ROME — Fernanda D’Arienzo is not like other Italian food critics. She never reserves a table under her real name. She always pays for her own meals. And she sees her mission as saving the public — Romans and tourists alike — from predatory restaurant owners.
D’Arienzo and a dozen other anonymous food critics are trying to change Rome’s food scene one review at a time. The rap is that tourists can’t get an honest meal in Rome — but that’s because the city is infested with tourist traps, especially in the center. Fernanda’s annual restaurant guide, “Roma nel Piatto,” (also translated into English as “Eat as the Romans Do”), makes that an easier feat.
On a recent night out with D’Arienzo, she described her mission.
“I want to trigger a critical approach in people,” she said, while waiting for the restaurant owner to take her order. She pointed out that in a city like Rome with many tourists, restaurants can prey on uninformed customers and still have a successful business.
On this night, D’Arienzo was reviewing an up-and-coming place called Sacco, whose young owner is known for his boisterous and pushy personality. D’Arienzo, who isn’t easily manhandled when it comes to food, didn’t follow his menu recommendations. In turn, the resentful entrepreneur decided to make her wait.
“This is the classic annoying attitude of many restaurant owners in Rome, who believe the world revolves around them,” she said.
This owner’s attitude definitely begged for a bad score. However, the Roman-fusion menu written on a big blackboard boded well for the meal. D’Arienzo was armed with her well-trained palate and her BlackBerry, recording details of the meal in a series of text messages.
Her main dish, a creative cod and potato mix fried in a light batter with an olive sauce, was worth the wait. She savored every bite, talking herself through the flavors. The gnocchi, which had a promising aroma of porcini mushrooms, was too salty. D’Arienzo called the final dish, a rabbit roll in heavy cream sauce, “stupid.”
D’Arienzo’s reviews during her seven years as a food critic have been published under the independent label she started with her then-boyfriend, Simone Cargiani. Their company was founded on anti-conformist principles.
“It wasn’t an accident that we decided to call ourselves the Black Sheep,” said D’Arienzo.
The Black Sheep team works under strict rules of ethics. They always pay for their meals and file away each receipt for proof. Unafraid to say what they think, they have been known to destroy the reputation of Roman landmarks or shame restaurant owners who take too many liberties with their customers.
Although this may seem like normal protocol for restaurant reviewers elsewhere, it is rare in Italy. Many Roman food critics eat for free. Others write positive reviews for paying advertisers.
But the Black Sheep’s rigor has served them well. This year, after expanding their coverage to Rome’s provinces and attracting more advertisers, D’Arienzo hopes to sell 50,000 copies to help cover their annual publishing costs and $15,000-worth in meals.
Not always are the meals worth the price that comes with them. A restaurant’s score can depend on factors such as service and ambiance, but relies heavily on the flavor, quality and execution of a dish. D’Arienzo gave a stellar 9.5 to the best restaurant in Rome, called La Pergola, and went as low as a 4 for a place that failed to meet her basic standards.
But D’Arienzo’s bad experiences only benefit her readers. After almost a decade in the Roman food scene, which now includes a plethora of ethnic restaurants in addition to Italian standards, D’Arienzo has a list of dos and don’ts.
“Avoid all restaurants that have a waiter outside waiting to pick you up,” said D’Arienzo. She says a good restaurant doesn’t need a hustler. The same goes for restaurant chains scattered throughout the city center, where she said, “the food is standardized.”
Once you choose where to go, D’Arienzo said you should never accept a bottle of olive oil without its label or a glass of wine that wasn’t poured in front of you. “It is your right to see what you are drinking,” she said.
While she has expertise from classes, such as in cheese or wine, D’Arienzo said her palate developed at home.
“I think everything began with my grandmother,” she said. “I still have a vivid memory of the flavors from my grandmother’s kitchen. It’s something that startles me.”
Raised in a small town in Southern Italy, D’Arienzo grew up eating her grandmother’s pasta and egg souffle made with fresh eggs and hand-made pasta. Those first flavors awakened her passion for food.
“There are a lot of children who think chickens are born with their wings crossed, covered in cellophane like you see them in supermarkets,” she said, placing her arms across her chest. “I think many of them have never seen a farm.”
D’Arienzo said that the lack of culinary traditions, and the emergence of fast food restaurants have made it difficult for people to be critical when choosing what to eat.
“I don’t judge. It’s a choice. I am OK that one eats fast food, but it would be good to be aware that there is different food available,” said D’Arienzo as she sipped her espresso at the end of the night.
“Did you like everything?” asked the preposterous restaurant owner.
“That’s a big question,” D’Arienzo replied. “I’ll have to sleep on it.”
The 2009 edition of “Eat as the Romans Do” both in English and Italian is already in stores throughout Rome. For more information on the Black Sheep go to: www.lapecoranera.net or www.romanelpiatto.it.
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