While Rome doesn't lack for traditional family-run trattorie where heaping plates of classic carbonara and saltimbocca are the norm, it also offers its fair share of likably weird "space oddities" with a more oddball approach to cuisine and its setting. Ever dined among ancient ruins? Or sipped tea with a purring kitten in your lap? Here's my shortlist of the five most out-of-the-ordinary dining experiences in the Eternal City.
• Blå Kongo The name of this place means "blue potatoes" in Swedish and actually refers to Peruvian violet tubers. Here, they're baked in a host of ways, including drizzled in gooey (blue) Gorgonzola cheese. The cuisine is Scandinavian, the decor minimalist and the ambience cozy.
This is among a handful of Rome restaurants where service and dining quality have remained stable and reliable (not to mention quirky and unique) over the last decade. The only change is the welcome addition of Mediterranean dishes and Indian specialties to the menu. You can pick from Sri Lankan basmati rice with prawns, Lebanese babaganush, Greek tzaziki, and, of course, Swedish meatballs (smothered in melted Brie and rosemary and, of course salmon gravlax). Leave room for dessert | Blå Kongo, Via Ofanto, 6. Tel. +39.06854.6705. Closed Monday.
• Romeow Cat Bistro Cat bistros are the norm in Tokyo. The Rome version is located in the Ostiense district and caters to vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diners who also love cats. Keeping patrons (purring) company are several resident kitties that roam amid the tables (or perch themselves on indoor branches and ledges). The wandering felines belong to owners Valentina and Maurizio.
Open from breakfast to dinner, Romeow offers a menu that spans the five continents and changes by season. First courses include pastas such as ravioli filled with roast potatoes and rosemary served on a cream of lettuce (paired with artichokes and tempeh chips). Entrees feature a choice of veggie burgers, or poppadum with raw carrot hummus, crudité and a sauce made from red fruits and brined ginger, all of which can be enjoyed along side freshly squeezed juices or smoothies | Romeow Cat Bistro, Via Francesco Negri, 15. Tel. +39. 06.5728.9203. Closed Monday and Tuesday; book ahead.
• SAID Located in the offbeat student district of San Lorenzo — and with a branch in London's Soho — SAID is every chocolate lover's dream. Part chocolate factory and part restaurant, Società Azionaria Industria Dolciaria, SAID for short, is a 1923 chocolate mill reconfigured into a glassed-in bistro decorated with antique chocolate molds on the walls, tattered Chesterfield sofas and other vintage furnishings. Beside the new are early 20th-century chocolate-making machinery and copper basins.
The menu features a wealth of both sweet and savory dishes. Selections include pumpkin dumplings served on a smoked provola cheese puree; lasagna with asparagus; potato gnocchi or fresh garden salad with seasonal fruit and crustaceans — just some of many tempting options. Desserts obviously offer all things chocolate. Don't miss the chocolate and liqueur pairing degustation | SAID, Via Tiburtina, 135. Tel. +39.06.446.9204. Closed Sunday.
• Da Pancrazio History buffs are in for a treat at this family-run trattoria that opened in 1922 and sits atop the ruins of the Theatre of Pompey, the very place where Julius Caesar was murdered by senators on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. History aside, locals flock here for the elegant ambiance, the courteous wait staff and the baked baby lamb with potatoes, homemade artichoke-filled ravioli and oven baked turbot with almonds and tomatoes. Save room for dessert, specifically the pear and cinnamon cake | Da Pancrazio, Piazza del Biscione, 92. Tel. +39. 06.686.1246. Closed Wednesday.
• Casa Welcome to dinner and a show played out in a homey setting. Every Monday (a day when many restaurants are closed) co-owner and actor Vinicio Marchioni reads excerpts from theater pieces scripted in Rome dialect while customers comfortably seated in mismatched armchairs dine on delicious homemade food.
Menu selections include creamy carbonara, cacio e pepe, pasta with artichokes, speck and pecorino cheese and romanesco cauliflower and potato soup, just a few of the seasonal first courses, all affordably priced. The space is cozy but perfect for book presentations and other cultural events | Casa, Passeggiata di Ripetta, 33. Tel. +39.06.8697.4242. Closed Sunday.
Don't make the common mistake. This is not the more upscale Buco di Bacco of Positano. Instead, it's a fairly simple fish, seafood, and pizza hole-in-the-wall that operates in the once-upon-a-time style of a trattoria — they give you their best. The whited, Greek-style vaulted arches give the place its inner flavor. If you have doubts about seafood and meats (don't), grab a Pizza Napoletana (the kitchen skink) and relax. The restaurant is at Via Longano 35 — a street that leads from Piazza Umberto. — Katrina Maiano
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Piazza Umberto I, Capri, IT-NA Map
Sardinian fish spot, but filled with Romans who love the bottarga (dried sea bream eggs, coated in beeswax for safekeeping) over spaghetti, the wonderfully fresh seafood salad and the tiny vongole veraci. Noise almost ruined dinner. Insist on a quiet table. Remember, seafood only! Book ahead. — Suzanne Dunaway
Via Arno, 80, Rome, IT-RM Map
Lucia and her relatives opened this restaurant in 1980 and customers settle in to a warm welcome. On the approach one might regret that it has no outside piazza for dining, but step inside and it reveals a lovely hidden courtyard covered with a grape arbor. The seafood display is tempting and preparations keep flavors intact. Raw fish makes an excellent start. The ombrina is marinated gently in lemon and parsley while the tuna is marinated in a hint of balsamic vinegar, both accompanied by shredded celery root. Chef Marco uses ginger to liven up clams in a white wine broth. Grancevola al vapore is a bright red large spider crab, steamed, its meat extracted and served in its shell, with olive oil from Verona and pepper to lightly drizzle as desired. Its flavor is too good to cover up with sauces or other preparations.
The first wine was a Ribolla by Gravner, then another by Radikon, both white wines deep golden in color. The latter with its hint of herbs and wild apple perfectly paired with the artichoke bottoms, a must if they are on the menu. Lucia has an eye for interesting wines, so do give the list a look or ask for suggestions. A passito like Frigidus from Fattoria San Lorenzo makes a nice conclusion to the meal. The hazelnut savarin dessert with mint-flavored peaches and orange gel is ideal for those that like a lighter dessert, but the menu has many options. (€50 for 3 courses). Closed Jan. 7-Feb. 7 and July 15-August 15. — Judy Edelhoff
Castello 3886, Calle del Pestrin, Venice, IT-VE Map
Closed Sundays, Closed Mondays