y earliest childhood memories are sensory. Restaurant meals played a big part in their shaping. For social and financial reasons, dining out, once commonplace, played a big part in my upbringing. Throughout my youth, I heard the words a cena fuori almost daily. I also recall the wonderful feeling of falling into slumber at the end of a meal as adults continued their animated conversation. In the background was the gentle hum of the dining room. I’d hear glasses clink, silverware tap bone china, and the “glug glug glug” of wine being poured. I’d rest my head on folded arms and drift securely into dreamland.
I treasured these post-prandial naps. I’m not sure I ever slept more soundly than as a small child in a restaurant.
For better or worse, that romantically lazy side of the Rome dining scene has vanished. Many places I remember from decades ago are gone or have changed ownership and mood. Charm is harder to find. So are quality meals.
Childhood visions are unique, and I’ve also changed. My taste is more sophisticated, and more demanding. But let me set all that aside for a moment to remember some of the restaurants that shaped my youth.
• Il Pescatore This place served the most refreshing al fresco seafood lunches I remember. It was a gorgeous place in the elegant Parioli north district, nestled in a swatch of green between the Acqua Acetosa fountain and the Tiber River. I remember only the exterior, a lush park with towering holm oaks, sycamores and poplars. In its place now is a supermarket where I occasionally shop. On particularly breezy spring mornings, I catch a whiff of the familiar aroma of those mossy trees, and for a second I am magically transported to Il Pescatore of old. I’m wearing my pink piqué dress; my thick brown hair is shoulder length, and crooked bangs cover my forehead. There’s a gap where a front baby tooth was lodged. I’m celebrating my 10th birthday with my cousins who are visiting from California. In between courses, we kids scurry around the forest-like garden chasing each other and playfully, squealing. We return to the table sweaty and flushed, greeted by all manner of grilled marine creatures. Scampi burst out of their carapaces and mounds of vongole veraci clams are everywhere, along with towers of gleaming mussels slurped loudly from the half-shell.
Before dessert come small bowls of hot water with a lemon wedge. The geranium petals floating in the water are passed around. These days, fish restaurants give you pre-packaged cleansers and serviettes that do the environment no favors. The poetry is lost.
• Molo 10 Although Il Pescatore stands alone in terms of the culinary brilliance and old school charm, Molo 10 is worth a visit. This modern seafood restaurant near Ponte Milvio is both quiet and good. I love their outdoor patio and the elegant blue-and-red nautical theme. Their choice of antipasti is staggering: think anchovies brined in lemon, delicious boiled octopus and potatoes, prawns drizzled with soy sauce and wasabi, tuna rolled like porchetta with garlic, rosemary, fennel pollen and pepper, baccalà alla vicentina (creamed cod) served with roasted bell peppers. And that’s far from the full list.
If you still have room, sample the linguine with prawns and toasted breadcrumbs.
• El Toulà Another of my family’s favorites, old, costly El Toulà was usually reserved for special occasions. The restaurant was the Rome branch of a Treviso institution and for a time was the only haute cuisine outlet in town. The menu wasn’t French, nor guided by nouvelle cuisine, which had not yet been introduced. In general, the ample dishes took their creatively modern cue from the Veneto region. As a child, I couldn’t asses the pleasures of adult cuisine, let alone the nuances of the seasonal menu, or the vast wine cellar. Instead, I absorbed the atmosphere. Around me were antique chairs, plush and upholstered. I remember crisp white linen tablecloths illuminated by soft pink lighting that shone through Venetian-style lampshades. Above all this luxury were vaulted ceilings.
A few dishes remain etched in my memory, including spinach salad tossed with crispy bacon bits, minced red onion and crumbled hard-boiled eggs. The plump green leaves of the spinach were tepid and served with a delicate vinegar dressing. Most memorable was the creamy risotto, often blanketed with delicate petals of white Alba truffle.
• Marzapane and Metamorfosi: Decades after El Toulà reigned supreme, Rome hosts a variety of acclaimed dining spots. When I want to set budget aside and pamper myself, I head for Marzapane near piazza Fiume, or Metamorfosi in Parioli. They’re both phenomenal. Alba Esteve Ruiz, Marzapane’s young Spanish chef, has immersed herself in the flavors of her adopted city. Her kitchen offers both local classics (with a twist) and creative Iberian digressions. At Metamorfosi, Colombian chef Roy Caceres’s eclectic style is in constant flux. He, too, uses steadfast Rome tradition to spring creative and beautifully presented surprises.
• Cesarina When I need comforting, I often turn to a mental image. In it, I am at the dinner table with my grandmother Titta, my mother, and my father. We’re at Cesarina, once Rome’s best bolognese restaurant. It’s still on Via Piemonte, which runs parallel to Via Veneto, though the lively Dolce Vita bustle is long gone. I remember Cesarina as a family staple. We’d often reserve the same table (under a big wall clock). The rigorously authentic Bologna cuisine was served courteously by waiters who wore cream-colored tuxedos. Felliniesque host Cesarina entertained us while I munched on my Dad’s favorite balloon focaccia, which would land on the table as soon as we’d sit down. We’d stick with the house specials, served in gargantuan proportions: trays of tagliatelle alla bolognese, acres of lasagna, and tortellini swimming in pools of bone broth. We’d keep an eye out for the carrello dei bolliti –a heated cart wheeled to the table from which the Maître D’ lifted hunks of boiled beef, veal, calf’s tongue and other meats. All were carved on demand and served with salsa verde and piquant mostarda di Cremona. If I close my eyes and concentrate, all those aromas come back to me.
• Colline Emiliane These days, I find warmth of taste and feeling at Colline Emiliane, which like Cesarina reflects the flavors of Emilia-Romagna. At the restaurant, I check in with the skilled sfogline who roll out the pasta dough and craft the tortelli. Not far from the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Barberini, this place serves consistently reliable bolognese dishes with a genuine feel. Their lasagna with meat ragù and homemade béchamel is stellar. My own preference is their tortelli di zucca, pasta filled with autumn pumpkin purée, crushed amaretto and nutmeg, dressed with butter and sage.
• Trastevere (unnamed) I’d always made fun of my dad when he’d visit me in Rome and insisted on having at least one meal at a now very touristy restaurant in raucous Trastevere (I won’t mention its name to protect the innocent). Despite poor food and service, Dad was adamant in wanting to return to “his” table overlooking a famed piazza. It reminded him of happy days in Rome of the 1960s, and he’d invariably order pasta alla checca and scaloppine al limone. The last time we went, those dishes weren’t even on the menu. But Dad charmed the young Russian waitress who swiftly conveyed his order to the Egyptian cook.
The dishes were produced and dad went back in time. It was no use telling him there were better places in Trastevere. He simply wouldn’t have it.
•Da Enzo Had I managed to convince him, I would have surely taken my dad to Da Enzo, a small family-run trattoria tucked away in an alley in the quieter side of Trastevere, only steps away from the Tiber Island.
Siblings Roberto and Maria Chiara offer traditional cucina romana prepared with superlative, locally sourced ingredients. Their classic Roman carbonara, gricia and cacio e pepe pastas are among the best in town. I’m also a fan of several other dishes, polpette al sugo (meatballs braised in tomato sauce), baccalà al forno (baked cod topped with potatoes and cherry tomatoes), and their saltimbocca veal cutlets served with a side of mashed potatoes. Once you’ve tasted their mascarpone mousse, which is served in a glass and topped with wild strawberries, you’ll be hooked forever.
Which are better, the few restaurants of my long ago or the many new ones of today? That’s a question memory lane won’t answer. We carry our history with us, and a big part of it is how you spent your days with your family. That’s a flavor that stays with you for life.