Rome – La Cisterna
The Disney film Fantasia, uses the image of a mystic water well, from which dreams and fantasies are released. It is rumored that this well is actually in the lower basements of the restaurant La Cisterna. In the 1600s the street level of Trastevere, where La Cisterna is located, was about 4 meters lower. Frequently the Tiber, the river that flows through the center of Rome, would overflow, flooding the entire area.
In the township’s center plaza was a small osteria, which served wine and some good hearty food. The osteria also protected the town’s water well where the people would come to get fresh water along with their glass of wine. In the 1700s the town was raised about 4 meters to protect from flooding, however the “underground” was preserved as the new buildings were simply built on top of the existing structures. Although the connecting passages of the underground city have been walled off, it would still be possible to pass under the entire area without ever seeing the light of day. The well is part of this underground city.
Trastevere is always full of life but on the weekends it becomes a meeting place for “Roma Bene”, that is the upper and moving up classes. Friday night is the beginning of a weekend of payback for a week of getting up early, fighting through traffic and working. In the squares there are groups of people chatting and moving from club to club. The restaurants are full of the beautiful people, a meeting place of rich and poor, and a place for the under 35 crowd to explore new relationships.
The streets are tight and Gianluca could just barely get the car around the corner toward the entrance. To think this was once a square in the town. The others are coming by Taxi and have not arrived yet. Trastevere in the evening is really quite beautiful. The lights shine on the cobblestone streets and couples walk arm in arm, chatting peacefully. Laughter and more boisterous conversations can be easily heard as you pass by this or that pub. Raffaella and I decide to go in to verify the seating arrangements for the evening.
The heavy wood and glass doors open into a small seating area where the owners have a desk and the cash register. To the left there are about 5 steps that lead into the main seating area. The room has a warm feeling. The walls are dark clay red with numerous murals depicting Roman life. The vibrant colors of the murals and the scenes depicted immediately draw your attention and create an atmosphere of levity.
The walls, not occupied by murals, contain poems written by the current owner and other famous Roman poets. Our tables have been prepared toward the back of the main seating area so we should be able to enjoy our evening without disturbing the others.
Our group finally arrives and are ushered into the building. As each person steps into the main area they pause, as if surprised, and quickly scan the surroundings. In a few seconds the environment becomes a bit louder. Although we have thoroughly discussed our days business there is a continual stream of questions about this or that division intermingled with, “This is really cool”, “You should open a chain of restaurants in the States with this theme”, or “What is all the writing on the walls?”
Our waiter arrives and asks about water and wine. La Cisterna specializes in traditional Roman cuisine therefore a complex red wine is appropriate. Mr. Ed and Mr. T like the dry reds so we go with a Rosso di Montalcino. This is the poor cousin of the super Tuscanies, same lineage, good balance of flavor and tannins, usually best consumed within 5-7 years of vintage.
Raffaella gets the responsibility to choose the menu’ she knows the food well and understands the flavors that Americans most likely appreciate. Since this is Roman cuisine for excellence, after speaking with the waiter, our choice is rather simple, just about any meat dish will be fine, but the Abbacchio has just been prepared. Abbacchio is suckling lamb. In traditional Roman cuisine it is prepared in broth, alla cacciatora and alla Romana, that is oven roasted with potatoes. Abbacchio is not as strong as lamb and can be combined with rues or white sauces.
To start, a “brindisi” or toast to our friends. The Rosso di Montalcino is a perfect compliment for the various dishes. We start with several plates of Prosciutto Crudo and hard Salame followed by spaghetti all’amatriciana. By this time everyone is feeling pretty good. We take a break and order some more wine and enjoy our conversation. A group of musicians, part of the restaurant, is playing roman folksongs and an occasional “O’ Sole Mio!”
The Abbacchio arrives and Raffaella has also ordered another traditional Roman dish, Saltimbocca alla Romana, just in case the lamb is too strong for some of our guests. This is veal rolled around Prosciutto Crudo and sage. It is then cooked in a skillet with white wine. The platters arrive and are quickly cleaned. Although Raffaella has ordered sufficient for twice the number of people, nothing remains. The wine is light enough for the Saltimbocca yet has sufficient tannins for the lamb. So far, everything is working just fine.
All are feeling happy, we are doing really well at this point, and dessert is completely passed by. Several hours have passed and still all are chatting and generally having a good time. As our evening comes to a close the head waiter asks us if we would like to visit the underground. Our guests are ecstatic and we head off to the back of the entrance area where a winding brick stairwell bends round and round. We suddenly find ourselves in what is surely a courtyard, with cobblestone, a water well with crank and bucket, a wall made of clay bricks, and a ceiling.
The waiter tells us the story of Trastevere and the well. He proudly indicates that the well is the one depicted in Fantasia, and he takes us into the next room to the bar. The bar is the old store front, from several hundred years ago with the wooden structure still in place that would have held the grape vines, the heavy wooden bench tables out front, and the bar from the original Osteria. The walls hold additional poems, signatures of famous people, and metal street signs embedded in the brick wall from the 1700s.
Prosecco is passed to all. “A toast, to health and prosperity!” our waiter shouts out. We drink with our gracious host to a healthy and prosperous future. This evening of savory Roman foods, hearty wine, and great people had come to an end. Our toast, in this ancient square with the enchanted well, was just the right magic to crown our experience.
Tags: Restaurants Rome Lazio Food and Wine Travel Italy