I’ve eaten in many places while I have been in Rome so far, and the food has not disappointed. From the small “bars” that carry sandwiches and drinks to the larger more formal “ristorantes,” I have not had anything that I didn’t enjoy eating. Of course, there are a couple of places that I will definitely remember.
The first truly memorable place I visited was Cul de Sac, an Enoteca on Piazza Pasquino, just outside of Piazza Navona. Morgan from Otto suggested that I check this place out. (He got the recommendation from a coworker at Babbo.) Cul de Sac was quite amazing, and I will try to get there again before I leave Rome. It reminded me very strongly of Harvest Vine in Seattle. The restaurant has over 1,400 wines by the bottle; there were easily 20 wines available by the glass. The portion size was on the small side; this meant that you can enjoy several dishes without getting full. I recommend going with a few people so that you can share more dishes.
My notes for my meal are sparse. It wasn’t that I was drunk or lazy; it’s just that I enjoy eating and drinking a lot more than I enjoy taking notes. When you combine this with a poor memory, you end up not remembering exactly what you ate and drank. That being said, I started out with a glass of Liguria Cinqueterre “Riomaggiore” for €3.30 while I decided what to eat. During the meal, I had a glass of Toscana Cum Laude “Banfi” for €4.20. This was a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. I would describe it like a sharp Bordeaux. It had a lot of flavor, but it was still sharp like a young red wine. I had a third glass of wine, but they pulled a switch on me, and I don’t recall what it was. All three wines were excellent.
The food at Cul de Sac did not disappoint. I started out with a small bowl of olives. They cured in olive oil and lightly seasoned with dried herbs and salt. The seasoning made all the different, and each one was a pleasure to eat. I followed up the olives with a selection of three pates. The first, and most mild, was hare with truffles. The second pate was venison with juniper berries. The third, and my favorite, was pheasant with pepper. What amazed me about all three pates was that they each were smooth and rich, yet each pate had a very distinctive texture and taste.
I finished my meal at Cul de Sac with “parmentier di verdure.” This was a layered vegetable dish. The bottom layer was spinach. This was covered by a layer of mashed potatoes that was crispy on the top. I wouldn’t be surprised either way regarding the presence of cheese in the dish. It was quite hearty and was a perfect main course.
I had a great meal at Cul de Sac. The service was quite good; the waiters shared responsibility for all of the tables. The point of sale system was interesting. Waiters would place orders using a wireless system, and every item on the menu was numbered. The menu is large; it filled several pages with small type. Of course, the wine list is impressive. Expect a photo of the restaurant to be posted as soon as I can find a place to upload my darn photos.
I wish I could say that ‘Gusto was as exciting as Cul de Sac, but it wasn’t. Before it sounds like I am ragging on the restaurant too much, please keep in mind that it was very good. In New York City, it would easily be a two-star restaurant, and I could see it getting three-stars without breaking a sweat.
‘Gusto has a lot going on. There are several separate shops: a restaurant, a pizzeria, a wine bar, an osteria, an enoteca, a book store, and a cheese shop. The entire operation takes up a large part of two floors of a city block in Rome. This is a big operation. ‘Gusto is clearly concerned about their image. (Check out the website if you don’t believe me.) I first visited the wine bar, and then I continued on to the restaurant.
The wine bar was interesting in that it offered five white wines and five red wines by the glass. There were many, many different mixed drinks and an impressive set of high-end liquors.. Most of the drinks were American concoctions, but there were a couple of house specialties. I started out with a mixed berry/sparkling wine mix that was quite good. I also had a small dish of olives and a couple of small rounds of bread with salmon and roe. The olives were not great; they were a step above olives out of a can, and were served unseasoned. The salmon was just okay. It was fresh, but it also lacked seasoning. The glass of red wine was good.
I went on to the restaurant. Although I was dressed nicely, I was dining alone and what was probably thought of as a poor table near the service station for the wait staff. I actually enjoyed the seat because it gave me a great view of the rest of the restaurant and the wait staff working.
The wines I had at the restaurant were okay, but nothing stood out as spectacular. My first wine was a run-of-the-mill chardonnay. The second wine was a very nice white wine with rich mushroom undertones, but I do not recall the name. I wanted a third glass of wine with my third course, but the wait staff didn’t ask and I wasn’t insistent. I did have a glass of Saturnes with dessert, but again, it was not spectacular.
The food was just short of being really good. If I had one message for the kitchen staff, it would be: underseasoned, underseasoned, underseasoned! Every dish I had lacked salt, pepper, or major herbs. The ingredients were ready to show their stuff, but there was no accents available to make them shine. And the dishes are so close to being great. My menu:
- Sea Bass Tartare with Pesto Sauce. Both the sea bass and the pesto were very mild.
- Round Egg pasta Stuffed with Ricotta and Mussels. This was the best dish of the evening. The ricotta had a strong egg flavor, and the mussels were full flavored and rich. There were four additional mussels on the side of the plate, and the was a subtle, rich sauce surrounding the dish.
- Pork with Apple Butter and Mixed Vegetables. This was a good, hearty dish, but I wish the pork had some sort of rub. The mixed vegetables were eggplant, carrot, and zucchini. They were prepared in perfectly cut diamond slices with a mild glaze.
- Chocolate Mousse with Hot Peppers and Orange Sauce. This dish was very disappointing. The chocolate mousse was rich and thick; it was topped by a semi-solid dark chocolate cap. However, I didn’t realize that the hot peppers were even in the dish until I had one at the very end. There was no heat in this dish at all, and the orange sauce was mild at best. It was a far cry from the habanero fudge from Third and Main in Salt Lake City.
Sitting next to the service station for the waiters, I also had a unique view of the service of the restaurant. For example, at one point, they ran out of silverware at the service station. The service was not slick; in fact, the wait staff seemed a bit harried. I was also a bit surprised when my entree plate left a dirty ring on the white tablecloth. It was a very strange occurrence considering how much importance the restaurant placed on style.
Overall, this is a restaurant to see people and be seen, not necessarily to get food. I would definitely go to ‘Gusto for drinks, but I don’t know if I would go there for wine. I’m not unhappy with my experience, but I have had better.
For brunch today, I went to Tazio Brasserie in the Piazza della Repubblica. The restaurant looks out onto the plaza and is half-situated in a four-star hotel. The food was quite good and quite expensive. It is clearly a very trendy place, but the food and service were top-notch. The first course was served buffet style. There was a selection of roasted vegetables, meats, and small fried items. I had a piece of cheese wrapped in zucchini, thinly sliced zucchini chips cooked with soy sauce, roasted vegetables, small fried pork chops, and a stuffed tomato.
The stars of the first course was the roasted tomato that came with the roasted vegetable, and the soy sauce zucchini chips. Both were unexpectedly good. The tomato tasted as if it were fresh from the garden, and the zucchini chips were full of flavor.
The second course was described as fish soup. I had forgotten that in Europe this can mean some really huge pieces of fish, and very little liquid. I wish I had remembered; I would have eaten less for the first course
I was delivered two large pieces of halibut with a crushed tomato and olives. It was a wonderful, flavorful dish. My only complaint was that the olives seemed to be machine pitted and processed cocktail olives rather than nice marinated Italian or Greek olives. Do they think their customers can’t handle olives with pits? It was an odd note in an otherwise excellent meal.
I had a couple of nice glasses of wine. I started out with a glass of Barberesca and followed that glass up with a glass of wine from Puglia. (The captain offered me a choice between a new bottle from Puglia or a new bottle from Margaux. The Bordeaux was tempting, but I’m in Italy right now.)
To finish my meal, I had an espresso and a couple of chocolate hazelnet merangues. Meringues are some of my favorite cookies: light and delicious without filling you up. At the very end of the meal, the captain brought me a glass of moscato passito. This is a light and refreshing dessert wine. It was a nice gesture.
One interesting restaurant aside: a gratuity for service is not always included in the bill and unlike the United States, when you pay by credit card, there is not a line for service. Make sure you have some extra cash on hand when you dine out so that you can leave an extra tip. The wait staff will remember you as the dumb American who left an extra tip and not as the dumb American who couldn’t speak Italian.
I am have a great time in Italy. I wish everyone I knew were here so that we could enjoy everything together. I am in Rome until Tuesday, and then I am off to Florence. If you have food recommendations, please be sure to send them my way Also, please send me any spelling corrections. The spell checker is of limited use given my use of both Italian and English.