When boarding a last-minute flight to Rome simply isn’t possible, the next best thing is enjoying a cozy dinner that reminds you of eating in an Eternal City trattoria — a place where the pasta, pizze al taglio, even the fried Castletravano olives, are all right on point.

And that’s exactly how we felt, totally transported, at Sprezza on New Year’s Eve in Dallas. While we devoured the olives at record pace (who knew that coating the olives in breadcrumbs and frying ’em up would make them even better?), it was the Cacio e Pepe (pictured left) that totally won my heart.

Like the best Roman dishes, Cacio e Pepe isn’t pasta adorned with a ton of fancy ingredients. It’s the utter simplicity that’s so surprising. There’s linguine (homemade in this case, which was superb), Pecorino cheese (the sharper, tangier cousin of Parmesan), salty pasta water to emulsify everything and lots and lots of freshly cracked pepper.

Now if you don’t like pepper, this probably isn’t the dish for you. It’s one of the primary flavors, and it leaves a nice kick of heat in your mouth that you’ll taste hours later. But if you do love pepper like I do, not to mention tons of cheese, you’ll be savoring every bite. It was so incredibly good, in fact, that a million wonderful memories sprang to mind: climbing the Spanish steps, sticking my hand in Bocca della Verita like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and admiring the architecture, cobblestone streets and broccoli trees.

For a moment I forgot I was in Texas and thought Will and I were back in Rome — not a bad way to kick off a new year.

Reminiscing about this meal made me think of all the wonderful cuisine I sampled in 2018. So like I used to do with albums and songs in my tenure as a music critic or films during a decade-plus of reviewing movies, I’m going to list a few of my favorite culinary finds (in no particular order) in the next post.

Until then, Happy New Year, dear readers. I hope your 2019 is already getting off to a phenomenal start.