What is it about Roman institutions that allows them to get away with inconsistent, often mediocre food? Is it nostalgia that leads locals to give them a pass? In the case of Da Felice in Testaccio, I’m going to go with a resounding yes. This restaurant is undoubtedly part of Rome’s gastronomic folklore yet, it doesn’t deliver the bounty a place of its status should must. It opened in 1936 and its namesake, Felice Trivelloni, was a notorious curmudgeon who doled out tables only to those he deemed fit. Even before his passing in October 2009, his son Franco had taken the helm, and the torch of grouchiness, so to speak.

I like restaruants with cult status just as much as the next person, and I acknowledge the attraction of restaurants where you have to “earn your place” (though let the record show I find such practices offensive). But I’m not blinded by any nostalgic illusions here. I didn’t grow up eating at Da Felice, and even if I had, I doubt Monday’s meal wouldn’t have tasted any better.

Sadly, Da Felice no longer excels, even at its signature dish, abbacchio al forno con le patate (baked lamb with potatoes). This is just one symptom of Da Felice’s sad decline. This news is not groundbreaking or radically new. For whatever reason, the food hasn’t been amazing at Da Felice for some time. But my last meal was particularly tragic, consisting of a series of classic dishes that went from good to bad to worse.

Things started off with a bang, however. Two golden filetti di baccala had the ideal batter-to-fish ratio and a pleasant lightness. Excellent. My friend Tuba‘s cacio e pepe, which was tossed tableside, received high marks. I was less excited by my gricia, which was adequate, but nothing special. The guanciale was suspiciously lacking in fattiness. Was that pork jowl or pancetta on my plate?

Things got seriously dire with the second courses. The polpette were amorphous, damp, pulpy balls, a description which hardly does their mediocrity justice. But the real disappointment was with the house specialty, abbacchio al forno con le patate.

A massive hunk of lamb was served with potatoes. So far so good. The crust of the meat was slightly crisp and well seasoned. Promising. The inside was dry as a bone. Devastating. The meat was so devoid of moisture, I had to call on the acidity of the wine to get the saliva going again.

Roman trattorie routinely overcook their meat, but the lamb at Da Felice was inedible. It was an abomination of the worst kind, a waste of precious meat, and a manifestation of an institution’s unfortunate decline.