Sometimes it takes visiting friends to pull me out of my usual routine.No, I”m not talking about sightseeing. I’ve long since stopped taking guests to St. Peters, the Forum or the Colosseum. You can go on your own, and I’m more than happy to set you up with a tour guide. But me? Sorry, but you couldn’t pay me to head into those crowds.
But if you’re going out to lunch? That’s another story. I’m more than happy to break my work day over a plate of pasta. Especially if that pasta is at a place I’ve never been to before.
My friend Rolando was in town a month ago, and insisted we head to Nazzareno. He’d been talking about it for ages, saying it was like stepping back in time, a true old fashioned ristorante.
Rolando, who is a food importer, comes to Italy quite a bit, and so knows his way around. But he didn’t read about Nazzareno in some guide book. Instead he was between trains at Termini station in Rome, and looking for a place to eat. Rolling his suitcase behind him,just like the tourist/traveller that he was, he headed out into the area just north of the station, looking for a place to have lunch and while away a couple of hours.
As you can imagine, like any neighborhood within a stones through of a major train station in Europe, the area is full of hotels and restaurants catering to travellers. In other words, not a place I ever frequent. But the neighborhood itself is actually quite nice, from an architectural point of view. Large residential buildings, constructed during the 1870’s, when Italy had first become a country. In fact, the main focal point of this area is Piazza Independenza. There is still a lot of old world charm.
And while many of the places have changed hands many times over, there are still a few restaurants that hark back to an older era when travelers were looking for a solid, multi course meal in a refined, but not too expensive setting, before continuing on their trips.
Nazzareno’s owners have been serving the neighborhood – and hungry travellers – since 1954. And, thankfully, not much has changed. Not the menu (which mostly offers traditional Roman dishes) nor, most thankfully, the interiors.
While I’m all for embracing the new, I’m really happy when a place feels confident enough to keep the old. I’m a stickler for details, and there’ s nothing I dislike more than when an old fashioned restaurant tries to redecorate a place, doing away with all the well worn and loved details. Nazareno has obviously recently refreshed the place (fancy paint job, new light fixtures) but has kept the important details that matter: crazy marble terazzo floors, dark wood paneling and honey colored bentwood chairs.
Another throw back to a past era is the gleaming antipasto buffet. Back in the ‘seventies, when I first moved to Rome, almost every restaurant had a wonderful array of vegetables and other goodies on display when you walked in. Recently, most places have done away with them, mostly due to the expense of installing a refrigerated case that current restaurant codes demand. And even though the tiered display is gleaming stainless steel, what fills the heavy white platters is pure, old fashioned antipasto goodness. Roasted peppers, grilled zucchini, briny black olives. breadcrumb coated chunks of fennel and much more.
While we loaded up a few plates to share, we discussed our plan of attack for the rest of the meal. Since we were a group of five, and having a bit of a hard time deciding which direction to take on the menu, the waiter suggested we share. “Ci penso io” , I’ll take care of it, he said with such confidence, that we all just sort of nodded concentrating on our second bottle of white wine and the eggplant fritters and hand cut prosciutto that showed up as part of our antipasto.
Soon enough a table on wheels approached from the kitchen, laden with three huge platters: Gricia, Carbonara and Amatriciana. As the waiter expertly arranged tangles of each on our plates we decided to go the same route for our second course. A platter of grilled lamb chops and a mess of cicoria ripassata for the table.
At this point Rolando, who was actually scheduled to take a train up to Florence, realized that he was never going to make his train. Again, the waiter came to the rescue. “Ci penso io” he declared, grabbing the ticket out of Rolando’s hands. 10 minutes later, he was back, Rolando’s ticket having been changed to a later time. Which left more than enough time not only for the lamb chops, but dessert and coffee as well.
All the food was straightforward, delicious and expertly prepared as one would expect from a restaurant that’s been doing these dishes for more than a half century.
Although we shouldn’t have been hungry after all of this, it was almost impossible to escape the lure of the dessert cart that rolled up to the table. Goblets full of macedonia and tiramisu (which made me want to work more goblets into my life) and little silver cups of creme caramel.
Finally, it was time to head on. Back home for us, up to Florence for Rolando. But back again soon, I hope, to Nazzareno.
Via Magenta 35
Open for lunch and dinner. Closed Wednesday.
If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, you’ll do quite well here at the antipasto buffet.
For more information on dining in Rome and Italy download my app, EAT ITALY. EAT ITALY is a free app, and contains guides to Milan, Rome, Florence and Venice (and an ever expanding list of regions and cities) available as in-app purchases for both iPhone and iPad. And if you don’t have an iphone? There’s always my book, Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City