Best Food in Roma

With an inspired recipe.


ROME–I’d always heard the food in Italy tasted better than the Americanized versions we get here in the States, but I had to see for myself. In some ways it was. In others, it was not. Let’s talk about Italy’s espresso and cappuccino bars first: Shiny, gleaming, irresistible! But the cups were way too small. I’m now drinking nothing but dark, strong Italian roast, though I’m back to reserving cappuccino for special occasions. Then there’s gelato, the magnificent Italian ice cream served on cones with pretty hand-pressed designs. I slurped a tiny scoop–just enough–of nocciola, hazelnut, at every gelateria in every city I visited.

But guess what? The Palumbo Gelateria at 1299 Erie St. in Windsor, Ontario, serves incredible nocciola, and espresso bars are all over Windsor and the metro area. Italy’s produce is succulent and lush. Juicy cherry tomatoes. Beautiful baby greens. Petite, toothsome green beans. Everything in brighter shades and sweeter, more piquant flavors than I’ve ever tasted. In restaurants, freshly snipped herbs adorn every dish. And the Tuscany region’s best extra-virgin olive oil, in which we dipped our fragrant bread, was awesome. Two weeks after my vacation, I’m still trying to find one deep green brand, Paneolio by Grappolini. Help me if you can.

On the other hand, I’ve had better-prepared dishes right here in Michigan. In fact, of the 24 or so meals I ate in Rome, Venice, Pisa, Florence and Frascati, only two stand out in my mind. One, in the Trattoria Il David in Florence, was a perfectly crisp, thin-crusted pizza topped with cheese, tomatoes, onions and artichokes. Or was it delicious because the air was cool, the sun was high, the sky a velvet blue, and an enormous replica of Michelangelo’s David shaded our table in the piazza where we dined? The second, on my last night in Rome, was the best Italian food I’ve ever consumed. Or was I under the spell of the guitarist who strummed classical notes unobtrusively in the doorway, or our wonderful waiter who spoke little English but knew exactly how to please us, or the table of sweet Thai schoolgirls, laughing and celebrating a 14th birthday? That played into our evening at Il Tritone (, somewhere between Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. I’ve tried to duplicate part of the meal in the recipe below; serve it with the freshest salad ingredients you can find, mixed with the finest extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and a warm loaf of Calabrese bread. And be happy you live in Michigan, where splendid bites of Italy are all around. 

Penne with Vodka and Spicy Tomato-Cream Sauce

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled, ends removed, minced 1/2 teaspoon crushed red peppers or hot red pepper flakes Sea salt to taste 28 ounces peeled Italian plum tomatoes in juice, or 28 ounces crushed tomatoes in puree 1 pound dried Italian tubular pasta, cooked according to package directions, drained 2 tablespoons vodka 1 cup heavy cream 1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, snipped with scissors

In an unheated skillet large enough to hold the pasta combine the oil, garlic, red pepper and a pinch of seal salt. Stir to coat with oil. Cook over moderate heat just until the garlic turns golden but does not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. If using whole canned tomatoes, place a food mill over the skillet and puree the tomatoes into it. Crushed tomatoes can be added directly from the can. Stir to blend and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Add the drained pasta to the skillet with the tomato sauce. Toss. Add the vodka, toss again, then add the cream and toss. Cover, reduce the heat to low and let rest for 1 to 2 minutes to allow the pasta to absorb the sauce. Add the parsley and toss again. Transfer to warmed shallow soup bowls and serve immediately. Serves 8. From Patricia Wells’ Trattoria” (Morrow, $25). Tested by Patty LaNoue Stearns for the Free Press Tower Kitchen. Nutrition details per serving Calories 398 Percent of calories from fat 43 percent Fat 19 gm Protein 9 gm Carbohydrate 49 gm Cholesterol 41 mg Sodium 176 mg Diabetic exchanges: 3/4 vegetable, 3 bread, 3 fat. Copyright Detroit Free Press