he dream starts with me ordering an Original at Louis’ Lunch in New Haven. It’s 1 a.m. and the place is still bopping. The smell of homemade fries wafts from the kitchen. As I sink my teeth in the warmth of the bun and meet the juicy Black Angus ground sirloin, short rib, and brisket combo with its flavor-lending 20 percent fat, slow motion droplets of rare beef drippings fall with a silent splash on the plate before me.
I wake with a gasp. Dream over. Sad to say, I am in Rome, where no burger tastes as ambrosial.
Burger cravings are nearly impossible to satisfy in Rome, since the Eternal City is sorely lacking when it comes to beef patties resting in toasted buns. Instead, it offers purported “gourmet burgers” that my food guru Katie Parla rightly calls nothing less than a crime against nature.
Most are too lean, badly ground, and cooked on insufficiently hot grills (hence missing the essential flavor rich, charred protein outer layer). The meat-to-bread ratio is also wrong and there’s no blood. In Rome, my burger dream can turn into a nightmare much too fast.
Where to find decent — no, let’s just say passable — burgers in Rome? Here are a few suggestions, saving the best for last. A word to the wise: You will not, under any circumstances, find any mention of McDonald’s assembly-line food on any of my lists. Ever.
— The Perfect Bun Perfect is not the correct adjective. The 15 burger choices served here are edible but pretentiously expensive. They’re also overdressed and hardly ever well grilled. But the setting is nice, the waiting staff good-looking, desserts authentic, and roasted potatoes epic. Should be renamed The Perfect Tuber. Largo del Teatro Valle 4. Tel. 06.4547.6337.
— T-Bone Station When I go for a burger, I want to emerge satiated. A burger is a meal, not an appetizer. T-Bone Station’s burgers are worthy enough, but way too small! I should order two at a time, but not at €9.80 a pop. As a result I always end up leaving famished. The toppings are good – particularly the guacamole and cheddar – and the crisp onion rings help round out the package. Five locations citywide. The flagship grill is at Via Francesco Crispi, 29/31. Tel. 06.678.7650.
— Hard Rock Cafe The menu reads, “Our proprietary blend of fresh beef isn’t just a burger. It’s a legend.” I have to admit the “10 ounce burger” is good, topped with bacon, cheddar cheese, a fried onion ring, lettuce, tomato, and real dill pickles (€14.25). Calling it legendary is a long shot. Closed Monday. Via Veneto 62 a/b. Tel. 06 420.3051.
— Open Baladin The leading Italian microbrewery also serves a mean burger. The beef comes from La Granda (a SlowFood consortium of razza Piemontese cattle breeders), and it’s topped with homemade mayonnaise and ketchup. My last trip I ordered a side of garlic and pecorino fries (with skins left on, a rarity for Rome). But my favorite remains the homemade potato chips sprinkled with powdered liquorice. Great artisanal beers, obviously. Via degli Specchi, 6. Tel. 06.683.8989.
— Roscioli Three things draw me to this Roman food shrine: the burrata, the carbonara, and more recently, the burgers. With my table pushed up against the deli counter, a Pata Negra leg jutting above my head, and the aromas from the buzzing refrigerated cheese display, I count the minutes that separate me from the grilled Frisona cow beef patty topped with golden strips of bacon, Farmhouse cheddar, homemade mayo and a divine mustard and Bloody Mary sauce. The knife-chopped, 200 gram Hachée is also good. Closed Sunday. Via dei Giubbonari, 21. Tel. 06.687.5287.
— Barrili 66 Monteverde is one of Rome’s secret food meccas. I like to crawl up the hill above Trastevere, leaving the tourist and faux bohemian chic crowd behind to sit in the kosher joint that serves the best burgers in Rome. It’s called the “Millenium Burg” — 300 grams of beef patty plus a loaded sesame bun with condiments that brings the total weight to 650 grams. Now that’s a worthy burger. Barili offers affordable prices, an attentive staff, good kosher wines, and is the city’s best spot for pastrami and other NYC deli specialties. Open until late. Closed Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. Via Anton G. Barrili, 66. Tel. 06.580.9290.