Wine in Rome

In response to innumerable requests (from Diane), I’ve decided that it’s a good idea to give a report about the wine situation in Rome, where we recently spent a thoroughly enjoyable week. Warm days with brilliant sunshine, cool nights with no rain, glorious sights and equally glorious food (see Diane’s blog), plenty of walking to build up an appetite for that food, and plenty of good, inexpensive wine to lubricate everything: paradise enow, as some poet or other remarked.

Those who remember the old days of Roman tourism will find much to wonder at and equally much to deplore in Rome now. One thing to deplore: The tourist season never ends, and the hordes of sloppily dressed, seriously overweight people of all nationalities are overwhelming. Even at the very beginning of April, I heard more English in Rome than I generally hear on a weekend in my own neighborhood, and the beautiful Piazza Navona and Piazza Rotonda, in front of my beloved Pantheon, were virtually impassable by day.

The Pantheon and Piazza Rotonda -- blessedly not crowded at night

You can still navigate from there to Giolitti by walking back up the stream of ice cream cones, and aside from St. Peter’s most of the churches are still accessible, but – no two ways about it – Rome is crowded. It’s now more and more advisable to reserve a table at restaurants where you used to be able to dine merely by showing up at 8:30.

One of the things to marvel at is the greater accessibility of many historical sites – the Crypta Balbi, along and beneath the Via Botteghe Oscure, for instance – and the vastly improved presentation in others, notably the Capitoline Museums and the Palazzo Altemps. The ground floor of the latter was, within my memory, a first-rate Abruzzi trattoria, La Maiella, behind whose wainscoting I never realized lurked a beautiful Renaissance palace and some of the loveliest classical artifacts in Rome. I ate there often, and the food was always good and the wine simply red or white, with a very limited selection of bottles. In those days, the red house wine in Rome often showed mimeo-ink purple and the white a vague amber-brownish hue. That was then normal, but one of the things I most enjoy in the new Rome is the wonderful expansion of its wine lists and its wine consciousness. It’s not just that the choices now go beyond red and white: They now extend far beyond Chianti and Frascati, which were once the outer limits of Roman wine sophistication.

Witness the splendid proliferation of wine bars in the city. Most are doing so well that they are verging on becoming full-scale restaurants, if their space permits. Il Simposio on the Piazza Cavour and Trimani just above the Baths of Diocletian are examples of that, while the simpler Angolo di Vino near the Campo dei Fiori and Cul de Sac in Piazza Pasquino remain pioneering classics of the wine bar genre. Both are great places for a light lunch, and even the now-more-elaborate wine bars happily serve a single course to those strong enough to resist temptation. (Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t.)

Our first time at Cul de Sac, we ate lightly (salume, cheeses) and drank from its wine-by-the-glass menu. This is a tiny selection – about two dozen wines – from the 1,500 bottle main list.

A luncheon plate at Cul de Sac

We tried a Sardinian Cannonau (Sella & Mosca, fairly widely available in the US), a Cesanese (a Lazio grape and wine: local goods) from Principe Pallavicino, a Lacrima di Morra d’Alba from the Marches (cherries!), and a Pugliese Nero di Troia Gelsomara – the latter three rarely if ever available in the US.

At Trimani, over bowls of pasta e fagioli, we drank an Umbrian Grechetto, Poggio della Costa, and followed that with glasses of two uncommon reds, an ’07 Garda DOC vinified from Grappolo, Marzemino, Barbera, and Sangiovese, and a 2004 Pornassio DOC vinified from Ormeasco, a very localized variety from Liguria – a little strange, but interesting.

As you can see, Diane and I patronized as many of these establishments as we had time and appetite for. It’s a sad fact that as you get older, your wretched physical system betrays you. I used to have the metabolism of a hummingbird; now I have the capacity of one, and so have to choose my lunches with great care, lest there be no room for dinner, an unthinkable fate.

Vastly expanded as Roman restaurants’ wine lists may be, it is still difficult to get a really mature wine there. Vecchia Roma, an up-scale trattoria, does lovely, slightly lightened Roman food and has a thick, multi-page list of wines from all over Italy. It includes many kinds that we simply never see here in the States, and that for me was fascinating. But if what you want is a mature Barolo, Barbaresco, or Brunello, you’re just out of luck – six years old is about the best you’re going to do. Our oldest wine of the week was a vintage 2000 Gattinara from Travaglini that we drank alongside dishes of trippa alla Romana and duck with prunes at Armando al Pantheon, and very lovely it was. Things may be different at the Michelin-star-bedecked restaurants, but I wouldn’t know. We don’t patronize such places (outside of Piemonte, the grand exception), on the experientially proven principle that the more Michelin likes a restaurant in Italy, the less Italian it is.

Another thing worth marveling at is that Roman restaurants do not exploit their patrons who drink wine, as American restaurants do. Prices seem to run a small percentage above retail – and that is as true for non-Italian wines as it is for their domestic bottles. Not that I sought out any of those: I was very pleased with the Italian selections available. When in Rome and all that.

 At Piperno, for example, we enjoyed a bottle of Abazzia di Novicella’s Kerner Praepositus – one of Italy’s best white wines – for under $40. And I do mean dollars, not euro. That bottle of Travaglini Gattinara at Armando weighed in at a mere $34. Even at Vecchia Roma, our 2006 Taurasi Radici from Mastroberardino cost only $62. Had we had the capacities we used to have, second bottles would have been easily affordable. Is it any wonder Rome is the Eternal City?

9 Responses to “Wine in Rome”

  1. Eating and Drinking in Rome | Charles Scicolone on Wine Says:

    […] 100% Montepulciano d’Abuzzo from Eduardo Valentini. It was less than 40 Euro. For more on Rome see Wine in Rome a great blog by Tom Maresca. Share this:ShareFacebookStumbleUponDiggLinkedInTwitterPrintRedditLike […]

  2. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Tom:

    What a wonderful piece; thank you. You make me wax nostalgic for the eternal city. It has been too long since I have rejoiced in the piazza Navona with the crustiest, freshed bread, chasing down the best alici marinate with the livliest, fruitiest, most refreshing white wine this side of heaven. If that was frascati, it was the first and last time I had it. I want more! More of it all.

    Best regards,
    Joe C.

  3. Magda Says:

    Nothing like a bottle of nice house wine for 1.5 Euro in Barcelona, or a hefty glass of great Hungarian wine in a good restautant in Budapest for $.75. Why or why so expensive here? What would change it? And Rome in April must be the nicest time to roam.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Part of the cost is the greater distance of transport, of course, and that isn’t helped by the producers’ propensity for putting wine in bottles heavy enough for hand-to-hand combat. But by far the greater part of the additional cost is heavy US taxation (wine is the blood of the devil — demon rum and all that — and so can be taxed into a bracket too costly for the working class, who must be protected from their natural propensity to drunkenness) and our multi-tier system of import and distribution, at every level of which someone gets a (usually pretty hefty) cut. Free enterprise at its worst, in my humble opinion, complicated by the last vestiges of prohibitionist mentality.

  4. Ed McCarthy Says:

    Tom, the prices on those wines in Rome are remarkable. I just bought that Abazzia di Novicella’s Kerner Praepositus, one of my favorite wines, for $42 at Mt.Carmel Wines in the Bronx, and felt lucky to get it (only place in the U.S. that has it, as far as I know). And here you’re drinking it for less at a Roman restaurant!

  5. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Ciao Tom- We will be in Rome in May-great article.

  6. Carlitos Says:

    I still don’t get how and why we put up with wine markups of 3-4 times wholesale in the US. It’s an outrage! And I’d be OK if with that markup you’d get a carefully selected list of gems, nicely aged, served at a coolish cellar temperature, with great glassware and knowledgeable service. But when many lists are so boring and just put together by a big distributor anyway you can’t charge that much.
    I’m officially giving up. From now on it’ll be just tap water for me when dining out.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I completely understand your outrage, though I hate the idea of not drinking wine. What has happened for me is that I dine out — here in the US — less and less. But I’m lucky: my wife is a great cook, and I enjoy cooking myself. It’s not quite the same as being waited on (and not having to clean up afterwards), but I certainly eat well and drink wine I enjoy at far less cost than what restaurants demand.

  7. Michael Apstein Says:

    I rarely reply to any blog postings, but this one is so well-written and informative, I must break my rule. Now, on to Diane’s.

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