June 23, 2012 12:04 am

Five of the best trattorias

From vinegar quail and fried salted cod to chocolate pasta – Rome’s acquired tastes are replete with history

Il Quagliaro

Largo mola di Bari, 17-19, tel: +39 06 2521 0875

Near the end of the number 14 tram line, in the working-class Quarticciolo district, lurks the prosaic-seeming “Quail Man”. The neon sign outside announces a mere trattoria and pizzeria, but Romans from all over the city make pilgrimage for something more interesting: Tiberio Picarelli’s vinegar-flavoured quails. Quail was a delicacy in classical times but Picarelli’s dish dates from 1973, when he was looking for a food to calm his chronic stomach pains. One friend suggested the light flesh of the quail, another came up with the notion of adding vinegar. His tummy improved and Picarelli went on to develop his tender, gently aromatic classic, served now with mushrooms, black olives and two halves of a toasted ciriola. This chubby little baguette is noteworthy too: driven to near-extinction by the mass-produced but inferior rosetta from Milan, the ciriola was once the definitive Roman working-class bread. Near the beginning of Bicycle Thieves father and son cycle to work with ciriole proudly stuck in their shirt pockets.

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Bar Pompi

Via Albalonga, 7, tel: +39 06 7000 418

The beautiful youth of Rome queue late at night for dollops of Bar Pompi’s famous tiramisu, served on plastic trays. Yet Pompi is not so much a pudding parlour as romantic hotspot. (Given Romans’ fondness for sexual jokes of all kinds, it also does no harm that the bar’s name is vaguely suggestive of pompino, an Italian term for fellatio.) Tiramisu involves mascarpone cheese, sponge or “lady fingers”, coffee, raw egg, sugar and chocolate. The Pompi version, available in strawberry, chocolate, and banana/Nutella, is cool, light and startlingly smooth. Owner Roberto Pompi refuses to reveal his production secrets but says, gnomically, that the process involves a “system of cold” that makes the tiramisu soft.

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Dar Filettaro a Santa Barbara

(also known as Filetti di Baccala or simply La Filettaria)

Largo dei Librari, 88, tel: +39 06 686 4018

This antique institution, complete with paper tablecloths and fake 19th-century frescoes, is a short walk from Campo de’ Fiori in a tiny street off Via del Giubbonari. Think of its speciality as fish and chips – but with fresh bread, bean and onion or anchovy salads instead of chips, and fried fish which, though salty, comes without vinegar. And you can wash it all down with a deliciously subtle local soft drink called gassosa.

The main attraction, fried salted cod (filetto di baccala) comes with history. Thanks to a combination of the Catholic injunction against eating meat on Fridays, and the habit, developed by Jews in the Ghetto, of frying everything, Rome on Thursdays used to be awash with buckets of water in which dried, salted cod – the baccala – was slowly rehydrated for the following day. La Filettaria, one of the last strongholds of this tradition, is glorious in the winter and even nicer in the summer when you can sit at trestle tables outside.

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Said Antica Fabbrica del Cioccolato

Via Tiburtina 135, Rome, tel: +39 06 446 9204

Deep in the gentrifying but still raffish student district of San Lorenzo lurks this restaurant, tea-room and bar in an old chocolate factory. The workshop areas around the old courtyard have been beautifully redesigned, with antique chocolate-making machines and chocolate moulds on the walls in the shape of birds, rabbits and chickens. A boutique sells of gift-wrapped artisanal products and the café offers a delicious chocolate desserts.

Yet the real revelation is how good pasta and fish dishes can taste enlivened with this place’s favourite ingredient. Try the tonnarelli with cheese, pepper and chocolate flakes (a typical Roman dish, with chocolatey benefits), giant prawns topped with liquid chocolate and the calzoni marmorizzati, a house speciality featuring ricotta cheese, chocolate and aubergine.

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Betto e Mary

Via dei Savorgnan, 99, tel: +39 06 4542 1780

In the tiny Casilino-Mandrione district, offal specialist Betto e Mary makes a stand for the old foods. Trattorie such as this one are dying out, along with working-class dishes made from the most despised ingredients. Tommy Spoletini – its abrasive, gravel-voiced owner and only cook – serves oxtail and intestines, spines, lungs, liver, tripe. “Rich people took the prime cuts,” he says. “The poor had to use what’s left ... You find ways to make them tasty and nice and with a certain energy.” Since Roman working-class food is Jewish, Spoletini refuses to use pork. “Our specialities are things like coda alla vaccinara, tail of cow, tripe, the heart, lamb intestines, sweetbreads and bull testicles. They’re very tasty.”

David Winner is the author of ‘Al Dente: Madness, Beauty and the Food of Rome’ (Simon & Schuster)

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