I have found the absolute best place in Rome to eat lunch… that is if I don’t find somewhere even better on my next visitby William Skidelsky / September 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Not long ago, I found myself in Rome for a couple of days. As is the case when I’m on my own in a foreign city, I set about finding the best possible place to eat. I scoured the internet, consulted guidebooks, canvassed friends for tips. Such quests, I’ve found, have a habit of ending in disappointment. Constraints of time and money get in the way; fêted restaurants turn out to be mediocre; and even the discovery of a really good place brings with it the nagging feeling that there may be an even better one just round the corner.
This time, however, there was no such let-down. I found what I truly believe is the best place to have lunch in Rome. In fact I’d go further. The meal I had at Sora Margherita—a one room spit-and-sawdust place in the Jewish quarter—was among the three or four best I have ever had.
The experience was all the more satisfying for initially seeming so unlikely. I can’t quite claim to have stumbled upon Sora Margherita, since I found it in a guidebook (where it had a complimentary, though hardly ecstatic, write-up). Nonetheless, the process that resulted in my eating there was far from smooth. The restaurant is located in a small square—the piazza delle Cinque Scole—in a particularly maze-like portion of the city. There is no window, no sign, nothing to suggest from the outside that an eating establishment exists. The first time I tried to visit, the place was closed. The guidebook had stated, erroneously, that it was open in the evening. When I got to the piazza, not only could I not see a restaurant, I couldn’t see the possibility of one ever having existed. The place must have closed down some time ago, I told myself—the guidebook was a few years old—but, just in case, I asked a couple who were strolling by with a baby. Their faces lit up. “Ah, Sora Margherita,” they said, pointing to a previously overlooked barricaded doorway. It was, they said, an excellent restaurant, but it was only open for lunch.
Returning the next day, I found the doorway open. Inside, a man with a clipboard told me that in order to eat, I first had to put my name down and become a member of the associazione. There was no joining fee. Having submitted to this strange piece of bureaucracy, I was told to come back in 40 minutes. Returning, I was seated at the back of a crowded narrow space—more galley than dining room—with Formica tables and old maps on the wall. I shared my table with another solitary diner, an Italian man in a suit who said he worked nearby and often came here for lunch. The other tables were all full. My companion was eating his antipasti: a single deep-fried artichoke. It looked good, so I ordered one too. Having consulted him on the rest of the menu, I also ordered, to follow, a pasta dish with ricotta and then polpette alla Romana, or meatballs in tomato sauce.
My artichoke was the crispiest, lightest, tastiest fried object I have ever encountered. It didn’t bear any trace of grease. The next course was even better. The pasta—made on the premises, and of a thickish, irregular variety that I didn’t recognise—was accompanied by a sauce made only from ricotta, butter, pasta cooking water and salt and pepper. Such a description doesn’t begin to do it justice, for this pasta was of a sensational purity and deliciousness. Each element of the sauce was incredibly pronounced, and the ingredients melded together with the ease of old friends. It was the kind of dish that, although you know exactly what’s in it, would be impossible to recreate at home.
By now I was in a state of some excitement. My next course arrived. The meatballs were impeccable, the sauce less overpowering than Roman sauces can be. Yet the dish was a disappointment, if only because it was less exceptional than what had come before. Dessert was looming, but I had no wish to bring proceedings to a halt. Recklessly, I asked one of the waitresses to bring me another dish. An insalata caprese made its way to my table. It consisted of an oversized, trembling globe of mozzarella, around which were ranged a few cherry tomato halves. A bottle of olive oil appeared as well. If the mozzarella had been less than superlative, this would have been an unappetising salad. But it was the best mozzarella I have ever tasted. The only problem was finding enough space in my stomach for it.
Finally, I polished the salad off, and found just enough room for dessert: a slice of cream tart with pine nuts on top, again very simple, but incredibly delicious. I paid the bill—it was less than €50 (£42)—said my goodbyes and, a little uncertain on my feet (I’d drunk a carafe of wine), staggered out into the sunshine. There was just one nagging doubt. The man at my table had told me about another place a few streets away, which, he said, served the best fried food in Rome. Might it be even better than Sora Margherita? I had to leave the city that afternoon so I didn’t have time to find out, but I know where I’ll be heading when next in Rome.