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. And one trat that wasn’t great in the past, Trattoria Morgana (see Agrodolce: Maecenus Would Have Been Proud) turned out great this time. But our track record of good vs. bad made us begin to doubt our methodology…
We were more than a little distressed to find an almost even split between our old Roman faves that had declined precipitately or completely disappeared and those that were as good or even better than before. This observation led to a second bout of doubt on Lucullus’ part concerning our choice of venues in the first place. Perhaps there was a thriving gastro-system of classic Roman trattorie out there that we had never encountered over the last decade and a half. Fulvia and Lucullus are creatures of habit when it comes to dining out in Rome, and perhaps victims of bad habits with respect to picking restaurants with staying power.
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We decided to see if we still had the mojo with respect to picking good trats, so we went to La Campana—considered one of the ten best trattorias in Rome by local food blogger and historian Katie Parla (see Trattoria Da “Oio” a Casa Mia in Agrodolce: Unfairly Besmirched by a Blogger). For an article in the Guardian newspaper, Ms. Parla described La Campana as “the quintessential destination for a long Sunday lunch.” Thus a meal there would not only serve as a sanity check on our culinary perspicacity, but could also act as a tie breaker concerning the utility of local food bloggers when in Rome.
Lucullus thus dutifully booked two days in advance at La Campana for our last Sunday lunch in the Eternal City only to find out that we had been relegated one of the worst tables in the restaurant (the stranieri side room as it turned out). The place was only half full at 2 PM so they could have moved us no problem, but they did not. This bad start was never really mitigated.
We began with the vegetable antipasto buffet (self-service). The best of these was carciofi a la Romana served at room temp, very soft, very flavorful. The wonderful olive oil that the ‘chokes had been cooked in really helped with the mediocre bread.
Next best were the broad beans in tomato sauce, unusual for an Italian antipasto, tasty and tender. The grilled eggplant, however, was very salty. The baked version with bread crumbs herbs and tomato sauce was better, but the skin was charred and not very pleasant. The little sweet onions were nice but one-dimensional as was the chicory, which needed heat and was a bit tough.
Menu-recommended grilled calamari was correctly cooked and had decent flavor, but it was almost rubbery in texture; either frozen, or more likely, on the push list given it had been around since Friday or before.
The fettuccine al ragu was nothing to write home about. The pasta was fresh but slightly over-cooked while the ragu tasted sharp (a sign that it had not simmered long enough in an earthenware pot on the stove top).
The house wine sports La Campana’s label. The white was a potable trattoria plonk, crisp with lemony citrus notes; it went well mixed with fizzy water on a hot day.
The service was lackluster throughout, but the bill of 60 Euros was decent VFM. Lucullus’ verdict on the sanity check lunch was that (in this case at least) he and Fulvia are possessed of a better-calibrated trattoriameter than Katie Parla.
Here’s some good advice… take food bloggers (especially expats) and their mobile applications with a grain of salt. While we respect and envy anyone who has the time and access to plumb the depths Rome’s culinary treasures, time and again MudGuide was disappointed by food bloggers’ restaurant reviews and opinions during our six week sojourn in Rome (in addition to this review, see Sora Margherita in Agrodolce: Infinitely Curved Pizza). While more current and extensive than guide books, food bloggers are driven by the need to post early and often as well as to monetize their web sites in order to underwrite their life styles. There is no harm in this business model and a lot of potential good for travelers. There seems to be a tendency, however, to go for quantity rather than quality of food venues and highlight what is in vogue over the traditional, as well as to engage in binary love it/hate it assessments of the establishments reviewed.
MudGuide cannot overcome local food bloggers’ “boots on the ground” advantage in Rome or anywhere else, but we employ a depth-first approach that they do not seem capable of providing. We would much rather re-review an old fave than search out the new and trendy. Also, the typical food bloggers’ market niche is much wider and farther up the tail than MudGuide’s—definitely in tourist territory. Tourists seem to be on a perpetual “trip of a lifetime” while travelers know that they will probably be back to a city or region that they like and they have the time for multiple visits to restaurants, markets, shops, etc. when they are there. This makes their experience much closer to that of locals (MudGuide’s gold standard).
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of our extended stay in Rome this year was how many stall owners, chefs, and gourmet purveyors remembered us after a decade precisely because we had spent enough time with them that they could tell the difference between us and wallets on legs. Our goal at MudGuide is to help our readers achieve a similar status within the temporal dimensions of their stay.
Bottom line: Local food bloggers offer an excellent initial planning tool, but be sure to check with MudGuide before deciding on a meal or a purchase.