La Campana, Rome

February 2, 2009

La Campana, the Bell, can find written records of its existence on the same Roman street back to 1518. Since no one else can match that, it claims to be the oldest restaurant in Rome. 
That is the sort of background that always intrigues me even though other “oldest” restaurants, such as Le Procope in Paris, Fraunces Tavern in New York and Rules in London have mediocre food and only date from the late eighteenth century. Botin in Madrid has been certified as the oldest restaurant in the world by the Guiness Book of Records, but only dates to 1725; we did eat well at Botin a few years ago. Stiftskeller St. Peter in Salzburg claims that it has documentary evidence that it started in 803 and has been operating ever since then. Anyway, La Campana‘s age is intriguing; it was a nice walk from our hotel and Sue reported that she had recently had a good lunch at La Campana. With all that going for it we decided to dine there on January 17, 2009.

In the entry hall there is a cooled cabinet with fresh produce of the day on display and enormous fruit tarts on a serving table. (Note the two bins of porcini mushrooms.)

We were seated at a table right in the middle of the first dining room. Although there were animated conversations all around us, the noise level was not too high. The menu is a large sheet printed with dishes always on the menu and with many blank spaces which are filled in each day with fresh seasonal items. The prices for the day for all items are also entered and plenty of copies are made. The selection is wide and traditional.

We ordered a bottle of Terre del Casale Frascati Superiore, a white wine grown near Rome. We also ordered a bottle of Fattoria dei Barbi Rosso di Montalcino a red wine from southern Tuscany. They were both good versions of their types.

Linda’s antipasto was a
Carciofo alla giudia.
These “Jewish” artichokes are a Roman specialty. They are printed on La Campana’s menu, thus always available even if the preferred variety is out of season. In the classic recipe they are peeled, fried in medium oil for twenty minutes, cooled and then flattened out into a sunflower shape. They are then refried in very hot oil for two minutes and served very hot. This was her favorite artichoke of the three she had in Rome.

Sue started with
Funghi porcini arrosto.
We were impressed on entering the restaurant to see beautiful big porcini mushrooms in the display case. It seemed very late in the season. On asking we were told with humor by our waiter that they come from South Africa. They were roasted and dressed with a bit of olive oil, salt and parsley. The flavor was quite nice and seemed authentic, but they were soggy, which might be a sign of having been frozen.

My antipasto was
Puntarelle in salsa di alici
This is another very seasonal, very local Roman specialty. Puntarella is a variety of chicory that looks like a cross between celery and dandelion. To prepare them, the hard, stringy and leafy parts are removed; the stalks are cut into thin strips which are then put into lemoned water; this softens the strips and makes them curl. They are topped with an anchovy dressing which transforms the puntarelle’s bitterness into a delicious flavor. This one was beautifully done with a generous dose of anchovies.

Linda’s pasta was
Bavette agli occhi di canna
The fresh, thin, flat pasta was dressed with a sauce of tiny Mediterranean shellfish. Unfortunately, there was a lot of unexpected hot red pepper in it and Linda did not like it.

Sue had the
Tagliolini fiori di zucca e bottarga
Sue wrote: “The fresh egg pasta was perfectly cooked, but the hoped-for fresh-flavoured zucchini flowers had been so cooked down that their delicate flavour had disappeared, overwhelmed by the saltiness of the bottarga (grated dried mullet roe). And someone in the kitchen had compounded the error by oversalting the dish.”

My pasta was the
Tagliolini alici fresche e pecorino
Fresh whole anchovies have a milder taste than the conserved ones used on the puntarelle, but they were strong enough to stand up to the fresh tomatoes in the sauce. This was the best of the three pastas.

Linda’s main course was
Abbacchio alla cacciatora
The chunks of lamb had a strong flavor and aroma. The sauce was so salty that Linda ate little of the dish.

Sue’s secondo was
Cervello e carciofi fritti
The lamb’s brains and artichokes were served deep-fried in a light batter. Sue wrote: “This is a classic Roman dish and I may have had my hopes misplaced in expecting crispness —  it seems after a couple of encounters with fried dishes, that Roman pastella (frying batter) does not produce the crispness which I think would enhance both the texture and flavour of these two foods.”

My main course was
Animelli di abbacchio con funghi

Sweetbreads had been braised with ordinary mushrooms. They were good, but the portion was huge for such a rich dish.

As we had not even been able to finish our overly generous main courses, we skipped dessert. The meal had its ups and downs. We had ordered traditional Roman cuisine and it was cooked that way (except for the over-spicing of Linda’s pasta.) One problem in many of the dishes was over-salting. Another was that the portions were too large. We noticed throughout our stay in Rome that the pasta portions had grown to American size. That seemed strange, but maybe more diners are just ordering two courses, not the traditional three: antipasto, pasta (primo) and main (secondo) as we did.

Unfortunately, La Campana fits right in with the mediocrity of other “oldest” restaurants.

The ladies outside after dinner.

3 Responses to “La Campana, Rome”

  1. Dove Says:

    We stayed in Rome in an apartment for the month of Sept 2008 and ate at La Campana almost every night. I totally disagree that this is a mediocre restaurant. It is excellent, thoroughly Roman. We ate our way through the menu and never had a mediocre meal. If you don’t like the food at La Campana, you don’t like Roman food.
    Most pasta courses are intended to be shared by at least another person. Perhaps you do not have the appetite that you had when you were younger. Did you actually find a place in Rome that you liked?
    I have looked at some of your other reviews and it seems to me that you rarely like anything.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.