Rome in Three Bites

Dinner at the right Roman trattoria is how one segues in to an unparalleled sense of fulfilment. You arrive woozy from a day rambling through ochre streets. Maybe you’ve had an early aperitivo on a murmuring piazza and in the dusty heat are losing the will to navigate any further. Legs tired and neck sore from craning upwards to look at frescos, nothing soaks up the sun and sleepiness better than a long supper far from the chaos inside the Aurelian walls.

The recipe for satisfaction is three or four courses and as much wine as can fill your distended belly. An espresso at the table to round things off and a slow amble under a canopy of pinus pinea to the nearest gelateria. You may have to burn off the indulgence tomorrow with an extra lap around the Musei Capitolini but for now you are content. Your evening is complete.

But not everyone has the time, budget or appetite for a long dinner at the trattorias hidden outside the walls. Your young children probably won’t like trippa alla Romana and backpacking students won’t spend another night’s board on rigatoni all’Amatriciana. Or perhaps like me after a few nights in the city you are fed up of white tablecloths and elaborate dinners. Something simple and economical is the solution to all these needs. Lunch at Pastificio Guerra, Supplizio or Forno Campo de’Fiori is the answer.

These three institutions are economical: €20 will feed a family of four at lunch. But don’t mistake them for cheap eats. A cheap eat is consumed in a hurry and defined by the two variables of price and proximity – such as when Pedro from Spain with an obnoxiously large rucksack is stomping across Rome to see the Colosseum and the Vatican in one day. Pedro is in a rush as he must arrive back at the Spanish Steps at six for his “aperitivo hour” Segway tour. Pedro eats cheap eats.

The three bites below are kind on the pocket and served quickly. But they remain honourable and artisan. Their history is long and their recipes slow. Whether a seasoned Romaphile or a starry-eyed amateur, they are a gateway into what the country has to offer.

Pastificio Guerra

When I am old and whiling my time away in West London I will take myself every day to Speaker’s Corner and preach to passers-by: “you must immediately seek enlightenment in Pastificio Guerra. Go there! Be saved!”.

The ceremony of taking lunch at Pastificio – like rising for a wafer at the Eucharist – is a religious experience. On Via della Croce minutes from the Spanish Steps sits an unassuming storefront. An archway opens into a room the size of a train carriage.

The only way to see inside this holy cave is to patiently queue in the midday sun until it opens promptly at one. Before that hour of worship a beheaded broomstick is suspended vertically across the door. A piece of paper taped to it reads Lunch begins at 13:00, by which time a modest queue will have formed. In the self-fulfilling prophecy familiar to anyone who haunts metropolitan hipster digs – or accepts them as a necessary by-product of excellent food – queuing begets more queuing.

I am not insulated from this phenomenon. I see a queue and to me that confers validity on what lies behind. If people are willing to wait, it must be good. But people forget we also queue for things like flu shots. Those who balk at the idea of eating fruity loops for breakfast queue hours in Brooklyn to eat rainbow coloured bagels. Some queue overnight in Soho to buy overpriced t-shirts only for their resale value. I queue therefore I am.

When the clocks strike one the church bells ring and the broom is brushed aside. You enter the room and progress towards the counter. Here is one of the most important choices in your life. Each day Pastificio serves two pastas: one Is meat and the other vegetarian. The pasta is regularly tonnarelli, a Roman speciality like square spaghetti. Occasionally however I have experienced their pillows of gnocchi or large wheels of pacherri rigati. Sauces range from melanzana pesto or tuna red sauce with olives to a simple arrabiata. One tends to be red, the other white.

So you’re at the front of the line – kneeling beneath the alter - and make your choice. The exchange is in cash like all things good in Rome. You will be handed an airline packet cutlery combo with a napkin tucked inside followed by pasta in a plastic box. Small cups and litre bottles of water let you pour a drink. Then amble back outside into the sun looking for a place to perch; much harder these days given our bottoms are banned from the Spanish Steps. Inappropriately place your derriere and a punctilious Italian guard will blow his whistle at you with great fervour.

I often choose to eat inside Pastificio. Perched awkwardly on one of the counters lining the walls or around the table-cum-antiquated pasta making machine in the middle of the room. As the queue snakes by you will be watched and analysed as prospective diners deliberate over their decision. What sauce is that? Will there be enough left when I arrive at the front? Their questions don’t bother you as you eat and crescendo into hedonistic bliss.

My description of the taste wouldn’t do it justice, but it is obviously excellent. I’ve given you the blurb and an inviting front cover but you must go and slurp the spaghetti yourself. If you’ve read this thinking “so what, it’s just pasta” please go back to your overcooked penne and Loyd Grossman sauce – it will keep the queue shorter for the rest of us.

And two more things. First, you don’t have to make the choice between sauces if like me you regularly order both. Second, there is wine behind the counter served free to those who merit it. That riddle is yours.

Forno Campo de’Fiori.

So you have taken my recommendation, booked the cheapest flight to the heart of ancient civilization and sampled the elixir itself from the Gods of Pasta. No? Here’s another one to add to your list for when you do.

The bread. Forget whatever they put on it, it is the base that we’re focussing on. The bakery is tucked into a corner of Campo De’Fiori facing on its right an offensive pub where I once in 2012 drank beer and watched Germany win The World Cup. That was my first trip to Rome and Forno Campo de’Fiori flew beneath my radar.

The bakery is famous for its pizza al taglio. Cut in portions to your liking, the pizza is sold by weight, folded in half and wrapped with a flourish. Churning out this goodness since the 1700s, the unassuming and unmodernised bakery knows what it is about and gets it so right.

Like Pastificio it is on the well-trodden tourist trail. Yes, Brittany on her first trip to Europe will be obsessively instagramming her slice that she will disfigure with an overly contrasted filter. Resting the pizza on the ledge of a fountain she thinks about the caption - #ladolcevita - ungraciously ignorant of the art she is yet to bite into. Ignore Brittany.

But also like Pastificio, this a real place for Romans to get lunch. The last time I was in the bakery I saw a parking attendant pick up a sandwich for lunch and a nonna get bread for the home. Her sons and daughters who join her on Sunday for hearty fare will tear at it greedily whilst absorbing her ancient wisdom. Or that is how I imagine events unfold in my coloured view of what goes on behind the closed doors of this incomprehensible city and culture. So large is its history and so grand its people. They contain multitudes, utmost nobility and a calm sense of certainty even in the simple act of buying a slice.

And that is what I recommend. The pizza bianca – nothing more than the baked dough with some salt and olive oil. Unadventurous? Far from it. This is where you discover the esoteric combination that has separated good pizza from world class pizza for centuries. It is the simplicity and provenance of good ingredients that triumph. It is the act of eating it undistracted and unencumbered by zucchini flower toppings or rich mozzarella morsels. You are eating a Rothko as opposed to a Pollock. And like staring at one of Mark’s red rectangles in their dark room at the Tate Modern you realise simplicity sometimes is best.

I won’t call it “life changing”. That is what Brittany says about her three weeks in Europe tasting wine, looking at men more handsome than back home whilst she wears floppy hats and cheap leather sandals bought at markets. The bakery maybe did change someone’s life however and that was Nancy Silverton. Of Spago, Campanile, Acme and Osteria Mozza fame, Silverton is a big dog. But in the narrative cast by a recent Chef’s Table episode on Netflix, Silverton’s culinary revelation came after a monk-like period of study into making the perfect pizza dough. The spark behind the fire was sampling the Pizza Bianca at Forno Campo de’Fiori.

The first reason to go to Forno Campo de’Fiori is for unadulterated pleasure. There is no excess here, it just is. You are not crunching ortolan or spreading foie gras whilst quaffing Monbazillac. You are simply eating bread which is up there with a cup of tea and fresh air as the cure of all ills in the world. The second reason to go is to establish a solid benchmark from which to judge every future pizza experience. A classical education: Latin, Greek, Aristotle, Shakespeare and Forno Campo de’Fiori.

Supplizio (or Trillusa)

Suppli. The word is an Italianisation of the French surprise. The object is a ball of fried rice and tomato that functions as a hand-held risotto. A truly Roman snack it is bread-crumbed, deep fried and often with a cheese filling. An engorged, pill-shaped snack ranging in sizes up to baseball it lacks any traditional medicinal properties.

Originally a humble street fare, they are served in a greasy brown paper bag. If a place serves pizza al tagliothey probably have a few suppli knocking about. Roman sit-down pizzerias are another prime spot to indulge in suppli as a quick-to-arrive starter to avoid eating your partner’s arm before the main course.

It is a perfect whetting of the appetite and stands up well to a cold Birra Morretti before a flying saucer of dough and cheese is flung your way. If on offer at your pizzeria of choice however I would focus on the fiori di zucche and baccala – Zucchini flower and salt-cod respectively - as they are harder to come by and a brackish palette cleanser.

When the ball of fried rice goodness comes to your table you can attack it with a knife and fork if you so desire. But the best approach is pull apart in two halves like a greedy accordion player stringing out a final note. Savour it whilst your arteries can still take the abuse and think not of tomorrow. A ball of fried rice ranks up there with the other class A drugs as damagingly addictive. Eat it before it is banned.

So Supplizio. Like all good places to eat in Rome it is a hole in the wall. But unlike the other two bites above I am not 100% convinced. Supplizio is good; maybe great. The dishes are fried to order and the shop is down a shady street shrouded with wisteria that hangs around old artists’ studios. Picture perfect and delicious, what could be lacking.

Supplizio is safe. Not that there is any danger in the pursuit of fried rice balls other than what they are doing to your lifespan. For me what’s lacking is the experience. The shop is air-conditioned to the temperature of a Dubai shopping mall and the first time I went a group of American exchange students were being stewarded to the counter by an exhausted Italian teacher. Ambiance subsequently fell to zero.

I say Supplizio is safe because it doesn’t remind me of how I first ate suppli and how I subsequently best enjoy the food. I’m more of a suppli as an intoxicated late night snack kind of guy. And for this reason I praise Supplizio but buy my goods on a corner in Trastevere at Pizza Trilussa. I order with pride in less-than-perfect Italian after a few too many craft Italian beers at Ma Che Sei Venuti a Fa or smoky mezcals at Freni e Frizione.

I have patronised Trilussa since first visiting Rome in 2012 and it hasn’t gotten any better or worse. It just is. The perfect balance of ying and yang. Salt, fat, acid and heat. Now if we indulged food nostalgia too much we would never progress our tastes. I would still be eating fish fingers and boxes of macaroni and cheese. But everyone has those special dishes that are anchored in a time or a place. Hot chocolate by the fire at grandmother’s. Pick and mix sweets from Woolworth’s after school.

Supplizio is great and so is Eataly – the Italian food emporium founded by Oscar Farinetti showcasing the finest regional produce from across the boot. But you would much rather find the perfect San Marzano tomato in a dusty market in a small town than be handed it in a punnet at a supermarket.

I would rather eat my suppli stumbling to the steps of the square in Trastevere while listening to an awful Italian rendition of an 80s pop song by a busker. Not worried about my greasy fingers rubbing on my shirt. Not worried that I already ate three courses for dinner and probably don’t need what equates to another meal. Not thinking about tomorrow morning of craning my neck at bright frescoes with a dry mouth and dusty head.

Take your kids to Supplizio but take yourself to any corner joint that will hand you a fried ball of rice at an ungodly hour.