The city of Rome has a cuisine infused with history. Join PATRICIA GUY in this, a festival year, as she sups and sips her way round its gastronomic delights, meeting the odd Roman ruin on the way

The city of Rome has a cuisine infused with history. Join PATRICIA GUY in this, a festival year, as she sups and sips her way round its gastronomic delights, meeting the odd Roman ruin on the way

Decanter Magazine, February 2000

  • Rome is the site of the oldest Jewish community in Europe and its cuisine reflects this influence.
  • You should also make a pilgrimage to Rome’s original wine bar, Il Cul de Sac.
  • Those looking for Rome in microcosm should visit La Campana.
  • Do as the Romans do: be bold, be brash, and give your imperial impulses full rein.
  • In its 28 centuries of existence, Rome has grown from a shepherd’s village to one of the most glorious cities in the world. Every powerful ruler – from the Caesars to Mussolini – built at least one spectacular tribute to himself in his bid for the title of ‘Noblest Roman of them all’. These huge, pale monuments sit amidst a hodgepodge of buildings – some ancient and venerable, some just plain old – and instill in the heart of every Roman a desire to be the absolute ruler of all he or she surveys. (Recognising this will help the visitor come to terms with brusque and imperious local shop assistants and drivers intent on conquering the streets.)

    Roman cuisine, however, follows fairly traditional lines. This is partly conditioned by the city’s metropolitan or ethnic makeup. Rome is the site of the oldest Jewish community in Europe and its cuisine reflects this influence with delicately batter-fried dishes, such as carciofi alla giudea (artichokes flattened and deep fried). Romans also have a predilection for lamb dishes – such as abbacchio alla cacciatora (baby lamb, seasoned with garlic, rosemary and anchovies) – and offal, which features in pajata (slow-cooked lamb’s intestine, often served on pasta). Other specialities include fritto di fiori di zucca (zucchini flowers filled with anchovies and cheese and deep fried), pasta all’ amatriciana (its sauce made with bacon, tomatoes, garlic and hot pepper), pasta coi ceci (with chickpeas), carciofi alla romana (artichokes stuffed with mint and garlic and slow cooked in olive oil), gnocchi alla romana (semolina rounds baked with cheese and butter), fettucine alla romana (whose sauce is made with prosciutto, chicken giblets and tomatoes) and torta di ricotta (a lovely delicate cheesecake).

    The hills around Rome produce mainly white wines, such as Marino, Montecompatri and Frascati. The Cesanese grape variety provides a dry, robust local red. The Cerveteri DOC zone produces reds from, primarily, Sangiovese, Montepulciano and Cesanese, and whites from Trebbiano and Malvasia. The rising star among local wine producers is Castel de Paolis. This estate produces two Frascatis and interesting blended reds (Quattro Mori and Campo Vecchio Rosso) made from Syrah, Montepulciano, Sangiovese and Cesanese, as well as a sweet wine called Muffa Nobile.

    Should you wish to get some sound advice on other wines from Lazio, or indeed from elsewhere, stop at Enoteca Trimani. This enterprise was founded in 1821 by Francesco Trimani, and his descendants carry on the family tradition in grand style. The shop carries around 2,400 wines from all over the world. A special climatised room contains rare vintages of the finest wines. So, should you find yourself in need of – say – an 1891 (yes, 1891) vintage of Biondi Santi’s Brunello di Montalcino, you now know where to come. There is also a fine selection of half-bottles and Champagnes, and an entire room devoted to grappas and other spirits.

    Around the corner from the Enoteca, on Via Cernaia, is Trimani’s Wine Bar. The superb wine list is arranged by style. For example: ‘Whites of Medium Body’, ‘Aromatic Whites’, ‘Light Reds’, ‘Great Wines’ and ‘Late-harvest and Noble Rot-affected’ wines. Here, too, you will find a good selection of half-bottles. The bar also offers beers from Italy, Portugal, France, Ireland and Denmark, and spirits and liqueurs, including rarities such as Green Chartreuse VEP (L12,000/£3.80 a glass). The menu is reasonably priced, and often gives food-wine pairings. With the foie gras, a 1990 Collio Traminer from Gradnik (L7,000/£2.25 a glass) is offered, and with a selection of blue cheese (Gorgonzola, Stilton and Roquefort), Trimani suggests a glass of Madeira Borges Secco (L7,000/£2.25 a glass). Considering the scope of the wine list, Trimani’s Happy Hour (5.30–7.30pm; buy one glass get the second glass free) is a treat not to be missed. The bar seats 60 and there are additional tables provided outside.

    You should also make a pilgrimage to Rome’s original wine bar, Il Cul de Sac. This long, narrow locale, crammed from floor to ceiling with bottles, opened 22 years ago. Guy Tamba, one of the five partner-owners explains the bar’s history: ‘We were all university students looking for something to do. So when a friend and I took a trip to Venice and saw what they were doing there with wine, we decided to come back and open the first wine bar in Rome.’

    Il Cul de Sac’s list includes 1,400 wines and is arranged by region. Each section includes a description of the area’s most important wines. Take the opportunity to try a lively and lusciously sweet Brachetto d’Acqui from Braida (L31,000/£10 a bottle), a Piemontese producer also known for its superb Barberas; the Turriga Rosso from Argiolas (L63,000/£20 a bottle), one of Sardinia’s most important producers; or a gulpably fruity Morellino di Scansano from Tuscany’s Moris Farms (L19,000/£6.12 a bottle). The menu offers a wide variety of dishes, from simple snacks to more substantial fare. Everything we sampled was simply delicious. We ordered a trio of pâtés (L12,000/£3.80): hare in cognac, wild boar, and pâté di campagna. We also tried a scrumptious chickpea mousse in a tangy, lemony olive oil, on a base of tuna and pine nuts; a subtly seasoned babaghannosh and a fine selection of cheeses from France and Italy. Our tablemates, Cul de Sac regulars, sang the praises of the tripe and the roast beef.

    After lunch, why not stagger down to Piazza Navona and stake a claim to a sidewalk table at I Tre Scalini to enjoy the ultimate chocolate dessert: tartufo. This chocolate sauce-drenched ball of chocolate ice-cream enhanced with chopped cherries and crunchy chunks of chocolate, was invented some 50 years ago by Umberto Ciampini, then owner of Tre Scalini. Piazza Navona is a nanny’s meeting point on weekday afternoons and on Sundays it fills up with artists, mimes and puppeteers. It is a splendid place to sit and watch the passing parade.

    In the course of every trip there comes a moment when your soul cries out for peace and harmony. Agata e Romeo will provide you with a small refuge of dining perfection. Its two elegantly appointed rooms seat 35: the food is award winning and the wine list is a dream. Agata Parisella, the chef, and her husband Romeo Caraccio, the sommelier, have compiled 1,200 wines of astonishing quality. Here you will find 1955 Biondi Santi Riserva, 1957 Mouton-Rothschild, 1964 Haut-Brion and 1942 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino, to name but a few of the fine older vintages. Are you looking for something a little more youthful? How about the 1985 Lafite or the 1989 Latour? The restaurant also offers a fine list of half-bottles and a very ample list of dessert wines, many of which are available by the glass.

    You may order alla carta. However, there are two set menus, one of which, the Agata e Romeo Menu (at L150,000/£48), includes four wines, each selected to enhance the meal. The day I visited, this menu included, zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and thyme, paired with Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Brut. Frascati Superiore Villa Simone Vigna dei Preti 1997 was served with artichoke pudding in wild mint sauce, creamed zucchini with steamed squid and chervil and rice with asparagus tips. After a white peach and mint sorbet, Romeo selected Mlecnik’s Chardonnay 1995 to go with the rolled sword fish filled with capers, olives, tomatoes and basil and the cheese course, aged pecorino with pear purée. A caramelised puff pastry basket filled with wild berry fruits in cream was paired with Maculan’s Dindarello.

    Those looking for Rome in microcosm should visit La Campana: it is historic; it is noisy (everyone shouts to be heard over everyone else); it is a slightly disorienting combination of old-fashioned grandeur and shabby modernity; and it is filled with ancient Roman ruins, one of whom sat at a nearby table the evening we dined here. The eight walnut-sized gold rings worn by this ageing lady set off the two tiny gold beads which were mysteriously affixed to her short burr of mahogany-coloured hair. The effect was breathtaking – imagine Angela Lansbury cast as a 2,000-year old admiral of Starfleet Command. Oh yes, there is food and wine here (including a 1985 Quintarelli Amarone at the bargain-price of L80,000/£25.80). La Campana reminds us that dining out in Rome is often as much about atmosphere as cuisine. So, when confronting this glorious city it really is best to do as the Romans do: be bold, be brash, and give your imperial impulses full rein.

    Written by PATRICIA GUY