The International Writers Magazine: Eating in Rome
Eat Your Vegetables
We were exhausted from our day of sightseeing in Rome. We had been unstoppable at the Vatican, powering through the Etruscan section and the Sistine Chapel in record time. Our skill in cutting in line at St. Peter's was enviable. We even climbed to the top of the Spanish Steps at the end of the day. The sun was setting, and we had Seen It All.
I was too tired to analyze all of the restaurant reviews that I had printed out and organized according to neighborhood in the trusty guide book. I was sick of the guide book. I never wanted to see the guide book again. Screw the guide book.
We trudged back down the Spanish Steps and limped our way down the Del Corso. Prada. Burberry. Jimmy Choo. I couldn't even muster the enthusiasm to ooh and ahh over shoes. My own dogs were barking.
With each passing block, we were colder and hungrier. We began stopping in stores for warmth and refuge, like better-dressed hobos. I sat on some pants in Levis and was asked to move. I muttered something about Levis actually costing like thirty-five dollars instead of 120 euros. Since the Italian salesman was clearly not amused by my presence, I told my husband, who looked at me like I was speaking in tongues, that they had once been intended to make tents for the panners during the Gold Rush. Hunger leads to babbling.
We started to weave a little from the fatigue. I regretted my heeled boots with each slap of my feet on the hard cobblestones. Food. Warmth. Immediately.
The problem was that we had already been so disappointed by our meals. We had been excited to shove pasta down our throats, eat the best pizza we'd ever tasted, and drown in good Chianti. No such luck since our arrival. We had been to one tourist attraction after the next and had finally given up and eaten sushi the previous night, which was also mediocre.
So, we were starving, but this was our last night to eat dinner in Rome. The pressure was on. This had to be the most fabulous meal of the trip. Nevertheless, we were stuck in the land of designer stores and didn't seem mentally capable of hailing a taxi and choosing a new neighborhood, not too touristy but filled with the Cool People. And where the hell was that anyway?
My husband took a quick right-hand turn down a quiet street. I called, "I don't think public urination is legal here." But evidently, he had other ideas and a nose for food. There were indeed a few small restaurants. The first was a hotel, which promised a fantastic four-star dining experience on the top floor. "How about here?" he suggested. I looked down at his red Adidas sneakers, and said a firm no. (It may also be said that my trench coat had a noticeable pigeon shit stain on the right shoulder, and that my hair looked as though the actual pigeon had been sitting in it when the incident occurred. Just for the record.)
We continued on to two other unremarkable restaurants. I wanted to continue, but my husband, peering into a window, said that this was the one. I pointed out that the restaurant was practically empty, which could not be a good sign. He pointed out that real Italians do not eat dinner at seven-thirty, only big tools like us tourists. This was true. Then I noticed it, the sign.
"Vegetarian since 1979."
Oh Dear God. Now, I love me some vegetables, personally, but my husband's preferences are remarkably in sync with my three year old's. If it's green, he's not eating it, and his favorite vegetable is the potato. And tofu? Don't even think about it. I didn't really feel like arguing the merits of the green bean and broccoli at that moment. I was hungry, and I wanted some fabulous, REAL Italian food.
"No, no," insisted my husband. "This is it. We have to eat here."
"But see, vegetarian means YOU HAVE TO EAT VEGETABLES," I retaliated.
"I don't care. I'll eat them." He opened the door.
Alrighty then. Tofu it was...
The restaurant was modern but warm, with soft orange leather on the chairs and a diverse set of paintings on the wall. It had a gallery vibe, but a comfortable feeling. I sat down, admiring the decor and joked that surely vegetarians wouldn't care if we were badly dressed. My husband said, "What is going on with your hair?"
I tried to tame the bird's nest effect surrounded by the cool dark tile of the swank bathroom (too late to do anything about the trench coat). For a hole-in-the-wall granola joint, it was starting to look fancier than I had expected. I pinched my cheeks to put some color back in and decided to break out the Chanel lip gloss after all.
The menus arrived, and I tried not to laugh while watching my carnivore spouse's reaction. He was giving away nothing. "Look," I pointed out helpfully. "They even have a vegan meal."
Unfazed, he said, "It sounds good. You should get it."
He won. If Mr. Meat and Potatoes could get into the thing, so could I. After all, I actually liked vegetables. "Maybe I will," I said. I'll meet your fennel, and I'll raise you asparagus. If I was going to do this vegetarian thing, I might as well go all the way. Vegan meal it was. Still, despite my love of vegetables, I couldn't help but imagine a plate full of little sticks on top of a leaf of lettuce (and not even Romaine, but one of the bitter nasty ones, like Mesclun). I ordered myself a big glass of organic Merlot and hoped for the best.
The bread was fantastic-soft, fluffy, with a crust that was just right. The first course - mushrooms over polenta. Divine. The mushrooms were so fresh, cooked to perfection. I felt like each one of them must have been loved by the person who made them. ("Goodbye, little mushrooms... Now, go out into the world, and make some diners happy!).
The second course - fusilli with tomato sauce. Tomato sauce! Ah, we were still in Rome after all. Third course - a filet of seitan, breaded and juicy. Meat substitute, perhaps, but it could have fooled me. My meat-eating mate practically jumped out of his seat to taste it. The meal finished with fruit and fresh sorbets with a purity of flavor I have rarely tasted.
In short? We were in vegetarian ecstasy. While we were marveling over our joy at our newfound vegetarianism, the restaurant had filled up. It wasn't even boho chic, just chic. It was packed with cool Italians and only one table of bumpkin tourists - us.
I did a little research on the area after our delicious meal was over. The restaurant (Il Margutta, by the way) was not simply on a quaint side street, but not far from Fellini's former hood. It is an artists' haunt, filled with history, and was even seen in Roman Holiday. Not bad for stumbling in the opposite direction of Prada.
So, that's how it came to be that my favorite restaurant in Rome happens to be vegetarian. It is not simply great vegetarian dining, but a great restaurant-period. Any restaurant that opens your eyes and fills your tummy is worth a return visit. In fact, the next time I visit, I'll even go vegan again, proudly.
© Amanda Callendrier March 1st 2010
acallendrier at hotmail.com
Reserve your table here http://www.ilmargutta.it/
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