As you saw in my earlier post Agrodolce: Our favorite Roman trattorias ten years on, we spent six weeks in Rome in the spring and early summer of 2013. During that time we revisited many of our favorite restaurants from when we lived our version of la dolce vita back at the turn of the centry. In that earlier post was a review of La Carbonara in the Campo dei Fiori. In a followup posting called Agrodolce: Infinitely Curved Pizza we reviewed Sora Margherita. Both of these old favorites were a disappointment. More episodes of culinary collapse can be found on the Via Portico D’Otavia, which constitutes the Compo black hole’s accretion disc where a street full of restaurants are circling to their deaths. It used to be hard to get a bad meal at any one of the dozen or so restaurants on this iconic Ghetto thoroughfare, but now portents of doom abound, such as signage trumpeting Tony Bourdain’s favorite eatery in Rome and an outbreak of touts at neighboring establishments loudly disputing this dubious claim. We had an apartment on this street back in the day and our go-to place was Il Portico, a wonderful little trat run by a young couple who treated us like royalty. As soon as we sat down, we would automatically receive a liter of red wine and a complimentary foccacino (an addictive ultrathin and crispy pizza-sized cracker topped with a sprinkling of olive oil, salt, and a squirt of intensely flavored tomato sauce that I have never had before or since). They made the best pizza, fried zucchini flowers, and tripe in the Ghetto for half the price of any other place. The young owners were driven out of business by soaring rents in the Centro Storico following the introduction of the Euro and the place was never the same. It has been closed for “repairs” for at least two years.
Note about this photo: This is taken from our apartment window in 2003 where we woke one morning to find that they were filming a World War II movie about the Ghetto right out front.
Et Tu Constantia?
Telephone: 06 68801002 - 06 6861717
Hours of operation: Mon-Sat: 12:30pm-2:30pm, 7:30pm-10:30pm; Sun: Closed
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Rostra rating: 1
As a charter member of the Optimates, Lucullus used to love having dinner near the very spot where that sleazy champion of the mob, Julius Caesar, got what was coming to him. Nestled in the remains of Pompey’s Theater, Hostaria Costanza always fit the bill—like Louie’s Restaurant in the Bronx it was the perfect place for a hit, good food, family run, everybody minds their own business. Well, at least that was the case ten years ago. While Utrip’s local “experts” claim that Costanza “is in fact one of the best kept secrets when it comes to traditional dining in the city center,” MagoGuide is here to tell you that the black hole in the Campo is exerting its vicious pull on this venerable establishment. We descended on Costanza with a party of five one night to put the place through its paces. Our group covered the dining spectrum from aging omnivores like Lucullus to a young tribune who could thrive on cardboard for weeks to picky chics who refused to countenance the word “veal” at table, much less its actual presence. We all came away disappointed.
To be fair, there were decent, even very good dishes served up throughout the meal at just the right frequency to break your heart over what has befallen Peppe e Paride’s hostaria since we last supped there. We took the auspices with octopus carpaccio and everything seemed off to a good start. The large slices of cephalopod scrapple sported a good ratio of body sack to tentacles. It was served at room temperature (not semi-frozen so as to hold down on costs and speed up preparation) and cut very thin.
Unfortunately, it was the only antipasto that measured up to Costanza’s previous standards. The lightly breaded and stuffed zucchini flowers were old, watery, and stingy when it came to the anchovies. On his way to the lavabrum, Lucullus lingered at the entry display case of fish, produce, and antipasti until he picked out the zucchini flowers awaiting stuffing. They were discolored with age. On top of wondering why a decent restaurant would employ such bad produce, one has to boggle at the hubris of also displaying them to all and sundry (it should surprise no one that the waiters were pushing said blossoms that night).
The seafood salad had a lot more vongole verace than one normally finds in such a preparation, but they did not make up for a general blandness that bespoke the use of lackluster olive oil and not enough acidity.
Just the opposite was the case with the buffalo mozzarella, which delivered on the flavor side of things but was tough and lacking in mouth feel (i.e., too long a resident of the reach-in).
The vegetable antipasti were terrible: breaded, baked, or grilled they were all mushy and virtually flavorless.
The pastas were all just a bit weird and consequently fatally flawed. The pasta frutti di mare was composed of irreproachably fresh shellfish, but the choice of house-made tagliatelle with seafood was, well, kind of British. At first Lucullus chalked this up to a borrowed Sicilian immune response where one never sees pasta al uova paired with anything aquatic, but after tasting it declared the dish to be a barbarian interpolation. The pasta, while correctly cooked, was simply too soft for the other ingredients in the dish.
Fulvia had much the same reaction to her ravioli with artichokes. The bespoke ravioli came in a sauce containing more artichoke wedges and cherry tomatoes, but the pasta was drowned in a lake of heavy cream. Fulvia declared the dish un-Roman, originating perhaps from Cisalpine Gaul. “Frog food is frog food no matter which side of the Alps it comes from,” she growled, making Lucullus fear for the health of the scribe who had written the menu, describing the ravioli in somewhat misleading terms. The cavatelli with artichokes and cherry tomatoes proved a much better approach for these two particular vegetables than the ravioli, but the cavatelli were just this side of undercooked, which Fulvia found unforgivable and Lucullus had to admit would never have occurred when the place really was a local haunt back in the day.
The secundi fared somewhat better. Lucullus had no complaints with his fresh oven roasted porcini. They were expertly prepared, meaty and redolent with woodsy fungus flavors.
The accompanying cicoria ripassata was well cooked but needed heat.
The competently roasted suckling pig left Lucullus ambivalent, however, because it was served with brown pan gravy, a preparation more suited to German Spanferkel than maialino Romano. This dish is traditionally served with fava beans, which were still on offer in the Campo market right next door, and not the inevitable Teutonic taters that did, however, go well with the gravy. The unmistakable presence of several tables of British and German tourists that night provided a significant clue as to the customer profile that have replaced the civitas Romanus at Costanza. The house wines were quite potable. The white, a 2012 Colli Lanuvi, had a delicate grapefruit nose, citrus and melon fruit, as well as a nice long finish. The red was a Mantepulciano d’Abruzzo, Vale D’Oro, 2011 with a faint cherry nose, black cherry fruit, and a medium finish. The white was the better of the two.
The desserts only had one clunker, a chocolate moose that was pedestrian, almost a pudding. The tiramisu was decent but not as good as Da Enzo, while the zabaglione moose was quite good, light and eggy, easily the best dessert that evening.
In the end we had to conclude that Costanza has gone significantly downhill, but that it remains in the ergosphere of the Campo culinary black hole and thus still theoretically capable of escaping. Unfortunately, the large number of tourists willing to pay high prices for a very uneven experience provides little incentive for a turn-around.
Vecchia Roma – Ruined by success
Hours of operation: Mon-Sat.: 12:00–2:00 pm, 5:00–10:00 pm, Sunday: Closed
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Rostra rating: 2
We also found culinary catastrophes beyond the Campo’s deadly attraction. Up on the Esquiline Hill, Vecchia Roma at Via Ferruccio, 12 B/C only made three dishes worth eating, but they were worth a visit at least once a week. The restaurant specialized in two quintessential Roman pasta dishes and a specialty from the neighboring Abruzzi province. The pastas were cacio e peppe and amatriciana, but their twist on these ubiquitous trattoria offerings was as delicious as it was unhealthy. Both preparations were finished in huge half drums of pecorino Romano, the sides of which were softened using flambéed liqueur. The result was a heart attack on a plate to die for. The obligatory secundo was arrosticini abruzzesi, small cubes of mutton on skewers roasted to perfection with nothing more than a generous hit of sea salt.
Note about this photo: That pizza to the far left does indeed have french fries on it. This is a crime.
Vecchia Roma has become the quintessential victim of its own success. A recent renovation has doubled the size of an already cavernous space along with the number of diners and accompanying decibels. Reservations, unheard of ten years ago, are now essential in what is basically an Italian version of Chuckie Cheese’s. We spent several weeks securing a reservation as if we were trying to get into a Michelin star establishment, only to walk out when they tried to seat us next to a table hosting a birthday party consisting of fifteen 6 year-old girls who were totally out of control (very unusual for Italy). A friend later told us that waits of up to an hour for orders to arrive are common. Fortunately, as attested in subsequent “Agrodolce” posts, the rest of the Esquilino has not been corrupted in a similar fashion.