Rome can sometimes seem an immovable feast. Whether it’s down to reverence for tradition or sheer amour-propre, Romans just can’t get enough of their own country’s time-honored grub. As Gore Vidal once observed, “Rome is the only city in the world where a Chinese restaurant can open with great fanfare one week and be serving bucatini all’amatriciana the next.”
But what the eternal city lacks in true culinary cosmopolitanism, it makes up for in variety of a different kind. Until 1871 Italy was a free-for-all of truculent principalities, kingdoms, and client states. To this day, the country remains a fractious potpourri of 20 regions that vary widely in culture, customs — and, above all, food. As the capital of such a dizzying cornucopia of regional flavors, dishes, and styles, Rome’s cup runneth over with restaurants specializing in these distinctive cuisines. So when Romans want to take a walk on the gustatory wild side, they don’t go out for Ethiopian or Thai — but Sicilian, Sardinian, or Ligurian, among others.
For visitors to Rome with venturesome palates, that means a gastronomic tour of Italy doesn’t have to entail a slog to the four corners of the peninsula. You can sample it all without ever setting foot outside the city limits. Best of all, these restaurants open a window onto the heart and soul of the region whose typical fare they dish out.
On a recent trip I decided to visit (or revisit) the cream of the regional restaurants in town. Some are haunts from the decade I lived in Rome; others were recommended by Italian and expatriate friends who, along with the city’s myriad enchantments, lure me back year after year.
Geography is destiny, they say, and none of Italy’s regions better illustrates that adage than Sicily. A stepping stone at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, the island has been on the sharp end of countless foreign powers’ imperial ambitions, from the Greeks, to the Spanish, to the Arabs. Those waves of invasion have made Sicily’s cuisine as rich as the hyper-fertile volcanic soil that blankets its hilly terrain and yields some of the most flavorful produce on earth.
For a sampling of that lava-fed richness, I made my way to Capricci Siciliani. Housed in a 12th-century palazzo once owned by the influential Orsini family, the restaurant affords a chance to feast on classic Sicilian fare against a backdrop of Romanesque elegance. Warmly lighted groin vaults soar above walls festooned with Sicilian ceramics, armor-clad puppets, and rusted coats of arms. The effect is enchanting; the food superb.
True standouts are the insalata di polipo, a succulent, citrusy antipasto of sliced octopus and caponata, a relish of tomatoes, eggplants, olives, capers, pine nuts, garlic, and raisins that has a distinctly Arab-tinged sweet-sour finish. Fusilli with almond pesto is also spectacular. Another favorite, grilled swordfish alla Ghiotta, topped with a complexly spiced sauce of cherry tomatoes, olives, capers, and raisins, is as moist a slice of swordfish as you’ll ever not have to chew. Save enough room for dessert: the cassata, a ricotta-laced cake in a shell of marzipan, is a delightful ménage of spongy, creamy, and firm.
On the opposite end of the country, both geographically and temperamentally, lies Liguria, a thin boomerang-shaped strip of a region joining the slender trunk of Italy to the French Riviera. Luckily, Taverna Giulia, bulwark of Ligurian cuisine in Rome, is a mere stone’s throw from Capricci Siciliani, saving you a 14-hour overland traverse.
Ligurians were accomplished seamen, operating a merchant fleet that rivaled the Venetians’. Long months at sea noshing on bland provisions whetted Ligurians’ appetites for flavors redolent of forest and field. Hence the special place occupied by aromatic herbs in Ligurian gastronomy.
“Basil,” my genial waiter informs me, “was a sacred plant to ancient Ligurians.”
By the looks of it, the cult of basil is alive and well at Taverna Giulia. From the dark green waiters’ uniforms to the marble mortar-and-pestles in the window sills, the restaurant is a shrine to the herb that forms the basis of Ligurians’ most celebrated edible invention: pesto.
It’s no surprise, then, that the pesto sauce here is enough to make you fall to your knees in worship. Equally praiseworthy are the pansotti in sugo di noci. Plump, delicate ravioli stuffed with 12 minced herbs, they come slathered in a buttery walnut sauce. Finished off with a dash of Parmesan, they’re, well, divine.
For my next stop, I pulled a metaphysical U-turn back to the central Italian region of Tuscany for a visit to Tullio, a tony trattoria wedged between the snarling traffic of Piazza Barberini and the glitz of Via Veneto. Tuscany is said to be where the purest Italian is spoken, and, fittingly, the byword of its cuisine is simplicity: Just add a dash of olive oil and salt, and let the ingredients speak for themselves. Or, as they do at Tullio, sing.
Fortunately, the restaurant’s upmarket tone doesn’t carry over to the food, which is Tuscan fare as it should be, straightforward, unfussy, sparingly seasoned — and utterly delicious. The fagioli all’olio, cannellini beans, olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and fresh sage, are a study in sophisticated simplicity, and the pappardelle alla lepre, long, flat, perfectly al dente noodles with hare ragú, pack a dark, musky punch.
But what secures Tullio’s place in the pantheon of Roman gastronomy is its bistecca fiorentina, Tuscany’s signature dish. A Spanish friend dining with me pronounced this char-grilled hunk of lean Chianina beef, served bloody rare and unadorned, better than anything he’d ever tasted in his native land. “Or even,” he added after a thoughtful pause, “Argentina.”
After this tasty stopover in Italy’s heartland, it was out to sea again to the island of Sardinia. Forty years ago, restaurateur Valentina Tolu opened Il Drappo, a cozy and refined outpost of Sardinian cuisine a short walk from Campo de’ Fiori, and she’s run it with a steady hand ever since.
“We were the first Sardinian restaurant in Rome,” she tells me a little wistfully. “There are many others now — Sardinian restaurants in name if not substance.”
Tolu is at pains to preserve that substance — and authenticity — at all costs. To that end, every two weeks she takes delivery of a shipment of supplies from her native soil (everything from the characteristically-Sardinian malloreddus gnocchi to the island’s famed sheep’s milk cheese). Even the centerpiece of the decor, a silvery silk sheet draped in undulating folds from the ceiling, harks back to the traditions of the homeland, where natives celebrate the festival of Corpus Christi by unfurling bolts of fabric from their windows.
Curiously, fish is a fairly recent arrival in the Sardinian diet. For centuries, seafaring raiders harried the indigenous Sardinians into the island’s mountainous interior, resulting in a cuisine heavy on hoofed proteins. After a starter of carta da musica — a paper-thin, crispy flatbread once favored by shepherds and swineherds because it didn’t spoil — topped with chopped tomatoes, celery, and olive oil, I paid homage to those agrarian roots by diving, fork-first, into the meltingly tender flesh of a roast suckling pig garnished with myrtle (su porceddu al mirto, in the Sardinian dialect).
But don’t think that just because they were latecomers to seafood, Sardinians aren’t experts at working wonders with it. For my money, the best at Il Drappo is linguine al’astice, or lobster linguine. It’s sometimes not on the menu, but don’t lose heart. Ask and you shall receive.
Indeed, what you see isn’t always what you get in Rome — and what’s true of menus goes double for the city’s dining scene as a whole. Behind the veneer of predictability thrives an eclecticism every bit as varied as Italy itself. For a taste of that richness, all you need is a ticket to Rome, a good pair of walking shoes — and a hearty appetite for the unexpected.
Marc Mewshaw can be reached at email@example.com.