Postcard From Tom: Rome

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema's monthly report from the road.

As much as its citizens like to eat out, Rome is not known for its great restaurants. That doesn't mean locals don't eat well; rather, simple trattorias are where they tend to find the most satisfaction. Highlights from a recent trip to the Eternal City and its suburbs:

IL TORDO MATTO (Piazza San Martino 8, Zagarolo, 011-39-69-520-0050)

Thirty minutes from Rome by train, Il Tordo Matto feels like a secret you don't want to share. The dining room seats fewer than 20. "Would you like me to cook for you?" asks the boyish chef, 31-year-old Adriano Baldassarre. We jump at the invitation, which is followed by some of the best modern Italian cooking -- oysters sheathed in caramelized pork fat, buttery risotto strewn with squid, the best pigeon in memory -- we've ever encountered. Helping the chef in the kitchen is his mother, who returns us to the train station when we finish dinner. Five-course tasting menu $95.

RISTORANTE DITIRAMBO (Piazza della Cancelleria 74/75, 011-39-06-687-1626)

Set in one of the city's liveliest neighborhoods, this snug two-room restaurant is the picture of rusticity, with wood rafters and brick arches. From the tiny kitchen flow dishes that show ambition and imagination: crisp fried eggplant topped with baby squid, a savory "pastry" layered with buttery burrata cheese and pressed fish roe, and pork wrapped in smoked ham and set on chestnut puree. Both the breads and the sweets are baked right here, and vegetarians strike gold with two pages of meatless options. Entrees $13-$24.

IL GELATO DI SAN CRISPINO (Via della Panetteria 42; 011-39-06-679-3924)

There are prettier and friendlier spots to find one of the few snacks Romans willingly eat on the run, but nowhere is the gelato better than at this slender ice cream parlor (one of two), conveniently near the Trevi Fountain. Among the sensational flavors might be Armagnac, lemon and walnut with fig. Only the best ingredients -- hazelnuts from Piedmont, wild honey from Sardinia -- will do. About $3.40 per small cup.

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