each graced with a linen tablecloth and a tiny vase of fresh flowers.

Two first courses of carciofi alla giudia (artichokes "Jewish style," trimmed and deep-fried to a delicious crisp) preceded trippa alla romana for Franco (native Roman that he is, he can never get enough tripe) and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) for me.

As Botticella proved that night, some of the best restaurants in Rome are hidden--tiny holes in the wall. Their grandeur, we have learned, comes from simplicity.

A trattoria is one notch below a ristorante in price and fanciness of surroundings; an osteria (sometimes called hostaria, the old Roman spelling), one notch below trattoria. Since our arrival in November, Franco and I have been rediscovering the pleasures of both, where two people can have a fine meal for less than $40, including wine.

Rome was Franco's birthplace and his home for the next 20-plus years; it's also the subject of his next book, hence our five-month stay. (He is an expert on Italian cuisine and the author of eight cookbooks.) The trip was a homecoming of sorts for me, too. In the 1960s and '70s, I lived in Italy for 13 years, six in Trastevere.

These days, Trastevere is increasingly trendy and upscale, and every third doorway seems to open into a bona fide trattoria or osteria with traditional cucina romana. We've noticed more foreigners discovering the place, crossing the Tiber River from Rome's most historic sights to the north. It's scarcely a 10-minute walk from the Piazza Navona and Pantheon across the Ponte Sisto, only a mile or so from Vatican City.

The authentic Roman food you'll find here is often described in books as, for lack of a better word, "earthy." Dishes include innards of every type imaginable: pajata (tiny, milk-fed veal intestines), muscolo (muscle), nervi (tendons), brains, gizzards and pancreas. These sound more frightening than they are. Pajata, for example, are tender little tubes that mix well with rigatoni. The less adventurous can order roast lamb, veal cutlets, pork chops and chicken dishes.

La Botticella seems to offer them all. On that first visit, Franco loved his trippa alla romana, the strips of tripe cooked in a pale, subtle tomato sauce with a hint of mint. My pieces of oxtail, cooked in a red sauce with celery and carrots, had tasty bits of meat--difficult to extract but worth the effort.

Another time, we tried a delightful antipasto, fiori di zucca, squash or zucchini flowers filled with mozzarella and a bit of anchovy, then battered and deep-fried.

The waiters--manager Alberto and his daughter--bring complimentary bruschetta to the table while diners decide what to order. Alberto also tops off dinner with biscotti, to be dunked into a small carafe of vin santo--both included in the price of the meal.

We found the pasta e ceci (pasta-and-chickpea soup, cooked with rosemary) to be thick and tasty at Da Lucia, around the corner from our temporary home.

For a second course, the baccala alla romana was an interesting dish for those who like salt cod. The Roman style of preparation calls for the fish to be soaked and desalted for two days, then cooked in a tomato sauce with pine nuts and raisins. At Da Lucia, Franco pronounced it excellent. (The other common way to prepare baccala is to deep-fry it in a thick batter, a dish known as filetti di baccala.) Puntarelle, a salad of chicory stalks sliced in strips and dressed with olive oil and bits of anchovy, was delicious.

The bill was the highest we've found in our Trastevere rounds--$45, most likely because our bottle of Rosso di Montalcino cost $12.

I knew this restaurant 25 years ago, when it consisted of four or five rickety tables stuck on the cobblestone street plus a plain little interior--a refuge in case of rain.

These days, tables are still set up outside most of Trastevere's restaurants, no matter what the season. A glimmer of sunshine and temperatures in the high 40s are enough to send hardy souls outside, faces lifted toward the sun. From spring through fall, restaurants are practically empty inside while patrons crowd tables on streets and in piazzas.

That Da Lucia asked if we had reservations and that it cost so much emphasized how modern times are impinging on my old haunts. (Despite the query about reservations, tables usually are available without them, especially when the place opens at 8 p.m.)

The other indication that Trastevere has become trendy and cosmopolitan: All the menus include an English translation--often a bit wobbly and sometimes amusing, but understandable.

Two osterie, unrelated but both interesting, are at Piazza de' Renzi. La Casetta de Trastevere calls itself a ristorante; its two rooms are a bit larger than many trattorie and have a more elegant look, with linen napkins carefully folded in artistic designs and stylish ladder-back chairs.

But La Casetta (Little House) is less expensive than some trattorie. The first and second courses cost up to $3 less than those at comparable restaurants. Our bill for two first courses, two second courses, vegetables and a half-carafe of house wine was $28.

As usual, we sampled the specialties of Rome: superb rigatoni cacio e pepe pasta in a creamy sauce of melted pecorino cheese and a sprinkle of ground pepper; black olives and fresh anchovies in olive oil; pollo alla romana, chicken cooked in a tomato sauce with roasted yellow and red peppers; and saltimbocca, tiny veal cutlets with skewered with prosciutto and sage leaves sauteed in butter and white wine.

You can't go wrong when artichokes are in season, starting in March. The carciofi alla romana (trimmed artichokes simmered in water and olive oil, then dressed with olive oil) were delicious.

Across from La Casetta is what we called the no-name trattoria. We always saw a full house through its large, paned windows, so we felt obliged to try it.

We finally discerned the name to be Da Augusto from the tiny red letters attached to the door with tape. It turned out to be one of those earthy places that used to abound in central Rome but now are rare: paper tablecloths and napkins, wobbly wooden chairs and tables, no written menus or bills, and lots of smoke.

The smoke, in fact, is worth a warning: Compared with what we're used to in the U.S., the smoke in all these places is heavy, although it's less noticeable at Casetta because of the high ceilings. We suggest dining around 8 p.m., when the restaurants begin to serve dinner.

Despite its simplicity, Da Augusto surprised us. Our waitress recounted a nice selection of specialties: coniglio alla cacciatora, a succulent stew with bits of rabbit in a creamy sauce, to be mopped up with thick slices of crusty bread; an excellent deep-fried cod; and a tasty veal stew with polenta.

Augusto himself is around and about at all times, greeting the diverse, offbeat crowd. Some are young, dressed in black and often sporting green or orange hair, or rings in various parts of their faces. Some are foreign students. Others are older regulars who look like an intellectual set.

When we requested the bill, Augusto came to our table, asked us what we had ordered, then wrote down the prices on our paper tablecloth. We left the money on the table and were on our way.

Da Gildo, near Trastevere's northern border, calls itself a ristorante-pizzeria because of its wood-burning oven. The restaurant's namesake is extremely cordial, often bringing olives and other treats to the table.

I sampled costata di maiale agrodolce, a grilled sweet-and-sour pork chop. The flavors are subtle, the sweet coming from thin apple slices and the sour from onions. Franco ordered abbacchio al forno (roasted saddle of lamb), redolent of rosemary, tender and juicy.

At Da Fabrizio, we entered to find a roasted suckling pig, just out of the oven, on a huge platter by the front door. The waiter pressed us to order it, and although it smelled heavenly, we passed.

Instead, Franco ordered a meaty oxtail dish, and I had straccetti con rughetta (little strips of beef cooked with arugula). The straccetti, which translates to "little rags," must be made with the most tender beef; otherwise it's chewy. Unfortunately, Fabrizio's wasn't the best. On a second visit, however, the restaurant redeemed itself with the abbacchio scottadito, lamb chops that can "burn the fingers" when grilled over a flame.

Our latest find, Da Otello, is far and away the best place for antipasto. We found it at the entrance to Piazza Sant' Egidio, just off Piazza Santa Maria.

A huge buffet in the dining room is devoted to hors d'oeuvres, the makings of a fabulous meal: tiny, broiled sweet-and-sour onions; stuffed mushrooms; eggplant and zucchini broiled and prepared in three ways, from mild to spicy; tomatoes stuffed with bread crumbs; smoked swordfish and salmon; and octopus salad, to name a sampling--all for $4.50.

No one seems to care how many times diners return to refill their plates. We felt guilty having only the antipasto, so we ordered main courses and macedonia di frutta (fresh fruit cup) for dessert.

Many of our Roman friends are habitues of Da Umberto in Piazza Trilussa, where the typical Roman specialties are superb. Only the osso buco, a Milanese dish, wasn't up to par. That convinced us: It's best to stick to cucina romana when eating in Trastevere. When in Rome . . .