I know it seems like I’m always writing about places I’ve been meaning to visit for a long time. But it’s true. There are so many places on my ‘to do’ list, that it’s hard to work them all in and not explode.
Part of this has to do with new places opening up (and there’s been a lot of that lately in Rome.) But my “to do“ list is also full of traditional, old fashioned trattorie that have been around forever but that – for whatever reason – I’ve never been to.
Danilo was at the top of the list. It’s a foodies favorite here in Rome, in all the guides, blogs and magazine articles. It regularly makes it on to ‘top ten’ lists of best carbonara in town. Which would make you think I’d have been there many times over by now, right?
Anyway, my friend Jane and I were on a mission in the neighborhood where Danilo’s is located: Esquilino. It’s an area that’s gone through a lot of changes over the last two decades. Built up around the turn of the last century, it’s full of huge Beaux-Arts buildings that center around the arcaded Piazza Vittorio. And while it experienced a brief period of gentrification in the early ’90’s, the area is now known more for it’s multi-ethnic immigrant population.
So it’s a very funky neighborhood, with lots of color, and changes from block to block. While many of the original stores and restaurants have closed, others have remained untouched.
Danilo is one of those untouched places. A teeny tiny trattoria with only a clutch of tables. Framed photographs and soccer jerseys let you know right away this place has a dedicated, regular and well known clientele.
We’d reserved ahead, and a good thing we did. The tiny front room was full by the time we left (although the downstairs was completely empty)
Even though the waiter handed us a printed menu, we were too taken with the daily specials written on the chalk board to even bother. And even though I knew I should be ordering the carbonara (for research purposes you know) I was too intrigued by the idea of gnocchi with pistachios and guanciale. It was a cold and drizzly day out, so Jane decided on pasta e fagioli.
Like many Roman waiters, after taking our order, ours asked “Un po di antipastino per cominciare?” A little antipasto to begin with? My stock answer is usually ‘no’ , since I figure, who wants to fill up on salame, mozzarella, olives and maybe some artichoke hearts? That’s the typical fare in Roman restaurants, and I usually don’t see much point in it.
But somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that Danilo had some sort of special antipasto that set it apart from the rest. “Che cos’e? Affettati?” asked Jane, “What is it? Cold cuts?“ “No, no,” said our waiter “Un po di questo, un po di quello, tutto caldo.” A little of this, a little of that. All warm. Ok, we were sold.
And then the little plates started arriving. Two small crostini – made of pane di lariano – topped with whipped ricotta and drizzled with freshly pressed olive oil started us off. Then a wooden trencher full of steaming sugo-topped polenta. With a sprinkling of parmesan it was just what we needed to warm us up. Then two little plates of ordinary looking squares of frittata and something else. The frittata turned out to be deeply delicious bitter chicory greens, held together in an eggy custard and studded with chunks of guanciale. And the other thing? Just the best eggplant parmigiana I’ve ever had. Ever.
Then a small terracotta dish with two perfect little meat balls in sugo. One for me and one for Jane. Thankfully we hadn’t gobbled up all the polenta yet, since they paired perfectly with that. And just we thought that was it, a small plate of crisp and crunchy fried veggies: cauliflower, artichokes and potatoes.
Although it sounds like a lot, it wasn’t too much. The plates were big enough to be satisfying, but small enough to not overwhelm.
So we actually had room for the pasta which came next. The gnocchi were light and fluffy, and dressed with a smooth and creamy pesto sauce, with just enough crispy bits of salty guanciale to offset the nut’s sweetness. Jane’s Pasta e Fagioli came out steaming in it’s own terracotta dish. Handmade matagliati and big fat borlotti beans floating in a rich tomatoey broth.
Although we didn’t get a chance to taste the famous carbonara, we certainly saw it, since absolutely everyone else in the restaurant was ordering it. Except for a young Japanese woman who had ordered the Cacio e Pepe and was more than a little embarassed when the waiter wheeled out the special cart to prepare her dish in a wheel of cheese that was bigger than her head. Quite a production.
But a very delicious looking production. And one I’ll be going back to try as soon as possible.
Trattoria da Danilo
Via A. Petrarca, Rome, 00185
(the zip code on the website is wrong, so don’t follow that! It would lead you to a different Via Petrarca on the outskirts of Rome)