Rome is chock-full of little trattorias, pizzerias, and ristorantes with unlimited choices for the curious exchange student who is trying to soak up as much culture as possible. And while testing out all the strange places on side streets or the restaurants where you can’t understand a single item on the menu can be fun, sometimes it helps to take a breather and not have to hide your American-ness for a night. Magnolia in Campo de’ Fiori is the perfect place to do that. With well-made Italian dishes served with a touch of Americano you’ll feel more comfortable than you have in a while. Obviously in comparison with all these little trattorias the food won’t be quite as good but the ambience and drink menu help this little restaurant stand out.
Magnolia is located right in Campo de’ Fiori. As you would expect it does cater to tourists due to its location but that also adds to the charm. With an extensive menu with descriptions in English you will know exactly what you’re ordering and a very friendly owner who attended college in the U.S. it’ll be one of the least complicated nights you have dining out in Rome. The location also allows for some prime people-watching. I would also recommend bringing visiting friends here, you’ll be right in the heart of Roman nightlife and you can give them a good taste of some Italian cuisine.
The 10 percent student discount doesn’t hurt either, allowing Magnolia to be a reasonable night out for anyone on a student’s budget. The owner of Magnolia, a graduate of Boston College in Massachusetts, will also offer free drinks to BC students. However, don’t expect to waltz in and lie your way into a free drink; he’ll quiz you on your knowledge of the school before he hands over the Cocktail menu, complete with over 100 different drinks.
If you can, I would also recommend going with a group of students because the waiters often hand out a round of free shots at the end of the meal. I’ve gotten to try a number of different shots thanks to this, from Italian Flag shots to Birthday Cake shots. It may just be a ploy to reel us back in again but it is pretty effective.
With a full Italian menu you can choose from bruchette, pizza, pasta, meat, fish, and a large selection of salads. If you’re going for a more American meal, you’ll find some options to suit your palate such as steak or French fries.
The Fritto Misto, or mixed appetizer, while tasty, goes a little overboard with the deep fryer. If you’re looking for a less heavy starter I’d try something else because you’ll definitely need to save room for the main dishes. The appetizer includes fried zucchini flower, done quite well compared to those in the Jewish Ghetto, fried olives, onion rings and suppli (fried rice balls). The onion rings seem to make a strange American cameo on the plate and don’t stand out among the more Italian options.
One of the signature dishes, Riso Magnolia, risotto with a spinach cream and fresh shrimp is a rich and unusual delicacy. Creamy and filling, without going overboard, the plate is dusted with parmesan. The shrimp, while used sparingly, is a nice addition; it doesn’t make the dish nor overwhelm it with the taste of seafood, rather the creamy spinach sauce dominates the scene, as well it should.
The Cannelloni Ricotta e Spinaci al Pomodoro, cannelloni filled with ricotta and spinach in tomato sauce, is a flavorful dish, the freshness of the ricotta and tomato sauce complementing the soft texture of the cannelloni.
The Lasagna is also not to be missed. A definite deal for a student you’ll get a huge, overflowing slice of delicious lasagna for only 8 euro. The mixture of different types of cheese melted throughout and on top of the lasagna mixed with the well seasoned beef inside gives you an overload of flavor. The lasagna is not laden down with tomato sauce, as most American lasagnas are, allowing you to savor the entire thing without becoming too full to move.
Some of the other more traditional Italian dishes, such as the Spaghetti alla Carbonara, should be saved for your next visit to a lesser known, hole in the wall Italian restaurant. The dish seems to strive for authenticity but lacks the necessary taste of egg and goes a little heavy on the pepper.
The menu also includes a list of 20 salads to choose from, all named after flowers to go with the Magnolia theme. There are quite a few to look through, to the point of being overwhelming. Like Alice dodging through all of the angry yelling flowers in Wonderland, you may have to step back for a second to get your bearings.
The Dahlia salad was quite good though, served with a bottle of white wine vinegar and olive oil, allowing you to make your own dressing. The ratio of lettuce to toppings is pretty even, meaning the salad will fill you up almost as much as some of the pasta dishes. If you don’t attempt to eat the whole giant bowl though, the salads act as a refreshing relief from some of the more heavy Italian food.
The charm of Magnolia lies in the slight American touches. From the English descriptions to the more American portion sizes, the details will make you feel more at home. The pasta dishes are piled high on white square plates, and the salads are served in giant white bowls. Many more dishes are sent back unfinished than you will see in other restaurants in Rome but it seems to be a matter of stomach space rather than unhappy customers. I am almost always a member of the clean plate club in Italy, but even I was unable to finish the heaping portion in front of me.
The restaurant is stocked with a full American bar and a decent sized wine list. Both the house red and white wine are a nice addition to the meal without putting too much strain on your wallet. The setting is split between inside tables and an outside area with canopies and standing heaters. With roughly ten tables inside and another ten outside the place can become pretty crowded. If you’re headed over to eat past 8:30 on a Friday or Saturday night prepare yourself to do some serious people-watching because the service becomes a bit slow and erratic.
Early on a Friday night there was no problem with service, except the common difficulty of getting your check. However, heading in late on a weekend night will eat up a pretty big chunk of your time. It also seemed that when the place was busy the table’s appetizer would be served at the same time as the main courses, leaving you to hope that your dish stays warm while you try to enjoy the antipasti.
Much more popular among tourists Magnolia also attracts a number of locals who often take more advantage of the extensive cocktail list than the food. As long as you are not expecting the traditional Italian experience you’re likely to have a good time. While it caters to tourists Magnolia also has a homey feel, and especially if you’ve been craving some easy English to English interactions, you’ll feel right at home. Take the time to grab a seat outside, order a cocktail and a hefty plate of pasta, enjoy some excellent people-watching and if you’re still in school don’t forget to ask for the discount and smile at the waiters, in hopes of a free shot to either finish off or just begin your night.
Price Range: Antipasti 6 euro to 10 euro. Pizza 7 euro to 11.50 euro. Pasta 7 euro to 14 euro. Main Dishes 10 euro to 16.50 euro. Salads 5 euro to 10 euro.
Piazza Campo de’ Fiori 4/5, Roma. 0668309367. www.magnoliaroma.com