Dateline: Rome

Rome the week before Thanksgiving? What was I thinking? Mostly, it was a great idea; gorgeous weather and no crowds. But between vacation, Thanksgiving and Christmas, I basically ate my way through two straight months.

The problem with vacationing in a spot where food is practically a national sport is that you feel like you have to eat everything. You want to try everything. I could have eaten pizza twice a day. I should have indulged in more panini. I didn’t eat nearly as many curious cuts as I would have liked, and truffles were grossly underrepresented. I didn’t ever find the pannacotta I was searching for, nor did I eat any cannoli or gelato. Crazy, right? Because in spite of all that, I managed to eat an extraordinary amount.

I think I managed to drink at least two Negroni everyday. The Italians tend to skimp on the gin, and play up the vermouth, but I still had some very, very fine ones. Generally, the more upscale the place the better the Negroni. I also ate some pretty spectacular pasta. Spaghetti cacio e pepe is the unofficial official dish of Rome; I loved the combination of black pepper and cheese so much that I had it for dinner two days in a row. I would have had it a third, but I felt like I needed to branch out and try something else.

Rome is a somewhat difficult city, I think. While I loved getting lost strolling through the tiny alleys, it was a huge challenge to get beyond the tourist traps to anything authentic. Perhaps it’s because we stayed in the heart of the city, but the good food I ate was more the result of dogged research than simply stumbling upon a good spot. That said, I did eat at two great places, both of which I’d highly recommend to fellow travelers.

1. Ditirombo in Campo de ‘Fiore. Located in an old wine cellar, this cozy restaurant relies on the freshest seasonal ingredients. The menu changes often, but I was enamored with their fried zucchini blossoms and pasta (cacio e pepe), while my companion had a suckling pig roasted in salt crust that was absolutely amazing. And while the food was outstanding, the prices were reasonable, with entrees around 15 euro.

2. Ristorante al 34 right near the Spanish Steps. I was actually kind of sad that I found this place on my last night in Rome because I would have liked to go back again. The menu is extensive, with lots of offal and traditional pastas. I thought my squid-ink tagliatelle was wonderful until I tried my companion’s truffled gnocchi. Wow. Just that dish is worth going back for: pillowy pasta baked in a light and earthy truffle cheese sauce. Also, the house wine goes for 11 euro a litre and is delicious.

The kicker at 34 was my main course: sweetbreads sautéed with artichokes. “You know what they are?” the waiter asked when I ordered. I nodded, at once insulted and then slightly worried. Never mind though, because they were some of the best sweetbreads I’ve ever eaten. The tender meat was offset by artichoke leaves that were fried until crunchy, an earthy ethereal experience that had me wishing my stomach was bigger. I had to give up after half the plate. (The waiter later redeemed himself by bringing us complimentary limoncellos.)

Know a spot in Rome that shouldn’t be missed? Please leave it in the comments below.

Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe
(Adapted from Saveur)

1 lb dried spaghetti
4 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper, plus more to taste
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until 8 to 10 minutes until al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain pasta.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat. Add pepper and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Add 3⁄4 cup pasta water into skillet and bring to a boil. Transfer pasta to skillet, spreading evenly over the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle 3⁄4 cup each cheese over pasta and toss vigorously. Combine until the  sauce is creamy and clings to the pasta without clumping, about 2 minutes (Add additional pasta water if necessary). Transfer to plates and sprinkle with remaining cheese and more pepper.

Serves 4.