To Rome for a week of spontaneous vacation, spending the days slightly off the beaten track and finding some splendid treasures. We’re staying at the Hotel Lancelot which is lovely, quiet, friendly, very close to the Colosseum, and owned by Mrs. Khan, who was born in Grand-Prairie, Alberta, we discovered at dinner the first evening, though she has been in Rome for over 40 years.
There are parts of Italy – Puglia, for example – where it is impossible to find dull food, where even the humblest osteria will blow the buds away. Roman cuisine, on the other hand, is more simple and robust than passionate and wandering into the nearest little place or sitting down at a breezy table in the corner of a piazza is no guarantee of pleasure. So far we have found two restaurants worth writing home about.
Osteria La Quercia (23 Piazza della Quercia, 06 68300932, www.laquerciaosteria.com) is on a small square between the brilliant, charming and eccentric Palazzo Spada and the forbidden Palazzo Farnese. Local businessmen and French people who work at the French embassy inside the Palazzo Farnese come here for lunch, paying little attention to the modern wooden interior of the restaurant but concentrating hard on the food. Highlights of our experience included super baccalao carpaccio, the juicy slices of reconstituted salt cod sprinkled with poppy seeds, olive oil and lemon juice and flanked by two shavings of salty pecorino. Of course there were also stuffed zucchini flowers, which are everywhere at this time of year. Here, they filled them with mozzarella and anchovy, deep-fried them in a crispy batter and good fresh oil and served them on a square of brown paper.
For a main course, I had a very hearty and homespun mound of fried lamb’s liver and kidney (with soft onions and a bit of lamb’s brain) on toast – the offal exceptionally tender and fresh-tasting, the bread soaking up the tangy juices. Alongside it, a salad of puntarella was the ideal refreshing accompaniment. Puntarella is that weird kind of chicory that looks like a tangle of green and white pasta. It’s more stalk than leaf, crunchy, bitter and has a flavour somewhere between endive, fennel and celery. At La Quercia, they dress it in a thick, anchovy-scented dressing and top it with an anchovy fillet and black olive.
Wendy had a heavyweight pasta that looked like priest-stranglers tossed with a pigeon ragu, asparagus tips and shaved truffle – major carbs for a day hiking the Campo and Navona districts. We didn’t feel like dessert but the friendly waiter brought us slivers of apple cake and jam tart with our coffee. Thus fortified, we set off into the afternoon, heading for the museum devoted to Napoleon Bonaparte’s family, where we wandered entirely on our own through the dignified salons.
Next up – a spectacular dinner in Esquilino.