New Year's in Rome
We arrived at the Rome
airport only to discover our flight cancelled, relegating us to spending New Year's Eve in Eternal City. Alas . . . the horror.
Already in the city of classical anitquity and papal purview for ten days, we returned to the heart of the Trastevere district,
in a third floor apartment overlooking the Piazza St. Maria and its 12th century basilica adorned with delicate frescoes and
Trastevere, across the Tiber from much of the rest of historic Rome, is as old or older than any
other part of the City. It has a lived-in character that persists today, and is full of family-run businesses and unpretentious
shops and restaurants, it is a place where people walk the streets, from piazza to piazza just for the joy of doing so. One
of our favorites was just below the apartment--the Piazza de Santa Maria in Trastevere is dominated by an imposing former
Palazzo, now Vatican territory, and the church of the same name. It was here, legend has it, that years before Jesus's birth,
a sibyl prophesied his coming and said that a well of oil would flow from the ground on his birthday. Bernini designed a fountain
for the square, which one can enjoy while dining or having coffee. Despite the fact that before we arrived we thought the
cafe life would be shut down by late December, daytime temperatures are actually quite pleasant, with clear blue skies and
As firecrackers and the appropriately named Roman Candles burst and boomed in anticipation of tomorrow,
we walked the streets of this ancient neighborhood, originally a Jewish district, site of a holy miracle, and later home to
many wealthy Roman family Palazzos. Trastevere has great character--quite a statement in a city of amazing architectural and
historical quality unparalleled in the world, the seat of classical Roman civilization and a mighty contributor to Renaissance
humanism. Reminding us in its contemporary state of a cross between Greenwich Village and SoHo with medieval streets, Trastevere
denizens also enjoy a plethora of restaurants, food, and dining options, from fancy osteria to lively trattoria and some of
the city's best pizzeria. Add to this food stores, wine bars, pastry shops, and open-air markets and you have a gustatory
Not that we care a lot about food, but we had already witnessed Rome at Christmas, received the Pope's blessing,
and noted the Romans' fierce patronage of restaurants. In fact, Roman restaurant culture rivals that of anywhere we had seen,
at least during the holidays--a time when in North America the culture dictates family feasts, not going out to eat. Rome
at Christmas means that every restaurant is packed and reservations remain unavailable days or weeks in advance, at not just
the Michelin-starred destinations, but also every neighborhood grill. We had lucked into a local osteria that offered us a
table a little earlier than the expected crowds, and we enjoyed a festive ambience and fine cuisine amongst ever-increasing
crowds until every table in the place was filled.
For New Year's Eve, this restaurant culture becomes even stronger.
The newspaper on December 30 reported record numbers of restaurant goers spending record amounts of money for fixed menus,
wine, of course, coffee, champagne, and a festive atmosphere. "We will lock the doors" informed the proprietor of
Gino's di Trastevere when we requested a table not too near the entrance. Those unlucky enough--think of our fellow airline
passengers--to have no reservation the day before St. Sylvester's feast face a fate of wandering Rome's maze of medieval,
cobble stoned streets, hunger-filled and with every dining room ablaze and full of good smells, but their entry securely blocked.
Somehow we had slipped onto the reservation list of this popular Trastevere restaurant and pizzeria, with the necessary wood-fired
oven, less than stuffy atmosphere, and very pleasant service.
To say that Rome's denizens take with alacrity to New
Year's Eve celebrations would be an understatement. Dinner at Gino's passed well--octopus salad with olive oil, rigatoni with
lobster, seafood risotto, and a well-prepared fish fillet followed by mille-feuille pastry in a light creme anglaise and Spumante.
We then made are way up the Gioniccolo Hill, a relatively easy walk from Trastevere and one of the highest points around the
city. Thousands thronged here, lighting off firecrackers, torches, and every variety of firework--small and large. People
ringed the display, keeping out a watchful eye for any particular sparkle or light from the hundreds of similar festive gatherings
all around the ancient city.
To understand the fireworks in central Rome, one must understand that it is still a city
where most buildings are at least three-hundred years old, with many dating back one- to two-thousand years. There are no
particularly tall buildings except for the domes of the basilicas scattered across the landscape. So every Roman Candle sent
up that night anywhere in the city was visible to us on the Gianicolo. As midnight approached, fireworks were sent aloft from
every piazza--and there are many--in every district. Near by and far away, the bursts of red, pink, purple, blue, green, and
bright white brought the night sky to immediate life. Occasional booms accompanied the largest and nearest bursts.
sprayed champagne, sang in groups, and generally had a great time.
La Buca di Ripetta
Via di Ripetta, 36
Tel. 06 321 93 91
This charming restaurant not far from Piazza del Popolo tries
hard. High quality table linens. Banquettes and wrought iron lamps. Cozy ambiance. The menu is great: diverse and obviously
with some modern culinary touches, without loosing its Roman sense of place.
However, the promise of a great menu goes south when most of
the dishes you request are unavailable: stuffed rabbit, tenderloin with porcini, puntarella salad, pear ravioli. Had the wine
not already been poured on hearing that the house lacked yet another of our selections, we would have left. The food we did
finally consume was good-- fresh pasta with seafood, raddichio ravioli with Gorgonzola sauce, squid ink pasta with baby octopus,
shaved artichoke salad—however the size of the secondi was uniformly small. The beef medallion with barolo sauce came
with no sauce; the veal roast in tiny slices and mediocre. The wine list is well selected.
iL ViNAiO has the best selction of wines for under 12 euros a bottle we have seen in central Rome, as well
as an excellent assortment of grappas, alcohols, and liqeurs. Like most enoteca, it also has bottled sauces and condiments,
as well as biscotti and other sweets. It has become our favorite for daily wine purchases. The owner gladly provides
advice and will choose within your price range. Bottles we have seen in other shops for 16 euros are 13 euros here.
We've never had a bad wine from Il Vinaio!
Enoteca Il Vinaio
Via dei Potoghesi, 5
Tel. 06 6897 4068
A Trattoria to Skip
Settimio (al Pantheon)
delle Colonnelle, 14, Rome, Italy
Tel. 06 6789651
Lessons in how to not run a restaurant.
|Don't advertise ingredients you don't have
This family-run trattoria is the closest eatery to our apartment at Piazza Capranica, not far
from the Pantheon. A first visit last year had forged in our minds the idea of returning specifically in late Fall to sample
the pasta with white truffle. The ambiance is charming enough, Roman style, and the food we tried was decent, though
not spectacular. However, the white truffle dish appeared heavenly when we saw it served by the owner to an adjoining
table of two distinguished-looking Italian gentleman who had come specifically for this dish.
We reserved the day before for 9 p.m. on a Saturday night and specifcally asked if white truffles would be available.
We arrived exactly on time
to find a line consisting of several couples. No one was asking if anyone had reservations, and there was no book or list
in sight. At least 4 different staff members asked us how many we were, but to no avail.
They seated 3 couples ahead of us, even after we told 2 different members of the Settimio clan including the
peripatetic owner, that we had reserved the day before. We waited between 10 & 15 minutes for a table, standing in
the dining area looking into the kitchen (and watched the cook throw a dirty door mat onto the floor without washing her hands
The restaurant was full,
but obviously the management's intent was to cram as many people in as possible, service be damned. Fill the tables!
Indeed, we expected some slowness, however service dragged even by Roman trattoria on a Saturday night standards. We
finally received our wine, water, and bread and ordered, including--of course--the white truffle tagliolini. No problem.
The waiter did inform us that the grileld porcini mushrooms and
the fresh wild mushroom salad we wanted were not available, so with dissapointment we ordered a mixed salad and an anitpasti
After another long wait, the waiter appeared
with the appetizers, which failed miserably; both a disgrace to Italian cuisine with its ususal emphasis on freshness
and bright flavour. The salad came limp and barely dressed; the antipasti with burnt beans and crusty polenta
that had been wrenched of moisture by too much time out on the kitchen counter. Far from superlative. But . . .
we were waiting attentively, expectantly for the pasta.
After an hour and twenty minutes at Settimio, the waiter arrived with a bowl of tagliolini, a bowl of grated
parmesan, and a spoon. No white truffles, he said, kind of timidly hiding the pasta dish behind his back. On top of the tagliolini
were . . . black truffles.
told the waiter this was unacceptable and he disappeared to deal with another unhappy table receiving a wrong order. He then
finally went to the kitchen and hid out before returning to tell us there was absolutely no white truffle pasta avaiable.
We immediately demanded the check and decided it was time to
inform him about the true quality of the antipasti. He disappeared again and returned about 5 minutes later with il conto.
No offer was made to reduce the bill after we had wasted 1.5
hours waiting for a house specialty the restaurant had promised to deliver.
We assembled at the cash register to find the same waiter writing up tickets. Not even lifting
his head, he intended for us to wait yet longer to take the credit card, scribbling away at a little desk with the credit
card machine by his arm.
Irate, to say the
least, we demanded in broken Italian and fluent Spanish that he take the card and let us pay without further delay. The owner
intervened and converted from the charming characteristic host to an unapologetic and argumentative old man. No white
truffles today, he said. The best thing he did was dramatically crumple up the bill an waive his arm for us to leave, which
we happily did, seeking out a still-open Chinese restaurant at 11 p.m., an evening ruined.
--Write down your reservations and honour them
--Don't take guests
with no reservations before guests with reservations
--Great and acknowledge guests when they
walk in the door
--Inform diners at the outset about what is not available that's
printed on the menu
--Don't take an order for white truffle tagliolini--the most
expensive item on the menu and the house specialty-- and then wait more than an hour, when the dish is to be served,
to tell your client that you're out
--Be courteous, apologize, and make a gesture to keep your
guests happy when a mistake occurs
Settimio is unlikely
to learn these lessons, but other restaurateurs might.
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Ristorante al Pompiere
Via S. Maria dei Calderari, 38
Tel. 6 686 8377
Having sampled the
popular Pompiere's food and service periodically over 8 years, the latest judgment is not favourable. A Jewish Ghetto restaurant
listed in numerous guidebooks and also popular with locals, the ambiance is unique--2nd floor rooms with very high
ceilings, stark white walls, fading artwork, and huge street-light lamps lending an overly-lit ambiance to everything. Families
and business people at times fill the three halls—for lack of a better word—awaiting carciofi a la giudia, fiori
di zucca, and cod fish.
At its best Prompiere satisfies with character and good food.
The classic antipasti are very good. There's no better place for carciofi alla giudia. Service is somewhat clinical.
However, our latest encounter—and we were going back based
on previous experiences, because we wanted to—failed miserably to impress, except in negative ways.
Other than the appetizers—which remained good to excellent—the
food we received ranked from poor to middling. We appeared to be the only table ordering the highly recommended “daily
special” Zuppa di pesce. The seafood risotto turned out to be asparagus risotto, and arrived undercooked and dry. Both
pasta dishes came to the table a bit too much more than al dente, glomming onto teeth like glue. The accompanying sauces
lacked any depth or richness.
The Zuppa was a display piece, with good fresh seafood flavor,
but impossible to eat—with so many tiny bones in the chunks of fish it was like chomping down on a pin cushion. Eggplant
Parmesan was middling and overcooked—no attempt to be anything special.
The waiter and the kitchen argued with us over sending the undercooked
risotto back, with the Bengali waiter who spoke good English two seconds earlier suddenly switching to rapid, accented Italian.
After a little delay, he informed us that the risotto was fine because other tables were eating it.