As you saw in my earlier post Agrodolce: Our favorite Roman trattorias ten years on, we spent six weeks in Rome in the spring and early summer of 2013. During that time we revisited many of our favorite restaurants from when we lived our version of la dolce vita back at the turn of the centry. In that first post was a review of La Carbonara in the Campo dei Fiori. In a followup posting called Agrodolce: Infinitely Curved Pizza we reviewed Sora Margherita. Both of these old favorites were a disappointment. And the bad streak continued with Agrodolce: Gastro-Deletion on the Accretion Disk where we reviewed Costanza Hostaria. Things turned around, though, with two visits to one of our all-time favorite restaurants, Casa Bleve, reviewed in Agrodolce: Rinascita Gastronomica. And we were relieved to find that our favorite fish restaurant in Rome, Baia Chia, was also as excellent as ever (see Agrodolce: Pesce Così Succosa Dolce) as was Trattoria Da “Oio” a Casa Mia in the Testaccio (see Agrodolce: Unfairly Besmirched by a Blogger). And some old favorites, such as Da Enzo (see Agrodolce: Of By-Gone Burberi and Burrata) and Tram Tram (see Agrodolce: A Meal Worthy of a Grilled Saint) even improved with age. A final surprise was still waiting for us, though.
There is a renaissance underway on Rome’s Esquiline Hill. This makes Fulvia and Lucullus happy because our very first Roman Love Shack was on via Merulana. It had three (!) terrazos and was located on top of a block that held at least three bakeries, one of which, Panella, exemplifies the gastronomic market fragmentation between the Esquilino and the Centro Storico.
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Rostra rating: 4
In the latter the major revenue stream comes from tourists, while on the Esquilino the lucre flows from Romans. One of the best and most expensive bakeries in town, Panella adapted to Italy’s economic woes by providing a cheaper alternative to traditional dining venues with food of the same or better quality. Panella has an aperitivo buffet that provides excellent value for money as long as you only have a glass of wine or two with your prix fix unlimited nibbles. The place was jam packed almost exclusively with locals every evening Fulvia and Lucullus wandered past the nearby Nymphaem of Maecenas.
Panella has a lot of local competition from the gens Roscioli’s recent renovation of its Esquiline outpost near the piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. We used to call this place “the nice ladies’ bakery,” because they would always give Fulvia a treat to sample while Lucullus shopped. It reopened about a year ago, fully revamped as an eat-in tavola calda.
The Esquilino is also home to the city’s only traditional market that boasts significant ethnic variety. Like the Testaccio’s market, this one was moved about five years ago from its historic location encompassing the Piazza Vittorio to a purpose-built structure a couple blocks east on Via Alfonso Lamarmora. Here one can find Middle Eastern, North African, and Asian specialties and spices as well as Rome’s largest collection of Halal butchers. As an added bonus, the Italian vendors at this market consistently sport the best prices in the city, again because their main clientele are well off the beaten tourist track.
Hours of operation: Tues.-Sun.: 12:30pm – 3:00pm, 7:00pm – 11:00pm; Closed Monday
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Rostra rating: 4
The only disappointment in our old neighborhood was Vecchia Roma (see Agrodolce: Gastro-Deletion on the Accretion Disk), but if we had not fled in horror from the tour bus hordes and children’s birthday party one balmy night with our good friend and former landlord Julius Caesar (Lucullus likes this one, as opposed to his famous name-sake), we would never have discovered the sleeper of our whole trip. Fourteen years ago Morgana was a mediocre trat at best, serving up sturdy, if pedestrian, renditions of lasagna and beef tagliata. So when Julius Caesar suggested we opt for a meal after we had hastily decamped from Carlos di Formaggio, Lucullus was skeptical to say the least.
His fusilli with onion sauce, capers, olives, and bacala blew away all doubts, however. Lucullus tried this pasta on Julius Caesar’s recommendation since he is far more of a trencherman than his namesake was. The onions were completely broken down, melding perfectly with the salt cod, briny salt-cured capers, and earthy kalamata olives. Spot on, no messin’.
Fulvia boldly went where she almost never goes, plumping for more corkscrews sauced this time with a cherry tomato and anchovy sauce. But she loved this intense ‘chovy and ‘mater flavor bomb. It was the very definition of minimalist ingredient-driven pasta that yields maximum taste bud impact. The generous use of very good olive oil in the preparation produced a wonderful and lingering umami mouth feel.
Julius Caesar had the daily special of bombaloni with swordfish, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and pine nuts. A very subtle dish on a night of otherwise robust cuisine, but the flavor was quite good. It was nice to taste the big ridged rings of pasta in and of themselves, since the rich semolina taste of very good factory-made Italian pasta is often missing due to stronger sauces or inferior product. This dish was old quintessential old school Roman trat. The other key element of the dish was texture, blending the soft fish and vegetables, the al dente pasta, and the crunchy pine nuts that would have been even better if the kitchen had bothered to toast the pignoli (one of the few slip-ups encountered during the meal).
Lucullus’ dining companions were satiated with the pasta course, so for the second Lucullus dined with Lucullus (as he must every so often in order to provide MudGuide’s readers with the requisite amount of detail in a restaurant review). Amongst the list of classic Roman dishes that dated back to the time when this area of the city was encompassed by the pleasure gardens of Maecenas lay oven baked lamb’s head with rosemary potatoes.
Warning: This preparation is not for the faint hearted.
The lamb’s head is split and filled with bread crumbs, herbs, drenched in olive oil, then baked in the oven with pealed and diced ‘taters. The meat came easily off the bone, soft and delicate — halfway between abaccio and coratella — the eyes were particularly taaaasssty. But the brains were the best part, meltingly soft and impregnated with herby oil. The potatoes had a wonderful flavor, due to their means of cooking in close proximity to all the oil and lamb juice. They were saturated and unctuous. Styled a “connoisseurs choice” by our waiter — clearly impressed with a straniero who left nothing of Lambchop save a pile o’ bones on his plate — its very presence at our table caused Julius Caesar no small amount of trepidation. And indeed the meal did have its cost as Lucullus was forced to administer double doses of Alka-Seltzer the next day in order to accompany Fulvia on a ten-mile walk along the Appian Way… but it was worth it.
A word about the house wine. Morgana serves three varieties from Puglia, Campania, and the Abruzze–all of them excellent. There is also an extensive wine list that includes an unusual selection of hard to find Lazio vintages in addition to Italian and international offerings. We drank the Puglian white, which was a very decent coiffing wine that went spectacularly well with the robust cuisine.
For some reason, watching Lucullus scrape the remains of lambie’s brain pan for those last few molecules of neurons did not ignite in his dining companions an overwhelming desire for dessert. And Lucullus was in no mood to press on in his solo attempt to eat himself into oblivion. Observation of neighboring tables, however, left us in no doubt as to the quality of the house tiramisu, panna cotta, profiteroles, and zuppa inglese.