Did you know there’s a pyramid in Rome? Neither do most people. And not only is there a pyramid, but it’s a pretty legit — and ancient — pyramid: dating back to 12BC, it was the over-the-top burial tomb of Caius Cestius, a Roman praetor with a thing for Egyptian style.
At 120ft (36m) tall, with a base of 97ft (29.5m) on each side, the Pyramid of Cestius is pretty hard to miss. It’s been largely overlooked for years, though, for a few reasons. For one, it’s located in Testaccio — a neighborhood that, while very much in the center of Rome, is just off the beaten tourist track. That’s changing, thanks to recent trends like the gamut of food tours that now run through the area. But the quarter remains less trodden than, say, the streets around Piazza Navona.
Not to mention that Rome’s pyramid was in bad shape. Once gleaming, white marble, it had become so dirty that, by the time I first laid eyes on it in 2009, it was a sooty, dark brown-gray. It was so bad that, having just scoured five years of photographs to see if I could find proof for you, it turns out I don’t have a single one — probably because, in all the dozens of times I walked past, it was so grimy I hadn’t felt moved to take a picture.
And finally, except for the occasional “extraordinary opening”, the pyramid was closed to visitors.
Contrary to popular belief, it's not always that easy to just "happen" on good food in Rome. Which is why I'm a fan of Testaccio. This fascinating—and increasingly trendy—neighborhood sits just southwest of the Aventine hill and Circus Maximus. It also happens to have some fantastic restaurants and bakeries, not to mention a couple of kick-ass markets.
That's why I wrote about Testaccio for Travel + Leisure's April 2013 food issue. (Now online here).
The pasticceria opened less than two weeks ago in Testaccio, making the foodie-friendly neighborhood that much more of a must on any committed eater's itinerary. It's run by a Sicilian owner who, if his discussion with me about the finer points of cannoli shows anything, definitely knows his stuff.
But even if you're not in the mood for pastries (something I and my sweet tooth couldn't possibly understand, but I hear that it happens), pop your head in just to gawk. Because these pastries, from marzipan in stunningly-realistic fruit shapes to elegant cakes and pastel cassate siciliane, are simply beautiful.
Luckily, though, the taste lived up to the looks.
Sicilia e Duci is located on Via Marmorata 87/89, a stone's throw from that other (if overpriced) foodie haven, Volpetti.
I had lunch today at a Rome restaurant I'd never eaten at before: Divinare, a chic (and cleverly-named) wine bar in Testaccio. The food was delicious, from a pasta with fiori di zucca and guanciale (above) to a super-fresh and gourmet salad.
But I can't recommend Divinare to hungry travelers. And boy, is that frustrating.
It's not that they did anything that I haven't seen a hundred times before. But I'm just too sick of it by now to put up with it any more, even the smallest instances of it.
Familiar with Rome's food scene? Then you know where I'm going with this.
Like one of my favorite restaurants in Rome, L'Asino d'Oro, Divinare has a lunch special: 13 euros for a primo, glass of wine, water, and coffee. Not a bad deal. And there's no mistake that that was supposed to be the total; the menu clearly says "servizio e coperto incluso" (service and cover included). My companion and I even commented to each other how much we liked the rare sight of a restaurant that didn't charge coperto.
He ordered the special; I had a 10 euro salad. We also ordered the (included) water for him, plus one for me, asking for due acque piccole. Our very polite and friendly server, who also may have been the owner, brought one large water instead. That made sense. He also brought bread. This made sense, too.
What didn't make sense? Our bill. Thirteen euros for the menu (correct). Ten euros for the salad (yep). A charge for my coffee (fine). Plus… a charge for the whole bottle of water, plus a 2 euro "pane" charge (wait, what?).
It was a difference of three or four euros. Still, I didn't understand where it came from. We should have been charged for half of the one large bottle of water, and for no "bread and cover" at all. When we said something, the server/(owner?) tried to "explain" to us how Rome restaurants charge for bread separately. Yes, we said, but if you bring the bread without us ordering it, which you did, it seems that would be part of the "coperto" charge. Which should be included.
And what about the water? Oh, he said, it's always tough to figure out these things when one person gets the full menu and one person doesn't. (Really? It seems pretty simple: Just charge for half the two-person bottle).
To be fair, he was nice about it. He knocked the charges off for us. And, for all I know, he always charges for "bread," the lack of clarity on the menu is an honest mistake, and nobody else has ever said anything. It's definitely possible.
But, needless to say, we still left a delicious meal with a bad taste in our mouths. And what a shame that is.
I don't mean to lay all the blame on Divinare. Because here's the thing. This "tacking on" of extra, not-quite-corretto charges happens all the time. Food blogger Katie Parla has written about the selective service charge at Grano that's applied to tourists only, and she just wrote about how Roma Sparita has started sneaking a 15% servizio onto tourists' bills, although their menu clearly says service is included. Similarly, Roma Sparita didn't charge me for service or coperto in June, proving their sometimes-charge is an unfair sleight-of-hand for unsuspecting tourists that's led me to update my own blog post about Roma Sparita accordingly. At other restaurants, waiters lean over when tourists are paying to "remind" them that service wasn't already included on their bill (hint hint hint!).
As for most others I've spoken with, it's not the automatic inclusion of a charge, whether servizio or pane e coperto, that bothers me. It's the shady way that it's never clear if it's going to be added or not—even when the menu seems to make it so clear. And it's the way that it seems to be targeted primarily at English speakers, although Italians can feel free to correct me on this point.
So look, Rome restaurants: I have a request. For the love of your own business, cut the bullshit. Please. You know what's fair and what's not. Charging for bread, when it was brought to a table without being ordered and the menu says coperto incluso, is shady. Charging for a large bottle of water for two people, when one person was supposed to get their water included, is not right. Charging some people service, when the menu says servizio incluso, is not okay. But what's crazy is that you already know that. And guess what? So do many of your clients!
Sure, all of this is small-change stuff. Three or four extra euros is hardly the end of the world. But, when it comes to restaurants with great reputations like Roma Sparita and Divinare, that's part of what blows my mind the most. You'd really rather go to the trouble of making a client an amazing meal and still risk them leaving less than 100% thrilled with their experience… just for the sake of some pocket change?
And, dear restaurants, here's something else you need to keep in mind. You might think that, if your client is a tourist who's in Rome for a day, it doesn't really matter if they love your food or think the bill is fair. But guess what? Tourists, too, have brains, friends… and access to TripAdvisor and Chowhound. Plus, with smartphones and iPads becoming more and more prevalent, future would-be clients now can access lousy reviews online more and more easily while they travel.
Not to mention that, every once in a while, that "tourist" happens to be a Rome-based blogger, travel journalist, or guidebook writer. Or even all three.
So please. You're smart people. You've figured out how to start a business in one of the world's most challenging countries for entrepreunership, not to mention a food establishment in one of the most restaurant-saturated cities on earth. So you tell me. Is it really worth the small change?
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.
Most guidebooks to Rome vaunt Da Remo as Testaccio’s best pizzeria, noting its big crowds and classic Roman pizza. Well, okay. Da Remo’s pretty good.
But if you’re heading out to Testaccio anyway, my advice: Go to Nuovo Mondo instead.
I had a capricciosa on my last visit there, and it was great. The crust was thin and crispy, the ingredients fresh, and the sauce almost-perfect, if a little uneven. And if you’re looking to get a table within the first fifteen minutes (not a likelihood at places like Da Remo), well, there were still empty seats by 9pm on a weeknight. And (again, pretty shocking for a pizzeria), the waiters were actually friendly. Okay, maybe it was because I was a single woman, eating alone — a rare thing in Italy. But still.
If that weren’t good enough, the bill was even better: €12 for a pizza, three fritti, and water.
The downside is the decor. With somewhat awkwardly low plastic chairs outside, bright orange tables, and motel-style prints decorating the walls inside, it’s no-frills. The place looks like it hasn’t been redecorated in the 45 years it’s been around. But with pizza this good, it doesn’t need to be.
Nuovo Mondo. Via Amerigo Vespucci 15. Closed Mondays. For a map, click here. Note: If you’re visiting Rome for the first (or even second, or third) time, the prospect of getting out to Testaccio (a working-class neighborhood south of Circo Massimo) might seem a little daunting. But it’s easy. You can take the “B” line metro south and get off at Piramide, just 2 stops from the Colosseo stop. Or grab the 3 or the 75 bus, which also stop in the Colosseum area. From there, it’s a short walk to Nuovo Mondo. And the neighborhood’s always lively and feels safe, even at night.