Where to eat

A guide for epicureans who don't do Chianti

Fest takes populist approach | Extra eclectic

Reviving Rome’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ | Where to eat | Seeking bargains | Where to visit | Rome after dark | A Gelato crawl through Rome

The old adage “when in Rome” may be a handy excuse for all sorts of transgressions, but it’s an apt and accurate mantra for a foodie.

Roman emperor Vitellius (69 AD) feasted at a banquet four times a day and dispatched the Navy to appropriate rare, exotic edibles like peacock brains. Though such gluttony no longer prevails, Romans still sensualize eating and appreciate innovation.

“The gastronomic scene in Rome is ultra-sophisticated today,” says Robin Saikia, author of the upcoming Blue Guide Italy Food Companion. “New ideas are constantly blended with traditional methods.”

Indeed, many time-honored dishes — and favorites of Vitellius — still linger on menus with modifications. For instance, plump spit-roasted dormouse or “il ghiro” was once a staple at a Roman orgy. Nowadays, restaurants substitute roasted quail for rodent and baste it in honey with dates and cumin, notes Saikia.

The delicate bird is also the politically correct replacement for “cavia” or guinea pig, which is stuffed with chopped ham, cheese, herbs and bacon. She recommends Roman escargot or “bovoleto,” which are small snails simmered in herbs and garlic and then served with chopped celery, carrots, and red wine. Story has it that the snails — and perhaps the garlic — ward off evil spirits.

Ex-pat and food writer Eleanora Baldwin, who leads the “Savoring Rome” culinary tour for Context Travel (contexttravel.com), recommends that the daring try “coratella coi carciofi” or the heart, lungs and spleen of the lamb, which are sautéed with artichokes and Marsala wine. Her pick for where to sample: Augustarello in the Testaccio (98 Via Giovanni Branca; 06 574-6585). She also adores “puntarella in salsa d’alici,” which is crisp chicory topped with anchovy, vinegar, olive oil and garlic dressing.

“It’s perfect to complement the rich and sometimes fatty Roman fare,” says Baldwin, who hits Roma Sparita (24 Piazza Santa Cecilia in the Trastevere; 06 580-0757) for her chicory fix.

“Animelle” or lamb sweetbreads, another delicacy for the courageous palette, is offal rolled in flour, dipped in beaten egg and fried alongside artichokes. The best in Rome? Fellini dined on animelle and other ancient Roman specialties at La Campana, (18 Vicolo della Campana in the Pizza Navona; ristorantelacampana.com).

Eating and drinking local is a new trend in Rome, as the region now boasts its own fantastic wines. “Lazio was never known as a great wine-producing area,” says Saveur contributor Brette Jackson, who has seen a recent uptick in enoteche. “But now the Lazali are enjoying the wine and food culture that has always been a popular pastime with the Umbrians and Tuscans.”

At Urbana 47 (47 Via Urbana; 06 4788-4006) salumi, wines and ingredients of dishes like zucchini ravioli with amaretto and sliced seared rib-eye steak with chard in a balsamic reduction come from nearby purveyors. Post-midnight, there’s a late-night, after-dinner menu served. In the same Monti district, Enoteca Provinicia Romano (82 Largo del Foro Traiano; 06 6766-2424) serves local fare like roasted pork from Ariccia and chocolate from Trappist monasteries.