In February of 2004 Oldways ran a conference in Rome that we affectionately nicknamed “Pasta Fights Back.” The low-carb craze had been raging for a few years, and Oldways came to Rome to remind folks that pasta is surprisingly low on the glycemic index, and in any event is traditionally served as a healthy “pasta meal” with vegetables and small amounts of fish or meat. A great conference – but I reluctantly skipped my first opportunity to visit Rome, opting instead for a family reunion celebrating my dad’s 80th birthday. Ever since, I’ve held onto a psychic rain check, a mental go-to-Rome ticket waiting to be cashed in. So when my husband Lew was asked to speak at a conference in Tivoli, I immediately invited myself along. Today I want to invite you along, too, by sharing our lunch with you. We were walking back from the Pantheon when hunger set in and we started to look for just the right place. “No, that one doesn’t hit me” … “Too expensive” … “Oh! This is the one.” Lew felt strongly about the little place on the side of a tiny piazza, so in we went. Later, he tried to suss out just why it had attracted him, and we formulated Harriman’s 7th rule of Travel: restaurants with whole families eating together and speaking the local language are probably pretty good.

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Grotte del Teatro di Pompeo was just an everyday Roman restaurant. No big deal. No stars in any guidebook. Just two hours of gustatory bliss, sharing four simple dishes. We started with a plate of antipaste vegetale, because we always feel short of veggies when we’re on the road. A nice spread: roasted green and red peppers swimming in olive oil, a small piece of spinach quiche, a stuffed pepper, grilled zucchini and eggplant, all full of color and flavor.

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Next came stracciatella, the Roman cousin of egg-drop soup. Stracciatella starts with a clear boiling broth, to which egg beaten with parmesan cheese is slowly added while the cook whisks madly, resulting in shredded bits (stracciatelle) of egg in broth. Our chef may have been whisking  a little more slowly today, as the egg was in somewhat larger bits – yet the egg still had an incredible foamy lightness and delicious flavor.

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We skipped a pasta (primi piatti) course in favor of two secondi: veal saltimbocca and a roast bream. The veal had just enough saltiness from its layer of prosciutto, and just enough sage. I ate the last bite determined to do more with sage in my own kitchen on my return.

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Orata al forno con patate was our final dish. Orata, officially gilthead sea bream, is a firm fleshy white fish, in this case cooked simply and drizzled with a little lemon. Thick hot housemade potato chips on the side made a good contrast with the sweet mild flavor of the fish.  One surprise when the bill came: the fish price on the menu was per 100g, so what you see here turned out to be 18 euros worth of orata. Darn. I knew that 4€ listed on the menu was too good to be true.

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But still. Even with una caraffa di vino bianco, a bottle of mineral water, a coffee for Lew – and the current sad Euro/Dollar exchange rate – we left after two hours feeling we’d had a lovely meal for a good price. The proof? It was hours before I could even contemplate my next gelato. Cindy

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