Outside Rome’s famous city walls, just south of the newly trendy Pigneto neighborhood, lies “La Certosa” (The Charterhouse), an overlooked enclave that recently avoided being razed to make room for a shopping mall. Turns out the locals have a fraught relationship with commerce: The traditional Roman neighborhood centers on the The Eternal City’s last Communist restaurant, Betto e Mary.
Diners at the aging eatery sit at long communal tables, refill their own wine carafes, grab extra silverware, and even venture into the kitchen periodically to give the cooks a hard time. The regulars are regular enough that all this is done as a matter of course and even visitors are frequently asked to hold someone’s coat, or baby. Gibes are traded at high volume across the brightly lit room – reminiscent of Katz’s Deli in Manhattan – and by the end of the night it’s more like a house party than a dining establishment.
Decades of memories fight for every inch of space on the chaotic restaurant’s walls. Patrons’ entire lives are documented: A baby in one photo is a teenager in the next, a bride in the one after that, and a proud mother a few feet further along. There are also drawings and paintings, Roman sayings etched in wood (“Better to stink of wine than holy water”), hammer-and-sickle flags, private jokes, and dozens of neckties that have been confiscated and hung on the walls – scalps taken in the battle against capitalism. A sign illustrated in the manner of a “No dogs allowed” notice shows a businessman’s torso over the words, “Io non posso entrare,” meaning “I cannot enter.”
Just to remind diners that there are no masters at Betto e Mary, waiters sit down when taking orders, a lengthy affair that includes negotiations, chides, and not a little bit of good-natured bullying – but no printed menu. This process happens several times over the course of the evening because everyone is expected to change their mind.
As for the food, it is a traditional Roman restaurant that has proudly made no effort to cater to bourgeois tastes or health concerns. The mixed antipasto plate includes fried Roman cauliflower; candy-sweet, slow-cooked red peppers; marinated eggplant with olives and pine nuts; arugula salad sprinkled with toasted horse nerves; and marinated horse cartilage, cut into slick, chewy cubes. The oxtail ragu and sauced sweetbreads are also of note.
Diners linger after the meal to sip after-dinner liqueurs and argue with each other. The check only comes when you ask for it; unsurprisingly, no one seems particularly eager to make guests pay.
More infomation: Betto e Mary is closed Wednesday and hard to find. The address is 99 Via dei Savorgnan, but the best bet is to take the subway to the Villa Medici and ask for directions.