The best things in Rome………..are free!

The title of this blog was supposed to be ‘ Top Three Spas in Rome‘ (watch this space for a later blog), but while doing research for that blog post I became outraged about the amount of ‘best things to do in Rome‘ articles requiring the spending of zillions of $$$. They included things like breakfasting on hotel rooftops and banqueting with 250 of your closest friends inside the Vatican palace ‘so you can experience the splendour that only Popes and royalty do/did’, while casually mentioning ‘you might like to also take in a few piazzas, the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon if you have time’. So I decided to change the topic of my blog.  I am passionate about my adopted city  because it is one of the most visually beautiful cities in the world, full of art and colour and life, it also is one of the most historically and culturally interesting.  And most of all I love the fact that nearly all of this can be experienced for free!  Yes folks it’s true, the best things in Rome are free!

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It is therefore a backpackers and budget travellers delight.  However probably because a lot of it is free, it seems that the Eternal city sometimes thinks its needs to embellish itself and add costly delights for travellers who don’t feel they are special if they don’t have to pay lots of money for something.  One of the things I love the most about Rome is that I can be minding my own business sitting around at the Trevi Fountain when right before my eyes Isabella Rossellini hops out of a taxi.  Or that I can be waiting for a table (not queuing, there is a big difference) at a well-known restaurant in Campo dei Fiori and ahead of me in the not-queue is Harvey Keitel.  Or that I can walk into Prada or Dolce & Gabbana or Versace on the Via dei Condotti and be treated like I, in my wildest dreams (and theirs), would be able to afford anything.  You could also find yourself out for drinks with any one of Italy’s international movie stars or politicians who frequent the vibrant aperitivo (pre-dinner drinks that often substitute dinner) scene in Rome’s tiny back streets.

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Rome is a great leveller.  Its streets and piazzas are open to everyone, always. It’s accessible a lot only by foot and so this makes it hard to create VIP experiences as opposed to public experiences. Rome is unequivocal, it can’t be cordoned off because Brangelina are visiting. Movie stars, models, zillionaires, dictators, mafia bosses, Prime Ministers mingle with the unknown, every-day tourist, back packer and refugee.

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Every year on my birthday (since I stopped being a backpacker and could afford to eat properly), I used to choose one of the fancy restaurants advertised in tourist magazines as being ‘the best restaurants’ to eat in.  The kind where you spend your weekly and sometimes monthly wage on dinner.  Year after year, hoping for an amazing experience, I was disappointed.  The food was always average, the service pompous (one year my husband and I had to sit near the toilets because he wasn’t wearing a tie – just a suit) and we mostly ended up stopping on the way home at one of our usuals to calm ourselves down with a real bowl of pasta and some local wine.  My point being that in Rome the best restaurants are always frequented by average Romans, even the very wealthy ones.

So when in Rome don’t spend your money on rooftop breakfasts in hotels or dinning in the Vatican museum with 250 0f your closest friends or in a fake Roman spa being pampered by Eastern Europeans or on ‘private’ tours (where in the end you will have to queue up and approach things on foot with everyone else anyway).  Here’s my tip for a fabulous Roman Day out and, apart from the inexpensive meals, it is all FREE!!!

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Begin at the nearest bar (cafe) to your hotel.  There should be one within 100 metres.  Order a cappuccino or a ‘cafe’ and a cornetto, possibly with an orange juice if you want to be healthy.  You will find the coffee is the best you have ever had, the cornetto (Italian croissant) will be light, and made that morning, the juice will be juiced in front of you and you will pay about the same amount altogether as the cost of one cup of coffee on a rooftop.

Then take your free map (get them at the airport, McDonalds or from your hotel).  Hopefully you have done some slight research (free on the internet) or have a cheap guide book.  Otherwise scroll through this blog to get to the ‘Top ten things to do in Rome‘, ‘Top ten places to eat in Rome’ etc. articles. If you are staying anywhere in the city of Rome (centro) everything will be in walking distance with plenty of opportunities to sit down, grab more coffee or juice, fill up your water bottle free at a fountain or just rest.  Start at one end of town and make your way down and then left and right as you please.  Take one to five days depending on your itinerary and energy levels and repeat in the evenings for a different view.  You can start anywhere but I have you starting at Piazza del Popolo.

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Marvel at the huge space in such a crowded city, cast your eyes up to the lush green gardens of the Villa Borghese on one side, and put it aside for another day.  Feast your eyes on the fountain in the centre of the Piazza, the churches all around it (one of which contains a Caravaggio) and the Egyptian obelisk (stolen by the Romans from Egypt).  Walk out of the Piazza and down the Via del Babuino and admire the antique shops (stop at Hotel de Russie if you want a spa – next blog).  Be entranced by your next view at the end of Via del Babuino which will be Piazza di Spagna.  Sit awhile on the staircase and admire the beautiful people and the view of Via dei Condotti, Rome‘s premium shopping strip.  Don’t forget to look in the window at Dolce & Gabbana half way down the Via Condotti, one of the best visual feasts outside a museum that you will see.

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At the end of Via Condotti you will arrive at the Via del Corso. Turn left and head towards the ‘wedding cake’ Victor Emmanuel Monument at the end of the street.  Admire the palaces and beautiful baroque buildings that line either side of this main street of Rome.  Shortly after you pass the houses of Parliament on your right, turn down a pedestrian side street on your left full of market stalls.  Follow it on to the end.  Gasp.  Get pushed in the back by other tourists behind you who don’t know why you have stopped.  Yes folks this is the Trevi Fountain, at the cross roads of three streets or ‘tre vie’.  All the more beautiful because it is contained in such a small space, wangle your way to the front and admire it sitting down for as long as you can.

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Walk back the way you came and cross back over Via del Corso to another pedestrian street full of restaurants.  Meander along the path following everyone else until you get to the Pantheon, another breathtaking moment but within a larger piazza.  Sit on the steps of the fountain in the piazza and take it all in before you head inside (for free) and view the perfectly round, 2000 year old temple, with a hole cut out in the middle of the roof that lets the sun in to highlight different sculptures around the room as the sun moves overhead.  How’s that for antique engineering??  Using your map move your way left (with the Pantheon to your back) towards Piazza Navona.

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Now at this stage if you really have had enough of Roman culture and need to recover, you could eat at the McDonalds which faces the Pantheon (and serves beer), therefore having a drink/burger with one of the world’s best views at about 100th of the cost of sitting at any of the other cafes that also surround the Pantheon.  I am only recommending this on the grounds of it being cheap and acknowledging that sometimes people need a break from antiquity (based on the experience of some of guests over the years).  Otherwise I would suggest pushing on and eating a slice of pizza, also for the same price as a burger, at one of the places around Campo dei Fiori, a bit further along in our walk.

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As you spill out into Piazza Navona and take a stroll around its race track type shape (yes it was originally a chariot racing track), admire the artists who display their wares and the magnificent fountain of four rivers in the middle.  At one end (on the other side of the toy shop) you can see the original entrance to the race track in Roman times, below street level.  Exit the piazza at the other end and cross Corso Vittorio Emanuele into cobblestoned streets that sell great pizza by the slice, and where you can sit down and eat for around the same price as McDonalds.  Take the opportunity here to have an ice-cream in the same area.  Campo dei Fiori will open up in front of you.  Stroll around the square, take in the history of this being the last place that the Vatican burnt someone at the stake for daring to state that possibly the earth rotated around the sun rather than the other way around……

If you follow most of the traffic going out of the piazza in the opposite direction from where you came in, you will eventually hit a street going off to your right which becomes a foot bridge over the river.  If you follow it you will find yourself in Trastevere, the oldest neighbourhood of post medieval Rome and home to its vibrant restaurant and nightlife.  Have an aperitivo, at any of the little bars (cafes) that line its tiny cobbled streets, standing up of course which will cost you a fraction of what it costs to sit down, enjoy the free bar snacks and choose your inexpensive restaurant to eat at for dinner!

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After dinner take a stroll along the river, meander throughout the Trastevere neighbourhood or go back the way you came for a completely different view of Rome.  We haven’t even touched the free St. Peters or Roman Forum or the many parks and gardens that are just waiting to be explored!  During your walk, or the next day, lose yourself in any one of the streets off this main beat. Sit and watch the local Roman traffic go by from a street cafe. Admire the marble columns, statues and painted plaques that adorn most buildings. Freely feast on the art inside most churches, and regularly look up to enjoy the free natural beauty of the skyline with its domes, starlings and magnificent sun sets. Now that’s something for free that’s worth paying for!

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Top 10 things to eat in Rome!

As promised nos. 6 – 10 plus another one for dessert!  For context please read the intro to my last blog as this sets the scene for the precious food tips I am about to give.  All of these dishes can be found on the menus of the ‘Top 10 restarurants in Rome’ blog dated March, 2012.

6.  Saltimbocca alla Romana.  Veal done Roman style (literally means – jump in your mouth style).  There is a theme here……each of these dishes are called ‘alla Romana’ because of the fact that the dishes originated in Rome and are mostly not found outside of Rome.  Another reason to eat regionally and where ever you are, if you see something on the menu that ends in ‘alla the name of the place you are in’ then order it!

Saltimbocca alla Romana are thin, soft slices of veal sauteed lightly in olive oil and flavoured with proscuitto and sage leaves.  Any veal in Rome is divine and no matter how many times other countries’ butchers and restaurantuers tell me they have thinly sliced, soft veal, I’ve never tasted anything remotely like it outside of Italy.  The salty prosciutto and the strong pungent flavour of the sage work perfectly to bring out the subtle taste of the veal.  Highly recommened.

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7. Pollo all Romana.  Baked chicken Roman style.  This is a simple and humble dish and very traditional.  The flavours are amazing, subtle and sweet.  It is basically cuts of chicken (not breast) that have stewed most of the day with a variety of peppers (capsicums) of all colours, some wine, garlic, herbs and tomatoes and produces tender, fall off the bone meat surrounded in delicately flavoured juices that require Italian bread to soak them up.  If you like chicken or need some protein it is highly recommended.

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8. Fegato alla Romana.  Liver Roman style.  OK I admit I am a liver lover, even the shoe-leather type liver I grew up eating, so this liver dish is a real treat and I have often converted non-liver lovers to it.  The liver is very thin and delicate, and is fried using a bushel of white onions and olive oil so that it tastes almost sweet.  It is like eating a deconstructed pate.  Romans have been cooking offal for centuries and they have it down pat!

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9. Carciofe alla Romana.  Artichokes Roman style.  Vegetables are served as separate dishes in Italy and are not included as part of the main dish. They are worthwhile ordering just on their own though, perfect as a simple starter or instead of the main dish.  Carciofe alla Romana are artichokes cooked in Roman mint and garlic.  Roman mint can be found in any park or nature strip in Rome.  Just walking on a park or naturestrip disturbs the scent and you can then identify it.  It is different to other strains of mint and tastes a little sweeter and subtle than other varieties.  I am just intrigued by the fact i can have a local vegetable cooked in a local herb.  It is cooked by boiling it with the ingredients mentioned before and comes to the plate hot, soft and wet and flavoured with the squeeze of a lemon and some olive oil.  They are fantastic with a basket of bread as a light lunch with a cool glass of local Frascati white wine – yum!

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10. Puntarelle.  Little points (aka translation is useless just trust me).  This vegetable dish contains a riot of small green things that look and taste a little like celery, but come in the shape of a small squid or octopus (the ends are all curled up).  They are served with olive oil and flavoured with a few anchovies, vinegar and garlic.  They are fresh, tangy and divine to eat.  They are found only in Rome, in autumn, and are the ends of a vegetable that no one, not even a large amount of Romans I asked, knows the name of.  They are notoriously difficult to prepare and are therefore best eaten at a restaurant where someone else has had to chop, scrape, soak, slice, and marinate them.

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11. Torta della  Nonna.  Nana’s/Grandma’s cake.  This is essentially a custard tart topped with pine nuts and is found in every cafe and restaurant in Rome.  It is light and delicately flavoured with just a hint of lemon.  The pine nuts give it a crunchy texture and add taste.  If you really want to understand and appreciate the flavour of the pine nut I highly recommend the pinoli gelato, pine nut gelato, also found prolifically in Rome.

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I have now made myself so unbelievably hungry it is time to go!  Next week more about Francesca and less about food as we all give ourselves time to digest!

I will throw out a challenge though.  How many of you can make all of these dishes before my next blog?  Reports and photos required.  All recipes are found easily, and in English, by googling the names of them.  Buon appetito a tutti i miei amici.

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How to enjoy a Roman Autumn (Fall)

Autumn is a great season to visit Rome in because the city is fresh, crisp and relaxed.  The weather is a perfect and steady 24 degrees with sunny, blue skies.  The blistering heat has finished, the colder months have not yet started, and the rain of spring is far away.  Romans have returned from their summer holiday months and are tanned, cool and refreshed; ready for work, and if that includes the tourist trade then the service is much better than you would get in the baking hot and crowded summer months.  There are also fewer tourists as most of the Northern hemisphere has taken their holidays and have returned to work.  Airline tickets cost less; everything is open, and the city is back to business.

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Here are my top ten tips for how to enjoy a Roman Fall/Autumn.

1.  Plan to walk a lot.

Autumn is perfect for walking (as is the city of Rome).  It rarely rains, is not too hot, and the sunshine and blue skies set off the rich colours of the city and its monuments perfectly.

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2.  Visit a park (Villa Borghese, Villa Ada, Villa Pamphili)

Sunshine will filter in through the green foliage of the summer growth making any park seem cool, lush and shady.  But there will also be evidence of the season, with colours changing to yellows and browns and crunchy leaves underfoot. Tracks will be dry and easy to walk on, summer mosquitos will have gone and the air still warm and balmy.  A Park is the perfect accessory for autumn.

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3.  Visit the Municipal Rose Gardens of Rome.

Internationally acclaimed and featuring over 1,000 varieties of roses they are still blooming ferociously in autumn.  Although not publically listed as open in autumn (they are only open officially for a few weeks in May and June), I was walking past the other day and they were definitely open and being visited.

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4. Don’t go to the beach.

As tempting as it maybe for some of you from colder climes who don’t get much opportunity to go,  the beach will generally be shut in autumn in Rome.  Romans are seasonal creatures and will finish going to the beach at the end of summer (21st September), no matter what the temperature.  Most beaches are privately run and are fenced in and will be closed due to lack of clientele.

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5. Don’t look as though you are going to the beach.

Likewise if you are still wearing shorts and sandals in autumn it will be noticed.  My summer clothes were noted and commented on a few weeks ago in my neighbourhood in an unfavourable manner by a fellow customer at my local café.  There is a season for everything in respectable Roman society, and in September to December it is autumn, and the attire that represents that (closed shoes, longer trousers, jeans, layers, light cardigans, cotton scarves, etc.).

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6. Shop for last season’s cloths.

Many shops, though not in the trendiest parts of town, will still have remnants of their summer stock, from cloths to bags.  As no self-respecting Roman would be seen dead in the colours, fabrics, or shoes of summer, the prices are rock-bottom and on offer to the tourists who are the only people that will buy them.  Stock up!  Rome’s last seasons’ stuff is what the rest of the world will be wearing in a years’ time.

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7.  Eat seasonal delicacies – Funghi Porcini, Puntarelle, Carciofi alla Romana, Roasted Chestnuts.

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Funghi Porcini are large flat mushrooms that taste earthy, nutty and quite unique. They are one of my favourite things to eat, made all the more special by the fact they are available for only a few months of the year.  I recommend eating them grilled and as a stand-alone dish. They don’t require any other accompaniment than bread and the fresh green olive oil, parsley and garlic they will be cooked with.  Most people are hooked after one taste.  If you are a bit shy and need to dilute your first experience then I recommend ordering the Tagliatelle ai Funghi Porcini, a thick egg noodle/pasta delicately flavoured with fine slices of Funghi Porcini.

Puntarelle (little points) is a vegetable dish.  They look and taste a little like celery but come in the shape of a small squid or octopus (the ends are all curled up).  They are served with olive oil and flavoured with a few anchovies, vinegar and garlic.  They are fresh, tangy and divine to eat.  They are found only in Rome, in autumn, and are the ends of a vegetable that no one, not even a large amount of Romans I asked, knows the name of.  They are notoriously difficult to prepare and are therefore best eaten at a restaurant where someone else has had to chop, scrape, soak, slice, and marinate them.

Carciofi, artichokes are a Roman speciality in general but prepared alla Romana is even more typically Roman.  Again it is ordered as a vegetable dish and will come as a single, large artichoke soaking in its own cooking juices of lemon, mint, garlic, parsley and boiling water and garnished with olive oil.  It is magnificent!

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Roasted chestnuts will be available on every street corner in the centre of the city.  Roasted over a coal fire you can buy them in small paper scoopfuls.  They are warm, nutritious, richly filling and slightly sweet.  They make a perfect snack or an excellent (and very cheap) breakfast along with a coffee.

8. Sit in the sun.

It is one of the best recreational activities of the year.  Winter it is too cold to sit still outside, summer it is too hot to sit in the sun, spring is unpredictable.  Autumn has long, lovely, warm days full of a sunshine that caresses without burning, stimulates and sooths, tans and smooths, gently washing away negative and stressful thoughts.

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9. Watch the sun set.

The sunsets of autumn fill the sky with brilliant reds, oranges and yellows that blot out clouds and pollution and linger on for hours.  It is as though the sun needs to go out with a bang in its last season of dominance; that it needs to remind us all of its majesty so that we don’t forget its importance and power as we live through the winter months.

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10. Go to a Vineria.

If Parks are the perfect accessory for autumn and sun sitting the perfect recreational activity then the Vineria is the perfect resting place.  The evenings that darken early, and the slight chill in the air when they do, force you inside at a time usually too early to eat but perfect for the partaking of a little wine, cheese and salami – the trifecta of the Vineria.   Vinerie serve only that (although some can also entice you with dinner once you have settled in), and from around early evening (just before sunset).  They specialise in an exhaustive range of wines and usually have shelves of bottles that line the walls from floor to ceiling as part of their decor.  Cheeses and salamis will be offered that match the wine you choose, and the small, cosy and intimate nature of these establishments will make you glad that you chose your sojourn to Rome to correspond with the magnificent season of autumn!

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Top 10 restaurants in Rome (6 -10)

Hello all,

The rest of the list is a bit later than expected.  We have been through some trying times recently which I will blog about next.  In the meantime here is the rest of the list!   Although I did say they would be in order, upon reflection I can’t order them as they are all so different and depend on what kind of dinning experience you are seeking.  The caveats from the last blog still apply though.

 

6.  Ai Spaghettari – P.za di San Cosimato, Trastevere 57-58-59-60

A beautiful, succulent and rich experience of a typical, contemporary restaurant, that has nevertheless been around for half a century or more.   It is based in the most traditional part of Rome, Trastevere, a mostly pedestrian only precinct, which is now packed with restaurants and is an enchanting neighborhood to eat in.  Ai Spaghettari is always noisy, has the television blaring, and is always full.  A pizza oven greets you at the door and you can watch while your pizza is made, being flung up in the air and all. There are vast amounts of seating outside and in, and service and menu are both good, featuring lots of traditional Roman specials.  If you don’t book you may be waiting a while but you will get a seat eventually.

 

7.  Pizzeria Popi Popi – Via delle Fratte di Trastevere 45, 06-589-5167

I avoided going to this restaurant for years as it looks like the typical tourist trap often found in Trastevere.  Red checkered table cloths, tables set outside in front of a beautiful, white marble church, and filled with tourists.  Then my Italian husband and his mates took me there.  Now we know the waiters by name.  Frequented by both Italians and tourists alike, its cheap and cheerful outdoor atmosphere make it a superb summer Roman dinning experience (and indoors for Winter).  They have a large and traditional menu (including pizza) and the food always tastes surprisingly good for its quick production, volumes turned-over, and large variety.  Their Tiramisu is one of the main  reasons we keep going back.  By the way, once I asked the waiter what the significance of the name was.  He told me its the sound that Italian men make when they squeeze the breast of a woman “popi, popi”.   Booking is optional, just turn up and the waiters will look after you.

8. Ciak – Vicolo de’ Cinque, 21 ,Trastevere 06 5894774

Carnivores unite! The window is packed with hanging dead animals of the kind not often seen – boar, pheasant, deer and hare.  If you need an iron or blood fix this is the place to come.  Deep rich, red salamis of wild boar, pastas with venison ragu, stews of hare, Fred Flintstone steaks of beef, pork and veal are all on the menu here and nothing much else.  If meat is what you are after you will get any kind your heart desires (including heart…..).  It feels like you are eating in a Tuscan agroturismo with bare brick walls, lively noise and Chianti bottles everywhere.  The huge open grill is at the front and you can go and choose your type and cut of meat before cooking.  Best to book as it tends to be a restaurant that people go to specifically for this kind of food.

9.  Spaghetteria L’ Achetto – Via dell’Archetto, 26, Trevi Fountain 06 678 9064

This is the Frat Boy version of these top ten restaurants in that it has foregone all the add-ons of Italian cuisine and just focuses on the pasta.  Exactly 100 different pasta dishes can be ordered here and not much else.  But why would you bother coming here for anything else, their pasta dishes are fantastic?  Originally another restaurant I stayed away from as it seemed too gimicky to be good food to me, but I was dragged again along by my husband and his mates who had all eaten here for years.  Once I tasted my Fiume di Londra (London Fog) pasta dish I understood that no short cuts had been taken in delivering high quality, mouth watering food by focussing on just one type of dish.  This is a great place to go when you are sick of the same menus in all the other more traditional restaurants of Rome, although here you can get the traditional plates as well of course.  Try also the Pasta al Limone and the Penne alla Vodka a traditional dish that many restaurants disdain to put on their menus but is delicious and won’t make you drunk (although perhaps best not served to children).  Their vegetable dishes and Tiramisu are pretty good too.  Seating is outside partly and right on the cobblestoned street so cars will pass at your elbow.  Inside there is plenty available although it is a bit warren like, underground and airless at times.  If you book try to sit outside or ask for a table close to the entrance.  This restaurant is literally around the corner from the Trevi fountain.

10.  Est, Est, Est – Via Genova, 32, Nationale  06 488 1107

This is a gorgeous, out of the way, nourishing and cosy restaurant.  It is situated off the main shopping strip of Via Nazionale, close to Termini and right at the end of a dead end street.  It serves most things but I come here for the pizza which is slightly different from the pizza you will get in most of Rome.  Instead of the delicious light, thin-crust pizza that is typically Roman, these guys follow the Neapolitan tradition of thick crusted, doughy pizza bases.  Most Roman pizzas, like their pasta dishes, have two, maybe three toppings on them.  Don’t be tempted to do more, especially not in this restaurant, as you will be unable to finish it.  Toppings  are designed to enhance the pizza base not drown it out, similar to the toppings for pasta.  For example the best pizza is usually the Margarita (named after their last Queen) which consists of tomato paste, mozzarella cheese and basil (the three colors of the Italian flag) .  The wood panelled walls and old-world decor make it a relaxing and casual dinning experience, inexpensive and a nice place to eat as a couple or in a small group.  The menu is not large but has most traditional Roman food on it.  It is small, quieter than the other restaurants and has high quality food.

 
 
 

Italian food at The Beautiful Frogs B&B

So lets begin with breakfast.  It starts with home made bread, often warm which has been baked in the stone oven just outside the dinning room, under the covered terrace, where it is possible to eat in the summer.  The bread is accompanied by home-made berry jam, freshly squeezed orange juice, and of course coffee.  There is usually also home-made apple pie on offer, in thin slices.  It is more of a tart really, flat, full of soft, pungent winter apples and topped with shiny, light, home-made pastry.  It is a simple Italian breakfast and just what you need to start you off on a walk through the hazelnut groves to the bubbling creek below, or to fortify you to climb straight up the hill to view the waterfall.  For those who are really energetic, once you top the hill it is possible to keep walking until you hit a medieval hill-top town, over the next ridge and stop off for a coffee.

I have never wanted to range that far when I am at Le Belle Rane (The Beautiful Frogs) as I am afraid I won’t make it back in time for lunch.  If you are eager and do happen to arrive ahead of time for lunch, there are always a couple of kilos of nuts in a wooden platter, on a long trestle table on the covered terrace, that you can stave your hunger off with while taking in the view over mountains, fields, and woods.  Lunch always begins with green olives, tart and fleshy with the pips still in them, tiny squares of local sheep’s cheese (pecorino) and chewy, bite size portions of salami that tastes bloody (in a good way), fatty (in a you know its not good but it feels good anyway way), and are delicious.  Combined with the home made bread, local red wine, these three antipasto delights whisk you away into a frenzy of sated, Tuscan type feelings, even though you are not in Tuscany.

And that is the thing I love most about Lazio.  It isn’t Tuscany.  Lazio, the province in which the B&B is in,  is the province around Rome that circles it for about an hour or two in every direction.  Its variety is about the same as the whole of Italy and spans rocky cliffs, snowy peaks, medieval hill-top towns, and natural hot water springs, waterfalls, spectacular views of olive groves, lakes, and beautiful seas.  But its like the 100th beautiful woman in a harem.  Surrounded by so much other beauty, one never quite gets to it.  Most visitors are taken up by Rome, the entire time they are in Lazio, and when they think of Italian countryside they think of Tuscany and the Cinque Terra, at a push Umbria or the Amalfi coast.  And I for one am glad.  It means that Lazio remains cheap, under visited, and under populated and that I have snowy peaks, soft rolling hills covered in olive groves, deep forests, sparkling clean creeks to myself, or at most, with a handful of other Italians also seeking anonymity and tranquillity.

The Antipasto at Le Belle Rane is followed always by a pasta dish.  Today it is a thick chewy spaghetti kind of pasta, called Tagliolini, coated in a soft, creamy texture that is like eating edible velvet, flavoured and punctuated with hazelnuts from their orchard.  It is hot, pungent, and delicious.  I guess if you are allergic to nuts you shouldn’t come here.  Tagliolini alle noci is a timeless but finicky dish to make and I appreciate it as I would never, (could never), make it.  Then comes the “secondo” or second dish.  In Italian cuisine this is always the meat or fish dish, although it can be vegetarian also.  Today it is a glazed meatloaf studded with rosemary and surrounded by tiny baked potatoes.  The meat is mostly pork but some beef also.  It is delicious and almost gamey.  There could be some wild boar in it, our hosts tell me with a wink.  Note to self and others, when walking around, make a lot of noise and be prepared to climb up a hazelnut tree quickly if any large, hog looking creatures should come running.  Usually they will avoid you, but if scared of if they have babies they can charge.

A thin gravy at the bottom of the pan tops of the soft, meaty mixture, the potatoes are floury and hot.  A salad is served for the vegetable dish, just some plain green and red lettuce mixed together.  Oil and balsamic vinegar are on the table as is the bread and continuous, seemingly self filling pottery jugs of wine.  In an Italian meal the vegetable is served separately to the meat or fish dish, sometimes at the same time, sometimes afterwards but always on a separate plate.  Traditionally fruit and nuts would follow before a dessert, but in most cases these days, this dish is substituted for the dessert, or not served.  Our dessert is served some time afterwards thank goodness, and is simple.  Some plain but creamy yoghurt with a dollop of their home made berry jam in it.

Three days of this and I am ready to face Rome again.  At Le Belle Rane the breakfasts are always the same, but the lunch and dinners change although they are always five courses.  I sample a polenta with steamy, tangy tomatoes sauce and pork ribs, a BBQ of pork belly, tiny lamb chops and chicken thighs, ravioli, a vegetarian tart of spinach and ricotta and a vegetable called “cavolo nero”, or black cabbage.  It is a black, long leafed cabbage, is found growing wild, and is a rare and wonderful experience.  It grows for less than two months around Rome, and is the equivalent to taking a months worth of antibiotics.  It is a “super food” with the highest amounts of vitamin C and concentrated vitamins in one plant possible.  It is boiled and then “ripassato “, meaning cooked again with olive oil and garlic in a pan, sautéed lightly.  Another dish that I find hard to prepare, let alone hard to find, I eat it continuously until there is none left.

I arrive back in Rome and spend the rest of the week dreaming of quiet hazelnut groves under a foot of water, rushing waterfalls, hills wreathed in mist, warm baths, wood smoke and hazelnuts.  Just another weekend at Le Belle Rane.