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 â‚¬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?”