As anyone who has ever relied on me to choose a restaurant, especially in a foreign city, can attest, I'm perfectly capable of wandering around in indecision for hours before settling on a place most likely as good as the first one to be considered. In order to avoid wasting time this way in Rome, I decided early that I would just go to the restaurants near my hotel, and not worry about tracking down those my guidebooks gave the highest marks since they were likely to be far away and require reservations anyhow. So on my second night, after a wonderful day of the Pantheon, the Borghese Gallery, and a special Caravaggio exhibition at Scuderie del Quirinale, I walked back to the street where I was staying and into Trattoria Le Grotte.
The first sight to greet me as I entered the dining room, with its wine-cavern architecture and its walls frescoed with crude depictions of Rome's famous sites (particularly crude following the incredible paintings on all the walls I'd spent my day within), was an antipasti bar that looked frighteningly like a cafeteria counter. Things improved once I was seated further inside, at the center of the inner room, a great vantage point for people watching and observing plates of food come and go. The service station was just a few feet away, and I watched with interest as the waiters filleted fish that had been cooked on the bone in huge metal baking pans, or sawed up the hard-crusted bread into slices for bread baskets. The Sicilian-style tuna I ordered, a couple of cutlet-thin pieces of fish cooked through and drowned in a garlicky sauce of cherry tomatoes and olives, was not plated tableside - I guess tuna is a little too large for them to cook on the bone. It was slightly tough, but the pieces were thin enough that it didn't really matter. The olives were delicious, juicy and with seeds intact.
I had read that it was artichoke season in Italy, and since artichokes are one of those vegetables you just don't see very often in Japan, I was looking forward to eating them every chance I got. I ordered them "alla Giudia," which means fried to a crisp. The outer leaves actually blew up into shattering, hollow balloons, while the interior was moist and creamy.
The tiramisu I got for dessert was the most disappointing part of the meal. It was supposedly homemade, but in this case that simply meant assembled two minutes earlier. The cookies were still completely crisp, and there was none of the melding of flavors that's really the whole point of tiramisu. The custard was good, but there was so much cocoa sifted over that I almost choked on my first bite. Oh well, you live you learn - who would have thought there was any such thing as a bad tiramisu? Otherwise it was a pleasant restaurant, busy but not packed, and the waiters were attentive and friendly. One of them ran after me as I was leaving the restaurant, forgetting my shopping bag with the books I'd bought at the last museum. Now that's service!