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.
Note about the photo: This post is mostly from a day that started out at an Archimedes exhibit. Here is Morgan moving the world with an Archimedian lever. Archimedes plays a big role in Morgan’s historical novels. Check them out here.
Over the course of this six weeks, our gastronomic forays yielded a stunning observation: the Campo is a culinary black hole. Formerly excellent eateries have been sucked into its touristic maw never to return in this universe. Case in point, our favorite pizza restaurant in Rome has been drawn into the Campo’s singularity where the laws of physics do not allow pizza to exist as we know it.
The establishment I refer to used to be located at Via dei Giubbonari 33, a mainly pedestrian street that runs between the Via Arenula and the Campo. As far as I know, this place really did not have a name, but we always called it Plato’s Pizza because it produced something very close to the perfect form of the genre. Its variant was neither Roman, nor Neapolitan, nor Sicilian. Baked every morning in strips approximately 6 feet long and half a foot wide, it resembled the famed pizza bianca produced nearby at Roscioli’s bakery but was possessed of subtle and wonderful differences. The crust was crispier and not as dense while the interior was more latticed, which is to say it had more crunch and less chew than pizza bianca. But that was only the basic building block. Whereas white pizza is either served as is or split and stuffed with meat, cheese, and vegetables to make a sandwich, it was the toppings that really made Plato’s product special. They included everything from Romanesco broccoli, anchovies, and caciocavallo cheese to roasted porcini and buffalo mozzarella so fresh that it wept tears of whey, which merged with the fungal juices and san marzano tomato sauce to produce a veritable symphony of pizzatude. In addition to the pizza, Plato’s was a killer tavola calda that served excellent meat, vegetable, and baked pasta dishes throughout the day. They also made the best suppli in Rome, almost as good as Sicilian arancine. Many of our proposal marathons were fueled by Plato’s take away.
That was then. These days the place has a name: Pizzeria Spaghetteria. It serves only the ubiquitous small round pizzas that every tourist trap from the Stazione Termini to St. Peters cranks out by the thousands everyday to bored, tired, hot, unhappy captives of the mass tourism industry. In the old days the staff spoke only Italian and at least half the clientele were Romans. These days a young and pretty female tout sorts passersby through a mental filter that picks out tourists half a block away and then homes in on them with well practiced patter in the mark’s lingua franca. She soon learned to give a wide berth to Lucullus as he marched past with a look that could have turned the tables on Medusa as he indulged in wickedly carnal fantasies concerning the details of fitting punishments for her gastronomic crimes.
Eating Inside the Event Horizon
Perhaps Plato still serves its incredible pizza long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away (theoretically possible if the Campo black hole has both spin and a magnetic field). Culinary crimes of an even viler nature, however, are occurring just across the event horizon where extant establishments are spiraling inevitably towards the singularity destroying the credibility of seasoned food bloggers along the way.
Telephone: +39.06 687 4216
Hours of operation: Mon, Wed, Fri-Sunday: 12:00–3:30 pm, 8:00–11:15 pm. Closed Tues and Thurs.
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Rostra rating: 2
This was another no name restaurant back in the day. Rome’s equivalent to Barcelonetta’s Cova Fumada (see A Tale of Two Tapas Bars) was simply a door screened by long strings of plastic beads that opened onto a small piazza in the Ghetto. Opening times varied according to the whims of the owner, an old woman apparently named Daisy (Margherita). When the door was open, so was the restaurant.
Daisy had other endearing quirks. I well remember sitting at a table that her one waiter had drug outside for us, because there was no room inside the cramped and haphazardly furnished interior, when he appeared with a plate of pasta that we had not ordered. I started to explain the situation but he cut me off, impatiently explaining that he was too busy to deliver the dish across the square to an indigent man who was a fixture of the neighborhood in those days. I dutifully delivered the plate, only to be sent back to the restaurant for wine and bread. I returned to the restaurant and spoke to Daisy concerning this request. She exploded into a tirade directed against the waiter, who cursed the saints as he handed me half a loaf of bread and a glass of wine. On my way out the door, Daisy screamed at me not to forget to take a dish of grated cheese for the pasta.
The food at Daisy’s consisted of whatever the waiter told you that you were going to eat that day, and it was very good cucina di povera. He also served as a random number generator as well, so that the exact same meal had a different price on different days. You always got a primi, a secundo, and a dolce in very generous portions and you had better finish all of them or Daisy would leave her kitchen to scream at you until you did.
Then the place failed to open for week, which grew into a month, and eventually into a year. We always checked to see if the door was open when we cycled through Rome on our annual migrations, but it remained shut. Early in our six week re-immersion we beheld to our wonderment that people were dining both inside and outside the place, which now sported the name of Sora Margherita.
We were wary, but there were enough positive signs—the place was packed and the respected Roman food blogger Elizabeth Minchilli raved about their house-made fettuccini—that we decided to chance a lunch. The experience can only be summarized by the following acronym: BOHICA. Once inside, all of the promising auguries deteriorated. The walls were covered with flattering newspaper reviews none more recent than 1999. The young waitresses wore Sora Margherita t-shirts and spoke English. There were nothing but tourists sitting at the tables with no natives in sight. They were open for dinner and took reservations (in the old days the place did not even have a phone).
I questioned our waitress and found out that the restaurant had “reopened” in 2011, but she assured me that Margherita was still in the kitchen. The woman of a certain age who was cooking on the day we ate there, however, bore absolutely no resemblance to the gastro-harridan who used to brandish a ladle menacingly if we did not eat everything on our plates.
We started with carciofi alla giudia against Fulvia’s better judgment. A disaster; terrible, greasy, tough, old. Our waitress asked what we thought of the dish and I said that it was very tough since it probably was not the right season for artichokes. She agreed whole-heartedly. So why was it on the menu?
The alici (fresh anchovies in olive oil and vinegar) were just barely edible. They were not fresh and the kitchen had applied a liberal dose of pepperoncini that did not quite disguise this fact. The buffalo mozzarella was of a similar age and very chewy.
The gnocchi in oxtail sauce could have been left over from yesterday’s lunch at the nearby middle school. The sauce had decent flavor, but the gnocchi were commercial, they were machine made, lacking that all-important thumb roll across the tines of a fork that allows the sauce to cling and penetrate the dumplings.
The gnocchi were, however, streets ahead of the fettuccini cacio e peppe, which was terrible. The over-cooked “fresh” pasta may have been made in-house but certainly not the day we ate there. There was even unidentifiable crud in the wine, which was barely drinkable untainted.
The bill for this lousy meal came to 64 Euro, but they don’t take credit cards and we only had 62 in cash. They were nice enough to let us slide. I think they knew we knew just how bad their food was and how shamelessly they were trading on a former institution. Verdict: Sora Margherita is well inside the Campo black hole’s event horizon from which there is no hope of escape. Shame on Elizabeth Minchilli and shame on Trip Advisor for awarding her their 2013 certificate of excellence.
Afterward: When we left Sora Margherita, we were greeted with a band of teenagers squirting each other with shaving cream. It was another one of those Italian moments where we knew that there was a story, but we couldn’t figure it out. We had seen this once before in Sicily and were in the dark even then. A helpful young man on a motorcycle explained that it was the last day of school and squirting your friends with shaving cream was a tradition. Another mystery solved. Here the young ladies are cleaning up at a Roman water fountain.