By my rough estimation, I've spent approximately two years in Italy over the past decade and a half. Not two years straight, but cumulatively, over the course of about a dozen separate visits, including a few months in Rome when I was 19, a year studying in Bologna as part of my degree and a winter house-sitting in Puglia a couple of years ago. Assuming that about a third of those two years was spent asleep, that leaves 16 months of waking hours in Italy. Out of which time, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say, I must have spent about six months thinking about, discussing and, of course, consuming food. The conversations I've had about buffalo mozzarella alone must stretch into weeks (while the British do small talk, for Italians, food is the default topic of conversation; such is people's passion for their subject that very often debates get quite heated).
Whenever I visit Italy therefore, eating well is my number one priority (although I have to admit that it's pretty important wherever I am). You can, of course, find fantastic Italian food all over London (a topic for another blog perhaps), and I cook plenty of it at home, so it's not that my usual diet is lacking in Italian fare, but there's something about eating Italian food in Italy that makes all the difference. Never underestimate the importance of context.
The holy trinity of Italian food, as far as I'm concerned, comprises pizza, ice cream and spaghetti alle vongole (tiny clams to you and me). Given that in Italy it's considered woefully naïve to order a seafood dish in a restaurant anywhere further than about 20km from the coast (modern systems of haulage are not to be trusted apparently), spaghetti alle vongole was not on the menu on my recent trip to Rome. Pizza and ice cream however were very much in my thoughts from the moment I touched down at Fiumicino.
My first port of call when it comes to ice cream in Rome has traditionally been San Crispino, the deservedly famous gelateria hidden away in a side street round the corner from the Trevi Fountain. While at the numerous other gelaterias in the immediate vicinity you'll see freezers crammed with mounds of brightly coloured ice creams and sorbets, at San Crispino it's all a bit more subtle. There are plenty of flavours available but the lack of artificial colourings means these ice creams whisper rather than shout. And no added chemical emulsifiers means that the product here doesn't have the cheap, gummy texture of lesser ice creams.
The only trouble with San Crispino is its location. The Trevi Fountain is a magnificent sight, but the tourists drawn to the tiny piazza make the whole area a nightmare to get around. Having visited the fountain before, I wasn't ready to brave the chaos again on this recent trip, even for the sake of the delicious pink grapefruit sorbet I so adore. Fortunately my friend Anna, who lives in Rome, had some insider information: it was time for a visit to Checco er Carettiere in Trastevere.
Bakery, coffee bar and gelateria combined, this place has a smaller range of flavours than that available at San Crispino, but all are made on the premises and sold from a little walk-up window. A useful benchmark of the quality of an outfit's product is its pistachio: this classic flavour should be very nutty and not too sweet, and crucially, a pale shade of green. It's not a failsafe method, but if the pistachio is good, then the other flavours available will probably be good too. And Checco er Carettiere's pistachio was excellent, as was its crema di amarene.
When it came to pizza on this trip, my cravings were satisfied but neither of the pizzerias I visited are particularly worth recommending. I should really have returned to either Da Baffetto or its sister restaurant, Da Baffetto II, both of which serve outstanding thin crust, Roman-style pizza in decidedly inelegant surroundings.
A place I must mention however is one I was taken to during my stopover in Milan on my way home. I Capitosta (Alzaia Naviglio Grande, 56; 0039 02 8941 5910), on Milan's canal, serves fantastic doughy-crusted Neopolitan pizza with all of the usual and some of the less usual toppings. My friend's cima di rape (a bitter leaf related to the turnip and known in Naples as friarielli) and salsiccia pizza was unlike anything I'd tried before, and my choice, a margherita with courgette and onion, managed to be healthy-tasting and deliciously rich all at once. Rumour has it that the owner is the boss of a big Calabrese 'Ndrangheta clan, so if you make a visit, be sure to mind your Ps and Qs. €15 a head for pizza, wine and water.
More new discoveries
Back in Rome, the lack of superlative pizza didn't ruin the weekend, with plenty of other gastronomic delights presenting themselves. Dai Due Ciccioni (Viccolo del Cedro 3; 0039 06 581 2652) is a restaurant in a converted garage in an out of the way Trastevere side street. Sat at one of the five tables in the spartan, echoey space, you pay €25 a head for a three-course dinner of simple Roman fare, including unlimited wine. A starter of bruschetta, beans in a tomato sauce, and spicy mashed potato with tomato warmed us up for the pasta course, with its choice of carbonara, amatriciana or cacio e pepe. My carbonara was perfect: just sticky egg yolk, parmesan and masses of spicy black pepper. For the secondo, I went for pork braised in a spicy, oily tomato sauce, while my friends both opted for roast chicken on a bed of lettuce. Dessert was biscuits and chocolates and all the limoncello and grappa we could drink.
There's nothing fancy about any of this food – and vegetarians would have a hard time of it at Dai Due Ciccioni – but if you're looking for a great value and completely original dinner out in Rome, I can't fault it. Just don't be offended when the portly proprietor decides he's had enough of serenading his customers with rude Roman folk songs and tells you to finish up your drinks and hit the road.
On the other side of the city, in the area just north of Termini, Ke Nako is a more elegant option. Its surroundings may be insalubrious, but this restaurant, bar, gallery and music venue is a great find. Six artisan Italian and international beers on tap, an extensive wine list and a concise menu of reasonably priced Roman favourites made me glad I made the trek over from where I was staying near St Peter's. The radicchio risotto my friend and I shared (minimum two people) had real bite, and the desserts – peppered pumpkin pudding bites served with home made nutty chocolate cookies, and pear, cinnamon and amaretti biscuit tart – showed an inventiveness I've rarely seen in Italian dolci. It was late by the time the band we'd gone there to hear had finished playing, so there was no time to check out some of the interesting looking bars and restaurants in the area, but I'll definitely be back soon to do just that. €20 a head for two courses, wine and water.
My final meal in Rome, a plate of beef cannelloni scoffed and a coffee knocked back before catching my train north to Milan, took place at Antica Birreria Peroni. Recommended to me by the guy in the ticket booth at Roma Del Cielo ('Rome from the Sky'), the glass lift that takes you up to the viewing terrace on top of Il Vittoriano (which is well worth the €7 ticket price), this busy eatery is two minutes' walk from Piazza Venezia yet not in the slightest bit touristy. The staff are friendly but have no time to waste on chit chat as they race from table to table in the tightly packed dining room. A menu of no nonsense Roman and Italian staples is augmented by German-style sausages, there to complement the four types of beer on offer at the birreria (which include, surprisingly, Fuller's London Pride). Given the difficulty of finding good quality, reasonably priced food in the touristy centre of Rome, this is definitely somewhere that warrants a return visit. €10 for one course, coffee and water.
Well, that's another couple of hours added to the tally of time spent thinking about Italian food. They won't be the last.