As you saw in my earlier post Agrodolce: Our favorite Roman trattorias ten years on, we spent six weeks in Rome in the spring and early summer of 2013. During that time we revisited many of our favorite restaurants from when we lived our version of la dolce vita back at the turn of the centry. In that first post was a review of La Carbonara in the Campo dei Fiori. In a followup posting called Agrodolce: Infinitely Curved Pizza we reviewed Sora Margherita. Both of these old favorites were a disappointment. And the bad streak continued with Agrodolce: Gastro-Deletion on the Accretion Disk where we reviewed Costanza Hostaria. Things turned around, though, with two visits to one of our all-time favorite restaurants, Casa Bleve, reviewed in Agrodolce: Rinascita Gastronomica. And we were relieved to find that our favorite fish restaurant in Rome, Baia Chia, was also as excellent as ever (see Agrodolce: Pesce Così Succosa Dolce) as was Trattoria Da “Oio” a Casa Mia in the Testaccio (see Agrodolce: Unfairly Besmirched by a Blogger). Some old favorites, however, even improved with age.
I am becoming less and less a fan of Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. Usually described as hip, cool, or Rome’s Left Bank, it has become the destination for short-term touristic apartment rentals (see Jottings from the Rifle Shot Niche, forthcoming) and trendy restaurants serving expensive “modern Italian cuisine” (whatever that is). During our extended Roman Holiday at the turn of the century, we usually dined in the gentrification-resistant sector east of Viale Trastevere, the cut-off boundary for the maps supplied by Roman hotels to the tourist mobs. There are about half a dozen restaurants in this area that would not know modern Italian cuisine if they fell over it.
Da Enzo al 29
Telephone: 06 58 12 260
Hours of operation: Mon-Sat 1 pm – 3 pm, 7:30 pm – 11 pm; Closed Sun
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Rostra rating: 4
Our favorite trattoria in this area was Da Enzo in the Street of the Shipwrights (via dei Vascellari) where the proprietor and I had a common Roman love/hate relationship. I loved Enzo and he hated everybody. Enzo was a quintessential burbero (a word that can only be loosely translated into curmudgeon). It was due to him that I adopted my nom de spoon. Reservations were essential at Da Enzo unless you wanted to wait an hour or more for a seat, but Enzo did not like foreign surnames. My last name, Hart, is particularly difficult for Italians to pronounce since it begins with an “h”, which is very rare in Italian and in any case silent, and the name itself does not mean anything to Italians. After showing up several times thinking that I had a reservation and being turned away, I hit upon the idea of booking as Seniore Cuore (heart). This ploy resulted in a valid reservation and a greeting from Enzo somewhere between the primo and secondo always delivered in very loud English: “Ah Meeeester Haahaarrrt, so nice to have you with us again tonight.”
I had no idea what to expect when I called Da Enzo ten years after my last meal there. The voice of the man that answered seemed to fit my attenuated memory of the uber burbero’s tembre, but it clearly emanated from a much younger set of vocal cords. Humoring my execrable Italian, my interlocutor explained to me that reservations were only possible for 7:30PM. I initially thought that this meant that the trat was fully booked for the more popular 8:30 to 9:30 time slot. It turns out, however, that Da Enzo now only accepts reservations for 7:30 at the beginning of the dinner service. After that the hordes simply fill the street and wait for an empty table while staring at the lucky few who managed to book early.
Fulvia and I took Cincinnatus and Pliny the Younger to dinner at Da Enzo, and by arriving at 7:15 we were able to request and receive one of the few outside tables (although we were not allowed to occupy it until precisely 7:30). Furthermore our initiative allowed us to determine that the grace period for those who show up late to claim their reservations is measured in nanoseconds—as several parties found out to their regret. The young bi-lingual staff, however, were unfailingly polite and sympathetic while enforcing their deadline and Enzo was nowhere in sight.
It soon became apparent that the torch had passed to a new generation. The old burbero was gone and a lot of the locals that used to patronize his trat had decamped along with him, but his offspring had not succumbed to the siren song of expensive one-time sales to tourists who had replaced the Roman clientele. In fact, the food is better than ever at Da Enzo.
The first sign that things had changed was a fantastic amuse-bouche of raw artichoke hearts, tiny zucchini rounds, and chunks of pecorino Romano in extra virgin olive oil. The transformation of Da Enzo’s ambience from that of a verbal abuser into a mouth amuser served as a metaphor for the evolution of his trattoria under the guidance of his offspring.
Antipasti were always the weakest part of Enzo’s menu. The favorite appie back in the day was a mashed potato and tomato glop that I never understood. These days it has been replaced by lala, potato croquettes with baccala and mozzarella that rivaled the best we had recently sampled in Barcelona.
The fried stuffed zucchini flowers were very large, fresh, and the batter refreshingly light in texture. They were a reminder of how good this ubiquitous dish can be if it is not made from the pre-stuffed and frozen abominations defrosted in the fryolater that are increasingly common across the Tiber in the Ghetto.
This meal also saw Pliny’s initiation into the sex on a plate that Italians call burrata. Invented in Puglia as a means of utilizing scraps from the cheese making process, burrata is a mozzarella pouch that contains a mixture of mozzarella bits and fresh cream. Da Enzo’s version was a simulacrum of the Italian tricolor flag napped in olive oil glistening like liquid jade and served with slices of decadently ripe San Marzano tomatoes garnished with slivers of fresh basil. Pliny christened the dish “cheese ice cream” after loosing his virginity to the first bite.
The pasta dishes were all classics classically rendered; not, Addephagia be praised, “lightened with a modern touch” or some other form of culinary abomination. The carbonara was the best I have ever had over a lifetime of eating and cooking this most Roman of pasta preparations. Da Enzo serves carbonara on steroids, pairing rigatoni with veritable slabs of guanciale, a very generous dusting of coarsely ground black pepper, and just enough egg and pecorino to hold the macaroni mountain together.
The cacio e pepe was exemplary, although I was surprised that a much finer pepper grinder was used for this dish and would have preferred the quarter pepper corn grind utilized in the carbonara.
Bespoke fettuccini sauced with ox tail and tomatoes had a rich beefy flavor and an unctuous mouth feel enlivened by the house pecorino.
Scottadito ruled the secondi. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been served an authentic version of this lamb preparation in Rome to include, until this last visit, Da Enzo. “Scalded digits” absolutely must be made with lamb rib chops, but presumably for cost considerations it is almost always prepared with shoulder cuts. At Da Enzo, Fulvia was served perfect medium-sized lamb rib chops, which, while not true abaccio (milk-fed lamb), constituted incredible value for money.
Her accompanying cicoria ripassata was nicely bitter but could have used a bit more salt and heat (a slight tendency to under-season dishes was the only sustainable complaint I could muster over the course of the entire meal).
Cincinnatus plumped for Coda alla Vaccinara (oxtail stewed in tomatoes, celery, and carrots with cloves and bay leaves). I have tasted better versions in the Testaccio, but it was a close run thing. Perhaps a bit more celery would have been useful, but Da Enzo’s version had clearly been prepared traditionally with long slow simmering and the sauce was enriched by the all-important inclusion of pork rind.
For Pliny and me the only possible act capable of following the wretched excess of burrata and carbonara was tripe. Da Enzo’s take on this classic dish was sweeter than the typical Roman preparation, relying on mint rather than pepperoncini for the dominant flavor profile. Usually a champion of heat, I found this preparation refreshing, if a tripe dish can be so described. It did my heart good to see the youthful Pliny snarf his tripe like a seasoned legionary. There is hope for the young in this evil world caught between corporate soylent green processed food and self-righteous food Nazis.
Da Enzo’s wine and bread have also evolved beyond the sturdy trat fare of years past. The bread was crusty and virtually salt-less, more Tuscan than Roman, while the fruity house red was perfect with the food (lacking the rough edge I remembered from the burbero’s vino). Finally our tiramisu was the real thang, genuine ladyfingers correctly soaked in coffee and plenty of high quality bittersweet chocolate all nestled in an amazingly moussey zabaglione. Like the carbonara, it was the best I sampled while in Rome. Before we left we were treated to a bit of restaurant theater that summed up how much Da Enzo has changed for the better, and yet how much has been lost by the burbero’s retirement. A foreign couple that showed up without a reservation at peak time decided to implement the squeaky wheel approach to gaining a table. They hectored the waiters at every opportunity and demanded to speak to their “manager.” Their initial efforts were met with polite passive resistance as the wait staff suddenly suffered memory loss with respect to their English. Finally, however, an Enzo scion appeared and offered them a prized outside deuce, but no, the female unit did not want to sit outside and then promptly melted down when a party of nine that had been waiting just as long (and included eight American hotties to Pliny’s enduring delight) was seated at the largest inside table. The staff again summoned the “manager” who promised an inside table in five minutes. The female unit then ostentatiously timed the interval on her cell phone, commencing a second melt down when the temporal interval expired without an inside table opening up. It took another whole ten minutes, but the couple was shown to a table amidst a continuing torrent of abuse by these two morons, who were about to eat food prepared by the very people they had been trying so diligently to enrage. Throughout the whole tawdry drama, the staff remained perfectly polite and professional. I admired them, because it was the right thing to do from a business point of view. But I also pushed my stomach back across the river content in the knowledge that in some alternative universe Enzo was still around to deal with a class of diner that is equally (if not more) responsible for the decline of the traditional Roman trattoria as the symbiotic proprietors who have no problem rewarding their obnoxious behavior with mediocre food for exorbitant prices.
Note from the photographer: There was a stir at the table next to ours. The new owner of Da Enzo’s was asking one of the members of that table if he would honor his guests with some music from the violin that was sitting next to his chair. Apparently, this is a famous concert violinist in Rome who has come to eat at Da Enzo’s with family and friends. The photo at the top of this blog is his table. The following photos are from his “concert.”