/Da Felice in Testaccio: The Sad Decline

Da Felice in Testaccio: The Sad Decline

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.

20 Comments

  1. Ellen May 24, 2011 at 3:27 am - Reply

    ah, this makes me so sad. i’ve had some wonderful meals at Da Felice.

  2. Frank May 24, 2011 at 3:49 am - Reply

    So sad… :=(

  3. PS ~ Chicago May 24, 2011 at 5:12 am - Reply

    Your candor is much appreciated. A critical perspective is sorely lacking in today’s vernacular, vis-a-vis restaurant reviews, saturated with “amazing” and “unbelievable.”

    Am headed to Rome next week for five days and had Da Felice on my list of places to try — in large part due to the glowing review from Saveur (April 2010). Where is your “go-to” place for solid pasta (such as cacio e pepe) and contorni (love puntarelle, and all vegetables for that matter, though not in a fried preparation). Cheers, PS

  4. Katie May 24, 2011 at 9:10 am - Reply

    Try Da Danilo, Flavio al Velavevodetto and Roscioli for great cacio e pepe and other roman classics!

  5. Alessandro May 24, 2011 at 3:31 pm - Reply

    Will be in Roma next week as well, staying in an apartment on a vicolo just off of the Campo de Fiori. Was checking out some of the places nearby since many of our meals will be in this area. My list includes Da Sergio, La Montecarlo, Enoteca Corsi, Sora Lella, Cul de Sac, Al Bric and Camponeschi. Based on your seggestions i’m also adding Il Goccetto and Roscioli.
    Is there a difference between Roscioli and Antico Forno Roscioli? Seems these might be 2 different places.
    Familiar with the others on my list and if so can you give me your opinion?

  6. Fabrizio aka Artèteca May 24, 2011 at 5:06 pm - Reply

    Hi Katie,
    Rome’s downtowns restaurant have now conquered the LONELY PLANET’s pages and this is a great assurance for their account balance. So why bother about quality or tradition? No wonder!!!
    Nevertheless, I consider free, outspoken bloggers can make a difference in criticism, which, if the patron’s clever enough, can be used to correct the way they do business.
    So sad the TRATTORIA panorama in Rome nowdays :o(

  7. Alberto May 24, 2011 at 7:47 pm - Reply

    Dear K., so happy to read this post! I agree 100% that Felice has lost is “quality level” in these last years.. The new look has been considered by the owners more than the food… And, you know, history and tradition is not enough to eat well! Brava!

  8. shayma May 24, 2011 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    thank *god* you wrote this post – i have been waiting for someone to call the whistle on this place. even the NYT said it was one of the best places to eat in Rome. rubbish- not at all. i liked Da Felice back in 2003- but soon after the quality drastically deteriorated and the prices escalated.

    my i suggest two of my favourite places for a slick cacio e pepe? Roma Sparita and Da Francesco. And Il Bucatino can do a good one once in a while, too.

  9. Erica May 24, 2011 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    “I didn’t grow up eating at Da Felice. . . ” well said. I am sad to read this because I do love Da Felice’s caciopepe and abbacchio, but sometimes fame has its price. On that note, I had a lovely carbonara at Matricianella this afternoon, and nibbled my friend’s delicious cacio pepe….

  10. tiberina17 May 26, 2011 at 10:00 pm - Reply

    It’s a hard thing to say for me (because I used to like Felice so much), but I think you’re right, especially the ”earn your place in this restaurant” part.

    Feeling good is an important part of enjoying a restaurant and I don’t deserve to wait hours at the door when I have a reservation and I don’t deserve to feel like they are doing me some kind of favor.

    That being said, cacio & pepe is still outstanding and I adore their tiramisù.

    p.s. I’ve been at Flavio al velavevodetto two times and the second one was a complete disaster. First time was lovely… I guess I’ll come back and see if they’re better in summer as it was for me.

  11. Katie May 26, 2011 at 10:27 pm - Reply

    @alessandro ditch Sora Lella and Camponeschi for sure. I love Cul de Sac. La Montecarlo has seen a decline in quality lately tho it is certainly a crowdpleaser. I havent been to the others in ages.

    Roscioli (wine bar/restaurant/deli; serves lunch and dinner; closed Sun) is located on Via dei Giubbonari, while Antico Forno Roscioli (bakery and cafeteria; open 8-8; closed Sun) is nearby at Via de’ Chiavari. I think you could benefit by branching out to other neighborhoods for meals. You could try Le Mani in Pasta in Trastevere, L’Asino d’Oro in Monti, or a million other great spots. you can check out my recommendations on the Parla Food Dining App

    @fabrizio you’re right, guide books have done their part to “ruin” restaurants and trattorias in rome and elsewhere. that is why the internet is so key. people can keep tabs on places practically in real time. and consumers can leave their comments about bad business practices. unfortunately in rome, 99.9% of business owners dont take the english language forums into consideration.

    @Alberto hi! thanks for your comment! im sorry we didnt talk about this in person on sunday! 🙂 da felice has absolutely lost its edge. inexplicably saveur and the NYT have named it among the best trattorie in rome. boh!

    @shayma thanks for the suggestions. and for reminding me to go back to bucatino. i havent been there in AGES!!

    @erica the cacio e pepe was the bomb. no doubt. fried stuff too. Matricianella is another spot i havent been to in a while. have to go back soon!! what am i waiting for?

    @ tiberina17 I WISH we had tried the tiramisu. it might have been the silver lining of a disastrous meal. but after that sad sad lamb we had to go. bummer about flavio. i wonder what went wrong? their fish dishes aren’t amazing IMO. what did you get there?

  12. tiberina17 May 28, 2011 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    Katie, I never had any of their fish dishes, because I’m not very fond of fish (unfortunately).

    Fried vegetables are delicious, carbonara is tasty but cacio & pepe was nothing special and so were other courses. I must be honest, I wasn’t disappointed with the food, but with the waitress : she was very rude and a little ”sly”. She ruined a perfect evening (it was a two-year anniversary dinner for me and my fiance).

    Anyway, the place is nice and other people weren’t so rude, plus I’m willing to give another chance to their dishes 🙂

  13. Mandy May 28, 2011 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    Great post, Katie. And yes, what IS it about Roman restaurants that seems to make them go downhill once they become “institutions”? I’ve already had my own gripe here…. http://bit.ly/iNounu .

    Can the “why this happens in Rome” please be the subject of your next investigative food post?

  14. aventine June 2, 2011 at 11:47 pm - Reply

    Katie,

    You brought up Montecarlo above, and the decline of institutions. I’m sad to report that last week a waiter there tried the “disappearing money trick” and insisted we had not paid the full share of our approximate 200 E bill! 30 minutes later, my husband’s protests, and several viewings of the restaurant videotapes the restaurant allowed us to leave (yet they even grabbed him again as he made his way down towards Governo Vecchio to come back inside); later, they insisted a waiter had pocketed the money. Still, the situation was tacky, and included accusations, and all over 15 Euros, while being viewed by our students. This was our 7th year with a group of 15–but sadly our last. I think their pizza quality has gone downhill as well, and the indoor antipasto counter was nearly inedible. Thanks for keeping watch on these things!

  15. Louise September 8, 2012 at 12:58 am - Reply

    We’ve rented an apartment near Piazza del Popolo for a month next (2013) April.
    Our knowledge of Rome is out of date by a few years so look forward to accumulating restaurant and food ideas between now and then. When we last were in the city, we went to Da Felicio for a Sunday brunch – what was fun about it was being surrounded by multi generational Roman families and a warm welome to the only English speaking table in the room. Of course, that happens elsewhere too on Sundays, but those are the things I recall, not the food!

  16. […] idiosyncrasies of their owners and on their convivial atmosphere. Regulars willingly overlook the habitually overcooked lamb or the watery cacio e pepe if the owner knows their […]

  17. sam January 14, 2014 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Thank god someone wrote this – I never use these websites but after being told “I had to go to da felice” while in Rome I was that annoyed and disappointed that I told the waiter and the typical Roman lady manager what I thought when I left – being in the industry myself for over 20 years I couldn’t believe what I experienced: made a booking, waited 5 minutes at the door after I told the lady my name and said I had been sent here by a friend all the way back in Australia(she gave me a slight lift of the side lip, think it was a crack at a Roman I couldn’t give a f**k who sent you smile) but she kept on doing her thing at the counter, dodged all the waiters running past me telling me to get out of the way until I eventually said “ah can we sit now” waited 10 minutes to order and only cause I asked the only pleasant waiter there “can we order please” the waiter in our section was either having a bad day or just Roman – after we ordered he said “well done, 2 out of 4 – we don’t have this or that” ok I said well we’ll just get 2 other things no big deal, my partner was starving by then so didn’t really matter what we ate and plus the rock hard bread was filling us up, after eating a very very very average piece of cotoletta I asked the rude lady who was mingling with obviously some regulars “ah can I have the side order that was meant to come” the waiter in our section yells out “I told you it wasn’t available” and the restaurant literally stopped, she then says “do you want a contorno or not?” I said “signora I’ve eaten my main meal and finished my wine, what do you think?” I asked for the bill(yet a good 5 minute wait) paid it and I always tip unlike Australians but this time made sure I didn’t and when I left I said to this lady as I opened the door and let my partner go through “I’m going to tell my friend where to go now for suggesting such a disgrace of a place” – went to Florence the next day and stumbled across La Spada Rosticceria and couldn’t believe this young boy serving us, and the food was amazing that we went back 3 times and bumped into an Aussie family on the street(random) and sent them there, it’s simple..good service, product you never go wrong – maybe I copped them on a bad night but too many things from the service to the actual meal was below par and being a hospitality person and a regular traveller to Italy I will NEVER return and somehow pray to god that they somehow see this review

  18. Chris K. December 29, 2015 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    Respectfully, I think this review is way off the mark. Perhaps Da Felice was even better in the past (I have no way of knowing), but I was there last month and the lamb was legit; the saltimbocca and pastas delicious. If you don’t think this food is good I am not sure what you will find in Rome that meets your standards or palate. There are also so many unfair reviews online written by English-only speakers about getting this table or that or the service being off, including one above. I will say, this is certainly a place where you need to make some kind of effort to bridge the language gap, and if you don’t look or sound like a regular, you, indeed, very well may get an odd table (but, guess what, I had my hotel do the booking, said no more than was necessary upon arrival and received a great table).

    • Katie December 30, 2015 at 5:50 pm - Reply

      @chris k English only speakers? surely you are not referring to me. this place is hit or miss like a million places in town. thrilled you enjoyed it but in my vast experience it’s mostly misses.

  19. Stephen November 12, 2016 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    Da Tonino on via del Governo Vecchio. I lived in Campo dei Fiori in the mid-seventies and every trattoria in the area was amazing. Then mass tourism kicked in and boom! The old Cul de Sac was really really good, but that too has now sold its soul to the tourists. As far as I can work out Da Tonino’s the only one in the centro storico that still feels identical to what it was in those days.

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