Spring here at Context|Rome has been hectic, to say the least ‚ between Paul and Lani’s new baby girl (Cleo Cicero), our transition into the new office (Via Baccina, 40-just a block off the Forum!), and the warm weather tourist rush (minus the warm weather, unfortunately), we’ve barely seen each other, let alone had time to sit down and chat. So, in an effort to touch base, we’ve decided to set aside time for a monthly lunch when we’ll take a couple of hours to venture out of the office and into the city to relax, shoot the breeze, and (most importantly) sample some of Rome’s best restaurants.
For our first lunch excursion we settled on Pier Luigi, a traditional Roman restaurant long reputed to be one of the city’s best. Located in the tiny Piazza Ricci just behind the Campo de’ Fiori, Pier Luigi is surrounded by woodcarver and artisan workshops in a picturesque 16th century neighborhood. Unfortunately, the atmosphere inside the restaurant was slightly less appealing: With monochrome yellow walls and rather austere tables and chairs, the dÈcor lacked either the warmth of a traditional mama’s trattoria or the chic interior of a stylish modern joint. Although Roman lunches are generally more casual than Roman dinners, we were nonetheless surprised by the informality of the setting, which warranted nothing fancier than jeans.
While Pier Luigi’s menu offers a solid variety of classic Italian pasta and meats, its fish courses are the real highlight. Be sure to take a look at the menu’s front-page insert, which features the daily and seasonal specials. For antipasti, we tried two traditional Italian pasta dishes, the Pasta alle Sarde (pasta tossed with pine nuts, grapes, and sardines), and the fish and pasta soup. Paul had the pasta, which is a particular dish suited to particular tastes, and reported it one of the best he’d had, with flaky, perfectly-cooked sardines in a hearty tomato-based sauce.
The star of the antipasti-primi course, by far, was the soppressata di polipo, a sort of octopus sausage whose smooth white and purple surface closely resembled that of marble. Sliced paper thin and dressed only with lemon and olive oil, the polipo had a delicious seafood taste without being fishy, and was a nice light starter for our meals.
As a second course, we tried an assortment of fish and meat dishes, all of which lived up to the promising antipasti. In a slight twist on beef carpaccio, Pier Luigi prepares a carpaccio of swordfish. This was light and delicate, perfect for a warm day. The assorted seafood plate, though a bit heavier, offered a delicious mixture of grilled crab, shrimp, and fish. For the meat dish, we tried the grilled thinly-sliced beef (straccetti), which was tender and juicy, and served over a bed of fresh arugula.
Roman cuisine is known for its no-frills flavors, in which the natural taste of the food is unadulterated by fancy sauces. Pier Luigi played to form, with these simple, perfectly-cooked entrees.
Dessert, admittedly, was a bit disappointing. The entire office suffers from seriously sweet teeth; and we had high hopes following such tasty main courses. Our chocolate cake, while certainly chocolate-y, was a bit dry and crumbly despite its dollops of whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Likewise, the carpaccio of ananas was, well, thinly sliced pineapple pieces. Good but not mind-blowing.
But we wouldn’t want to steer visitors away from Pier Luigi. For one, we saw very few tourists at the tables around us. Nearby were some politicians who argued about which of Italy’s political parties (now in the dozens) was going to pick up their tab. Elsewhere were smartly dressed Romani businesspeople and families.
Although we arrived late and with an at-times weepy infant (Cleo), the staff made us feel very comfortable. And watching the light play off the facades of the palazzi in the piazza imbued our surroundings with ambience.
Pier Luigi, while it may not be the best of Rome’s restaurants, is a good bet for a reliable meal with reliable service. Costs: more or less, 30 euro per person without wine.