For a while now, I’ve been on the hunt for a new Cesare. Ever since Katie Parla called this “the perfect trattoria” back in 2012, Cesare has been prominently on the radar of hungry travelers. 2015 was a record year for anglophone press coverage (see links below), but with the recent publication of Eater’s Guide to Rome, in which the trattoria is featured prominently in four different articles, I believe we are now experiencing Peak Cesare.
I’ve never disagreed with any of these rave reviews. But I’ve wondered, like Peggy Lee, “is that all there is?” Surely Rome must be filled with cut-above trattorias where you can find delicious fried things, carefully-rendered Roman classics and excellent wine. In trying to answer this question, I have endured a large number of lackluster meals, and so much undrinkable Frascati. Where does Cesare stand after all this wandering?
It stands on very solid ground. Cesare excels in a few different areas (the pastas, secondi and desserts are better here than you’ll find in most trattorias), but is almost unique for the quality of its fritti and its wine list. That’s Cesare’s formula: a solid core menu supplemented by delicious fried starters and really good wine. If this doesn’t sound revolutionary to you, that’s because it’s not.
You’ll need to take a taxi or tram #8 to arrive at the austere apartment block that houses Cesare, and you should be prepared to find a large, cacophonous and overly bright dining room. Two renovations have brought it into the 21st century, but just barely. The aesthetics are neither current nor vintage. They’re also not the point.
What’s the point? Fried things. You should start with the gnocchi fritti in a pool of cacio e pepe sauce. Order a half portion unless your group is large. Get the eggplant croquette (I prefer it to the bollito version) and the fried totoni (baby squid). Supplì yourself as needed. Skip the fried cod, the fried pizzas, and the fried squash blossom.
Point #2: Pasta. Again, you can order half portions if you’d like to try more things. My friend Bill recently dined solo and ordered two different half-portions for himself, declaring Cesare’s gricia to be his favorite pasta in Rome. His second favorite is their gnocchi with oxtail sauce (Rachel Roddy agrees; see link below). These two dishes figure prominently in my personal pantheon of favorite pastas, and I’d also add Cesare’s cacio e pepe to that list. I’m less convinced by their spaghetti with mussels and pecorino, and their spaghetti with anchovies. One note about the primi menu: Cesare is unusual in that they allow you to choose your preferred pasta shape and then pair it with your desired sauce. If that’s too much freedom, just ask your server what they recommend.
As for the rest of the menu, I’m indifferent. None of the secondi have made an impression. To be fair, I haven’t sampled extensively from this part of the menu because of all the fritti and pasta in my belly. Desserts are mostly just fine. The crème caramel, which gets its richness from heavy cream, is notably great.
Point #3: Wine. The list leans toward natural and biodynamic selections but is hardly militant. Markups are low, making this a great place to sample cult bottles that carry a higher price tag. I’ve seen plenty of wines that I know and love, but more often I’ve asked for and received great recommendations from owner Leonardo Vignoli. He’s passionate, but very busy. Count yourself very lucky if he’s able to spend any time describing his wines.
Servers at Cesare are kind, but they’re always on the brink of being overwhelmed. It’s a large space with many tables – even more so when they open the patio in good weather. Be prepared to politely flag your server down at multiple points throughout the evening.
So is Cesare worth the trip? Absolutely. Along with La Tavernaccia di Bruno, Trattoria Pennestri and SantoPalato, it’s among my favorite trattorias in Rome (see our short list of favorites here). But it’s also a 20 minute taxi from the center and increasingly overrun by anglophones. If you go there hoping for a great night out, you’ll be happy. If you expect for your life to be changed, you’re likely to be disappointed (perhaps everywhere). Cesare shines because it’s a very good trattoria. It also shines because so many places in Rome are worse.
We’ve included this among our short list of top ten Favorite Restaurants in Rome
Cesare al Casaletto in pictures
Photos by Meg Zimbeck © Rome by Mouth
What people are saying
- Eater (2018) The Eater Guide to Rome might properly be renamed the Eater Guide to Cesare. Katie Parla includes it among her Essential 38 Restaurants in Rome and Rachel Roddy features Cesare’s gnocchi con sugo di coda among her “landmark pastas worth eating” in A Pasta Lover’s Guide to Rome. In the same package, Parla recommends it for dinner in How to Eat Your Way Through 24 Perfect Hours in Rome and she and Lucas Petersen dissect Cesare’s version in How Cacio e Pepe Became an Iconic Roman Dish.
- The Gannet (2018) asks Rachel Roddy to name her Favorite Food Places in Rome and she says “if you’re going to Rome for the first time and want to splash out on one really good meal, I would recommend Da Cesare.”
- Gambero Rosso (2018) awarded Cesare al Casaletto with 2 gamberi (“great”) in 2018, 2 in 2017, 2 in 2016.
- “Roma nel Piatto” by La Pecora Nera gave them a score of 7 out of 10 points (“good, very good”) in 2018 and 7 points in 2017.
- I Cento (2018) includes them among their favorite 50 “Pop” or informal addresses in Rome.
- The Telegraph (2017) says this is located “in the sticks” and “has the glaring lighting and echoing acoustics of the large dining space.” However, the food is excellent and a good value, “a feature shared by the wine list, which takes in some stellar bottles at reasonable mark-ups.”
- The Financial Times (2017) Rachel Roddy advises you to “order all the fritti” including “anchovies, small coral-coloured octopus and, when in season, whole artichokes fried until they look like a crisp bronze flower.”
- The New York Times (2015) Taras Grescoe identifies Cesare’s version of amatriciana as the one to emulate and recommends pairing it with a glass of Cirsium from the Lazio-based vintner Damiano Ciolli. “The combination of the swirling tannins of the lightly oaked red and the sauce’s inherent saltiness elevated the experience to another plane.”
- Bon Appétit (2015) calls Cesare’s pasta alla Gricia “the one pasta dish you must eat in Rome” and offers a recipe for chef Leonardo Vignoli’s version.
- Luciano Pignatero (2015) Virginia di Falco returns again and again and always finds the same pleasure as her first visit. You’ll find the canon of Roman cuisine at Cesare, “safe, solid and well-executed.” She notes that the wine list has grown over the years and has invitingly low markups.
- Puntarella Rossa (2015) calls Cesare the best value for money in Rome and offer a long list of unmissable dishes, including crocchette di melanzana all’arrabbiata, the polpette di bollito, la frittura di alici in cartoccio e i totanetti, the gnocchi fritti, the gnocchi con il sugo alla coda di vaccinara and l’abbacchio.
- Fiona Beckett (2013) says “I’d set my heart on a good carbonara. It turned out to be the real deal – fabulously golden and eggy, made with guanciale (pigs cheek) and mezzi rigatoni rather than spaghetti.” She calls it her best meal in Rome by far.
- Katie Parla (2012) calls Cesare “the perfect Roman trattoria” in the post that launched a thousand ships, sending travelers to an unknown neighborhood in search of fried starters, cacio e pepe and and classic Roman secondi like trippa and abbacchio fritto. “If an out of town journalist is in Rome reporting on pasta, I take him to Cesare. If chefs come to Rome in search of that fantasy trattoria they dream of, I book us a table at Cesare.”
- Vino Roma (2012) calls this the “Best Trattoria Wine List in Rome” and also recommends the fritti or fried starters, including the polpette di melanzane, the polpette di Bollito, the fried gnocchi, and the bacala.