We visit Rome twice a year — enough times by now, that it’s become a routine since it’s so easy to do these days thanks to a good supply of airplane routes between various U.S. cities and Rome. A few weeks ago, we boarded the plane, woke up for breakfast, within an hour of landing we were in the apartment. After a shower, a shot or two of espresso, and an energetic walk to stretch our legs, we were ready for lunch. Next thing you know, we’re dining at a lovely, Michelin-starred restaurant, Pipero Al Rex, being graciously and generously taken care of by Pipero himself.
Located not far from Termini Station, the eponymously named restaurant is located at the Rex Hotel (hence the “al Rex” portion of the name), a small, somewhat nondescript hotel — not what you’d expect for such a high-end restaurant. But the restaurant itself is quite lovely. If we’d been in Manhattan, the place would have been packed to the gills with a long waiting list. Instead, on a weekday for lunch, we were one of only three tables seated, with an Italian couple reading the paper and two businessmen sharing the dining room. The room strikes a balance of both grand and cozy; and we were seated next to the lovely old fireplace, which has been converted into something much more practical — a bar.
Being a bit hungry, we opted for the tasting menu. The charming Mr. Pipero treated us to a bit of proscuitto and prosecco. And then the serious dining started. Some beautiful little crisps with a succulent chicken liver pate and flower petals arrived first. A very nice way to start.
Next, there was a light crisp with some sort of yogurt drop. Probably more interesting than tasty.
The next course really had a “wow” factor. Succulent chunks of (raw) duck breast tartare — a fabulous texture as well as lovely, lightly gamey flavor — was sandwiched between two crisps, and accompanied by green apple and a perfectly paired mustard. Absolutely brilliant. Tellingly, we saw the other two tables order the same dish. And, it’s the first thing I will order when I go back.
The next course was equally mind blowing. A soup made up of an egg poached in tea, with potato (uovo affumicato e patate). It might sound odd but tastes surprisingly delicious. Delicate, multi-layered, smooth, and soothing. It’s up there as one of my favorite parts of the meal.
Then it was time to bring on the pasta. First up was a seafood pasta, which I enjoyed for its richness and lightness. The next dish, to my surprise, was not my favorite. Pipero is known for its pasta carbonara, but I found the proportion of the guanciale (pig jowl bits) to the pasta to be off due to the large size of the few guanciale pieces, which were also a bit more chewy than I am used to. But, perhaps it was just not to my taste but would be to yours.
For our meat course there was a beef pizzaiola, a pleasant cut of meat with a tangy but not overpowering tomato sauce. This course, being the most savory and intensely flavored, was the peak of the entire meal’s arc. It was very satisfying, albeit I will probably try something else on my next visit.
Next up was a lovely little pop-in-your-mouth treat, Pipero’s take on tiramisù. Sandwiched between two lightly sweet cocoa crisps was a rich custard. Once again, Pipero hit a home run. I noticed the businessmen not only emphatically ordered this dish (clearly they had enjoyed it before), but were also smiling broadly as they quickly finished it off.
By now we were very full. The final dish was a white chocolate dessert with a berry ice cream and a crumbly base. This was a perfect way to finish the meal, coming down from the richer savor of the first dessert course… but we were probably too full by now to completely appreciate this one.
After a coffee and an after dinner drink, we could barely move. But, it was worth it. We were treated beautifully by Pipero, and enjoyed a leisurely and fabulous lunch.
Seriously, this place should be packed. But, I’m happy to have it almost to myself, and to recommend it to friends and guests. Will I go back? Yes, definitely. Will I do the tasting menu again? No, it was a bit too much food for me to appreciate it all. But you can bet that duck breast tartare will be the first thing I order.
And, the moral of this story: if you want some Michelin star dining without the ridiculous waiting lists, and with some of the most gracious service around, get yourself to Rome!
Update 2017: Pipero has moved from the Hotel Rex, so the restaurant is now just “Pipero.” Need to try out the new location!