I will always have my perennial favorite dining spots in Rome. Some are so inherently tied to wonderful meals with friends and loved ones that I will return, time and again, with fond memories. Some are casual trattorias and bars where we, our Roman crew, were regulars. Some were my local neighborhood joints. And others are more of the special occasion ilk, places to which I'd happily return as frequently as possible, but more realistically where I might dine once every year or two. Antico Arco is one of those beloved ristoranti in the last category.
The restaurant is situated at the top of the Gianicolo Hill above Trastevere, very near the American Academy of Rome and the Villa Aurelia (I used to spend a lot of time in this area, working, walking, swimming at a nearby hotel pool, etc., so I have many a memory tied to the immediate neighborhood). The space itself is unique. In this 19th century structure, there is a ground floor with a bar area upon entry and a long and narrow dining room, and an upstairs that used to seem like a cozy attic, but with a very tasteful, modern rehab several years back, it's now an elegant, airy space.
The restaurant was founded as a partnership between Patrizia Mattei, who studied for and dedicated herself to the creation of a fine dining establishment, along with her husband Maurizio Minore, and their friend Domenico Calio'. Their current chef is the talented Fundim Gjepali, Albanian by birth with culinary training under his belt in France, Spain, and Italy. He grasps Mediterranean flavors and Italian technique and brings a sophistication and eclecticism to Antico Arco's menu.
The Antico Arco wine cellar, storing some 20,000 bottles, is located in the catacombs of San Pancrazio which date to the 4th century AD. This cellar keeps the wines at a perfect temperature (both for aging/preserving but also for quaffing as soon as the bottle is brought to your table). The restaurant's wine list is an expansive one, and with 1200 labels, it's enviable for its depth of Italian varietals but features wines from all over the globe. I must admit I prefer to stay within the Italian peninsula when eating and drinking in Italy (with the occasional foreign invader!), and when in Rome, at a restaurant with an excellent wine list, I prefer to explore top local producers who might be under-appreciated, or whose varietals are lesser known. I put my trust in the hands of gifted somms who can bring interesting local wines to my attention, which is often how I find a new vino "obsession"!
As for the food at Antico Arco, you can select from an a la carte menu, or from the tasting menu. You can't lose with either option, and both types of menus allow you to sample from some of Antico Arco's most time-honored dishes, as well as the newest seasonal creations of the chef. Upon our last visit, we preferred to sit back and enjoy the tasting menu, so we didn't have to make many choices and could be a little, well, coddled. (Nothing wrong with that upon occasion!) We started off with the Crudo di ricciola (amberjack tartare) with ginger, lime, and puntarelle, that most Roman of winter veggies (shaved chicory stems). I love to start out any Mediterranean meal with a raw fish dish. It makes me happy and sets up a great meal to follow with a light, vibrant opener.
Our next course was another Antico Arco classic: a bright orange egg yolk nestled in a bed of creamy ricotta made to look like the egg white, studded with tones of black-and-white in cauliflower pieces and black truffle. The next dish was a chickpea soup with chestnuts flavored with anise and toasted rosemary breadcrumbs. My then-boyfriend (now husband) enjoyed this dish while I opted for a vegetable tart with melty toma cheese, as I try to avoid dishes featuring chestnuts and/or anise. It was a nice reprieve and nice of the chef to accommodate my rare-but-insistent whims!
Then came the pasta course: another local classic of spaghetti alla carbonara, this time amped up with the delicious Verrigni pasta and lots of truffles, both cooked within the pasta sauce and shaved on top. It was rich and warming and exactly what a brisk Roman night was calling for. This was followed by a meat course of crispy-skinned duck, a foie gras medallion, and artichoke leaves: a dish more Roman than most people realize, but one that harks back to the days of the Roman empire, when it was traditional to eat game and their livers, which had been enriched by feeding the ducks and geese lots of local figs.
Artichokes are of course the current-day quintessential Roman vegetable. All of this was accompanied by wonderful white and red wines paired to perfection (I don't have a record of exactly which wines we were served, only that they were wonderful recommendations and that we left very happy)! We were also served a lovely cheese course before dessert -- a tradition that has waned in modern (lactose-intolerant) times, but one I thoroughly enjoy. Ours on this tasting menu was a "cannolo di caprino" -- a goat cheese cannolo that set the stage for the dessert of our choice to come.
Now, Antico Arco has been famous for a very long time for a dessert that has become pretty much ubiquitous the western world over...but that doesn't mean it's not completely worth it to get the dessert anyway. Yes, it's the molten chocolate cake. And yes, it's a winner. I don't care if squiggles of raspberry coulis are passe', either. I like them and they're the perfect accompaniment to the deep, melty dark chocolate of the warm cake. Its decadence is the perfect end to a great meal.
The mini profiterole with chocolate filling on a pool of vanilla bean creme anglaise, and various sweet mignon didn't hurt, either.
We called a taxi to take us home after dinner. As we headed down the Gianicolo hill at the end of the evening, we asked the driver to pull over for a moment as we passed the Fontanone, lit up and gurgling away. It was the perfect spot to get out of the car for a moment, to show off Rome to my boyfriend, and take in the breathtaking view of the city at midnight, its monuments aglow and it streets bathed in amber lights, traffic still clogging its ancient roads. It's hard in that moment not to fall in love -- with Rome, with each other, with Italian food and Italy in general. It's amazing what a great meal can do.
Piazzale Aurelio 7 00152
+ 39 06 581 5274