If I hadn't ordered the carbonara, I might have left Testaccio's Lo Scopettaro much more impressed. And feeling less like I'd just consumed a pile of bricks and several lead irons (although that was my own fault, being someone unable to take a couple bites and leave the rest untouched).
Lo Scopettaro is touted, by some, as one of Rome's rustic, traditional tavernas, guaranteed to serve up good pastas for okay prices. RomaToday says that "for years it's been a true institution in the capital, a sure spot for those who love traditional Roman cuisine."
But I think at some point along those 80 years it's been around, Lo Scopettaro may have started resting on its laurels. After all, from the crowd in there last night (mostly Italian, plus one or two tables of tourists), it seems like it can.
The good news about Lo Scopettaro: It has both outdoor and indoor seating, and the indoor section is, indeed, rustic and quaint. Its menu is packed with options for true cucina romana lovers, from nervetti di vitello (€8, and that'd be nerves of veal — yum!) to rigatoni con pajata (€12 for pasta with the intestines of a milk-fed calf). (Don't worry, there's plenty for less adventurous eaters, too, from a normal amatriciana to classic saltimbocca).
The service was also surprisingly on point. With our reservations, we were sat right away and even given the option of immediately sitting inside or outside — whoa. We were served promptly and politely throughout the whole meal. For that, I give Lo Scopettaro big ups.
What about the food, you say? In a word: Uneven. The good tasted homemade, filling and yummy; the bad was bland. And our plates were half one, half the other.
An amatriciana's (€9) spiced-just-right sauce was delicious (although the noodles were, ahem, most definitely store-bought… can't imagine Grandma would approve). The muscolo di vitello (veal muscle), served in a thick tomato stew with carrots, was filling and tasty. But the chicory, one of only a couple of contorni in season, was undersalted and underspiced, even though we'd asked for it with lots of pepper.
The real disappointment, though, was the carbonara. Extremely heavy, it had a ton of cream and absolutely no bite. If the chef had added black pepper or salt, I couldn't taste it. I was confused: After all, this was supposed to be one of Lo Scopettaro's specialties. I saw plate after plate of the stuff leaving the kitchen, heading to other (Italian-speaking) tables.
It was only after I'd slogged halfway through my plate, wondering if I was missing something or if it was an "off" night, when we overheard the following conversation at the table behind us:
Happy middle-aged Italian couple, tucking into their two plates of carbonara, to the waiter: "Please, tell us. What is the secret with this dish?"
Waiter: "We use a lot of cream and not very much egg." (Could have told you that).
Couple: "It's so good!"
Waiter: "Yes, most other restaurants do it differently, with more egg, but this is how we like it."
These two were apparently regulars, at least if the free cherry pie they got had anything to say about it.
So: Regulars must come here for Lo Scopettaro's carbonara, which apparently they like thick, creamy, and missing the egg, salt and black pepper that I usually associate with the dish — and which nobody else serves like that. If you can't see yourself agreeing with them, I'd still say go to Lo Scopettaro — if you're in the area, and if you steer clear of the carbonara.
Also be ready to fend off the waiter's (very polite!) attempts to sell you on the tasting menu, which, at €37, seems pretty expensive for a "rustic" place in Testaccio, especially if not all those dishes are top-notch. As it was, our bill came to €53 for two, including a not-so-great bottle of the house red (€10). For cucina romana, that's plenty steep enough.
Lo Scopettaro. Lungotevere Testaccio 7, in Testaccio. For a map, click here.