Da Tonino has to be one of Rome’s best kept secrets. Who would believe that about three minutes’ walk from the throngs in Piazza Navona is a tiny restaurant that packs in locals and feeds them delicious, traditional fare at the lowest prices you can imagine. You have to search carefully, though – there’s no real sign and the name on the glass door is easily missed.
You have to squeeze your way through the tables – spacious is not an adjective to describe da Tonino – and there is quite likely to be a queue. Once you achieve the safety of a table don’t expect a menu, either. There is one – somewhere – but it’s only found, if really necessary, for a patron that can’t cope with the oral recitation of what’s available that day.
One of the delights of this place is that you choose your pasta first – there are antipasto dishes available (and I bet they’re good) but the pasta is so heavenly it would be a shame not to dig in. Depending on the day you’ll be offered pasta with cecci (chickpeas), fagioli (beans), melanzane, brocoletti, carciofi, pasta carbonara… all delicious. On my second visit I wanted to try the cecci which had looked fantastic when delivered to a neighbouring table, but that day it was lenticche (lentils) instead – we were there just after New Year and of course eating lentils brings good luck (or rather money) in the year to come.
With that course out the way you can decide whether or not you want to tackle the serious stuff. I do advise leaving room for a plate of straccetti because it’s the best I’ve ever eaten. Thin strips of lean beef, unbelievably tender, covered with a mound of raw rughetta (wild rocket) that, as you eat, becomes coated with the meat juices. This dish is so simple, and so good, it could grace the fanciest restaurant in the city.
I never did hear the complete list of other secondi, but I would like to try the polpetone (big meatballs) with a plate of Tonino’s roast potatoes – not quite as good as those at Edy, but pretty wonderful all the same… Another speciality is baccala, and though I’m certainly not a fan of this salt cod dish it did look good.
The final surprise at da Tonino is that they also make their own puddings, rare in a small establishment like this. I can vouch for the torta della nonna, the millefoglie and the tiramisu… Luckily our waiter, the charming, efficient and long-suffering Giorgio – who bore a resemblance to the young Jean-Paul Belmondo, not that that influenced this review in any way, you understand – didn’t turn a hair at providing half size portions when asked, and one serving of pudding with two or three spoons.
I normally try to give an indication of the price of each course in a restaurant, but here it’s almost irrelevant as this is one of those establishments where the final bill is either scribbled on a scrap of paper or on the tablecloth, and is always less than you think it could be. If I tell you that my first lunch there, for four, including about a litre and a half of the house red, came to €45… you get the picture.
A restaurant to be treasured and returned to, time and time again. Food doesn’t come more honest than this.