We spent our first morning walking (!) to Campo di Fiori. Our lunch reservation was in close proximity, and it made sense to be touristy and check it out for the morning. It was pretty early in the day, and not crowded. The stands of bright pink, green, and yellow colored liquors in boot-shaped glass bottles were somewhat off-putting, but the produce was absolutely gorgeous. Next we strolled over to Piazza Navona and found a café to get a couple of espressos and kill some time. The café was right on the piazza, and the staff was very friendly. We ended up paying through the nose for a couple of espressos and a bottle of water, but you know, “When in Rome…”. We visited the beautiful church on the piazza, and headed back to Campo di Fiori for a couple of apertivi and some sweet wild strawberries from one of the vendors before lunch.
Roscioli was recommended to us by a chef friend in Philadelphia who is originally from Rome. He swore they serve the best pasta alla carbonara in the city. The place is owned by a family who specialize in offering high quality salumi (cured meats). The front of the establishment is a salumi and cheese shop, similar to DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia, with cured meats from all over Italy, and tables crowded in the back and basement. We had the unfortunate luck of being seated right near the door to the kitchen, which meant that my chair and the back of my head got bumped every single time someone walked by, which was a lot of times. I really hoped the salumi (and pasta) was worth it.
Super excited to eat some of the best selections of salumi in Italy, we ordered a few small plates. Or what we thought were small plates. Instead we ended up with multiple gigantic plates of sliced cured meats, to where our waiter could not even fit them on the table and had to serve us in stages. Lesson number one: if at all possible, find out how big the servings are before ordering.
In addition to the salumi, we ordered an eggplant caponata. This is a dish of cooked and marinated eggplant, served at room temperature. According to Jay, this dish is never to be refrigerated, and many restaurants that make it give any portions left at the end of the day to the staff. I am not a huge fan of eggplant’s bitter skin, and many preparations tend to turn too mushy and slimy for my liking. However, this dish is a great combination of texture and flavor. The eggplant is cooked with onions, garlic, sometimes capers and/or raisins, marinated in vinegar, and plenty of olive oil. It’s not too slimy, and the skin of the eggplant is tender and only slightly bitter. It’s a sweet and sour dish and absolutely delightful.
First two salumi plates out were mortadella (left), which is what bologna is supposed to sort of resemble, and head cheese (right). Head cheese is made of the meat, skin, and gelatin from a boiled pig’s head. I realize head cheese does not sound very appetizing, and the description probably does not help much, but it really is surprisingly tasty. You are better off just tasting it first without knowing how exactly it’s put together. The mortadella was fantastic, with a grating of “vache rosse” parmesan, which is parmesan made specifically from a type of red cow’s milk.
We also ordered a sampler plate of lardo, otherwise known as lard. This is cured pig’s fat, and the three different types were from different areas of Italy. One from Colonna in Tuscany, where we had lunch one day and found they are famous for their lardo cured in marble chests. Another was from Siena, also in Tuscany, and the third was called Grigio Casentina.
Of course, we had to get some culatello from Zibello, the town where we stayed in a castle during last year’s trip to Italy. It was everything we remembered. Salty, rich, and elegant, this specific part of the prosciutto helped make this tiny town in Northern Italy famous, and it is easy to taste why.
Finally, the carbonara. This is a typical Roman spaghetti dish, made with perfectly emulsified egg, olive oil, black pepper, and pecorino cheese, with the addition of cured pancetta (usually) adding a bit of fat to complete the dish. It is often the case that when a particular restaurant or dish has been talked up or raved about, one’s expectations are too high and the end result is disappointment. This pasta was an exception. It was to date the best carbonara either of us had had. The chef used guanciale instead of the traditional pancetta, and the small pieces, although crispy on the outside, melted in your mouth. Thank you, Luca. Worth being bumped into a million times? Almost. It also helped that we had one of our favorite bottles of Emidio Pepe trebbiano to go with the meal. I really wish we could find this wine in Pennsylvania.
It was hard to overlook the uncomfortable seating situation, but overall it was a great meal with some really great high points. We had some of the salumi wrapped up, hoping to overnight it to family back home. Unfortunately, this did not actually happen, but we did make it back to the hotel for a quick nap before heading out for an exploration of Trastevere later that night.