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In Rome, a city I've spent a lot of time in, little has changed since my last visit, about five or six years ago—as you would expect from the Eternal City—although I do notice a lot more bicycles around. I asked a taxi driver if it wasn't dangerous to ride in the city. "Tutto e' pericoloso," he said, weaving in and out of traffic and nearly missing a bus. "Everything is dangerous—cars, motorbikes, walking. It's a war!"
After a 14-hour-plus journey, lunch was on my mind. My new guidebook recommended a place right around the corner from the apartment I'd rented in the Trastevere neighborhood: Da Augusto. It's a typical Roman trattoria—paper on the tables, a borderline-sulky youth waiting tables, vino della casa, and no menu, just a choice of rigatoni, ravioli, and chickpea soup for a primo (first course). I chose the rigatoni, which came decidedly al dente with tomato sauce, pancetta, and grated Pecorino cheese—the perfect representation of the city's earthy, simple cuisine. You stir it up so the sauce gets nice and goopy.
After that a handwritten photocopied menu did appear, and I chose arrosto di maiale—roast pork tenderloin—for my secondo . Another simple dish, it's studded with rosemary and served with a light, clear gravy. The key to Italian cuisine is the quality of the ingredients—the best, prepared simply. Although I've had pork many times in Italy, I'd forgotten how surprising the gamy saltiness is after the relatively bland pig you get in the States.
The next morning I met a friend at a caffe on the gorgeous Piazza Farnese and asked her for lunch suggestions not too far away. Tops on her list was a place called Maccheroni. Normally I'd avoid a place with such a trendy name (and typeface), but she said the pasta was great. All of the restaurants were filled at lunchtime on a sunny Saturday, especially the coveted outside tables. But walking around in the sun I got quite hot, so I was happy to sit down in Maccheroni's lower-level dining room and cool off.
Spring is a good time for foodies to visit Rome, as a lot of delicious vegetables come in season (you can forget about trying to get them during other times of the year). I jumped on the chance to order a carciofo alla romana—an artichoke trimmed and braised in olive oil and possibly garlic and herbs. It was so tender I could almost eat the outer leaves whole.
I wanted ravioli stuffed with fiori di zucca (zucchini blossoms), which have a heart-wrenchingly short season. I struck out here—I think they are not quite in season yet—but have hopes for later in the week. Instead I went for gnocchi—a little bit of a risk, since traditionally gnocchi is made only on Thursdays, and I don't think the combination of gorgonzola and pear is traditionally Roman, strictly speaking. But the gnocchi were smooth and savory, and the sauce was creamy yet light, with the bite of the cheese and the sweetness of the pear in perfect harmony.
I'm not much for most dessert offerings at restaurants in Italy—better to go to a pasticceria for a delicate millefoglie or, better yet, a gelateria. Rome is studded with gelaterie, many of which employ artisanal methods along with the finest ingredients. Even if you're getting the smallest size cup or cone, you get to order at least two flavors. At San Crispino, one of the most famous in Italy, I tried two boozy flavors—crema di whiskey, which I found surprisingly bland, and passito di Pantelleria, made with dessert wine from an island off the coast of Sicily, which was better. The most reliable gelato-choosing technique, I've found, is to go for fruit flavors, which are usually incredibly intense.
That night I attended a wine tasting (more on that later) and was too tired and tipsy to eat a full dinner, so I stopped at a pizza-by-the-slice place in my temporary neighborhood. These are Italy's version of fast food—very fresh pizza with a slightly thick, chewy crust, cut into square or rectangular pieces as big as you like and priced by weight. I got a prosciutto cotto, artichoke, and mozzarella slice to go (and called out the guy as he tried to shortchange me a euro, an unfortunately not infrequent occurrence). Just as I was thinking that I could really go for a beer with my slice, I saw the vending machine next door.