When in Rome...
For the past few years, I've been looking for a Roman restaurant that I can thoroughly recommend. So far the best has been La Famiglia in Via Gaeta, a simple family restaurant where the food is good, the service slick and the pavement musicians entertaining.
Marian the Blonde and I were staying in what I believe has become her spiritual home, the Via Veneto. It's an elegant street lined with expensive hotels and café/bars and was made famous by Fellini's movie 'La Dolce Vita'.
At the upper end of the street, two of the most famous bars face one another across the street – the Café de Paris and Café Doney. Marian explained to me the importance of sitting down at these cafés, because only by being still could you appreciate the moving masses of humanity that populate Via Veneto. Incidentally, to say it right, put the stress on the first 'e' of Veneto.
At first sight, the prices on the bar menu are eye-watering, especially by Italian standards. Whereas in my village I'd bought a round of four drinks in the bar for €4.80, here two drinks were €17. I thought to myself, that's the price you pay for sitting in expensive real estate, but when the drinks came to the table so did a bowl of pistachios, another of peanuts and a third of crisps.
Beside them was a plate of small sandwiches, all of which was included in the €17. That was almost good value.
A few hours later we were in a taxi heading for Testaccio and we found Felice restaurant just off Testaccio Square. From the menus displayed outside, it was clear that Felice's is unashamedly Roman. The menu is populated with all the classic Roman dishes: bucatini all'Amatriciana, carbonara, saltimbocca, osso buco, spaghetti cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and coda alla vaccinara (oxtail). The menu is broken down by the day of the week, so not all dishes are available every day.
Inside it's bright and very busy, and the vast majority of the customers were Romans. Service was swift and was available in both Italian and English.
A thick book was placed on the table, which turned out to be the wine list. I've rarely seen a more encyclopaedic volume, divided into regions of Italy and sub-divided into shippers and makers. Being in Rome, we did as the Romans and we ordered a half bottle of Frascati, one of the better-known Roman whites. A bottle of sparkling water started our meal.
We decided to continue doing the Roman thing for our starters, Marian ordering the carbonara and me the cheese and pepper.
All my life I've been hearing about this Roman speciality 'cheese and pepper', but I'd never ordered it. Tonight was my first time and I was fascinated to see it done. It arrived at the table as a plate of spaghetti topped with a mound of grated Parmesan and a lot of black pepper. A cupful of the cooking water was poured on top and then the waiter mixed it all together very vigorously with two spoons.
I suspect this is harder than it looked, but when I was handed mine and took my first mouthful, I found it to be good, but not so great that I'd order it again.
All around the restaurant I watched people getting the cheese and pepper mixed at the table, so it was clearly a house speciality. Yet, to me, the star dish was Marian's carbonara, a beautiful yellow from the egg yolks, the taste of guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon) coming through and balanced by the Parmesan and olive oil. It was perfect, delicious and – just so you know – had absolutely no cream.
This may be a cultural difference – the Irish love pasta dishes that have cream, but there's no cultural difference as large as what came next.
For her main course, Marian had chosen lamb, another Roman speciality – oven-roasted and served with potatoes. What came on her plate were two pieces of lamb, composed approximately of the following proportions: 80pc bone, 5pc skin, 10pc fat and 5pc meat. This isn't so unusual; it's a result of the Italian fixation with killing very tiny lambs. Because they're so small, the percentage of bone is very high and the percentage of meat is very low. Not what Marian is used to, and definitely not her idea of roast lamb.
I'd long ago made up my mind that lamb in Italy is best avoided, so I ordered a thin slice of beef, a fettina, simply breaded and pan-fried. All it needed to bring out the flavour was a squeeze of lemon. It was a very large piece that covered the entire plate, so thankfully I was able to offer Marian some meat after she'd discovered that she didn't have any, despite the big lumps of bone she had on the plate.
A few days later, some Roman friends told us that Romans pay little attention when eating lamb as to whether it's skin, gristle, fat or even meat. That may well be true, because customers all around us were ordering this dish.
We decided against desserts, and a couple of espressos finished our meal. Marian is an inveterate tea drinker, but she has stopped ordering tea in restaurants. The sheer variety of drinks that she's been given that are quite unlike tea is amazing.
So fed up has she become with these tepid, tasteless offerings that bear no relation to tea as we know it that, recently, she has begun drinking espressos.
The coffees brought our bill to €81, about average for a Roman restaurant. Felice offers an authentic Roman experience, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will please the Irish palate.