I fumbled through my Italian-English dictionary. "I am a 'good-taster'?"
That overstates my qualifications, but I do love good Italian food. Unfortunately, I am not only a buongustaio but an avaro, a tirchio, a spilorcio — a penny pincher. But my frugality was tested when we went to Rome this year. The city is not inexpensive in any case, but my wife and I worried that the exchange rate of $1 to 1.25 euro would put its dining delights outside our reach.
But with a little discipline, Janice and I managed to keep within a budget of $20 — 16 euros — per person per meal, not counting wine and tip. (Tipping is optional and often consists of merely rounding the tab up to the next euro.) Even with that restriction, we filled our stomachs without emptying our wallets.
A couple of things to remember when budgeting for Italian meals: There's usually a cover charge of about a euro each — sort of like getting into a cab with the meter already running. For the price of admission, you usually get some good fresh bread and cellophane packets of grissini, thin, crunchy breadsticks, for which I have a weakness. Plus you're going to pay for water, about two euros per bottle.
A note: If you choose a primo (a first course of pasta, risotto or soup) as your main course instead of a secondo (meat or fish), you often can save a euro or two. Pasta or risotto, however, is going to put you at odds with your low-carbohydrate diet. Fortunately, Janice and I had decided to give up dieting for Lent.
Da Vito e Dina
We found Da Vito e Dina by happy accident. Upon emerging from the subway one morning, we bore the unmistakable appearance of disoriented Americans looking for St. Peter's Basilica. Without our even asking, Vito, who was passing by, pointed the way. As we thanked him, he gave us his restaurant business card.
"Economico?" we asked.
"Sì, sì," he assured.
Do not mistake this encounter for the typical mob scene outside St. Peter's, where dozens of hawkers hand out fliers for mediocre tourist traps.
After a morning of exploring the basilica, we went to the address on the card, where Vito recognized and greeted us like long-lost relatives. Often travelers are well advised to beware the gregarious host, whose enthusiastic descriptions of his special-of-the-day can lure you over your budget. But Vito's suggestions were indeed economico.
Starters were a fritto misto of deep-fried battered olives, risotto balls and nuggets of potato purée, and verdure grigliate, which contained grilled eggplant and sweet red bell pepper. For mains, we followed his recommendations of spaghetti with mussels, shrimp, cockles and octopus, and ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta. The portions were sufficient to satisfy a couple who had burned hundreds of calories scrambling to the top of St. Peter's dome. We didn't order (or need) dessert, but Vito topped off our meal with free coffee granitas.
Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e Pepe, a restaurant named after a favorite Roman pasta dish, is a definite cheap-eats find. Like many inexpensive Roman restaurants, it is cash only, and I had neglected to hit the ATM. As I fretted, the waiter saw my open wallet and the few euros within, and said, "That's more than enough."
The place is small, holding maybe 25 diners inside, with a few more at sidewalk tables, and crowded. This is not the place for an intimate, sensitive conversation. But the homemade, extra-eggy pasta had us saying, "Aha! This is what they mean by al dente."
The namesake cacio e pepe is spaghetti topped with cacio cheese (a sort of pecorino) and ground black pepper. So simple and comforting. The other major draw is spaghetti alla carbonara, made with pancetta (Italian bacon) and egg. Offering a simple, unprinted menu — "It's in my head," the waiter said — Cacio e Pepe has no antipasto courses but does offer secondi, such as chicken cacciatore, meatballs with basil and lemon, and a potato casserole with various meats and cheeses. For dessert we had a basic macédoine of fresh fruit.