ASSOCIAZIONE DELLA COMUNITA ETIOPICA

Jeffrey Andreoni

If youve ever had a craving you cant seem to tame, it could be Ethiopian fare youre hankering after. Hidden on a side street off Via del Pigneto, theres a quaint little eatery that might have just what your taste buds are after.

When you enter the dimly lit establishment youll notice an Ethiopian flag on the wall, while in the far corner of the wood-panelled room a woman sits at a charcoal stove making coffee on request. If youre lucky youll find a seat among the boisterous clientele at one of the traditional wicker tables that doubles as a dish warmer with its insulating lid. This comes in handy if you want to pace your meal as the generous portions warrant.

The host usually seats you and takes your order simultaneously. When asked for the menu he replies smilingly, I am the menu, and proceeds to list the dishes that the kitchen, staffed by a team of Ethiopian women, has to offer. The list is never very long, rarely exceeding three dishes, though it does vary daily. It is a good idea simply to order a piatto unico according to the number of your party, taking Mr Menus advice. The dishes all cost the same (9), and Mr Menu is a good judge of appetite. Vegetarians may opt for a side order.

For those unfamiliar with Ethiopian dining, the accepted method is for everyone to share from one large plate, using only your hands to eat, a skill that offers amusement in itself.

The entre arrives in a matter of moments, barely giving you a chance to finish your complimentary samosa. Several fluffy pancakes adorn the oversized plate, smothered with tangy sauces, stewed vegetables and finely chopped bits of broiled steak. The trick is to tear off a piece of the porous pastry from underneath the juicy mass of food and scoop up as many different toppings as you can in one swoop, like making a fajita. The typical toppings are lentils, zucchini, broccoli and potatoes.

As Mr Menu presides over your meal, you should have no trouble getting your wine carafe (2) refilled as many times as you wish to wash down the lingering piquant flavour. Additional pancakes are provided to sop up any extra sauce. They also have some tasty sesame dessert cakes if youre still hungry.

Mr Menu insists that in its 15 years, the associazione has done its best to promote and diffuse Ethiopian culture throughout Rome. He and his colleagues are more than willing to share enlightening facts with patrons, and you might just come away with more than a full stomach.

Associazione della Comunit Etiopica, Via Grosseto 5 (Pigneto), tel. 0645423367, Tues-Sun, 19.00-23.30. Average price: 10 per person. No credit cards.

TAPA LOCA

Karen Fratti

If youre looking to spice up your dinner hour in the historic centre, head for Tapa Loca. In this authentic Spanish restaurant near Piazza Navona, youll be instantly transported to the southern regions of Spain. The wide array of steamy Andalusian dishes and pitchers of homemade sangria served on Tapa Locas tiny outdoor tables beg you to settle in for the night. The Spanish pop music playing inside washes away the rumble of the busy square nearby, and the spacious dining room is decorated with intricate tile trim and tasteful Spanish paraphernalia. Celebrate with a pitcher of sangria (11), or choose anything from the long list of Spanish wine, beer and liquor. Try the Cruz Campo in a bottle (4), or get a glass of calimocho red wine and coca cola (4).

Move on to the empanadas, stuffed daily according to the whims of the Andalusian chef (6). Theres also a modest selection of tortillas (thick omelettes made with potatoes, 3.50) to sample, but theyre so filling you might not have room to try one of the many meat dishes such as the ropa vieja, a tender beef fillet sauted with red wine and mushrooms (14.50), or the pinchos de pollo, tasty, seasoned chicken skewers served on sizzling hot plate (7).

However, the best bet for a true taste of Seville is a paella, a rice dish cooked with meat, vegetables or seafood using a special recipe learned in Spain by the chef. His method creates a crust on the bottom, which is considered a delicacy. It is worth grabbing bits from the dish before anyone at your table notices. Go for the paella valenciana with chicken, vegetables, shrimp and mussels (13). All paellas are cooked individually so youll have to wait a bit for them to arrive, but when they do they come steaming straight from the stove in the pan they are prepared in, which is placed on a large stool at your table for the waiter to scoop out the first servings. A single order generously feeds two people. For larger parties, theyll double the size of the dish and the price.

If theres room for dessert, share a plate of churros, fried dough sticks sprinkled with sugar (3.50), or natilla, chocolate pudding with a biscuit at the bottom (3.40). Youll leave with Spanish music still playing in your head, pleasantly surprised to have found such an intimate restaurant serving such delicious food right in the heart of this crowded touristy area.

Tapa Loca, Via di Tor Millina 5 (near Piazza Navona), tel. 066832266. Mon-Sun 18.30-02.00. Average price: 25 per person. Credit cards accepted.