City guide Rome

  • Tuesday 1 May 2001

TOM MARESCA goes on a wine and food lovers' tour of the Italian capital

TOM MARESCA goes on a wine and food lovers' tour of the Italian capital

Rome was once the worst city in Italy for wine. Today, with smart new restaurants, revitalised trattorias and a wholly new wine bar scene, it's one of the best. Your wine choices in Rome used to be very simple – all the waiter ever asked was: 'red or white?' – but now at even the most modest trattoria you can choose from around 100 wines from all over Italy. Happily for the wine-obsessed visitor, many of Rome's best wine destinations coincide with major tourist attractions. The Piazza Navona and the Piazza del Popolo, the Pantheon, the Forum, the Baths of Diocletian, Trastevere and the Isola Tiberina – all have restaurants, wine bars and retail outlets that, as the Michelin Guide would say, are worth the trip. Whether you want a light lunch or a full meal, you can now do so with a glass or bottle of fine wine from almost anywhere in the peninsula, and there are excellent shops to provide fine souvenir bottles for your post-trip feasting and nostalgia when you return home.

BUYING WINE

Many wine bars have full retail shops attached and many excellent retail shops have small tasting bars built in. The two best are very slightly off the beaten tourist track: Costantini, with its wine bar/restaurant Il Simposio, just behind the Palace of Justice in the Prati section; and Trimani, also with a full-blown wine bar and restaurant, about a five-minute walk from the baths of Diocletian. Costantini seems to have the larger selection of older vintages, while Trimani may have more boutique producers, but both have generous representations from all of Italy's wine zones, plus fine grappa collections and a wide array of those

current Italian passions, Champagne and malt whisky.

Costantini, Piazza Cavour 16, Rome. Tel: +39 06 321 3210.

Trimani, Via Cernaia 37B, Rome. Tel: +39 06 446 9661.

Experts agree that, besides being one of the best restaurants in town, La Pergola of the Rome Hilton has the best wine list in Rome. This is true if you've come to Rome to eat international

cuisine, but I go to Rome not just for Italian food but for Roman food, which has an earthiness and sapidity that can make ordinary wines sing and great wines create symphonies. It's not a cuisine for the timid: after Rome's beloved abbacchio and porchetta, at the heart of it is the famous quinto quarto, the fifth quarter of beef and lamb. As Roman cynicism has it, this is the innards, tails and tongues left over after the prelates and the politicians have devoured all the rest. With these and more conventional cuts of meat, as with vegetables, Roman cooks insist on the freshest and best quality, and then treat the ingredients relatively simply. The wines that have evolved with this cuisine over the centuries play a similar game – the grape or the blend of grapes are the stars, not the oenologist and especially not the cooper.

La Matricianella is a fine example of this sort of establishment. Located just a couple of minutes from the Piazza del Parlamento, it offers classic Roman dishes – a surprisingly light and elegant yet still earthy pasta e patate, for instance – as well as the whole gamut of fried dishes that Romans dote on, accompanied by a 200-plus list of Italian wines from all the regions, including the often neglected Lazio. If you must, there are even a few French and New World wines. Prices are reasonable and satisfaction is evident on the faces of the casually well-dressed Roman clientele. La Matricianella, Via del Leone 4, Rome. Tel: +39 06 683 2100. Fortunato al Pantheon and Settimio al Pantheon are similarly enjoyable, both offering ample Italian wine lists and serving many classic dishes – among them fettucine with funghi porcini, rigatoni all' amatriciana, penne arrabbiata, bollito misto, scottadita, trippa alla romana and osso buco – to a faithful Roman clientele, even in the heart of the tourist throngs.

Fortunato al Pantheon, Via del Pantheon 55, Rome Tel: +39 06 679 2788.

Settimio al Pantheon, Via delle Colonnelle 14, Rome. Tel: +39 06 678 9651.

Chianti lovers should head for Sora Lella on the Isola Tiberina and Checchino dal 1887 in Monte Testaccio. Both have excellent wine lists that are particularly strong in Chianti Classico and other Tuscan wines. The former provides artfully lightened versions of traditional Roman preparations, while the latter is a shrine to those two most intensely Roman dishes, pajata (don't ask what it is – just enjoy it in tomato sauce with rigatoni) and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). Checchino also has a great grappa cart.

Sora Lella, Via di Ponte Quattro Capi 16, Rome. Tel: +39 06 686 1601.

Checchino dal 1887, Via di Monte Testaccio 30, Rome. Tel: +39 06 574 6318.

Of the handful of fine seafood restaurants in Rome, Sangallo offers excellent value, with fresh fish and shellfish, imaginative yet restrained preparations and a modest yet complete list of both white and red wines. The set menus are well worth exploring, especially, when in season, the fish and white truffle tour-de-force.

Sangallo, Vicolo della Vaccarella 11A, Rome. Tel: +39 06 686 5549.

BAR HOPPING

Wine bars are becoming ubiquitous in Rome, the result of retail shops installing tasting counters and cafes and trattorias expanding their wine offerings in response to both local and tourist demand. Most are quiet at mid-day and livelier at night, with a fairly youthful Roman and international clientele. Almost all can provide what used to be a rarity in Rome, a light lunch – a plate of cold meats or cheeses or a single hot dish – with an interesting glass or three of wine. They tend to be simple places, with minimal décor, unless you find row upon row of wine bottles décor enough. L'Angolo Divino near Campo dei Fiori is typical: a corner storefront with a small bar and a few tables, a chalkboard listing around 20 wines by the glass (white, red, still and sparkling, mostly Italian) and a few daily food specials (try the gattò napoletano, a satisfying torte of potato, ham, cheese and bechamel). Massimo Crippa, the young proprietor, has a fine selection of Tuscan wines and a good collection of grappas. He speaks good English and loves to talk about wine, which makes this what Italians would call a very accogliente place.

L'Angolo Divino, Via Balestrari 12, Rome. Tel: +39 06 686 4413.

Vinamore near Piazza Navona always has at least six whites and six reds available by the glass, but if nothing on the printed list suits your fancy, just ask what else is available. The proprietor, Franceso Zegretti, speaks fluent English, loves wine passionately and is eager to please exploratory palates.

Vinamore, Via Monte Giordano 63, Rome. Tel: +39 06 6830 0159.

Cul de Sac is a bit more ambitious both vinously and culinarily. In warm weather its sidewalk tables make a tranquil spot for lunch or a light dinner. Don't miss the lamb's tongue with mustard sauce if it's listed and try rounding off your meal with an unusual, fragrant grappa di grignolino.

Cul de Sac, Piazza Pasquino 73, Rome. Tel: +39 06 6880 1094.

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