Boy, is my face red. I've been living around the corner -- literally a 20 metre walk -- from Roma Sparita for the past 3 years, and I never once popped in to give it a go.
To be fair, it's not like I should have expected much. From the outside, it's just another unassuming restaurant in the corner of a piazza with a menu advertising the same cucina Romana you find in on every street and every piazza in Rome. There's nothing that stands out about its menu. Plus, there are two major flags that I tend to watch out for when judging a restaurant. First, it's beside a fairly solid tourist attraction -- Santa Cecelia -- which is usually a sure sign of a shithole that doesn't care about quality (Trying to find a good place to eat around St. Peter's is like walking through a culinary minefield). Secondly, it's within spitting distance from Piazza dei Mercanti. Have you ever seen the restaurants there? One of them is decked out with a bunch of fake crap on the walls which is supposed to make it look like a ye olde trattoria but actually makes it seem like you're eating right in the Pirates of the Caribbean. The other puts on a pantomime show during the summer, with people opening the windows of the building and shouting out of them. The whole thing is like a weird, distracting 18th century Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in. Both restaurants are extremely gimmicky and going heavily after the tourist market. Not that there's anything wrong with that, and they both seem like they do great business there. But it also means that I've been painting Roma Sparita with the same brush.
Here's the embarrassing part: it took an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations to get me to check out Roma Sparita. Or, more specifically, their cacio e pepe. Now, cacio e pepe is my favourite pasta dish. It's the one I always pounce on when I see it on a menu. Up until now, Da Augusto has been my favourite, by a long way. So my wife and I are watching No Reservations and we see Piazza Santa Cecilia and both shout 'Hey! That's Piazza Santa Cecilia!" But when they brought out the cacio e pepe, I leaned a little closer. Okay, so the whole thing is a little gimmicky, coming in a edible bowl made of parmesan. Then Bourdain started eating and his hyperbole glands kicked in. "I'm sure this is illegal somewhere," "This could be the greatest thing in the history of the world" (ACTUAL QUOTE), "In order to enjoy this plate of food, what would I be willing to sacrifice from my past? ... Catcher in the Rye... My third, fifth, seventh and ninth acid trips... my first sexual experience, definitely." You get the picture.
So we took a stroll around last night. We got there at about 8.30pm without having booked ahead, and we were the first guests to be put into the 'overflow' part of the restaurant. I started worrying that we were getting shoved into the 'chump' (read: tourist) part, but the whole thing filled up within a few minutes. It was extremely popular. For starter, I got the bresaola with rocket and parmesan, my wife got the carciofi alla romana. Both were excellent, solid dishes, and very well done. When it came time to order our pasta, the waiter didn't even wait for us to say anything, he just said "Cacio e pepe?" with a little wink. I think my defences must have been up because I wasn't sure how to interpret the wink. Was he onto us? Was he saying "You look like Americans who saw this place on Anthony Bourdain and of course you've just come for the cacio e pepe." Or was he saying "We know we knock this shit out of the park, so why would you ever want to order anything else?"
Turns out, it was the latter. It was a room full of Romans and everyone, I mean everyone, ordered the cacio e pepe. And for good reason.
That was easily the best cacio e pepe I have ever tasted. It follows a slightly different recipe - rather than being the traditional pasta covered in grated cheese and an assload of pepper with a drizzle of oil and leaving it to the eater to mix up, Roma Sparita cook the cheese and pepper sauce with butter which, in a Roman kitchen, is almost unheard of, before tossing in all the pasta and coating it all in the pan. It's a great way of doing it, and one I think I'll be copying when I make the dish myself. And then there's the parmesan bowl, the 'gimmick'. Personally, I left the entire bowl until the end and ate that as one giant crispy, cheesy flavour-bomb1.
It was a delicious blast of umami and an amazing way to finish the meal. Leaving the place, my wife asked how we were going to manage the next few months. We have so many restaurants left to try in Rome before we leave, and all we want to do now is go back to Roma Sparita and gorge ourselves on the cacio e pepe. I told her I don't think there would be any shame in that.
I also tend to eat my french fries before my burger, and then eat around the burger, leaving the pickle right in the middle until the final bite