Saturday, 26 November 2011

In search of the finest tiramisu in Rome

My trip to Rome last weekend started off with a story about a jar of vegemite. In case you don’t know what vegemite is, I will try and explain. It is thick dark yeasty stuff, a by-product of beer, which is used as a spread and is high in B vitamins. A member of the mite family, it is very similar to Marmite and Promite, and you either love it or hate it. Most New Zealanders will have a preference for either Marmite or Vegemite, and my friend in Rome preferred the latter, which she requested I bring specially over from London (you can’t, of course, buy such horrific foods in Italy).

I bought a 220g jar of Vegemite, packed it neatly into my Ryanair-cabin-regulation-size wheely suitcase, and forgot all about it. Even when my bag was pulled aside at Gatwick airport, I couldn’t imagine what they might have found. A huge man started unpacking my suitcase in front of me. Thank goodness I had packed my underwear neatly. He quickly found what he was looking for and pulled out the jar of Vegemite. “I’m sorry, but you can’t take this on board with you, it’s over 100mls.”

Oh, for goodness sake. My jar of vegemite was duly confiscated at Gatwick airport. We suggested to the man that he might want to take it home and try it, but he did not seem particularly keen. Next time you are travelling, remember, Vegemite is a dangerous substance to fly with and must be packed into your check-in bags.

So it was that I arrived in Rome Vegemite-less.

After settling into the amazing spacious apartment that we were staying in (Nicoletta, we never met you but thanks for having us to stay in your beautiful home!), we ventured out into the freezing Rome evening for aperitivo. My Italian friend introduced me to a Spritz, which is quite different to a wine spritzer if that is what you are thinking.  A Spritz is a popular Italian aperitivo, made from 3 parts prosecco (sparkling wine), 2 parts Aperol and 1 part soda water. Aperol is a liquor made from bitter orange and rhubarb. It is mildly bitter, and orange in colour – similar to Campari but much less bitter and with a lower alcohol content (11%). On my return to London, I found a bottle at my local Italian shop, Salvino, and am enjoying a glass right now, as I write this. Whilst shopping at Salvino, I found myself spending a fortune on liquor including Campari, Amaretto and Amaro – this is the problem when you come back from a weekend in Italy.

Moving on from aperitivo, we sat down to dinner at a small wine bar and restaurant, L’Angolo Divino, on Via dei Balestrari, and ordered a bottle of prosecco. Tiramisu was on the menu, €9.50. This was an interestingly presented tiramisu, and was very indulgent and desserty. Coffee soaked savoiardi with white chocolate ganache and roasted hazlenuts. The hazlenuts were a nice touch and added some crunch. It was served with a small dish of gianduia, which is basically a fancy version of nutella (you know how obsessed with nutella the Italians are). The tiramisu was not really like tiramisu at all, but it was a nice dessert shared between the three of us.

The next day, we set out early with instructions on where to find ‘the best tiramisu in Rome’. First though, we started the morning with a cannoli (€3) that we found in a pasticceria – I first tried these in Sicily which is where they originate from. Deep fried sweet pastry, filled with sweet ricotta. Perfect breakfast food shared on the street in a patch of sunlight. 

We then went for the best coffee in Rome at Sant’Eustachio. This place is a Roman institution since 1938, and the black ‘Gran Caffe’ (€2.40) is legendary. The crema on the top of the coffee is an inch thick – you can eat it with a spoon. When we first visited Sant’Eustachio in 2009, my boyfriend read the menu and tried to order caffe latte, but the man in the lab coat behind the counter refused – there are really only two options here – Gran Caffe or Gran Cappucino. If you go, and you can stand drinking black coffee, order the Gran Caffe – it is like something other than coffee altogether.

If you go to Sant’Eustachio, pop into the Pantheon, which is very close by. We had been before, but couldn’t resist having another peek inside this stunningly magnificent building, built around 120 AD. It is difficult to comprehend how people almost 2,000 years ago could build something so intricate and beautiful. I can’t imagine anyone building something like it today, and certainly not that would last 2,000 years.

From the Pantheon, we wandered through the streets to the Roman metro. From the state of some of the stations, you might wonder whether it has been around since Roman times – it is dingy, grimy, covered in graffiti, there are buckets placed strategically to catch drips from the ceiling. But, it is cheap (€1 per trip, much cheaper than London) and is a very useful way of getting from A to B, literally, because there are only two lines which are called line A and line B. We took the metro to Re di Roma, and after all that travelling and walking discovered we were starved, so entered the first pizza place we saw. Here we ordered (well, pointed at) pizza by the slice, which is charged by weight. We bought a huge pile of pizza for only €7.50. Proscuitto and mozzarella; tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil; and the standout – zucchini flower, anchovy and mozzarella.

Refuelled, we walked the short distance from Re di Roma to Pompi, on Via Albalonga. Many claim that Pompi makes the best tiramisu in Rome. This was serious tiramisu territory, judging by the wall of fridge that was stacked full of tiramisu, of every imaginable flavour, ready to be bought and taken to dinner parties.

So, Pompi. The tiramisu that many hold as the best that there is. This was textbook perfect – a strong coffee flavour, creamy mascarpone, with cocoa and chunks of chocolate on the top. Perfect balance of flavor, not too sweet or too bitter, it was a fantastic tiramisu. My boyfriend ordered something different – a Caffe Del Nonno – which was like liquid frozen tiramisu. It was very sweet, thick and cold, with ground chocolate in a coffee liquid. Decadent and very yummy – don’t miss it if you visit Pompi. Tiramisu was a bargain at €4 and the Caffe del Nonno €3.

We made our way back to the river Tiber, in time to watch the sun begin to set over St Peter’s Basilica. This is a lovely time for a stroll along the river, to enjoy the patterns made by starlings in the winter evening sky – thousands of birds dart and swirl in swarms, in amazing synchronized formations that seem impossible. See some footage of these birds here. Just try not to stand directly underneath them – starling droppings are a major problem in Rome.

Roman Forum in the daytime
Following a much needed late-afternoon snooze, we walked through Rome, skirting the Roman Forum. This is a beautiful city to walk through at night, with lights directed onto the ancient parts of the city, it was cold and tourists were tucked safely inside restaurants. We arrived at our restaurant for the evening, Hostaria da Nerone, 96 Via delle Terme di Tito, just near the colosseum. This family-run restaurant has been around since 1929, its décor was last updated in, we guessed, the 80s. I love it. This restaurant also happens to be the very place that kicked off the idea for this blog, back in 2009 when I first visited Rome. The tiramisu had a lot to live up to.

The business card for Nerone I have not forgotten since I first went there, and finally I have a copy of it again. This feast of all feasts reminds me of a childhood book called “War and Peas” by Michael Foreman – which is set amongst a land laden with banquet food.

War and Peas

My boyfriend also said that it reminds him of a terrifying scene from the 2006 Spanish film Pan's Labyrinth, in which a monster is awakened if any of the feast is touched.
Pan's Labyrinth feast

I started my feast with Pasta Amatriciana, which is bucatini pasta served with a  sauce made from tomatoes, a hint of chili, and guanciale (similar to pancetta but with a different flavor, and coming from the cheek of the pig). Sprinkled liberally with parmigiano, this was ultimate comfort food. Beside me, my friend had ordered spinach and ricotta ravioli, which was homemade and served with a sweet tomato sauce and fresh basil – pasta perfection. We followed up by sharing a plate of veal cooked in marsala wine. Veal can easily be replaced by chicken at home – coat in flour and fry, adding a dose of marsala at the end. The flour and wine thicken to become a lovely sauce. On the side, it was artichoke season so we had to have fresh Carciofi alla Romana, in garlic, herbs and oil.

So far, it had been an excellent meal. I was nervous about ordering dessert though, worried that the tiramisu would be a disappointment. Maybe I had imagined how good it was, plied by a carafe of wine. We ordered two to share between the three of us. My boyfriend polished off one of them before I could blink an eye. The best tiramisu I have ever had lived up to its name completely. For me, this was tiramisu ultimate. Savoiardi that was so drenched, the liquid pooled at the bottom of the glass. Coffee that was strong but not bitter. Mascarpone mix of a bright yellow colour, which I am guessing comes from egg yolk. A flawless combination of mascarpone, cocoa and coffee. This is, by far, the best tiramisu I have had, better than what I can make myself. And yet, in a perfect example of how everybody prefers their tiramisu in different ways, my Italian friend still prefers the Pompi version to Nerone. So there you go.

We finished the evening with another new introduction for us, Amaro, a herby digestif, of which there are many different brands and varieties, the more well-known being Amaro Montenegro and Amaro Averna. This stuff reminds me of the herby concoctions my naturopath sister makes for me when I am sick. Sweet and bitter, dark and syrupy, but strangely warming, homely and addictive. A perfect end to a meal, which ended up costing just €75 for three of us, including three courses, wine and digestif.

Full and content, but the night was still young, and we trotted happily to Ai Tre Scalini, a wine bar at 251 Via Panisperna. Once you see the trail of ivy hanging over the street, you know you are there. Serving excellent wines, packed full of beautiful young Italians, and full of quirky décor, this is a very cool bar to end an evening.

The next day, after a sleep-in, we had pastries for breakfast from Il Fornaio on Via dei Baullari (you will know it by the giant mortadella out the front). Sfogliatelle Napoletane (that is not a spelling mistake); layers of very crisp pastry, around a ricotta and candied orange filling, coated in icing sugar that is guaranteed to get all over your black clothing. And Torta Limone, eaten in the sun in Piazza Navona, listening to the excellent Piazza Navona band.

The rest of the day was spent scouring the markets, eating more pizza, and walking through the streets. Our Roman friend would point out the houses and streets she grew up in, the schools she went to, Silvio Burlesconi apartments, tidbits of history, buildings with architectural trickery, secret alleyways, favourite fountains, and childhood memories.

Oh Rome, Rome! Wherefore art thou Rome?


  1. Lovely pictures you've painted, and lovely photos too. Love the look and sound of the Pompi tiramisu, the pizza and the pastries. Mmmmmm.

    A friend of ours tried to bring us a giant jar of Marmite (English variety, which I much prefer now over the NZ version, which has far too much sugar in it for my taste) a couple of years ago, and it too was confiscated. Got to keep your wits about you when travelling through airports!

  2. Thanks Kerry, we had so much yummy food! I just love Rome...

    The Vegemite incident was very funny. It didn't even cross my mind that Vegemite would count as a 'liquid'!

  3. I agree with Kerry: Brit Marmite is much better than its Kiwi counterpart but Vegemite is the best for me! I will try to find a tub somewhere in Rome... will keep you posted.
    And as you said, Lily, my fav tiramisù in Rome is still Pompi, I'm sorry :)
    PS You forgot to mention the jazz quartet at the Mercati di Traiano!!!

  4. I haven't tried Brit marmite yet... but my fave is Vegemite too - I agree that NZ marmite is too sweet. I have to say, I don't tend to eat any mite spread in the UK, because I can't get Vogels (well, not easily), and it just ain't the same on other bread! Things I miss from NZ - Vogels toast with butter and vegemite, and NZ wine.
    I know I left out the Mercati di Traiano, but the post was getting very long - we managed to fit in so much in two days!

  5. Thanks for the suggestions on the tiramisu and the coffee place:)

    1. No problem! It makes me very happy to know that you've read my blog post and experienced the same yummy tiramisu and excellent coffee. =)


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