ROME — The wine menu plopped down on our table with the thud of a falling world atlas. It listed nearly 1,500 bottlings, coming from eight countries and 33 regions in Italy. Puglia. Romagna. Montepulciano. The wine list from Venezia alone was three pages.
Last month my girlfriend, Nancy, and I were on a tour of the newly popular world of Rome wine bars. What cafes are to Paris and pubs are to London, wine bars have become to Rome. They have been around for decades, but only recently have they become hot nightspots for trendy Romans.
Wine bars originally served only cheese and prosciutto. That's still true of some, but others have expanded into full-scale restaurants. From antipasto to tiramisu and all the tortellini and rigatoni in between, the fare is fresh, light and usually inexpensive.
Mapping our route revealed a connect-the-dot pattern of more than 20 wine bars across the city: from the partying hordes of Campo de' Fiori to a quiet neighborhood on the banks of the Tiber, from the university area north of Termini train station to the small cobblestone arteries that branch off Piazza Navona.
One of our favorites was an establishment called Cul de Sac, located on a quiet cobblestone street a romantic stroll from the throngs of Piazza Navona. Two rows of tables fill a cozy room, narrow like a small hallway, with classical music playing in the background. On the white stone walls, above prints depicting ancient Rome, shelves are packed to the ceiling with wine bottles. Casually dressed waiters carrying long poles with wire snares pluck down selections with the dexterity of butterfly collectors.
I looked at the waiter assigned to interpret the wine menu and saw a skinny kid with long, wavy black hair wearing a black T-shirt and three earrings. He looked 15. (Imagine a young but hip Donnie Osmond.) This kid was going to recommend a wine?
Daniele Martini, a Rome native, turned out to be 23. He has worked in the wine bar for three years and counts himself among the locals caught up in the craze. He recommended a Barolo. This Nebbiolo from the Piedmont region of northwest Italy is among the most prestigious wines of the country, prized for its complex flavors and long aging potential. My '95 Pimone Pro Cesare, from a good but not terrific vintage, cost about $5 for a glass. At that price it wasn't the best, but it was a fine introduction to the allure of Barolo and the Nebbiolo grape.
Martini has been to two of the growing number of wine schools that have popped up across Italy. He acknowledged he's no expert. ("That requires 10 years of heavy drinking," he said with a smile.) But he made it clear Romans are becoming increasingly interested in wines not just from the Castelli Romani, the hill towns surrounding the city, but also the wines from other regions.
Knowing something about wine has cachet at places like this, but that's not to say all customers can distinguish a pricey Frescobaldi Brunello di Montalcino from an inexpensive Santa Sofia Bardolino(the difference: $195.75 a bottle).
Italy's white wines haven't reached the caliber of those in France and California, but it's well known that Italian Chiantis and Barolos are world class and compare well with French reds.
Places like Cul de Sac are made for a relaxing Roman holiday, one in which our tour of wine bars became more consuming than our tour of ancient ruins.
The best part? You'll have plenty of money left over for a dolce. The wine bars can be cheap. In visiting six places in 10 days, Nancy and I spent all of $73 for 21 glasses of excellent wine. We've spent more on Friday night pub crawls back home.
The wine bars are takeoffs on enoteche, wine shops whose owners fed the deliverymen stocking their shelves. As Italy became more upscale, wine bars replaced enoteche. Saltimbocca replaced salami. Barolo replaced Spumante.
Customers cover the spectrum of Roman society: brooding intellectuals reading La Repubblica over a glass of Chianti, businessmen in Armani suits sipping Pinot Gris, laborers with torn work pants swirling a glass of Cabernet in long-stemmed crystal glasses.
We saw no snobs talking with a clenched lower jaw. No one wore an ascot. We felt very much at home. It helps that there's a wine bar in Rome for every style or mood. Here's a look at the six places (listed in no particular order) we tried based on my previous visit to Rome, guidebook recommendations and the grapevine.
Cul de Sac
Political upheaval spilled over from nearby Piazza Navona into Cul de Sac when it opened as Rome's first wine bar a few decades ago, but it has calmed into one of the city's most romantic nightspots, with tables on the cobblestone square making fantastic people-watching posts.
Cul de Sac also has one of the best wine selections in the city. Most of the 1,450 wines are available by the bottle (many in the $7 to $18 range) or by the glass for $2 to $10.