This is the third post in the Spontaneous Weekend Trip to Rome Series. Other posts in this series include: Dal Paino Pizzeria in Rome and Etabli.
There's one good general rule of thumb when traveling in Rome. Try to avoid eating right inside the busiest and most popular squares. More often than not, those restaurants are touristy, packed with foreigners, and serve mediocre food.
Instead, walk a few blocks away from the bustling squares. Some of the best restaurants are hidden in random alleyways just off the beaten path.
Il Convivio was the only Michelin starred restaurant we visited in Rome (one star). Italian food is Bryan's favorite cuisine, and he wanted to make sure we ate Italian food every single meal. Some of the fancier restaurants in the city seemed to be more French-like, so we shied away from those.
Similar to most of the good restaurants we tried on this trip, Il Convivio is a few blocks away from Piazza Navona. After walking a several blocks away from Piazza Navona, walk along the right side of this narrow, pink building (pictured above), and then turn into a (seemingly) desolate alley. When in foreign countries, a combination of downloaded maps and the free GPS feature on your smartphone is your friend.
At the end of the lonely street, you stumble upon this lovely little oasis.
People eat really late in Rome. Even though our hotel concierge had told us we had a reservation for 7:30PM, we later learned that the restaurant did not even open until 8PM. We walked around for another 30 minutes before returning to sit down in this warm, cozy space.
The menu is physically huge, though it has a reasonable number of offerings. You can either get the 7-course tasting (which, when compared to the rest of the menu, is a good value at 110 Euros), or order a la carte. Frankly, ordering a la carte is more expensive, although you do get a wider variety of choices.
The dishes on the tasting menu did not appeal to us that day, so we decided to order fewer dishes (aka, not seven courses!) a la carte. We soon realized that our three-course dinner was really going to becoming like a 10-course meal after you include all the little "free" bites that popped up throughout the meal.
We enjoyed a fantastic wine with this meal, an Italian "pinot nero" called Blauburgunder Riserva 2009.
Soon after we ordered, the server took our breath away by setting down this gorgeous tray of amuse bouches. Hardly little bites, these beautiful creations were more like full-on appetizers to whet the palate.
On the top tier, huge deep-fried olives came served alongside a creamy sauce.
On the bottom tier, we tried light, airy bread topped with homemade butter and fish roe; braised snails ("escargot"); and savory Parmesan ice cream served in a crunchy cracker cup topped with Parmesan tuile and pine nuts. All three were delicious, though I thought the Parmesan ice cream was the most interesting.
Bread service was exquisite, and came with semolina, spelt, whole wheat, milk bread, and focaccia. I've always loved those stick-like crackers that they serve at Italian restaurants (yes, even the pre-packaged ones), so I was thrilled to try their homemade version here.
I specifically told the server I wanted something that wasn't too heavy or huge as a starter. He suggested this lovely smoked amberjack, which was served alongside micro-"rocket" (arugula), baby strawberries, and homemade croutons.
Bryan made no such request, and ended up getting what must have been one of the biggest starters on the menu. He essentially ordered the crudo special, which was really enough food for 2-3 people.
From top to bottom, left to right: tuna tartare with asparagus and carrots, raw shrimp with roasted red pepper and sea salt, calamari with carrots and celery, amberjack with olives & roasted red pepper, amberjack with red pepper flakes and sea salt, scallop with liver sauce and herbs, raw oyster with red onion sorbet, and raw prawn with rocket and strawberries.
Their fresh, homemade pastas were fantastic. This creative dish had a combination fresh fish roe and dried fish roe tossed with spaghetti. The pasta had fantastic texture (nice and chewy), and the two types of fish eggs gave the dish a deep, rich, almost aged flavor.
We also had fettuccine with Porcini mushrooms and shaved black truffles, which was lighter yet beautifully fragrant with the rich aromas from all the mushrooms.
I ordered the deep fried red mullet as my entree. If you're squeamish about seeing a whole fish, you may not want to order this dish. It's an entire fish (gutted) deep fried with the bone (yes, you can eat the crispy bones!). It had a pretty strong, "fishy" taste, which I did not love. Bryan thought it was good (but then he generally is able to enjoy stronger flavors - e.g., blue cheese, liver, and the like - much more than I can).
We both agreed that it tasted fantastic with the cilantro-chili sauce with which it was served. On the side there were traditional Roman accompaniments, such as grilled artichoke and potatoes, which were pretty ordinary.
Bryan got the gorgeous seafood stew, which had a mix of squid, shellfish, and fish in a really bright flavorful tomato based broth. This dish was executed well, with beautifully rich flavors waiting to be soaked up by many pieces of bread (as well as the croutons already in the dish!).
Time for Sweets
As a "pre-dessert", we enjoyed an unusual smoked tea ice cream served with pizza bianco (white pizza) , salumi, and candied rosemary.
Finally, for dessert we had a nice trio of cheesecake-themed sweets: classic cheesecake with raspberries, cheesecake foam "millefeuille", and cheesecake ice cream with black cookie crumble. Though they were all pleasant, I think I'll still take a traditional Italian cannoli over these any day.
But it wasn't over yet! They brought over a beautiful assortment of mignardises (or petit fours?) for us to finish off the meal. From top left to right: double chocolate cake, rum gelee, raspberry tart with blueberry, lemon macaron with mint, cannoli with pistachio, and a chocolate-filled macaron. These were all pleasant, though none blew me away [I was also woefully full by this point].
Coffee is already fantastic in Rome. Imagine how much better it is when you order their deluxe version! We tried an espresso from Brasile Santos Dulce, one of their deluxe choices (at a hefty 5 Euros a shot!). Despite the high price, the flavor was gorgeously intense, chocolately, smooth, and all around a pleasure to drink.
Overall, we enjoyed our experience at Il Convivio a lot. The ambiance is really warm and inviting, and the service is excellent. Dress up when you go (most men were wearing sports coats or suits with ties) - you'll feel out of place in jeans. It's definitely a date or celebration type restaurant.
The food is excellent and the kitchen definitely executes some creative dishes using high quality ingredients. Ironically, my favorite dishes were probably the "surprise" ones, such as the Parmesan ice cream or smoked tea ice cream. (OK, maybe I just really like ice cream!) I did really enjoy the pasta dishes, which were among the best we had in Rome. If I had to skip one, I would actually probably skip on the "Secondi" (main entree) part of the meal. Though delicious, they weren't nearly as creative as the rest of the meal.
And do still visit Piazza Navona. It is a gorgeous square vibrantly full of energy and life. It's a great place to enjoy a dessert, relax, and just people-watch. It's unquestionably a must-visit and we returned numerous times during our trip. Just make sure to head away from the main square when it's time for dinner.
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