I’ve been doing my best to stick to a diet of fresh fruit and veg (zzzzzzzz) in an attempt to divest myself of the six pesky kilos I’ve managed to acquire since I started this blog. But when the opportunity arose to dine at Le mani in pasta (‘hands in the dough’) last night, I couldn’t say no. I’m fond of this restaurant, which serves one of my favourite dishes of all time. We’ll get to that in a minute. Suffice it to say that I began dreaming about carpaccio di spigola al tartufo the very instant I woke up yesterday morning.
The restaurant is located on the ‘quiet’ side of Trastevere, down a small and pretty street not far from Piazza Mastai. The Piazza, by the way, is dominated by a huge three-story building in marble with doric columns, a pediment, frieze — the works. You could be forgiven for thinking this to be a Ministry of Something or Other (the Ministry of Education is just down the street). In fact, it currently houses a police barracks. Its original purpose is revealed by the inscription on the frieze:
PIVSIXPM OFFICINAMNICOTIANISFOLILSELABORANDIS A SOLO EXTRUXIT ANNO MDCCCLXIII (Pope Pius IX built this tobacco factory from the ground up, 1863).
The Catholic Church lost its monopoly on tobacco in the late 1700s and Pius wanted to make sure that the Vatican could adequately compete for the lucrative market in cigars: the height of fashion among fashionable Roman men of the time.
Le mani in pasta is small, with maybe 12 tables in the upstairs dining room. There’s a sort of balcony overlooking the main floor, almost like a private room, which accommodates a larger table (most tables only seat 2-4 people). I’d always wanted to sit up there because it looked romantic and so I was happy when our party of six was led up the stairs. But it looks better than it is: cramped and hard to maneuver. Because hot air rises, it was also lousy with the yap-yap-yap of happy diners, including far too many American voices for my liking. I hate it when tourists start invading my fave places because then there goes the neighbourhood. Does that make me a snob? The front wall of the kitchen is glass so you can see what’s going on inside. We watched while one of the cooks flipped some pasta around in a frying pan while talking on his cell phone. There is also a large smoking room downstairs by the way – very unusual for Rome these days – but avoid that because it can get disgusting.
OK, the food. To start with, we all had the aforementioned carpaccio, which really is terrific: raw, cured seabass with slivers of whited truffle and served with little toast triangles and curls of butter. The combination of the slightly marinated fish, the aromatic truffles, the crunchy toast and the creamy butter really can’t be beat. I seriously do dream about this dish sometimes.
The waiter brought us several taster plates of pasta, which were fine if nothing to invade my dreams about. I did enjoy the cacio e pepe with freshly cracked black peppercorns.And the spinach gnocchetti with radicchio, tomato and onion was very fine as well. I’m not much of a pasta eater, so let’s move on.
Having all ordered the identical antipasto, the six of us managed to diversify enough to manage two different mains. They were both delicious: l’astice all a Catalana (lobster in a sauce of raw tomatoes, peppers, olives, onions and celery)
and spigola al sale (seabass cooked in a salt crust, which ensures moist, flavorful perfection).
By the time I’d finished negotiating my way around the lobster (it had been a long time since I’d eaten one and I ended up with a couple of bloody lobster-shell pricked fingers for my trouble), everyone else had long since finished their meals and I had to race to eat my delicious carciofo alla Romana (braised artichoke with mint) despite being, as a former colleague used to say, as full as a goog (goog is apparently Australian for egg).
At that point, there was no question of being able to fit in a dessert. However, and most fortunately for you, Dear Readers, I am no stranger to Le mani’s dolci and I can highly recommend the semifreddo al gorgonzola (a semi-frozen custard based on the Italian cheese: weird but yum) and the gelato allo zenzero (ginger ice cream). The waiter brought a big plate of assorted hand-made biscuits to the table with our coffees and amari.
This restaurant gets the odd rough review on Trip Advisor but I can honestly say that I have never had a non-delicious meal here. It is true that I usually order more or less the same thing – always the carpaccio and often the spigola al sale. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it I always say. Given the quantity and quality of food you are looking at (and all the freebies like glasses of prosecco, little taster plates of pasta and cookies), Le mani in pasta is quite reasonable. You really must book ahead though. The place fills up early and is packed throughout the dinner service.
Le mani in pasta, Via dei Genovesi 37, Rome. Tel: 06 581 6017