My last post about food in Rome is proof that sometimes you just get lucky.
Jeff and I spent half a day outside the city walls visiting the catacombs. This was an absolutely awe-inspiring experience. First of all, going underground got us out of the relentless Roman sun and heat, which was restful. Second, the catacombs allow no photography (rightfully so, for they are sacred spaces), so we were able to peel ourselves out from behind our camera lenses and actually experience the sights. Descending into the tunnels of the ancient burial chambers was really like entering a different world - one that was peaceful, serene and breathtaking (and somehow not at all creepy, despite what the college students on our tour kept saying). As far as a religious experience goes, this was the best in Rome, in my opinion - far better than pushing through several thousand tourists (literally - I would not be surprised to learn there were four or five thousand people inside while we were there) in Saint Peter's Basilica. Walking among the different catacombs and other sites, I really had the sense of being on pilgrimage, rather than being a tourist.
But I know a thing or two about pilgrimages - as soon as the practice of pilgrimage became popular in the Middle Ages, enterprising businessmen set themselves about fleecing the ignorant tourists. So while we had planned to stop at the restaurant across the street from the church (and catacombs) of San Sebastiano, I was prepared to turn around and walk out if I felt we were being taken advantage of.
We walked up the hilly driveway to the restaurant, which was enormous. Much of the seating was in an outdoor courtyard with an ivied trellis overhead. There were tons of tables. It was beautiful, but I was suspicious - clearly, this was a place that catered to tourist buses. But the menu items looked tasty (more creative than most of the Roman lunch offerings we'd come across) and the prices seemed on par with what we'd come to expect. We decided to stay.
This was an excellent decision. We sat at a table next to the fountain in the center of the courtyard, able to watch the sun play off the water, but still cool and shaded. It turned out that the fountain had seven or eight resident turtles (and some frogs I didn't notice until we were leaving), so we had entertainment. But I knew things were going to be good when the bread arrived. Every restaurant we'd been to had brought bread to the table - generally slices of decent rustic, peasant bread. At Cecilia-Metella, we received a basket of fresh crusty rolls with a soft crumb. They were big - too much for us to eat right then - but I liked them so much that I endeavored to sneak the rest into my purse when the waiters were occupied (hey, it wasn't like stealing - they charge for the bread in Italy - but I still felt that stealth was in order so as not to seem obnoxious).
When our dishes came out, it was clear that the bread wasn't going to be the only high point. I ordered a specialty of the house - green pasta (you can just see that the noodles are slightly green in this picture) in a sauce of crême fraiche with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese over the top. I think there was prosciutto inside as well. It was divine. The pasta was beautifully soft and fresh, the sauce creamy and with a slight cheesy tang.
As good as mine was, Jeff's was better (and I totally envied him every bite - especially since I had almost ordered the same thing). It was, essentially, lasagna, though it wasn't called that and had fewer layers. The meat sauce was hearty and savory. The tomato sauce was thick and flavorful (tomato sauce baked in the oven is one of my favorite things). But the cheese was the crowning glory - crisped and scorched all over the top, it had a rich, caramelized flavor. My mouth is watering just thinking about the few gooey, steaming bites I was able to snatch.
This is what Italian food should be, whether catering to tourists or not. I would have liked the meet the chef and laud him or her for not lowering any standards, but serving delicious, hearty food with beautiful ingredients. This was the first time Jeff and I were inclined to linger over our meal, savoring each bite slowly. Now I can see why the Slow Food movement originated in Italy - this sort of food is meant to be drawn out. The next time we go to Rome, the catacombs will be on my list again, both for the spiritual uplift offered by the tombs themselves and the sensual uplift offered by the food nearby.