Verdi once said, “You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”
I simply must concur. I have had the privilege of visiting Italy many times. Each time I go, I’m reminded that there’s always more to see. I never tire of re-visiting certain places and I am never disappointed. She always presents a new fact, a new dish, a new adventure. More than any other place I have traveled, Italy’s charms excite, inspire and even humble.
Roma is no exception. The ancient city center is a living museum steeped with one of a kind sights, intoxicating smells and wonderful classic dishes. It alerts and intrigues your senses at every turn. This is the first of several articles chronicling the experiences of my most recent visit.
Not unlike many other Italian cities, the streets of Rome are often a cavernous maze of cobble stoned nooks. Many of the streets are nothing more than glorified alleys. This is especially true in the ancient center of the city where the “Zona Pedonale” predominate. These are pedestrian zones which can only be accessed on foot unless you’re a vendor, supplier or home owner. That’s where the Ape comes in. The Ape (AH-pay) is a 3 wheeled pick-up truck sort of creation that’s about the size of a Smart Car. They are essential for delivering everything from firewood to produce, wine and cheese. Pictured above is an Ape near the Fontana Trevi carrying produce to the area cafes.
While everyone talks about the Colosseum or the Spanish Steps, the area around the Pantheon has always been my favorite. Built, or more accurately rebuilt, by Emperor Hadrian in approximately 126 AD, the temple stands intact today. The original Pantheon was conceived as a temple to the Gods. However, given that the Romans tended to worship Gods separately, it wasn’t surprising when the first two wooden versions were struck by lightning and burned. Seems the God Jupiter wasn’t happy to share a space with everyone else. When Hadrian rebuilt the temple in today’s form, he used the original inscription on the facade: “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucious, built this.” Since 609 AD it has been a Catholic Church.
The Oculus in the roof, pictured above, is actually a sun-dial that the Romans used to keep time. The indented tiles on the ceiling function as a calendar. The Piazza in front of the Pantheon is dotted with great bars and some of Rome’s best restaurants are in this neighborhood.
Not far from Pantheon is the iconic Matricianella. A Roman classic, Matricianella has been around for decades. It may boast the deepest and most reasonably priced wine list in the city. I’ve never had a bad experience there and on this visit, that streak continued. However, there was a funny anecdote. Old school Romans can be a bit…how shall I say….inflexible would be nice. But really, arrogant is more apt.
I knew what I wanted to eat. I knew Matricianella offered it all. Carciofi alla Romana, Carbonara and Roasted Lamb. When the waiter came over, I ordered my antipasto with ease. Then I asked for Bucatini alla Carbonara. He recoiled in horror. My wife said later, “you should have seen the look on his face.” You see, in Italy, substituting ingredients in dishes is frowned upon and well, as I said, sometimes Romans can be dogmatic. The waiter turned to me with a look of arrogance only eclipsed by the French and said “Signore, La Carbonara is Spaghetti….. Amatriciana is Bucatini.” I simply corrected myself and all was well.
The last time my wife and I were here, I was debating between the grilled and roasted lamb. I asked the waiter then and he said “roasted” without hesitation. That was 8 years ago. So I figured, let me ask our current waiter. Without hesitation, I got the same response.
Succulent. Rich. It is simple perfection. Pan roasted potatoes with an essence of sage provide a contorni to roasted lamb that was fork tender like you’d imagine Osso Bucco to be. The pan gravy was utterly amazing. This was devoured despite the fact that I was almost full; a hazard when dining in Italy.
Now, given the nature of this website, of course there was wine to accompany this wonderful meal. When I saw the selection on the list, I knew exactly what I was going to order. Castello dei Rampolla’s iconic Vigna d’Alceo is generally about $150 at retail. On wine lists, who knows what that translates to. It’s safe to say, substantially more than $200. At Matricianella, the bottle below cost me $75 Euro.
The 2006 Castello dei Rampolla Vigna d’Alceo is named for the current proprietors grandfather. Comprised of 85% Cabernet with a 15% dollop of Petit Verdot, even at 16 years of age, the wine is practically opaque in color. An enormous sediment is present in the bottle. Immediately upon opening there were wonderful aromas of black fruits, cedar, loads of tobacco and loads of leather. On the palate, the wine is structured yet elegant. The fruit flavors still dominate but the tobacco and leather notes lend quite a bit of complexity. The tannins are completely resolved yet this is fresh, long and velvety smooth. It was good with the Carbonara, it was sublime with the meat. I’d drink sooner rather than later and my score range would be 95-99 points. Find this wine.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this summation of just one night in Roma. There is so much more coming…