Italian fare like a warm embrace

I developed a little trick in my conversational Italian class a few years ago. Insecure in my command of vocabulary, I found I could deflect difficult conversation by changing the subject to Italian food and restaurants. Prosciutto, risotto, minestrone — those words I knew. My classmates played along. "Jerry is a buongustaio," one observed.

I fumbled through my Italian-English dictionary. "I am a … 'good-taster'?"

"A gourmet."

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.

Dar Filettaro

a Santa Barbara

The epitome of the frugal eaters' temple is Dar Filettaro a Santa Barbara, whose signature — and only — main dish is cod fillets coated with a thin batter and pulled sizzling and crispy out of a bubbling fryer you can hear from the dining room. People in the Campo de' Fiori neighborhood come in, line up at the counter and walk out munching steaming fillets, as Americans would a pretzel or hot dog. You're not paying for ambience here. Tablecloth and napkins are butcher paper. Simplicity is a good watchword for the frugal buongustaio.

There is a small menu listing salads, and I had a great giardiniera, along with the fillets.

Da Augusto

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

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.

Nuraghe Sardo

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.


"Which is?"

"A surprise."

He returned with honey-soaked fried bread filled with cheese. A pleasant surprise indeed, reminiscent of Indian puri and glazed doughnuts.

Ristorante Demetra

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.