Postcard from Rome, Italy: Finally, a food break for you

This blog has been dragging you through museum after museum and church after church in Rome, even through my museum meltdown, without one food break. Time to forget art and culture and be honest about why we really travel to Italy. To eat.

This first food post represents an unusual grouping of what ended up being our favorite spots. Even though we traipsed miles across Rome every day, three of these were within three blocks of our apartment.

Let’s get right to a full confession. Our absolute favorite restaurant in Rome is a vegetarian one, Arancia Blu. That luscious stuffed red onion above, roasted until sweet and tender and resting in a pool of red pepper sauce, is among the offerings that seduced us back for repeat visits. Whether a warm bean salad, a crispy radicchio lasagna, chickpea with walnut ravioli, pumpkin ravioli, creamy risotto topped with fried artichoke or pistachio sorbet with caramelized pear – we loved everything we tried. The inside of Arancia Blu is like sitting in a friend’s personal library; outside tables are perched on a side street with little traffic.

We stumbled almost directly off the plane to set our forks twirling in our first plate of that Roman classic pasta dish, cacio e pepe. The rich sauce is the result of few ingredients – aged Pecorino Romano cheese, water from the pasta and a proper dose of freshly ground black pepper. We lucked out because our neighborhood Caffe Vergnano 1882 on Piazzale Flaminio turned out some of the best we tried.

Yes, you can find Caffe Vergnano affiliated coffee spots numerous places, but this location has a chef hidden inside. There is no printed menu, only a blackboard outside listing a couple of pastas and no prices. Reasonable enough in pricing to attract locals, the contemporary spot generally is bustling, which offers a chance to peer at the regulars’ tables and realize there are more dishes than the server recites. Spying is how we discovered one of the best vegetable platters in Rome for us to share with our pasta dishes. More roasted fennel, please.

And, when we were not too overstuffed from lunch, we would swing by Mondo Arancina Flaminio for Sicilian-style arancini to-go. The freshly made balls of rice were filled with things like spinach, prosciutto and cheese, mozzarella and peas or eggplant ragout before frying. Okay, another confession. We were always overstuffed but would grab some for the approaching wine hour anyway.

The final place in this post was way off the beaten tourist track; TripAdvisor only has seven reviews in English posted. We only made the trek once to La Gallina Capricciosa, but the meal was memorable. We barely snagged two seats in the packed family-run, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The Mister’s Spanish worked fine here, as we were probably the only customers without Peruvian blood running in our veins. We way over-ordered, and the waiter was nice enough to eliminate one of our dishes. We started with fried yucca and an inexpensive, extremely generous serving of fresh ceviche in leche de tigre with the traditional corn and sweet potato on the side. We scarcely made a dent in our shared order of seafood rice.

I promise, more Italian dishes later.

Postcard from Lisboa, Portugal: Frankly foreign restaurants

We never go long without “foreign” food in San Antonio or when traveling. “Foreign” in this case means not Portuguese. And particularly Italian. This post represents the final one of our “payback” food roundups from Lisbon: we depend so heavily on the internet for reviews that I feel obligated to provide feedback for those who follow.

We were bowled over by Riso8, mainly because we stumbled across it without reviews. We ate two weekday lunches there with a lot of “suits,” which makes you particularly happy you are traveling and don’t have to wear one and rush back to some office. Virtually no tourists were present. The black ink spaghetti was filled with seafood and broccoli and was wonderful, but beware of splashing the dark ink while twirling pasta. Both the sausage risotto and the calamari with saffron version were polished off happily.

When you view the pizza shots, you will think that’s all we ate in Lisboa. But we were there for four weeks. All of the ones mentioned here were good, but none were major homeruns. But we liked all these restaurants. As we were eating so much seafood, we generally ordered vegetarian pizzas.

Among the spots we hit were Esperanca, Limoncello Cucina Italiana, Momenti Italiani and Pizzaria Lisboa. Lunch specials are absurdly inexpensive at Limoncello, but the must-have dish to order is the grilled asparagus. The presentation of Momenti’s tomato salad was artful, and the chocolate mousse was wonderfully rich. The fresh-tasting stacked eggplant – not fried – was luscious at Pizzaria Lisboa, the casual option restaurant opened by a hot chef, Jose Avillez. The dish I plan on duplicating at home is his broiled pineapple with lemon basil sorbet for dessert. Totally refreshing.

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A block from our apartment, we kept watching as they put the finishing touches on Oui, Moules & Huitres. They opened our final week, and the mussels, with numerous options available not laden with cream, were perfect. Across the street from the touristy Cervejaria Trindade, it should be able to attract a following soon.

Another place seemingly new because the menu the French proprietors offered at lunch was radically different – now burger centric – than what online reviews indicated is Velha Gruta off of Largo de Camoes. Ignore those reviews. It is totally uncharacteristic of us to order burgers, but these were far more flavorful than most – whether veal, chicken or salmon – and were topped with interesting combinations of distinctive cheeses and grilled vegetables and served with frites. Expect locals not tourists, friendly owners and a nice, inexpensive liter of house red wine.

Gandhi Palace was good, not great, but sometimes you just need to spice things up….