Via Della Pace, 11, 00186 Roma, Italy
Tucked up on a quiet street just away from the noise and bustle of Piazza Navona and directly outside the achingly beautiful church of Santa Maria della Pace is the wonderful haven of La Focaccia – home to serious wood-fired cooking and some of the best fritti in Rome. When we first discovered it in 2010, there was no sign outside and the only reason you’d realise it was a restaurant at all was due to the red gingham tablecloths that adorned a few al fresco dining spots. At the moment (well, when I returned in June 2016), the entire street is pretty much covered with hoarding due to building work and the team from La Focaccia have taken the opportunity to do a little fresco outside which features the restaurant name in bold letters, thus making locating this wonderful eatery all the easier.
If you eat inside, it’s a little like entering the vaults of a church (and given the location, you most likely are) but a church with old wine bottles, rusted signs for beer, and a random mix of old tattered posters on the wall. None of this is a bad thing – it is welcoming, comforting, and downright intriguing as you wend your way down slanted stone stairs to discover the expansive underground dining areas that spread underneath the streets. On our first two visits, the whole place was full of priests discussing whether they should pray for a friend before or after dinner, on my most recent trip, one whole side of the dining area was filled for a birthday party and we could hear the increasingly raucous and joyous celebrations out on the street where we were sitting. The bottom line is: Everyone loves La Focaccia.
In Rome it almost a legal requirement (indeed, it should be a legal requirement) to feast on as many types of fried food (the wonderful fritti) as is humanly possible and La Focaccia serve some of the best that I’ve had. You can get anything from stuffed courgette flowers, balls of creamy cheese that stretch across the table when torn apart, mushrooms, ham and cheese, and all are dipped in a light batter and deep fried until crisp and perfect. On their own fritti misti plate, strips of courgette are transformed into munchable, crunchable sticks of joy, a smoky piece of ham is sandwiched between cheese and fried until it is the most decadent of all savoury snacks, and a glorious suppli – the Roman equivalent to Sicily’s arancini – a ball of risotto rice, filled with ragu and cheese, coated in batter and thrown into the fryer to emerge crispy, oozy, and outrageous. Slices of aubergine, little potato croquettes are also crammed on to the plate. You can never have too much fritti. There are other starters available – the meat and cheese selection plate is certainly worth a mention – but I genuinely don’t understand why anyone in their right mind would choose them when such fried delights can be had. And a bargain – under €10 for that vast plate of delight and it fed two very greedy people very well indeed. And I did almost order more courgette flowers…
Their pizzas are truly majestic creations – thin bases with a rich tomato sauce and a good (but not overly long) selection of toppings. I can’t resist a Pizza Diavola with slices of spicy salami covered in melting cheese, finished with a drizzle of chilli oil and a scattering of basil and the ones served at La Focaccia are sensational. The bases are scorched to within an inch of their lives in the fierce wood-fired oven and come out crisp but still with enough satisfying chew to delight any pizza lover. The slices of salami are huge and only three or four are needed to nearly cover the already vast pizza base. When it comes to size, the same can be said of the decadent Calzone – a folded pizza stuffed with veggies or meaty treats that only just fits on the plate. Huge and over the top but so worth it. I have eaten pizza all over Italy and this place serves some of the very best. No joke.
The pasta is also worth exploring – a Tuscan-inspired wild boar ragu was deeply meaty and rich with sizeable chunks of meat cooked to tender perfection in a simple but delicious tomato and wine sauce. A simple tomato ragu with huge cubes of mozarella accompanied with one of their crisp and delicious breads is also a winner.
Wine is available either by the jug or by the bottle and I urge you to opt for the della casa and get a good carafe of crisp local white or a cool, slightly chilled red. Chilled red wine is something that many people would baulk at but is also something that everyone should have – it is beginning to make more of a splash over here and is truly fantastic. Not all reds are suitable of course – a rich and earthy vintage would certainly not benefit from a spell in the chiller – but for light, fruity wines it is fantastic. And about €10 for a litre. Score.
The staff are multi-lingual and incredibly friendly and every time I return I rejoice – it’s a bit like coming home. I can’t envisage a trip to Rome without a dinner there and I think that just about sums it up – when in Rome, eat at La Focaccia!