In the past eleven days I have consumed more carbs than I thought was humanly possible. Pounds of pasta, loaves of bread, daily servings of gelato or pastries or both, and a whole lot of cheese. (Is cheese a carb?) I have a good excuse. No, I am not preparing for a marathon. I just returned from Italy, the land of carbo-loading. I cannot figure out how Italians eat so much food, and for the most part aren’t grossly overweight. Try as I might I couldn’t manage appetizers, primis, secondis, and dessert twice each day. But on a vacation that was as much a food expedition as it was anything else, I tried my best.
I easily spent twenty hours or more researching restaurants in Rome, Siena, Florence, and Venice. Eleven days meant 22 meals to plan, which is a daunting task for anyone. I succeeded in leaving home with a printed itinerary for 13 meals, figuring that some lunches would be spontaneous. Although with me nothing is completely spontaneous when it comes to food. I downloaded iPad apps completely devoted to restaurant suggestions in Rome, Florence, and Venice. If there are any doubts about the degree of obsessiveness I have about dining out, this should put them to rest. This is eleven days in Italy and I’m not fooling around. Fortunately, my husband, who is my traveling companion and photographer, indulges me in my insanity.
My research begins a few months in advance of our trip as I pour over www.chowhound.com posts and other assorted websites. Even as we travel, I continue to second guess my choices, asking hotel staff and tour guides for their input. If they are unaware of a restaurant on my list, I fret about it. But for the most part I stick with the original plan, except for the one time I am told to avoid one of my choices “like the plague.” Say no more!
Many of my restaurant selections feature creative Italian cuisine rather than traditional. Since this reflects the kind of food my husband and I appreciate most at home, I figure this will be most satisfying for us. But in each city I also make sure to include a more traditional restaurant highlighting the simplicity of local ingredients. I cannot possibly include every dish I ate in Italy on my blog. (Actually, I could but it would probably be a little embarrassing.) Instead, I will provide highlights and let the photos do most of the talking.
Our very first meal of the trip is in Rome at L’Asino d’Oro. It stays embedded in my memory as the best meal of the entire vacation. Is this because it lived up to my very high expectations of the food in Italy? Perhaps. But it also has as much to do with the experience as it does with the outstanding food.
L’Asino d’Oro, featuring Umbrian cuisine, is on a quiet street in Rome with some very nice boutiques. However, I decide that I can’t start making purchases right off the bat, not knowing what is “in store” for me in the days ahead.
Seated next to us is an American couple. We learn that they are both pastors who are on their honeymoon. We have much in common including a love for fine food. About half way through the meal, an Italian couple is seated to our left. The man begins taking photos with a serious-looking camera. I decide to inquire why they are taking photos- hoping they speak English. It turns out that they are preparing to launch a food tour in Rome. I cannot believe my good fortune in being seated next to people who can completely appreciate my excitement over my first tastes of Italy. The food is fabulous and is elevated further by the chance meeting with fellow foodies. My husband and I leave the restaurant exhilarated – and perhaps a little tipsy.
|L’Asino d’Oro eggplant flan|
My secondi or main course, is cinghiale which is wild boar, with chocolate and vinegar. It looks like dessert but it is a divine combination of sweet and tangy.
|L’Asino d’Oro cinghiale|
My husband and I share a contorni, more commonly known in the U.S. as side dish of vegetables.
|L’Asino d’Oro braised fennel with orange|
Dessert on the menu is described as foam with dark chocolate, coffee, and cinnamon. It really is a ganache, rather than foam. Amazing.
|L’Asino d’Oro chocolate foam|
The people we met at L’Asino d’Oro launched their food tour after we left Rome, but if you are traveling there check out http://www.tavoleromane.it/foodtours/en/
A number of Chowhound posts and Trip Advisor reviewers have recommended Pizzarium as the best pizza in Rome. It’s located behind the Vatican, which is perfect since this is where we are spending our afternoon. It’s a teensy place with a wide selection of pizzas, which are cut for you with scissors and weighed to determine the price. It’s very good but not quite as mind-blowing as I expect. We eat standing up at a small counter outside the restaurant.
|Pizza selection at Pizzarium|
Dinner is at a trendy hotspot in the Trastevere neighborhood called Glass Hostaria. This is a restaurant that has received numerous accolades, including a Michelin star rating. The local woman I met the previous night shakes her head a bit when I tell her we are dining there. Uh oh. But then she says “go, everyone is talking about it. There is a new chef.” This is the kind of place that I would adore at home for its sophisticated decor and menu. But somehow even though I have deliberately sought out creative cuisine, this doesn’t feel like Italy to me. The food is excellent but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone who has just a short time in Rome, particularly because the prices are a bit steep.I do like the fact that the chef is working the room at the beginning of the evening, introducing herself and eagerly chatting about the food. This is due to the fact that we are there at the frighteningly early hour of 8:30 pm and the kitchen is still relatively quiet. I have to say in retrospect that it was a very fine meal, and my memories of it are growing fonder.
|Glass Hostaria risotto with pumpkin, blue cheese and keto beer reduction|
|Glass Hostaria sumac-scented lamb with sunchoke puree and candied celery root|
|Glass Hostaria: cured whitefish with sichuan pepper, edamami, green apple and horseradish granita|
It’s time for some tradition. Lunch is at Perilli, which is a cab ride away in the neighborhood of Testaccio. This is Sunday and the restaurant is completely filled – mostly with Italian families gathering for an old fashioned meal. We’re out of place as Americans, which isn’t a bad thing. I order the Amatriciana, which is one of the most popular sauces in Italian cuisine. It’s made with dried pork cheek, pecorino cheese, and tomatoes. My husband has eggplant parmigiana. Now I feel like I’m in Italy!
|Perilli pasta Amatriciana|
Dinner is at La Gensola, which is known for fish. I have been careful with my restaurant selections to be sure that my husband’s dietary needs can be accommodated. He keeps kosher, so no meat at all and no shellfish. So far so good. In fact I have found myself ordering more options that he can eat, so that we can share- which may not be evident from the cinghiale and dried pork cheek noted above, but as I said previously I am not covering everything here so you have to trust me on this.
|Primi at La Gensola: fried fresh tuna balls with tomatoes, herbs, and provola cheese|
One of my favorite dishes of the trip is the John Dory fillet with pantesca salad, potatoes, red onion, capers, and tomatoes. I wish I could get fish that tasted this good in this country. It doesn’t happen often enough. My first bite literally shocks me with flavor.
|La Gensola John Dory fillet|