The number eight tram rolls a good route. At least I think so. Starting in Largo di Torre Argentina, it cuts straight and then crosses the bridge, runs the entire length of Viale Trastevere before curving its way along Gianicolense and sliding into the terminus at Casaletto. On a good day; clear and avoiding the rush, top to tail takes about 22 minutes. On a bad day; rain and rush, it takes 35.
I don’t very often top to tail or tail to top on the number eight. Most days I’ll ride a section though: The Ministry of Education up to work at the children’s theatre, the theatre up to the park, purveyors of fine pizza bianca back to The Ministry, my biscuit shop up to Stazione Trastevere. Come to think of it, of all my routes – there are many, I’m both dedicated and dependent on the exasperating Roman public transport system – this is the one I ride the most.
Then every so often, last Saturday for example, we roll the whole line and are not only reminded what good curved cut the N° 8 makes through the city, but what a good destination awaits at the end of the line.
Occupying the ground floor of a nondescript modern building just yards from the tram terminus and identifiable only by a small yellow sign, the trattoria Cesare al Casaletto is, from the outside, unremarkable. I’d passed by, at first oblivious and then dismissive, dozens and dozens of times. Then, on advice from Katie, we went for lunch. The best lunch we’d had in a long time. And so we went back, again and again, each visit reaffirming our conviction.
Bright and luminous, da Cesare is the antitheses of the archetypal shadowy and surly Roman Trattoria - I should add I like shadowy and surly from time to time. It’s quietly elegant yet cordial and comfortable. On Saturday we were given a table in the nicest corner with plenty of space for a high chair. Da Cesare is a family trattoria in the truest sense and this is personified by the owner’s bold little girl who marches up to your table to say ciao.
To start, we divided a portion of plump, preserved anchovies: oily, fiendishly fishy filets to be squashed onto bread and polpette di bollito misto; delicate, fragile, deep-fried spheres of breaded shredded veal served with a spoonful of pesto. Then we shared a primo of fresh egg pasta with vignarola (braised artichokes, peas, broad beans and spring onions) and pecorino romano cheese. We paused. For secondo my companion had baccalà alla Romana (salt cod with tomatoes) and I had involtini al sugo, two quietly delicious beef rolls in a rich tomato sauce. There were also side dishes, one a tangle of dark-green ragged cicioria ripassata and another of chips. Such good chips. We finished with coffee and biscuits that had not long been pulled from the oven.
It took me a few visits to understand what makes the Food at da Cesare so special. Of course it’s the excellent ingredients, the skill and a lightness of touch that transforms traditional Roman food – the menu is much the same as any menu you might find in any trattoria – into something so vital and impressive. Then, after the fourth or fifth meal, I understood. It’s the care taken that sets da Cesare apart. Real care without pretense or fuss, without swagger or caricature. The food makes even more sense when you talk to the owner, Leonardo Vignoli or his wife. Both are gentle, modest, passionate, attentive: a rare combination in Rome. The wine list is as splendid as the food. As is the advice to help you navigate it.
As I paid the bill I asked Leonardo about the involtini, the two unassuming beef rolls that had been simmered tenderly in tomato sauce, maybe the nicest I have ever eaten (and I have eaten a few.) ‘Thin slices of good beef, well seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic wrapped around impossibly thin batons of carrot and celery and then simmered gently in tomato for an hour and a half‘ was his advice. ‘How would I know they were done?’ I asked. ‘Touch and taste‘ was his reply. Then he was gone – politely of course – back into the kitchen and I was left with a queue of questions trailing down my throat.
My first attempt was acceptable. My second very reasonable. My third attempt at involtini however, was a resounding success. Not quite reaching the benchmark set by Da Cesare, but nearly. Ask your butcher to cut you 10 thin slices of beef – rump or chuck is ideal. Season the slices prudently with fine salt, freshly ground black pepper and very finely chopped garlic if you so wish (I don’t.) Position a fat bundle of painfully thin carrot and celery batons at the bottom of the slice and then roll, tuck and roll until you have a neat parcel. Secure the roll lengthways with a toothpick. You brown your involtini in hot oil, nudging and turning, until they are evenly coloured and then you cover them with wine and tomato and simmer for a good long while.
The tomato reduces into a dense, flavoursome sauce and the beef rolls – with their neat bundle of savory – are simmered into tenderness. I wouldn’t have given these involtini a thought (never mind a second glance) before coming to live in Rome. Old-fashioned, boring and just damn fuddy-duddy I might have mumbled. Little did I know. Made carefully with good ingredients, they are simply delicious, richly favoured and well, very Roman. And the word involtini? It comes form the verb avvolgere (to wrap) so literally translated means, a little thing that has been wrapped.
Of course involtini work well as part of a Roman-style lunch. That is; a tasty antipasti, a modest portion of pasta and then a roll (or two) served alone on a white plate with nothing more than a crust of bread to scoop up the sauce. They are also good in a more English manner, that is beside a pile of extremely buttery mashed potato (what isn’t?) Roll with it.
Involtini al sugo Beef rolls in tomato sauce
Inspired by the involtini at Cesare al Casaletto with advice from my butchers at Sartor.
serves 4 (two each with two extra to squabble over)
- 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into extremely thin batons (roughly the same length as the beef is wide)
- 1 large stick of celery cut into extremely thin batons (roughly the same length as the beef is wide)
- 10 thin slices of beef (3mm or so) – rump or chuck is ideal
- freshly ground black pepper
- a clove of garlic, finely chopped (optional)
- 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- a small glass of white wine or red wine
- 500 g tinned plum tomatoes coarsely chopped or passed through the food mill
Peel and then cut the carrot and celery into extremely thin batons roughly the same length as the beef slice is wide.
Take a slice of beef, lay it flat on the work surface, season with salt, pepper and very finely chopped garlic if you are using it. Again, I don’t use garlic. Place a bundle of carrot and celery at the bottom of the beef slice and then roll the beef around the batons, tucking the sides in if you can, until you have a neat cylinder. Secure the roll with a toothpick along its length.
Warm the olive oil in a heavy based saute pan. Add beef rolls, and cook, turning as needed, until browned on all sides, which will take about 6 minutes.
Add the glass of wine to the pan, raise the heat so the wine sizzles and evaporates. Add the tomatoes and stirring and nudging the rolls so they are evenly spaced and well coated with tomato. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the rolls covered partially – gently stirring and turning the rolls a couple of times – until meat is cooked through and tender which will take about 1 and a half – 2 hours. Add a little more wine or water if the sauce seems to be drying out during the cooking.
Lets the rolls rest for at least 15 minutes before serving with a spoonful of sauce and some bread.