Trattoria Sora Lella, Rome.

Trattoria Sora Lella, Rome. May 2017.

Staying in this astounding city for a few days in the ancient Jewish ghetto (now a trendy neighbourhood of little bars and restaurants) of Trastevere, we were looking for a change from the uneven quality of the local eateries, and went for this Michelin-named place closest to our hotel. It’s on Isola Tiberina, the only island in the great Roman River. We made a reservation for 7:30 PM and stood waiting outside with a dozen other people for the door to click open, which happened at about 7:35.

There is a reassuring atmosphere of tradition and sedate family-style Roman dining immediately evident on walking in. It appears at first that there are only three or four tables, but to the left there is a main floor room adjacent, and we were walked upstairs to a medium-sized attic dining area. The lighting and décor were comfortably and unassumingly neutral.

Our server was a young middle-aged man who spoke just enough English for us to get by. The menu was inviting and featured a variety of Roman favourites including artichoke fried or steamed (Jewish or Roman style respectively), meatballs, lamb done several ways including mixed innards, tripe, vegetarian favourites, beef, etc. The wine list was interesting, selective, entirely Italian, a few expensive barolos but some for under C$100, and a selection of local regional and then other Italian products. The place was packed by the time we left at around 10 PM.

The food was clearly high-class simple fare, a good solid cut above the little streetside dives nearby. We started with fried young artichoke and “grandmother” meatballs, both delicious in simple lemon and tomato sauce respectively, the meatballs soft, fragrant and tasting of fresh herbs. We shared a pasta which was translated into English as “short”, very al dente bits of penne, done with a capable reduction around guanciale, also simple but just succulent and delicious. Still hungry, I had a tripe main which I regretted ordering because although I love the French tripe sausage andouilette, this was loose tripe pieces all gooey in a not-highly-flavoured tomato sauce. I finished it, but was sure at the end I would’ve preferred one of the lamb dishes. Robin had eggplant parmigiana which we agree was magnificent, although frankly I think the one she prepares is better.

The barolo was a 2012 from a producer I didn’t know although I was in the region just a few months before, from the peripheral village of La Morra. It was €80 which is just about $C120, but measured up, fruit and jam fragrant and a big balanced experience in the mouth, helping me to fight my way through the tripe.

It’s strange to reflect that some of the most memorable high-bistro meals I’ve enjoyed have been vitiated at the end by a strange European waiter behaviour: delay. I made a baseball-umpire “safe” gesture twice to let him know we were done, and then did the scribbling with a finger on the palm of the other hand sign to indicate “bill please”, over pretty much 40 minutes or so, and each time he seemed to indicate he got the message, but nothing happened. Robin went down to the bathroom and I sat there waiting for another 10 or 15 minutes, and when he arrived and took away the little complementary ice cream and jam shot glasses (quite lovely) I tried to follow him downstairs to pay but he insisted I sit down, which I did for honestly another 10 minutes or so until he finally arrived with the machine. What is this? Robin thinks it’s just that because we don’t tip here like we do in North America they just don’t give a damn once they’ve served you. I am sure there is something more to it along the lines of “Okay you’re well satisfied now you might as well sit for another little while and enjoy the convivial atmosphere here.” Or something.

I nearly fell asleep in my seat, just dying to get home to bed. The extra time and my unhappy wait sadly turned out to be the most memorable part of this otherwise really high class traditional dinner. Next time I’ll try to have the right amount of cash, just leave it on the table, and walk out, although honestly I don’t want to disrespect some sort of tradition just because of my North American hurry.

I spent too much on wine and so the bill was about C$230. Really the prices for most items were reasonable. I would go back, but try to sit downstairs and use a bit better strategy for getting out the door.

Food 8.7 (selectively), service 7.0, atmosphere 8.8, value 7.8, peace and quiet 7.7.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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