Long before MagoGuide, Fulvia and Lucullus were extreme telecommuting pioneers. After three decades toiling for various appendages of the military industrial complex, we ditched our day jobs and moved to Rome at the turn of the century. Three months later we were not only cyber gypsies, we were illegal aliens—at least as far as Italian law was concerned. It soon became apparent that such distinctions really did not matter as long as you paid cash for certain purchases and did not get arrested. So we stayed on for three glorious years developing complex software for remote customers over a dial-up connection and immersing ourselves in the history and cuisine of the Eternal City. It seems impossible at the remove of a decade that we could do decent business at the end of a digital soda straw or that we would ever leave. But we did both, lured to Sicily and Montana as bandwidth pipes matured and parents aged.
Fulvia in particular had been jonesing for an extended return to Rome, so we made it a key segment of the 2013 MagoGuide migration. While Rome is eternal, it is not static. A six-week stay in the Centro Storico revealed many changes—some good, some not so much. The elevator pitch is that Rome is much cleaner, more crowded, and more expensive. The traditional food markets are in decline, but the traditional sight seeing venues for antiquity have been expanded and exploration/preservation work accelerated. There are a larger number of quality rental apartments available, but they are clustered in the city center in neighborhoods that have an unfavorable local-to-tourist density. In short, Rome is at once better and worse for travelers than it was ten years ago. While we will have more to say about the state of the markets, antiquity sites, and rental apartments elsewhere, this particular piece focuses on what has befallen our favorite restaurants since we lived our version of la dolce vita back in the day.
I Feel Your Pain Bruno
“This area has become the Barri Gotic of Rome,” Fulvia remarked as we strolled through our old stomping grounds in the Campo de’ Fiori and the adjacent Ghetto. We had just spent a month assiduously avoiding Barcelona’s demophobia-inducing touristic center only to end up planted squarely in its Caput Mundi functional equivalent for six weeks. Domina’s observation was all the more remarkable because she was not decrying the loss of some idyllic secret location. Rome’s only secular piazza was certainly crowded and boisterous a decade ago, but the acceleration of ominous mass tourism trends struck us both as profoundly depressing.
A good half of the space in the Campo’s daily market is now given over to non-food tourist crap, but the transformation of the restaurants and bars that line the piazza is even worse. Always studenty and boozy, the Vatican’s former torture and execution grounds used to be a pleasant place to have an early morning coffee while watching the stall owners set out their wares or enjoy a night cap as Selene drives her chariot across a dark indigo Roman sky. Now a walk at any hour through the meadow of flowers so closely resembles a stroll down Las Ramblas that it is scary.
Walk down memory lane: This photo of the Campo de’ Fiori was taken in 2000. Notice there are not many tourists and the food stalls are almost exclusively dedicated to food items. The folks sitting down towards the front are actually cleaning produce for sale and quietly enjoying themselves.
Touts, completely absent during our previous sojourn, seek to lure you into their bars with promises of “a genuine bacon and eggs American breakfast” that were non-existent back when real Romans still paused for prima colazzione at the Campo. In fact the only bar that does not rely on touts is the Drunken Ship, which uses breasts of the female persuasion to lure patrons. Signs in English (of course) advertise how much free alcohol will be dispensed according to body part revelation per exposure time units.
Now Lucullus would like to assure his readers that he has no problem with young women exposing their bodies for barter compensation, although Fulvia probably does if Lucullus is within visual range of such transactions (this, by the way, is why MagoGuide will not be reviewing Montana’s wildly popular Testicle Festival anytime soon—but I digress). However, it just ain’t right to take a bar that would be at home on Bourbon Street or the Vegas Strip and slam it down midway between the place where the Catholic Church burned Giordano Bruno at the stake for the heresy of positing a heliocentric solar system and the love shack where Rodrigo Borgia (otherwise known as Pope Alexander VI) stashed his mistress. This wholesale surrender to the binge drinking mass tourism revenue stream dilutes the wonderfully wicked Italianess of the Campo de’ Fiori and it degrades the standards of nearby culinary institutions, such as La Carbonara.
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The only tout-free restaurant on the Campo de Firori, the centenarian La Carbonara, has sadly been tainted by the wholesale surrender of its neighbors to the rhythm of one off touristic dining. Patrons are accommodated at the crack of noon and the tick of six. It is a sad fact that CONUS hours are pretty close to peak occupancy times, as we found out on our first evening in Rome when we arrived at quarter to nine with no reservations anticipating a wait. We were immediately seated, however, and the ramifications of catering to people who eat at non-Italian hours were soon reflected in our food.
Fulvia had penne arrabiata, which turned out to be enraged rather than merely angry. That is right, for the first time in its brief but glorious history MagoGuide is going to classify a dish as too spicy. Most of the time we find arrabiata preparations lacking in heat, but the correct amount of red pepper for this classic Roman pasta preparation involves a very delicate balance of palate so that the sweetness of the basic tomato sauce is not overwhelmed by the pepperoncino, melding perfectly so that you get that sweet/hot thing going in addition to the voluptuous mouth feel of gran fruttato olive oil. This version misfired on all flavor cylinders. The tomato sauce had not cooked long enough and was consequently overly acidic, which had the knock-on effect of masking the taste of La Carbonara’s otherwise excellent oil produced by Azienda Agricola La Falconiana. The only redeeming feature of the dish was that the penne was a perfect al dente.
Lucullus plumped for the signature dish, which I had been craving since leaving my dwindling guanciale stash in Montana two and a half months prior. This one was a heartbreaker. Pasta carbonara at this eponymous trattoria has always been, if not exemplary, then at least reliably good. O tempora, O mores!! Again the penne was correctly cooked but the eggs were slightly underdone, robbing the dish of its richness and the largish chunks of guanciale had not been allowed to render long enough in the pan to release that liquid pig candy, which makes Rome’s carbonara stand out from all other rivals in Italy and beyond.
With the first bite, Lucullus knew that the only way to partially rescue the dish was to gild this rather wilted lily with additional pecorino Romano and fresh black pepper. Girding myself for battle, I summoned the waiter with my best imperator impersonation and made a request that in the past has usually led to disquisitions concerning the proper role played by pepper and cheese in authentic carbonara, usually followed by a denial of the requested condiments. Without batting an eye, the waiter delivered both formagio e macinapeppe. Although this made the pasta edible, it was yet another sign that La Carbonara is in decline.
We split a plate of fried lamb cutlets and artichokes from the list of the day’s recommended specials, or as it turned out, the push list. The cutlets were over-breaded and deep fat fried rather than pan-fried, as they would have been in a real Roman restaurant. Also, the lamb was indifferently trimmed (a sure sign that cost of food has come to dominate the culinary scene on the Campo). Finally, the artichokes were old and tough, inaugurating a theme that played out remorselessly over the next six weeks. Mid-May is indeed the end of artichoke season in Lazio—although I was able to purchase nice specimens in the market until the end of the month and execute very tasty carciofi a la Romana in my rented kitchen—but they are subject to tourist demand twelve months out of the year so why not profit from the masses’ folly? After all, the tourist customer demographic simply begs for a one-time sale approach.
In sum, the only thing about La Carbonara that had not deteriorated qualitatively was the house wine. We drank the red version and it was the same medium body, slightly fruity plonk that Fulvia and Lucullus had quaffed in our halcyon days. Otherwise the best hope of replicating the sturdy Roman fare that this old school trat used to dispense with such ease is to employ their recipe, which can be found in Cooking the Roman Way by David Downie. Lucullus would caution carbonara enthusiasts against carrying either a hard or digital copy openly through the Campo de Fiori, since it has obviously been placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books, and ol’ Bruno can tell you that your books aren’t the only things that get burnt when that happens.