Fettuccine alla gricia, a common pasta dish in Rome, has four ingredients: the noodles, olive oil, bits of cured pig's cheek, and grated cheese. Most trattorias offer it. It's not innovative, nor is it usually presented with much elegance. It's simply an oily plate of flat, yellow noodles with some reddish brown bits of guanciale and a shower of pecorino. The pleasure it gives is hard to describe. The word delicious somehow seems too refined and cerebral, tasty insufficiently hyperbolic. Scrumptious is close, but kind of pretentious. Anyway, a good alla gricia is lipsmackingly, profoundly pleasurable to eat.
There's a difference between eating and dining. In Rome, you eat. By eating, I mean the straightforward, carnal pleasure of gnawing things that taste good. A perfect example would be another common speciality: abbacchio scottadito, which is grilled very young lamb sauced with a lemon wedge. There's usually a rib, a bit of shoulder or leg, and a chop. (Incidentally, Urdu speakers call a chop a “champ,” which has always struck me as charming, and oonomatopoetic of lipsmackingness.) Abbacchio scottadito is variously salty, gamy, fatty, and cartilagenous. It tastes extremely, intensely lambish. Impossible not to chew the bones.
Not that you can't dine in Rome: at La Rosetta, Rome's most celebrated fish restaurant, you can wear your Lanvin suit, sit with the multinational haute-bourgeoisie, and have a spaghetti with seafood that costs forty-two euros. But I had a superb (superb!) spaghetti alla vongole for eight euros at a random neighborhood restaurant. By the way, you can make this at home very easily: fry a tiny bit of minced garlic, add some white wine and the smallest clams you can find, cover till they open, and mix with some high-quality pasta (I recommend Martelli, if you can find it; I can't anymore) and a bit of chopped flat-leaf parsley. End of story. But try getting dime-sized little vongole outside of Italy that are as fresh and sweetly saline.
You can find various cheap but amazing trattorias throughout Rome, even in the center. I had the aforementioned alla gricia at Da Francesco, a great, great place off the Piazza Navona, one of the most touristic places on earth. They won't make you an espresso, though–they maintain a pre-capitalist refusal to do things they don't want to do. This attitude, actually, marks most of these places, which often treat Italians better than foreigners, may not have written menus, and generally stick to the same dozen dishes. Fior de zucca (deep-fried zucchini flowers), baccala (salt cod), spaghetti cacio e pepe (with cheese and black pepper), bucatini all'amatriciana etc., etc. It's interesting how many restaurants are locally famous for their version of a dish with less than five ingredients.
Great renditions of dishes like this are like sketches by an old artist: slapdash and assured at the same time, with no mistakes. I think it's easier to be more attuned to the subtleties of how good fettuccine can be if you try to cook these dishes at home. Cooks know first-hand that making a perfect omelet is a lot harder than a perfect fifteen-ingredient stew. The tolerances are lower when the ingredients are so few: a restaurant can't save itself by selling you on its chef's virtuosity, the fact that he or she was the first to combine vanilla beans with sea bass.
Eating in Rome is a nice curative to the U.S. addiction to deism. Chef deism, I mean. When compared to the average three-course Roman meal with a jug of decent Falanghina, which often runs you less than twenty euros, a lot of New York's Italian food and wine appears bloated, garish, and drastically overpriced. Worship of culinary innovation and virtuosity bores me, anyway. Food is less serious, and more serious, than that. The deliciousness of great Roman meals doesn't have to do with a particular chef's combinatory talent, but with a chain of proud people. Arugula that tastes so good, anchovies that taste so good, puntarella that tastes so good: these are the collaborative achievements of a gastronomico-agriculture.
The good places don't court you; actually they're willing to deny you a dish if it's not in season. I once went in search of carciofi alla guidia (artichokes Jewish-style, with are deep-fried and taste as good as potato chips). A self-respecting Trastevere (the neighborhood across the Tiber: tras-Tevere) ristorante refused, saying those artichokes weren't in season as of last week, and that the ones that were available now were only for carciofi alla romana (artichokes stewed with mint) instead. So I had those.
Not that there aren't bad meals in Rome: there definitely are. And there are establishments where popularity has led to impatience. Nice-looking spots near popular sites are usually mediocre. Waiters behaved with exasperation at the Terence Conran-ian Gusto, although their fior di zucca pizza was very fine. The crazy lines at tourist spots like the Café Sant Eustacchio make their sugary, Neapolitan espresso less enjoyable. But the level of execution at dozens of unheralded cafés around the city make up for it. My pick, simply because I had an impeccable cornetto and cappuccino there every morning, is La Cornotteria.
My last night in Rome, which was last night, I said I wanted to go somewhere typical, which began a somewhat rollicking hour-long argument amongst the assembled company, with recommendations flying around, places being called only to find they were shut (Sunday), etc. Finally it was realized that we were only down the street from a very typical neighborhood restaurant, apparently the last place Pier Paolo Pasolini was seen, eating his dinner, before being murdered. This was Al Bionde Tevere, a few hundred yards from Cestius' first-century Pyramide, which sits there randomly at a traffic circle. We walked over. It's a crappy-looking place with plastic chairs, on whose terrace stray cats torture lizards. You should try it.
Al Bionde Tevere
Via Ostiense 178
tel. 06 574 1172
Piazza del Fico 29, near Piazza Navona
tel. 06 686 4009
Via dei Vascellari 29
tel. 06 581 8355
Via Ostiense near Montemartini Musuem
Via della Rosetta 9, near the Pantheon
tel. 06 686 1002