18 June 2012

My Favorite Restaurant in Rome isn't Italian


We took the bus into Rome with the sole purpose of hitting the International market for some impossible-to-find-here items: fish sauce, lite soy, rice vinegar.

After circling the indoor Mercato Esquilino several times to ensure we got the best deal on our fish sauce and some bonus jalapeno peppers and Hopia cakes, it was nearing that magical hour when thoughts turn to lunch and the possibility of being shut out because you’ve taken so long to decide that it’s 2:30p and no one’s serving anymore.

We lugged our doubled-up plastic bags back to Termini, thinking we’d just leave ‘em at the baggage drop. Sadly, the line looked to be about an hour long and the hands on the clock were nearing 1pm, also known as Italian Lunch Time.

We thought about taking the subway somewhere else, but the Rome subway sucks. There are two lines that kind of make an “x”, crossing at the Stazione Termini, but since anytime they tried to dig the tunnels more ruins were found, neither line goes anywhere we wanted to be. We could’ve gotten close to the Spanish Steps or sort of north-ish of the Vatican, but that would’ve meant heaving those bottle-laden bags around aimlessly and inevitably settling for some sort of Italian lunch that I, frankly, had no interest in eating. I was in Rome, a capital city. A place that should have options. I did not want Italian food.

Neither of us had noticed a promising looking Chinese or Indian place near the market, though we’d passed several dingy ones, so we headed into the Botti bookstore in the station. I grabbed an Insight Guide, flipped to the area map section and saw Hang Zhou, a name I’d seen a few times during internet searches for dim sum in Rome (no dice on that, by the way).  Reviews had been mixed.  Lots of “great spring rolls” and some “eh, it’s ok” and a few things that led me to believe it was a regular old tourist-heavy Chinese place. This book said something along the lines of “when you just can’t face another slice of pizza” and it was nearby. I was all about both of those factors and V. was getting crankier as the minutes passed.

We walked a few blocks east, around the giant Santa Maria Maggiore, past the “Menu: first, second, garnishing, dessert. No service charge. €22” chalk boards to via S. Martino ai Monti, 33.

Same place I’d read had cheap Chinese, photos of the owner with famous people and other things that hadn’t thrilled me.

What I found was my own little Thai/Japanese nirvana.  Ownership change, maybe?

We couldn’t really see in, blocked as the windows were with photos of nigiri sushi, sashimi, salads, and don bowls, but there were people inside, so we went for it. I looked to the right and saw some Germans eating noodle-based dishes and lost a bit of enthusiasm. So many Chinese restaurants I’ve been to in Italy are filled with folks eating china-fied versions of the Italian mid-day meal: a plate of pasta, maybe “ravioli” (wontons, to me) and a plate of meat. Then I saw it. The thing that makes me truly happy when I walk into a restaurant serving raw fish: lots of people eating it. There was a young Italian couple with a wooden boat full of sushi and a bottle of white wine. There were two large tables full of Japanese-American teenagers with boats and platters full of everything.

For  €14.90 each plus drinks, this place offers all you can eat everything. And it’s good. So good that I was so busy enjoying it, I forgot to take photos of our tako su, sliced octopus and seaweed in a vinegary dressing, or of other peoples nigiri sushi, tempura and onigiri. I didn’t try any of the Thai dishes, but the Germans seemed to be enjoying them.

If you’re ever in Rome near the train station around lunch time, don’t want to spend a fortune and cannot face a bowl of pasta and a cutlet of some kind, forget what you read about it on the interwebs and go here. You could even order from the to-go menu, with some additional items not on the “buffet” menu, and have a picnic under a tree in the park a few blocks away.  Only tell me first. I don’t want to get there and find there’s no seat left for me.

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