Le Bistrot/Garbatella

Last night I met Old Friend David for dinner. In town for a meeting at FAO, he was staying at a hotel in Garbatella so we decided to meet there. I was psyched because I worked in this wonderful neighbourhood for ten years and I’ve been meaning to write about it for ages.

Le Bistrot, just as I remember it.

We had dinner at Le Bistrot. Oh man. This may be one of my very favourite restaurants of all time – partly, I suspect, because it is down the street from my old office and when I was working there, and eating at Le Bistrot every chance I got, I was very happy indeed. So there’s the whole nostalgia thing. Also, the food is awse.

It’s hard to describe the genre. A little bit Frenchy, hence Le Bistrot. There are escargot on the menu and how often do you see that in Rome? Answer: never. A huge number of vegetarian offerings and an encyclopedic wine list. The place is tiny and cute – no more than 10 tables and it sort of looks like your grandmother’s living room. I was really happy to see that some of my faves from the old days were still on the menu. And the waitresses were the same too. That’s another thing you hardly ever see in Italy – the wait staff tend to be male.

I started with chickpea balls – meatballs except made with ground chickpeas, heavily spiced in a curryish fashion and served with a delicious fresh tomato sauce. This dish is what kept me coming back to the place when I worked down the street. David had avocado with vinaigrette. Simple and sublime. Avocado may be my favourite food next to tomatoes. Which is weird because it used to make me gag.

Half-eaten chickpea balls – I always forget about the photos! – and some avocado filched from David.

Next, David had lasagna made with pesto. Yum.Mine was grilled fresh pecorino cheese drizzled with honey. Wowsa. Y’all know how I feel about melted cheese. I could have taken a bath in it, it was that good.

Cheese cheese cheese cheese!

To make myself feel slightly better about the kilo of cheese I just ate, I also had a side dish of freshly grated carrots in a reduced basalmic vinegar, another standard from back in the day.

This completely eliminates the effect of all that cheese (I tell myself).

Dessert was a super rich, dark chocolate mousse with ginger for David and a cinnamon pud for me. I loves me some cinnamon. I hadn’t seen David for years and it was good fun catching up and gossiping about our common friends while stuffing ourselves with such wonderful tastes.

Le Bistrot, friends. Garbatella is a little off the beaten track, but it’s not far from the Ardeatine Caves so if you are there paying your respects, pass by. You will not regret it. And while you’re there, check out the neighbourhood. David Downie, whose camp follower I am, wrote a great post about Garbatella recently and you should read that.

A few additions. In the 30 years after Rome was proclaimed the capital of Italy, the population doubled in size from roughly 245 000 in 1871 to 463 000 in 1901. There was a big building boom, which brought a lot of workers to Rome who, not being able to afford expensive housing, were forced to settle in makeshift hovels. This was a period of social unrest (strikes, protests, rising food prices, hovels) which led to the assasination of the King Umberto I in 1900, at which point the government thought it might be wise to establish the Istituto Case Popolari whose job it was to establish affordable housing for the poor. The Borgata Giardina was the third housing site to be developed by the ICP (after Testaccio and San Saba).

This house was across the street from my old office. It’s so sweet and I always had a fantasy about living there.

It was built during the 20s and 30s on the hilly area surrounding Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The older part consists of small apartment buildings grouped around a garden that was shared by all who lived there. Hence Borgata Giardina, which means village garden. But the name didn’t stick.

Some of the communal gardens that gave Garbatella its (original) name

People soon started to call the place Garbatella, supposedly after a friendly local innkeeper (garbato means polite, courteous). The Fascists tried to rename the workers’ district Remuria after Remus, the brother of Romulus (the guy that got killed by the founder of Rome? Why?) but the lefty inhabitants weren’t having it.

Welcome to Garbatella!

The district features mostly large apartment blocks built in many styles – medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, fascist – by many architects, the most famous of whom is Innocenzo Sabbatini.  Sabbatini designed the beautiful Palladium Theatre, which has variously been a movie house, porn theatre, concert hall and disco. It’s now owned by one of the Rome universities, which puts on concerts and lectures there from time to time. I saw the magnificent Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio at the Palladium a few years back.

The historic Palladium Theatre

According to David Downie, famous American architect Robert Venturi was much inspired by Garbatella when he was a Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in the 1950s. Venturi was a roommate of my dad’s in college so that’s a nice small world thing right there.

Le Bistrot, Via delle Sette Chiese, 160, 00145 Rome, Italy. Tel: 06 512 8991

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