Yesterday's guided-by-you-not-by-Arthur experiment was a great success--delicious and educational. And food-wise, actually a bit cheaper than a typical Frommer-filled day.
Thanks very much to everyone who offered tips. Here's what I did:
Lunch, per Scott and Elaine: Ciro Pizza kind of near the Spanish Steps. It happens to be very close to my hotel, which was convenient. I had a pizza margherita for lunch, and it was excellent. One of the greatest (of several) gripes I had about Venice was the food--it was, in general, basically Stouffer's Tuscan Treats re-heated. The pizza was especially disappointing. For starters: bland crust with no char. Char is important. Ciro's had char. And fresh mozzarella (another thing lacking in Venice). 8.50 euros for pizza, soda, cover charge.
Gelato, per TripAdvisor: Gelateria della Palma and Gelateria del Teatro, both in the general vicinity of Piazza Navona. Della Palma seemed very Baskin-Robbins: tons of flavors, none of them actually very good. There was a long line, with one guy serving everyone. I got the medium serving, which usually means two decent-sized scoops, but here is apparently four very small ones. I asked the harried gelato-slinger for recommendations, and he gave me caramel-vanilla, cherry-vanilla, pistachio, and hazelnut. Only the hazelnut did not taste like cheap cake frosting. Honestly, give this place a pass, no matter what they say on Trip Advisor. Gelateria del Teatro, though: that's the good stuff. Quieter place, quirkier flavors, obviously made with a lot of care. Near the counter, there's a giant flat-screen TV showing them making gelato in the back. I got a scoop of the lemon pie, which had really nice, mellow flavor, kind of Meyer lemon-y; and a scoop of chocolate wine, which is made with pure chocolate (no milk) and a surprisingly potent red wine. It was rich but not overwhelming, and paired perfectly, sublimely, with the lemon pie. The first bite of the swirled-together combination was transcendent; the last ineffably sad. I think I need to arrange for the Goddess Serendipity to take me by there again tomorrow. If you're in Rome, GO TO GELATERIA DEL TEATRO. 6.50 euros total for two cups of gelato.
Rome(ing) Walking Tour, per Chris (@iKangaroo on Twitter). A four-hour history lesson on foot, led by one Justin from Toronto. The guy was genuinely hilarious--and that's not something I say lightly. He related some 3,000 years of Roman history in detail but with an endearingly droll tone, sometimes verging into sarcasm and, when appropriate (I'm looking at you, Nero), outright mockery. We finished near the Forum, where we learned the stories behind the various ruins. Justin concluded with, "So you might say it's just a bunch of rocks. And it is. But they are fucking sweet rocks. And they are very old." You'll just have to trust me that the way he said it, after such an erudite discourse on Roman history, was flat-out hilarious. 20 euros for a four-hour walking tour.
Dinner, per Lee's mom: Pizzeria Sacro e Profano, near the Trevi Fountain. Yes, another pizzeria. One might note, preferably in the passive voice, that much pizza and gelato was consumed yesterday. This was even better than Ciro Pizza. More char. Spicy sausage topping. Mozzarella di bufala. Pretty damn good.* 13.50 euros for a pizza, glass of house wine, and service charge.
Beer, per James L.: Lowenhaus Birreria Bavarese near the Piazza del Popolo. Small glass of unfiltered Hellerbrau. A fine way to end the evening: a light (not Lite) beer with a refreshing, subtle tang, kind of reminiscent of fresh apple cider. Fairly yeasty, which I like. Lee would have been in heaven here--their list of brews was small but well-curated, with several incredibly obscure offerings. The decor was spot-on Munich beer hall. The music, alas, was the iPod playlist from hell. It began with what sounded like an ABBA cover of a fake mariachi number, which I thought might be the worst song I'd ever heard. And then "The Macarena" started. My guess is that they hoped that the soundtrack would drive people to drink more. But it drove me away, back to the hotel, to sleep perchance to . . . HAVE THAT STUPID SONG STUCK IN MY HEAD ALL NIGHT! 4.50 euros for a small beer and unbearable music.
And now I'm off to meet with the Pope (per my mother . . . and Arthur).
* Honestly, though, none of the pizza I've had in Italy, this year or last, has measured up to my two favorite Neapolitan pizza places in Minneapolis. A generation ago, there's no way that would have been true, but since then the US has started paying attention to food. The techniques and ingredients are more refined; we've also simply become more discerning and knowledgeable and worldly consumers. And in all likelihood, as big tourist areas in Italy have gotten even more overcrowded, the food quality has decreased. The result: I can get better, more authentically Neapolitan pizza in a four-minute walk from my apartment than I can in a tourist area in Italy. That's pretty jarring.