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.
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.
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?