a Santa Barbara
There is a small menu listing salads, and I had a great giardiniera, along with the fillets.
Continuing the butcher-paper theme was Da Augusto, a tiny place on a hidden Trastevere piazza. Please appreciate that by revealing its existence I risk the wrath of habitués of AOL's Rome travel bulletin board, who debated among themselves before sharing their secret with me. Sorry, folks, but judging from the line to get in at lunchtime, your secret has been blown.
Trastevere is a neighborhood that looks like postcard Italy, with little winding streets that confound your mental compass, laundry hanging from windows, concertinas blending with church bells. Che bella.
And che delizioso. Like most restaurants in Italy, Da Augusto has a menu posted outside, usually an excellent tool for the thrifty because you can decide what to order and how much to spend before you enter. But whether everything on the menu is available that day is another question. After a couple of false starts, we began with stracciatella (sort of an egg drop soup) and rigatoni with tomato and basil. Second courses were stracotti (shredded beef with arugula) and rabbit in garlic sauce. Roasted potatoes were a delicious accompaniment. We finished with a fine tiramisu and a torta della nonna (literally, Grandma's cake) with crunchy pine nuts. There was no formal check. Instead, a waitress conferred with her colleagues, furrowed her brow, worked her way back through the crowded tables and wrote everything down on our butcher-paper tablecloth.
A word about vegetables: They usually come in the form of contorni, side dishes, for which you pay extra. So be prepared to pay three or four euros.
Sora Lucia has a veggie starter course, an unassuming dish of mixed sautéed vegetables, which helped us rationalize the heaping plates of carbs we were about to order. The restaurant is located up an alley from a small open market near the Trevi Fountain. Its softly lighted dining room contains a blackboard announcing the specials. The walls are filled with art reproductions, family pictures and a photo of European Commission President Romano Prodi, who once stopped in for fettuccine. I hope he tried the gnocchi and linguini too, for they are excellent.
The gnocchi, cooked to perfect toothsomeness, were coated in a rich, cheesy white sauce. The noodles of Linguini Soria Lucia luxuriated with pea-sized Sicilian capers and crayfish in a warm, oily bath. Mom would have approved of the vegetable starter, but she would have despaired of the unavoidably messy way I peeled and dissected the succulent crayfish. We finished by sharing a pleasant crème caramel.
For something a bit unusual, we tried Nuraghe Sardo, a Sardinian restaurant north of the Vatican. The walls of its crowded split-level dining room were filled with shelves of wine bottles and festoons of dried peppers on the vine. A boisterous group of elders at a nearby table was laughing, eating, drinking and smoking, ignoring the non fumare sign — and the fact that one of them was using a portable oxygen canister.
We began with carta da musica, extremely thin sheets of crisp bread, which we sprinkled with olive oil. Our starter was pinzimonio, crudités of fennel, radishes and greens, probably the most healthful thing we ate all week. We moved on to the malloreddus, little semolina gnocchi with tomato sauce. We've eaten them in Sardinia, and they always seem undercooked, but maybe that's traditional too. Janice shared her excellent roast baby pork with me.
"What's for dessert?" I asked the waiter.
He returned with honey-soaked fried bread filled with cheese. A pleasant surprise indeed, reminiscent of Indian puri and glazed doughnuts.
I will conclude with another happy accident and an admonition: Check the restaurant's hours. Roman restaurants usually close one day a week, and often it's not a day you'd predict.
We wanted to try a highly regarded and inexpensive Ethiopian restaurant near the Termini train station. It was closed on a Tuesday. Although its closing day was expressly stated in my reliable Lonely Planet, we discovered this fact only after a long trip there.
Muttering, I was navigating back through the confusing streets when I noticed Ristorante Demetra, which is not in guidebooks because it opened only in October. Its cheery dining room is half a flight down from street level. We had tortellini in brodo, filled with ground chicken swimming in chicken stock, followed by a hearty osso buco of veal shanks in a tomato mushroom sauce, and then grilled lamb. Our contorno of grilled, pickled and roasted vegetables came from a big table near the door. We could have helped ourselves as other patrons did. Dessert: a panna cotta lightly scented with liqueur and drizzled with chocolate sauce.
Back in the States going through my notes and receipts, I can't believe we ate so well for so little. It's enough to make a penny-pinching good-taster proud.
Lawyer Jerry V. Haines travels frequently to Italy.