So the past week or so we’ve been to both branches of Osteria Pistoia in Rome. The more restaurant-y branch is in Piazza Madonna della Salette, in the off-the-tourist trail Monteverde Nuovo, while the other branch on Via Portuense – on Sundays, right in the thick of the Porta Portese market – is both a cafe and sit-down eatery. Both have a decent selection of beers, though the former had a sign boasting “More that 40”, while the latter had a list of about 12.
These osterie are among the surprisingly few places in central-ish Rome that seem unafraid to try and move away from the hackneyed mediocrity of many of the city’s eateries. Yes, mediocrity. Rome might be the capital of the nation that exports its culinary traditions to the world, but as a great food centre it hardly compares with London, and quite probably the world’s other great food cities like NYC and Paris. I just had a weekend in Naples, and, even among its chaotic disintegration, the restaurants were offering more interesting fare than in Rome. Why is Rome so bad for restaurants? Well, for me it’s partly because I just don’t like Roman cuisine’s emphasis on meat and offal (quinto quarto, the “fifth quarter”), but more broadly and less personally it’s also because the city is so touristy, and in the touristy areas, eateries can get away with murder. Tourists are so charmed by the cobbled streets and overwhelming sense of history in places like Trastevere and the Centro Storico that they don’t seem to notice the amorphous crapness of the over-priced restaurants they’re patronising.
Frankly, there are very few places I would eat in Trastevere, for example. Perhaps Ai Marmi for a cheap, crisp pizza and okay suppli; Da Augusto, for entertainingly no-frills/rough dining; Da Enzo, for sound Roman fare. (Though none of these places have decent beer.) Italian has an expression that I’ve just learned: buon rapporto qualità-prezzo, and it refers to a good balance or rapport between quality and price, value for money. This is something I’ve been talking about for ages in discussing my general disappointment at Roman food, without knowing this expression. So Ai Marmi and Da Augusto offer pretty basic food – but it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ve be ripped off. On the other hand, many places offer poor-to-rudimentary fare that costs way more than is justified, leaving a bad taste in the mouth figuratively and quite possibly literally. So many places in Rome rest on their laurels, confusing being founded in 1916 (or whenever) and having a heritage with producing good, well-priced food now.
So yes, to get back to Osteria Pistoia. Anita from Trastevere’s Almost Corner Bookshop recommended it. For our first meal we decided to give the Monteverde Nuovo branch. I’m not going to review the food as that’s not what this blog’s about, but I will say that it was good, with a buon rapporto qualità-prezzo. I had a galletto (young cockerel), that had been marinated for 24 hours in mix containing olive oil, white wine vinegar, rosemary, salt and black pepper. It was flavoursome and moist – where traditionally many Roman places will overcook their meat, desiccating it. (Though they did serve it on a piece of slate, not a plate, which is just fecking silly. Plates have a rim for a reason. At least it wasn’t a chopping board – which is both silly and unhygienic.) They had some fancy deserts too, including a sphere of white chocolate containing cinnamon-ginger gelato.
Seeing the 40 beer-list, I of course had to go for the grain not the grape. (The wine list is short – only three whites and three reds if memory serves.) I asked for a recommendation of an Italian craft bee and the guy suggested a Birra Dolomiti Doppio Malto 6.7, then seemed to wince when I said okay. I don’t know why, but I wish I’d read his expression and changed my mind. I didn’t know this brewery – Birrificio Pedavena, in the Veneto – but it really wasn’t my kind of beer. It even had the kind of metallic taste that puts me off industrial beers and lagers generally. Which perhaps isn’t surprising – Padavena seems like a pretty big operation, founded in 1897 and even owned by Heineken from 1974 to 2004. Threatened with closure then, the brewery was instead bought in 2006 by another brewery that is found in the Birrifici industriali (“industrial breweries”) section of my Guida alle birre d’Italia 2013: Birrificio Castello, in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. This is another large brewery with historical connections to both Heineken and Birra Moretti. Ugh.
We did better on the beer front when we ate at the Via Portuense branch of the restaurant, though actually ordering the meal, and getting it, was like pulling teeth. The young boy attempting to wait really struggled. Furthermore, I’d got excited about seeing Orso Verde beers on the menu – I’d spied a bottle of their stuff previously and been taken by its label featuring… a green bear (un orso verde) – but they’d run out. Instead we ordered a Bastarda Rossa (“red bastard”) from Amiata, a brewery in Tuscany. It was a deep, dark russet colour, full-bodied and relatively strong at 6.5%. It had an almost fruity flavour, which may well come from the (IGP; indicazione geografica protetta) chestnuts that make up 20% of the fermentable mass, apparently. It’s also made with six types of malt and three of hops.
So yes, a great beer. And while the chef wasn’t as good here as at the other branch of Osteria Pistoia, at least it’s a place that’s trying to do something a little fresh. Broadly the food was good, though my primo (a variant on pasta e ceci – with octopus) was totally underseasoned. But overall, both branches offered a buon rapporto qualità-prezzo. I’ll definitely return to Osteria Pistoia, but at this point I’m more inclined towards the Monteverde Nuovo branch – where the food was better (I suspect chef Alessandro Pistoia is based there), the waiting was more professional and the beer menu much, much longer.
[Apologies for crap pics. Esp the first one – taken on my old HTC phone. Now in the hands of some fence in dear old Napoli]