Note: On Sunday December 5, CNN broadcast a stunning Rome episode of Parts Unknown in which Anthony Bourdain and Asia Argento go to a trattoria, which they do not name. It’s Settimio. Sorry for the spoiler but I don’t believe in depriving Mario and Teresa of business through exclusion 🙂 Watch the episode it is brilliant.
I vividly remember my first visit to Settimio al Pellegrino. It was in 2007 and my friend Jess and I had gotten a hot tip from a regular that a short walk from Campo de’ Fiori sat an uber-authentic trattoria serving simply dressed fresh pastas, meaty mains, and seasonal vegetables. We made a booking but when we showed up for dinner the door was locked. We were already off to a rough start. One of us noticed a button next to the door and after a sustained buzz, chef and owner Teresa opened the door a crack and said something to the effect of “chi siete”, who are you?
If that doesn’t sound like a warm greeting, it wasn’t. But at Settimio, warmth isn’t doled out frivolously. Warmth is earned. If you turn up without a reservation, there’s a real chance you will be sent away, whether they are booked up or not. It’s the kind of place where the possibility of a regular rolling in late leads Teresa and her husband Mario to set aside tables for such an occurrence. And even calling to reserve well in advance doesn’t guarantee a table. On that note, if you don’t speak Italian, have your hotel ring for you. And if all this sounds too fussy, don’t read on. Settimio isn’t for you.
I have to be honest: arbitrary seating policies give me agita. I grew up in restaurants and treasure hospitality. I want to connect with the people who make and serve my food, not be rejected or dismissed. Yet I was determined to win over Teresa and Mario. That night, Jess and I ordered every course, including my current go-to, polpette, scorched yet delicious meat patties. We cleaned our plates, admired the eclectic decor (framed posters and paintings gifted by Settimio’s clients, which include plenty of artists and film makers) and watched as Mario worked the room, taking orders and doting on regulars. Teresa emerged from the kitchen occasionally to clear plates and pinch cheeks. Man, did it feel bad being an outsider at Settimio that night.
Jess and I apparently didn’t make much of an impression because I went back on my own a few days later for lunch and was given the same suspicious treatment. After a few more visits, however, I was totally in, cheek caresses and all. This is good news if you live in Rome or visit often. You, too, can become a doted-on regular. Otherwise, visit knowing you won’t be pampered by the service but you’ll definitely walk away having witnessed a Roman relic.
That is to say, a lot of what’s appealing about Settimio is the attitude and atmosphere. Some regulars have been going since the place opened in the 1930s, others a decidedly shorter length, but all are given special attention. In that way, the place is not unique. The attraction to countless other local joints is the experience and the relationship with the owners, even more so than the food.
I don’t think anyone with Roman dining experience would say the food is flawless. Like many places in town, it makes sense to stick to certain things like those meatballs or the onion-rich vitello alla genovese. At Settimio, comfort food reigns: fettucine with meat sauce, gnocchi with tomato sauce (Thursdays only), trippa alla romana, and involtini (meat rolls). The handmade pastas pass muster, but you won’t write home about them. The pillowy, super sweet, candied chestnut-studded Montblanc, which they do not make in house, is another story. I dream about it sometimes. Usually right before I go to the dentist. I am also very into the mela cotta (baked apple). I’m a sucker for overcooked fruit.
Second only to the struggle of winning the owners’ affection is the wines, which range from undrinkable to painfully undrinkable. While it’s charming that regulars leave unfinished bottles in the fridge for their next visit, I can honestly say that the only wine worse than the wine at Settimio is day-old wine at Settimio. It’s not what you’ve come for anyway.
Settimio al Pellegrino
Via del Pellegrino, 117