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Taste of Travel: Italy

Dining Where the Romans Do : Trattorias serve up excellent fare for much less, plus offer camaraderie to boot

July 14, 1996|MARY S. SIMONS | Simons is former editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine and a former "Look" magazine editor who was based in Rome

Rome is my second home. I have lived here, off and on, for 25 years, first in the late 1960s and early '70s with my husband and two small children, and now for months at a time each year.

It was in Rome that I learned to cook most things Italian and where I ferreted out the best of the affordable trattorias . . . the places where Romans eat their lunch each day and join their friends for evenings of great food and camaraderie. Though Rome boasts many exalted restaurants (in terms of both food and price) it is in the trattorias where one finds the best of the local fare.

Romans are demanding diners. They think nothing of sending back pasta that is not prepared to their liking. They insist on smelling fish before it is cooked. They are particular about their pizzas, which must be made in a wood-fired oven. And they have remained persnickety even though their dining habits have changed dramatically in recent years.

Ten years ago Romans ate like trenchermen. That is no longer necessarily true. Many now savor lighter meals when dining out and, like Americans, have forsworn multiple courses, opting instead for an appetizer and an entree.

The following restaurants, all in the middle of the city, are simple trattorias where two can dine on pasta and/or antipasto or on salad or vegetable and pasta with house wine for a mere $20 to $30, low by Roman standards, where it is easy to spend $100 for two at a top-line restaurant.

There are caveats, of course. Eat what is in season. It's better, fresher and cheaper. Fish is expensive. Trattoria desserts are usually not worth the money (save it for gelato later) and choosing from the wine list, rather than the house wine, can drive up the check. Most places will not charge the usual $1.50 for bread if you say you don't want it. Roman tap water is safe and free.

These cheerful little restaurants usually are not crowded at lunch, but reservations are recommended for dinner. Go after 8 p.m. to enjoy the scene and linger as long as you wish. Be prepared for smoke. Romans may eat less, but they seem to smoke as much as ever.

Location counts, especially when dining alfresco, and Osteria AR Galleto (known to Romans as Da Giovanni because the owner is named Giovanni) is on the Piazza Farnese, setting of the city's most beautiful palace, Palazzo Farnese. That makes it a great choice in warm weather because there are tables outside against a backdrop of the Renaissance palace, with a cornice designed by Michelangelo. At lunchtime, chic young couples arrive on motor scooters that they park next to their tables. The bucatini al amatriciana (pasta in a tomato sauce with pancetta), one of the true tests of a good Roman restaurant, is top notch. Veal, served several ways, is pink and tender, and the abbacchio (lamb) is rich and flavorful. Pasta is about $7.50 and meat courses are about $10. A quartino of wine (two glasses) is about $4.

For dinner, Al 34 (the number referring to the street address) is a great choice. Close to Rome's most chic shopping street, Via Condotti, Al 34 is packed in the evening with elegant signoras whose husbands park (illegally of course) their Mercedeses out front and young couples who spend a lot of time chatting on their cellular phones during the meal. The walls are deep red, the landscape paintings are easygoing, the tables close together. It is a place where reservations must be made a day in advance. The menu is seasonal, and the grilled fish is fresh and prepared carefully. Seafood pasta is a meal in itself. Avoid the house wine. Two can eat nicely for about $60.

La Campana is close to Rome's famed Piazza Navona, which is graced by Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers. It's more fun at dinner than at lunch, when it tends to attract a group of rather boring business types. La Campana has some of the best genuinely Roman food in the city. The atmosphere is antiseptic (white walls and bright lights), but the food more than makes up for the dour decor. This is a restaurant where food is central and frills don't matter. The spaghetti with clams is the best there is. The fried calamari is so light it seems to levitate, and the vignarola (a vegetable combination with fava beans) is exquisite. In the evening there is always a table or two of priests, also dashing gentlemen with elegant ladies, plus a few tourists. No cellular phones are in evidence. It is definitely a place for serious foodies. Dinner for two with house wine but no dessert costs about $60, if you stay away from grilled fish.

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