Rome: The Cook is in the Chicken

I leave Rome more enamored with the Eternal City than ever. Tourism inundates Florence and Venice. But in Rome, while there’s plenty of tourism, the city is big enough that, culturally, we hit it like a bug hits a windshield on the freeway — bouncing off with almost no impact. The cultural juggernaut of Rome continues undaunted…and on its own terms.

And when it comes to organization, it’s not your father’s Eternal City. Traffic is sane. Smart cars (the “VW Beetles” of our generation) park as if they’re motorcycles, nosing head-first up to the curb. Taxis now have a strict and enforced €40 rate to and from the airport (no extra fees).

A restaurateur told me that, while a generation ago, wine was all different grapes fermented into a punch called Chianti, today it’s much better. “Super Tuscan” wines are among the best in the world. Each region takes pride in excellent wines. I just drank an unforgettable wine called Montiano from Lazio (the district around Rome). “Osteria” once meant a cheap and rustic eatery (back in the days when they advertised half-servings to people who couldn’t afford much). With Italy’s new affluence, “osteria” now means quality…but not necessarily cheap.

But the new affluence isn’t changing everything. For instance, eateries around markets that traditionally and creatively cooked up the bits of meat no one would buy, still do — to the delight of discerning eaters who know their tripe. A fine example is Trattoria da Oio a Casa Mia, in Rome’s colorful Testaccio district, historic home of the city’s slaughterhouses. Its menu — with specialties like its unforgettable Pajata sauce, made with baby lamb intestines — is a minefield of soft meats.

Anywhere in Europe, I find that the most colorful eateries with the freshest ingredients and best prices are often at or near the thriving outdoor produce markets.

In responding to my blog, someone commented that I’m forgetting the value of finding cheap eateries. Not really, but I am reconsidering the wisdom of going into a good restaurant uptight (with a $30 limit) when you can trust the chef for $50 and have a grand evening. This assumes you’re finding a small and honest place with an ethic of serving a good value…rather than ripping off the tourist. That’s the challenge for the savvy traveler (and guidebook researcher). With $90 to spend for three meals, I’d rather have one $50 blowout and two $20 dinners than three $30 dinners. My challenge as I research is to find the personality-driven restaurant where you’ll celebrate that $50 check.

Because of my research schedule (visit lots of restaurants while they are busy with diners, from 7:30-10:00 p.m.), I’ve been eating late — after 10 p.m. While this is tough for American tourists, it is clear to me that restaurants often have a touristy ambience from 7 to 9 and a more elegant, local ambience from 9 to 11. Trying — and generally failing — to turn down the chef’s favorite dessert at 11 p.m., I realize why breakfast is such a small affair for many Europeans. Hardworking restaurateurs are thankful for tourists eating early because that lets them turn the tables once over the course of the evening when, without tourists, they’d just serve one late sitting.

And language skills have little to do with the quality of the restaurant. In fact, last night my waiter declared, “The cook is in the chicken.” Later, when I ordered a tonic water, he asked me, “You want lice?”

Comments

19 Replies to “Rome: The Cook is in the Chicken”

  1. Eating a cute lamb doesn’t appeal to this American, but all that lovely pasta, pizza and wine sampling sounds delicious…mmmmm. Can’t wait to travel to Italy! Happy trails for today!

  2. Are there any restaurants in Rome that feature “kitchen tables” where you can dine and watch the chef?

  3. Travel is an adventure. Trying different cuisine is part of the fun. Savor! Easter dinners must be mouth-watering in Rome. Ciao!

  4. Rick,
    We just got back from spending Holy Week in Rome — A wonderful week that included catching Pope Benedict XVI at Wednesday Mass. Your Rome guidebook helped tremendously. As a matter of fact, I didn’t realize how valuable it was until we visited the Pantheon and someone eased it from my back pocket while I was panning with my camera. If someone asks you to sign a Rome guidebook this week, please check to see if it has “Jones” written in the inside front cover. Since we took all of your security precautions, it was the only loss. And I agree with the pickpocket, it was well worth stealing.
    Greg

  5. Rick,
    My husband, our three kids, and I just got back from Rome, Florence, and Venice, and we wanted to thank you for your excellent guide to Italy. We encountered other American tourists who had their own copies and referred fondly to your book as well. We also found some who did not have your book, and it really showed in their bewildered faces (we were able to help them with a reference to your book). Most of all, I’d like to say that your current philosophy on restaurant expense and hour is excellent, but would like to add that Miscellanea (with the wonderfully fun and generous Micky)was a satisfying and inexpensive blessing for our family. The food is good and Micky is a hoot. Plus, he’s got a soft spot for little kids– mine are still talking about him as though he’s their new friend in Rome. He sent my husband and me off with a free bottle of “sexy wine” which has survived the journey home.
    Thanks again,
    Elizabeth Young

  6. We just got back from Italy and loved the National Musuem and Capital Museum. Also had no problem taking the train to Naples and then the next train to Pompeii. The Archaelogy Museum in Naples is superb. Unbelievable statues and mosaics.

    We lost a jacket we bought at UPIM and would love to be able to buy a replacement since we left it on the train back to the airport. Any suggestions about how to order from UPIM now that we are back in the US would be appreciated.

  7. My daughters, ages 19 and 24, are looking forward to a sidetrip to Rome this summer. Reading blogs like this is just all the more encouragement for them to dive right in and BE where they are. Nothing teaches the culture like mingling with the locals as they go about their everyday lives.
    Note: They got tickets on Deutsche Bahn for 58Euro apiece round trip Munich to Rome on ICE nonstop. Look at “Surf&Rail International” on bahn.de.

  8. We’ve just booked your 21 day Best of Europe and cannot contain our excitement. I am becoming more thrilled, as I read and discover, layer by layer, all that is included. I can’t wait to experience Rome. I’ve just emailed a dozen of my friends to ask them to come along.

    Thank you for your faithful attention to detail and your incredibly helpful staff. I love the website, too, and look forward to following your blog! :-)

  9. Rick,
    I just booked my tickets for Rome with plans to visit Florence, Venice and The Cinque Terre in late September. I also returned from the airport this afternoon as my daughter and her husband leave for Paris and London. They were anxious to go after we told them how beautiful Paris is. Our son has a friend at Delta and has already been to London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam this year! Now he wants to go with us to Italy! We have you to blame for all this fun! Why see Disneyworld or Hawaii when you can see Paris and Rome? Thanks a million euros for opening up Europe for us. We all use your books and they’re right on!
    Ciao,
    Tim in Marysville, WA

  10. My wife and I will be on a plane to Rome in just one week. We’re absolute newbies to Europe and have been trying to absorb your Italy guidebook. One thing we didn’t find was information about special diets. My wife has gluten intolerance (celiac disease), which is fairly common in Italy. Do you have any tips for us on eating gluten-free?

  11. I have to disagree, regarding Rick’s restaurant recommendations. We used to not use them because they were a bit too much on the low end. Now, we don’t use them because they are too expensive. There need to be some recommendations that are a bit more moderate.

  12. I went on the 21day Rick S’s Best of Europe last summer and had a fantastic experience. If anyone has any questions about that trip please feel free to ask.
    Jeanie in Texas

  13. I went on the 21day Rick S’s Best of Europe last summer and had a fantastic experience. If anyone has any questions about that trip please feel free to ask.
    Jeanie in Texas

  14. I have children with Celiacs disease and we are going to Rome, Florence and Amalfi. Can you give me names of restaurants where they can get gluten free pizza and pasta? Please help.

  15. The Italy book overlooked an important section about restaurants. I would have liked a warning that only restaurants that had a sticker on the door accepted credit cards. I expected a restaurant promoting a “tourist menu” to accept credit cards. They didn’t. The young callous waiter told me to walk over to the train station and find an ATM. With every hotel, all 3, in Italy only accepting cash, I could not take any more money out that day to pay for the meal for my two daughters and myself. Luckily a kind older American couple lent me money which I sent them after I returned. I also followed the recommendation of staying at Gulliver’s while in Rome. We were there in June. I was charged 5 Euros a night for air conditioning, even though it was hitting over 40 Celsius a day. Breakfast was not available until 8:15, so we basically were not able to wait that long every morning if we wanted to avoid the long lines.

  16. was recently in Rome and they had a line at Fillet Baccala they were overwelmed out side with a waiting list when i told him my name he said dietro so i went in at sat with locals thanks for the tip on a great place

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