The railroad station is a microcosm of the world’s travelers. Looking at the monitor, with its evolving schedules and locales, it is clear that all roads lead to Rome. Convenience is central to our needs right now, and we’re at the Mediterraneo Hotel, across the square from the stazione. Our pleasing reminder of Italian hospitality begins in the breakfast dining room, with its cheery turquoise blue ceramic tile floor, and the cacophony of people speaking many languages while enjoying one cuisine. Italian.
We walk across the bridge that spans the Tiber River to the ancient section of Trastevere and the old Ghetto. We plan to peer into the small artisanal shops and have an authentic lunch. Nonna Betta boasts an endorsement from Anthony Bourdain—that will do. Ancient faded murals line the walls and the restaurant has been in the family for decades. I order what I came for: Carciofe alla giuda prepared in a centuries old style, crispy leaves and a soft heart, twice fried.
Rome is a huge city, and who knows it better than taxi drivers. An amicable cabbie takes us on a pleasant tour and drops us at the heart of the world’s best fashion. The Via del Corso and Via Condotti. Shoes and boots like sculptures, garments draped to perfection, windows flawlessly dressed. An afternoon spent window-shopping, admiring historic monuments and fountains, and simply being in Rome is a fine way to “get our feet wet.” Escaping a sudden rain, we just make it back to our hotel for dinner. The view from the rooftop restaurant is spectacular—St. Peter’s on one side, the Coliseum on the other. In summer, we could dine under the stars on a landscaped patio. Marco serves us royally: shares fettuccine with in-season porcini mushrooms, bones a whole sea bream with a surgeon’s skill, and recommends a wine from Lake Garda in Lugano. The sights and sounds of Rome can best be absorbed by lingering over an espresso at an outdoor café. It appears that locals are the ones reading the newspapers, and visitors just stare at the passing parade. I pay a street artist a few Euros to draw a caricature of me. I buy another irresistible scarf. The history of Rome is the history of the world, and like most people, we have an itinerary of must-sees.
We are in luck, and get a dinner reservation at Assunta Madre for 7:30. At 11:45 p.m. there is still a line up of über-fashionables vying for Giovanni “Johnny” Micalusi’s tables. They are the faces we’ve seen in hundreds of Italian movies, film directors, owners of movie studios, designers and financiers. Next to us, the director of Cinema Paradiso is intensely into a plate of homemade pasta with lemon. In fact, a film designer designed the restaurant itself, and it is perfect with brick, wooden beams, and black and white, turn of the century etchings depicting life in Rome. Lamps hang low over the centre of tables showcasing the food, illuminating the room and softly flattering faces.
The razzle-dazzle of ocean fish dishes begins with three fish and seafood carpaccios, fresh from the oven breads, olive oil as precious as perfume. And then I get it. Everything is raw, even the huge shrimp and scampi, slit in half, in the shell and draped over a bowl of ice. Johnny is renowned for his fresh fish. The family in Terracina owns fish markets. Every afternoon they get the fresh fish, he makes his choices and the remainder goes to the public market. For seconds, the words “when in Rome—do as the Romans do,” flit through my mind, but no, slightly sheepish, I ask that everything be cooked. Wordlessly, they are whisked away and returned, jump fried with garlic and Italian parsley; followed by gnocchetti with light seafood sauce and a hint of cayenne. Pasta, of course, is the best, from Gragnano. A whole spigola with lemon and parsley. Sprightly frito misto of eggplant, squid, scampi and tuna. Tuna schnitzel. Eight courses with bottles of wine. Thank you, and no more please. And so comes a litany of desserts. It cannot get better than this. And yet, it does.
At the exquisite Sunday Brunch in the elegant Salone Medici of the Hassler Hotel, I see a very hands-on owner, Roberto E. Wirth, fifth generation of Swiss hoteliers, pointing out to an employee that a buffet tablecloth is not properly pressed. The buffet is spacious and abundant with beautiful food. A first for me is smoked swordfish. Leave the table for a few minutes, and a server swirls my napkin and lays it down in the shape of a shawl collar.
It is a privilege to dine at Imago, the hotel’s famous Michelin starred panoramic restaurant. The menu is printed in several languages, including Russian. From my seat at the table, Rome is outlined in twinkling lights below. What gives a restaurant Michelin stars? Clearly, it begins with the ambience and service that harmonizes with guests (whose expectations are met), and an artistic kitchen. Can anyone here possibly be enjoying the dining experience more than me? From the tiny amuse of baccala in a crispy roe capped roll, through a four-course, brilliantly executed dinner, to desserts and friandise, our server Sergio nurtures us as if he is the choirmaster, and we are the ensemble.
There is a strike of inside workers at the airport in Rome. A Lucky Strike for us. The customs/tax rebate clerk did not ask us to open or weigh our suitcases. Both our luggage and our persons had become more than 10 pounds heavier. Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Rome.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.