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. And the bad streak continued with Agrodolce: Gastro-Deletion on the Accretion Disk where we reviewed Costanza Hostaria. Things turned around, though, with two visits to one of our all-time favorite restaurants, Casa Bleve, reviewed in Agrodolce: Rinascita Gastronomica. And we were relieved to find that our favorite fish restaurant in Rome has also remained good eats.
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Hours of operation: Monday- Saturday: 12:30–3:30 pm, 7:00–11:30 pm, Closed Sun
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Rostra rating: 4
Baia Chia was one of the first restaurants we tried after moving into our first apartment in Rome, which was located on the Esquiline Hill near the Piazza Vittorio II. Since then we have eaten there with Moldovan gangster royalty, various female forces of nature, extended family, Russian defectors, and our corporate council. Whether we booked half the restaurant or wandered in late on a rainy night just as the place was closing, we have always received a gracious welcome and wonderful food. I am happy to report that on the evidence of three recent visits nothing has changed at Baia Chia in the 14 years Fulvia and Lucullus have been patronizing this wonderful establishment.
If you do not like seafood and lots of it, you are really better off finding somewhere else to eat in Rome. Baia Chia is a Sardinian restaurant dedicated to the bounty of the Mediterranean. This is not to say that you cannot get dishes sans Neptune’s harvest, there are some very nice vegetarian antipasti and, although I have never seen it served, there must be non-fish proteins stashed somewhere in the reach-in. The kitchen can always make spaghetti con salsa pomodoro as they did for the rather accidental one-year-old offspring of a mysterious US expat patriarch who “did his banking in Cyprus.” If you go to Baia Chia and skip the seafood, however, you will miss out on the raison d’être for a meal there and the best you can hope for is a contact high from the packed tables of guys/girls night out revelers orbiting a four-generation family gathering to celebrate a christening or graduation.
Ditto if your idea of a restaurant involves menus and/or credit cards. You can insist on employing both at Baia Chia but doing so will mark you forever as stranyeri (gaijin) and your experience will be greatly diminished. This situation is actually to the traveler’s benefit, since unlike most other Roman restaurants you will be treated like a local as long as you do not resist. The rules are simple and the presence of several English speakers amongst the friendly staff means that you can seek information if that proves necessary, but in general here are the two words you need to know: “si” and “bianco.”
Upon arrival you will be seated in one of several dining rooms. The tables are set with white patterned linen, sturdy stimware, and clean but well-used cutlery. The space itself is very pleasant with cream-colored walls, original watercolor art, and soft indirect lighting. The high ceiling dining rooms separated by rounded arches can become noisy, but in a nice convivial way as opposed to the deafening roar that adds aural insult to gastronomic injury at the tourist traps located a half-mile away around the Stazione Termini. If at all possible, you want to sit amidst all the action on a busy night or at lunch time, because a) watching the locals dine and interact with the staff is a big part of the experience at Roman neighborhood restaurants and b) you might see things being consumed that you would like to try, and which the staff will be happy to bring you.
Your first big decision concerns wine, which shows up with the bread. Baia Chia serves its own label white or red. If you have come to eat seafood the choice is a no brainer, thus “bianco.” There is a wine list which the staff will diligently run off to find if you insist. I know this because I have watched tourists waste their time and grow perplexed as the search continues while the locals guzzle the crisp and fruity house white and fresh bottles appear at their tables without any further communication with the wait staff. Once a bottle is identified from the wine list (the singular form is very appropriate for this particular noun in this particular context), it is an even bet that they do not have the selected wine, or the next, etc. So the tourist bent on drinking “decent wine” ends up spending a frustrating half hour while everyone else in the place eats and drinks merrily until an overpriced and shoddily kept wine is produced. So drink the house white (there is a house red but I have never seen it served or tried it in all the years I have been eating at Baia Chia).
The breadbasket comes heaped with an excellent sourdough wheat bread as well as Sardinian carta di musica, a paper-thin unleavened flat bread. Do not over indulge on the staff of life, however, because your next choice will inundate your table with Poseidon’s treasures. The waiter will ask if you want an antipasto. The answer is “si.” Do not even consider skipping the starters to save room for pasta or a main course. It is better (in extremis of course) to forego primi and/or secondi instead, because Baia Chia’s antipasti are several meals in and of themselves and the establishment’s discriminator in a city filled with seafood restaurants.
The antipasti come in waves like an invasion of your table space. First the staff sets up an ancillary serving table to hold the various serving dishes, then they bring a stack of extra plates to hold the starters as they are passed around. The ‘tizers come at a rate of half a dozen dishes at a time. Once a serving dish is empty, it is replaced with a different one. This goes on until you throw in the towel or have worked your way through the entire night’s offering (it is always possible to get seconds on anything you particularly like, but beware that while the antipasti are the jewels in Baia Chia’s crown, there is a lot of excellent food to follow, that is if you intend to eat like the Romans do). Although the starter roster changes daily, I have listed what we were served at our most recent dinner:
- Insalata di mare: squid, octopus, carrots, celery, evoo, vinegar
- Neonata croquets with chopped zucchini and zucchini flower bits: neonata are just-born tiny fish caught, illegally, with tackle that is more akin to a strainer than a net
- Mussels sautéed in white wine and evoo
- Baby octopus stewed with chickpeas
- Corn kernels and radicchio
- Arugula with mayonnaise
- Buffala mozzarella and prosciutto
- Cured smoked salmon and pineapple
- Carpaccio di persico (ocean perch, very soft) with arugula
- Carpaccio di pesce spada (sword fish, ceviche-like) with arugula
- Large white beans with slightly sweet tomato sauce and cheese
- Alici marinated with vinegar, evoo, and green pepper corns
- Lightly steamed (al vapore) salmon slices
- Raw oysters on the half shell
About an hour into the meal you will face your next choice, which concerns pasta. The kitchen is capable of producing many pasta variants to include ravioli and gnochetti, but over the years I have found that it is best to stick to one or more of the big three: risotto alla crema di scampi, spaghetti con le vongole, and spaghetti con fruti di mare.
The risotto is extremely rich, made with cream and a scampi stock that gives the dish a rosy pink color. The refreshing acidity of the house white is a perfect foil for this dish, rinsing the palate so that the each bite of risotto remains sumptuous and does not become overly cloying.
The spaghetti vongole is made with a white sauce in the Sardinian style. Baia Chia elevates this common dish through the use of incredibly fresh thumbnail-size clams and skilled execution whereby the pasta in finished in the pan to a perfect al dente as it absorbs the candy-like nectar from the clams just as they open.
The fruiti di mare pasta also sports impeccable ingredients that change with daily availability, but always includes mussels and shrimp. This dish is cooked in the southern Italian style with a sauce of Campanian San Marzano or Sicilian Pachino tomatoes. If you are dining with a group, or if you love seafood pasta, opt for the trio of these pastas served on a large platter so that you can try each one. For dainty appetites or for those that want to march all the way through three courses and a dessert, the kitchen will gladly prepare half portions of any pasta.
Main courses are next. You can get fish or seafood fried, baked, or grilled. If at all possible try to sample all three techniques (or do so over multiple visits, the more you come back the better your experience will be as the staff realizes that you are travelers and not tourists). Not to be missed are the frito misto of calamari and shrimp or the fritura di paranza, which is basically fried bait (medium-sized sardines or anchovies) that is great for eating by hand (no one will complain).
Fulvia is not a big seafood fan, but she loves Baia Chia and her favorite secundo is whole sea bass baked in salt. The entire ungutted fish is completely covered in salt and then baked in a medium oven. The bass is then broken out of its crust, skinned, eviscerated, and boned at table by your waiter. The result is fish so juicy sweet that even Gollum could not resist it.
After the main course you will be offered pinzimonio and again your answer should be “si”. This is a plate of raw vegetables served with sea salt and Sardinian olive oil for dipping. The veggies include fennel, carrots, celery, radishes, and whatever is seasonal, such as wedges of baby artichokes or Romanesco cauliflower. This course may seem superfluous, especially if you are intent on pressing on to desert, but now is the time to slow down and finish your white wine while refreshing your palate for the dolce offerings.
There are at least three deserts at Baia Chia worth mentioning. The seadas are a Sardinian specialty, cheese fritters made with Fiore Sardo (wild sheep’s cheese) and then drizzled with bittersweet corbezzolo honey. The house-made profiteroles are also excellent.
Whatever you have for desert you should also order Baia Chia’s lemon sorbet to conclude. Unlike most sorbets, this one is not frozen, but served as a cold frothy liquid in a wine glass with a straw. It is a wonderfully refreshing way to almost end your meal.
I say almost because you will automatically be served amaretto biscotti and three house-made digestifs with your coffee. The biscotti are very good, but the digestifs are superb. Ice-cold bottles of grappa, amaro, and lemoncella are simply placed on the table for your delectation. Beware, however, these puppies are tasty but potent, especially after a vat of the house plonk. The Sardinian grappa is particularly deadly firewater. I have seen it take out hard drinking Russians and Moldovans. In the case of the former, we had to carry Sergei Cingalevitch back to our apartment for 24 hours of restorative coma. The latter episode climaxed with unofficial representatives of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic tipping each waiter 500 Euros and buying dinner for all the guests in the restaurant. So go easy on the grappa.
Payment is the final Baia Chia ritual. Although they take them, credit cards are a bad idea. Their use will result in a higher bill than if you pay in cash, and I have even seen one (and only one) review on Trip Advisor (gaaak!!) containing an accusation of credit card fraud, which I find dubious but which can be avoided all together by paying cash like everyone else. The owner will come by your table with a small tablet of graph paper. He will inquire as to the dishes you ate and whether you had wine (not, mind you, the number of bottles just whether you drank wine or not with your meal). Then he will write down a price on the square of graph paper and show it to you. Pay that price, do not ask for any receipts, and tip a maximum of one Euro per person. Repeat this process at least once a week for as long as you are in Rome.