Of the handful of Greek restaurants in Rome, the tiny ten-table Ouzeri is often touted as the best. Overshadowed by rowdier Trastevere restaurants around the corner, its easily missed watch out for its name scrawled in tiny Greek writing over the door and a burly man outside who will explain you need to join the Associazione di Cultura Italo-Greca before you can come in. The annual 1.50 fee is well recompensed by the arrival of a complimentary glass of ouzo (aniseed liqueur) and dish of black olives the second you sit down.
Meze for two (18) offers six small dishes of traditional Greek fare with variable success. A passable, creamy tzatziki (cucumber, yoghurt and mint) and a spicy pepper dip could be improved by some warm pita rather than the usual hard Italian bread, but the feta salad is seasoned to perfection. The dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) are acidic and disappointing, but not as bad as the keftedes (meatballs), which have the suspicious, spongy consistency of a Chicken McNugget but considerably less taste. However, a gigantes bean salad with okra in tomato sauce saves the day, as will half a litre of the decent piney retsina (4.50).
There are various meat dishes on the menu, but you really cant do better than the fantastic, salty halloumi (goats and sheeps milk cheese) grilled with herbs (4.00). The disadvantage of a cheese that squeaks when you eat it is that it can have the consistency of thick polystyrene. The Ouzeri version makes the requisite eek noise when you bite into it but is melty in the middle and crunchy at the corners - a triumph.
To finish, go with the intensely sweet, heavy kataifi (shredded-wheat-like pastry and nut concoction), served in a pool of honey with a generous blob of thick yoghurt. Leaving without tasting the Greek coffee rich, textured and almost thick enough to stand a teaspoon in would be wrong. Ask for it metrio (medium-sweet) unless you want a real sugar headrush.
A word of warning: casually strewn fishing nets, pictures of whitewashed houses against the impossible blue of the Aegean and an oppressive wall of heat (barred windows, no terrace) all help to recreate the feeling of being in Greece in high summer. Come scantily dressed and try to get a table positioned directly under one of the two half-hearted ceiling fans. Despite the temperature and the hit-and-miss dishes, though, the service is affable, the bouzouki music muted and whether as a result of the retsina or just all the sugar its very hard not to leave in a good mood.
Ouzeri, Via dei Salumi 2 (Trastevere), tel. 065816378. Mon-Sat 20.30-late. Average price: 20 per person. No credit cards.
Hosteria del Pesce
Fish reigns at Hosteria del Pesce, a recent revelation in superb marine cuisine. Situated in the heart of the historic centre, this cosy and very hip restaurant opened in 2001 and has quickly gained a reputation as one of Romes finest seafood restaurants.
Hosteria del Pesce is renowned for the freshness of its produce. The fish is caught in Terracina (in the province of Latina south east of Rome) and is delivered to the restaurants doorstep daily.
The choice of fish and shellfish is as diverse as the Mediterranean sea it is taken from and food is simply but succulently prepared.
The fish themselves are the first to greet you at the restaurants entrance, gleaming and still wiggling, displayed on beds of ice with the pardonable pride of a jeweller displaying his most precious treasures.
The restaurant is a curious mixture of casual and elegant and it overflows with a contagiously energetic buzz. The interior, with its dark wood, low lighting, sea-blue and chili-pepper red walls, is rather like the interior of a boat. At first glance, the tattoo-covered waiters appear as menacing as heavy metal performers but they are unexpectedly courteous and able to steer you expertly towards your perfect marine match for the evening. You can even choose your preferred cooking style, from fried for the self-indulgent to grilled or raw for the weight-conscious.
The clientele is glamorous as is witnessed by the photos on the hosterias wall of fame, which features celebrities such as Romas soccer star Francesco Totti and beaming, long-legged former Miss Italias.
Starters include antipasti cotti, a tantalising mix of swordfish, grilled shrimp, octopus and sole, or antipasti crudi comprising calamaretti, crayfish, venus clams, prawns and squill.
Primi piatti are an ample selection of seafood-laced pastas, from the perennial favourite, linguine with clams, to the exotic spaghetti with anchovies, pecorino cheese and basil.
The raw and thinly-sliced tuna and sea bass carpaccio, plump oysters, mussel sout and paranza (a mixture of small-sized fish) sail down the digestive tracts as smoothly as Hosteria del Pesces intoxicating white wines, while the show-stealing lobster would make Neptune himself lick his lips.
Dessert menu highlights include the brazenly sweet pallacciotta (a hazelnut cream-filled beignet drowned in chocolate sauce) and a refreshing assortment of apricot, fig, pear, hazelnut and chestnut sorbets served in their frozen fruit exteriors, a speciality from the Salerno region. There is also a goodly range of post-dinner liqueurs to wash down your meal with.
If you have a birthday or anniverary celebration on the horizon, you will almost certainly make a bella figura with this choice of restaurant. Of course, there is always a catch fish this fresh and delicious doesnt come cheap you can expect to pay from 70 upwards.
Nonetheless, you are bound to leave feeling satisfied and happy to have chosen to drop anchor at this charming harbour for the night.
Hosteria del Pesce, Via di Monserrato 32 (Campo de Fiori), tel. 066865617, Mon-Sat 20.00-late, booking essential. All major credit cards accepted.