Thursday 23 October 2014

When in Rome...

Published 06/01/2013 | 06:00

Probably the question that I'm asked most often on my weekly chat with Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk is, 'Where's the best place place to eat in Rome?'

It's a question that people planning spring weekend breaks may be considering and ditto for rugby fans heading over for the Ireland v Italy game in the RBS Six Nations Championships on March 16.

Up to now, I've offered two answers – La Famiglia in Via Gaeta near the train station, or L'Ambasciata d'Abruzzo, the long-time favourite of Fionn Davenport and 'The Right Hook'.

I thought it was time that I found another, so I did some research among my Roman friends. The answer they came up with was Trattoria Perilli, famous for its classic Roman dishes.

What follows is a cautionary tale.

We were staying in a hotel on the Viminal, and I asked the concierge for a recommendation. "The only restaurant on the Viminal that has an Italian chef is the Caffe' del Passeggero. It's a classic Roman trattoria and it's just around the corner."

With that recommendation ringing in my ears, we set off for an early supper. It didn't look anything special, and Marian was doubtful. "It doesn't look good to me," she said. I said we should withhold judgment until we'd eaten.

We ordered melon and prosciutto followed by Roman lamb for Marian, and spaghetti alla carbonara followed by saltimbocca alla Romana for me, both classic Roman dishes.

After eating really well for the previous month on holidays in Italy, this meal was disappointing. There wasn't anything wrong with it; it was simply not up to the usual standards.

With hindsight, taking a con-cierge's word for where to eat probably isn't very clever. It did have one plus side: it wasn't expensive. The bill came to €56, including drinks. We'd spent nearly that much on a really simple one-course lunch in Piazza Navona, so it wasn't much for four courses.

We decided to do something very Roman; we took a taxi to Via Veneto to have a coffee in the Café de Paris. This café, and the one across the street from it, Caffé Doney, mark the epicentre of a street made famous by Federico Fellini in his film 'La Dolce Vita'. Photos of many of the greats of the world of film hang on the walls, the waiters are dressed immaculately and the whole place gives a sense of quiet elegance.

Marian had a delicious stracciatella ice cream and I had a good espresso. So our last night in Rome and our last night in Italy was something of a curate's egg – good in parts. But in a way, I had hoped for better for our farewell meal. Next time, I'll be more careful where I get recommendations.

We did have some remarkable meals during a month in Italy last summer. Just outside the city of Sora, about an hour south of Rome, is the stunning Lake Fibreno, which is created by a huge natural spring of ice-cold water. On its banks is a restaurant called Mantova del Lago, where they're working towards a Michelin star.

The views from the dining room over the lake are fabulous, and we watched otters teaching their young how to fish while we ate.

The food is seriously good, especially the risotto with courgette flowers. This is a place for a treat, and you can expect to pay about €100 for lunch for two.

At the other end of the lake, where a few houses are, is Il Vicolaccio, a small restaurant run by Giuseppe Martini. He's a jazz addict, and on Friday nights there's live music.

His restaurant specialises in the traditional cookery of the lakeside, so trout, stickleback and frogs' legs can be found on the menu, as well as many foraged wild foods, such as wild asparagus. Il Vicolaccio serves simple, genuine traditional food and is very good value.

Should you travel east from Rome and end up in the Province of Frosinone, you could visit my home town of Gallinaro. In which case, there's a restaurant there that's definitely worth a detour and it's called Il Ristoro.

It's run by a truffle hunter called Fabio, and his wife Fiorella does the cooking. Fabio has a simple system for calculating bills: he charges €20 a head no matter what you eat or drink.

So you can have your starter of pasta with truffles, then a meat course, as much local wine or beer as you want, then liqueurs and coffees and it'll cost you €20. Anywhere else, you'd pay more than that just for the truffle course.

I'm a little hesitant to tell you about another restaurant in Gallinaro in case you accuse me of nepotism, but here goes. My cousin Cesidio Tullio has just taken over the old Hotel Tramp's.

He's revamped it, made it larger and changed its name to Green Park Tullio. It's rather odd seeing my surname in huge green letters as I drive down the hill to it, but you can get very good pizzas there for between €4 and €6.

There's a restaurant menu as well, where we not only ate well, but were able to drink Cesidio's own organic red, Atina DOC Mastro Filippo, for €9 a bottle.

He's just finished building a huge roof-top terrace. The views of the valley from the roof are spectacular, and I'll definitely be dining there when he opens it.

See page 32 for Paolo's Dublin review

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