by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
December 3, 2005
This mini feature is dedicated to my friends, Noriko and Stefano Villanti, and their beautiful baby girl, Lisa. I took a short trip last month to visit them in the Eternal City, and they greeted me with true Roman hospitality.
The weather was unusually gorgeous for the middle of November and I reveled in it, taking walks from Piazza del Popolo through the Spanish Steps area towards Piazza Navona to see my favorite, Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. Then stopping by my other beloved Roman treasure, the Pantheon — a place where I become contemplative, inspired and awe-struck. I made a quick pit stop at the Trevi Fountain, trying to avoid the crowds but still enchanted by this iconic work of art. All the while I was peering into little shops along the way and just trying to take in Rome one step at a time. I didn’t tour the sites as I did the first time I visited Rome. Rather, I just wanted to relax and enjoy myself in a different setting, far away from New York, perfectly content as part of the Villanti household.
I stayed a total of four nights, and this gave me the opportunity to try a mix of restaurants and home-cooked meals. All were divine. My hosts considerately planned for me to try an old school Roman/Jewish restaurant, Piperno, the first night; a modern and hip enoteca, Ferrara, the second; a nice home-cooked meal the third night; and to satisfy my curiosity about what real tortellini and home-style Roman cooking should taste like, I was invited to dinner at the senior Villantis my last night — a real treat!
There were naturally many more restaurants that I wanted to try, but there just wasn’t enough time. This ensures, in a way, that there will be a next time. La Rosetta was the only place I requested to try on this trip since I’ve heard such great things about it and also love their New York restaurants: Teodora, Celeste and Bianca.
Rome evokes for me a very particular sentiment. The old, the new, history, culture, ruins, religion — the culmination of so many things, how do you begin to explain what it is? To me, it could not be described as anything other than the Eternal City — so great, and yet so forlorn, at the same time. How beautiful!
by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
December 3, 2005
Via del Monte dei Cenci 9
To talk about Rome, or even the restaurants I ventured to there, is a little intimidating. Even though these are my personal experiences, I find it difficult to write about a place so rich in history, afraid that I might have the wrong facts or differ with others’ opinions. Alas, I can only be true to myself and humbly attempt to share with you my gastronomic Roman journey.
Situated in the Ghetto in the heart of the city, Piperno has been serving traditional Jewish-Italian fare since 1860. Our dinner consisted of every sort of fried food imaginable. Okay, I exaggerate, but it certainly felt like a big frying fest, starting with the signature carciofi alla giudia, a deep-fried artichoke (to be explained in detail in a second), to the fritto misto, including sweetbreads, artichoke, and salt cod, to our brilliant secondi of fried lamb’s brain. We did have two pastas in between the appetizers and the brain, which were wonderful too, but I really want to focus on the artichoke and brain, my two favorite dishes.
From Piperno’s logo (above) you can see that they are very proud of their specialty, carciofi alla guidia. From the early 20th century, they were the “home of the artichoke cooked the Jewish way.” A hundred years of expertise in mastering carciofi, now you can’t argue with that.
The carciofi alla giudia is beautiful. It is definitely intended to be savored visually as well as gastronomically. The Italian artichoke is graciously large and full headed. For the preparation of this dish, it is cleaned, and the hard inedible leaves removed. Then the artichoke is pressed into a beautiful large and flattened flower, something like a daisy but more imposing and elegant. After it’s flattened it’s soaked in water and lemon. This helps to soften its texture, and the lemon has an anti-oxidation effect so that the artichoke doesn’t turn black. Finally, it’s fried in oil at high temperature for approximately ten minutes, until it’s crispy on the outside and soft inside. It must be turned and fried evenly on both sides. The outcome is dauntingly large. I learned that when put in oil, it expands into an even larger flower. When I was served this famed dish, I was truly surprised at the enormous size of the deep-fried beauty — I had never seen or eaten an artichoke this large and gorgeous. Wow. I could really see and taste the achievement of the past hundred years’ of perfecting this dish.
Our final dish was cervello al burro, lamb’s brain cooked in butter. I’m sorry for those of you who don’t eat organs because you are really missing out on some amazing food experiences. Believe me, I was so stuffed at this point after two intense courses of deep-fried appetizers and two of pastas, but I simply could not stop eating this brain. The outside was crispy and the inside so tender, even softer than the sweedbread in the appetizer. It was an extremely rich dish to finish with, but I couldn’t resist the buttery taste. Unlike the fritto misto, which was cooked in a thick layer of batter, the brain had the thin texture of the crispy “skin” (I could hardly taste the egg, if it was used at all) and was almost grainy, perhaps from flour or a slight bit of breadcrumbs. Just delish!
Next time I go to Piperno I will try to even out the meal with a little less fried food, just to keep my cholesterol down. But as you know, that is always a struggle. Anything deep-fried seems to taste good, and especially when the restaurant is so good at preparing it. Just to drive it home one more time, they’ve been doing this for a long time.
by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
December 3, 2005
Piazza Trilussa 41
My meal at Ferrara was in stark contrast with my first night’s dinner at Piperno. Ferrara is a modern enoteca located across the Tibor River in Trastevere. This part of town, once considered a no-man’s-land which housed fugitives, prostitutes and thieves outside the Roman city walls, is now considered the hip part of town, bustling with bars and restaurants where young people hang out at night and on the weekends.
When you walk into Ferrara you enter the bar area, which resembles a tapas bar in which the snacks and appetizers are all on display on the bar counter. So much good food at such close range is dangerously enticing. A couple of steps into the next room will reveal the restaurant and wine cellar. The restaurant is upstairs, above the cellar, but the two are intricately integrated, so you feel like you are eating in a restaurant within a cellar. The effect is warm and charming. The decor is simple, modern and elegant, with pristine white walls, rich wood ceiling beams, and wine bottles and wooden barrels as decorative elements. On the way to the restroom I could peer through steel grates in the wooden floor and see the wine storage below. The entire space is well-lit with warm lighting, well utilized, and beautifully designed to feel very cozy and chic at the same time. The wine menus come in large albums, one each for whites and reds, with the labels of each wine affixed to the pages so you can leaf through and study.
The funny thing about Ferrara was that after dinner I asked for a copy of the menu and they refused to give me one. I often ask for menus after a meal to make sure I have the correct elements to write about. The truth of the matter is that I don’t need a menu to write about a meal, but I am trying to get the facts straight and represent the restaurant’s food in the most accurate light. At Ferrara they explained that the chef owner is leery of people stealing her recipes. This of course was one of the lamest and funniest excuses I’ve heard. I asked for the menu, not her secret recipes. Besides, the fact is that if you really wanted to, by tasting the food, you can usually deconstruct the ingredients and try to recreate the dish at home. So I asked the waitress if she could write down what we had eaten and she came back and said that she could email it to me instead. Of course they never did. I’m wondering what could have happened to inspire this kind of paranoia. Overall, my dining experience was a pleasant one, but the evening certainly ended on a strange note.
Ferrara is a lively spot and for a second I didn’t feel like I was in Rome; I could have been in Barcelona or New York. You start off with a choice of either spumanti or prosecco and these wonderful little deep-fried bread balls. They were just “out of the oven,” so to speak, so the inside was perfectly soft. Noriko and I were trying to figure out exactly what it was that was inside. They seemed to be like deep-fried Japanese cuttlefish balls, although there was no fishy taste. Turned out they were deep-fried dough that simply tasted fresh beyond belief. The skins were not as thick as a beignet, but light and crisp with a beautiful golden tinge. I hesitate to liken them to doughnuts or munchkins because the consistency of the dough is entirely different – unlike the crumbly texture of doughnuts, these were denser, like bread, hence why I keep referring to them as bread balls. They were so easy to pop in your mouth, and obviously very popular, since by the time we asked for more they were all out.
The course I loved most at Ferrara was the homemade pasta with white truffles. Lucky for me I visited during truffle season and, boy, was I excited. The first day I arrived, Noriko took me to an outdoor market and we hit the fungi stand first. Italian porcinis were at the end of the season but there were large, beautiful Spanish porcinis available. We got some of those as well as a white truffle to have with the risotto Stefano was going to prepare for lunch. The white and black truffles sat unassumingly in their separate jars next to each other, but when the mushroom man opened the jar, the intoxicating aroma of truffles escaped out into the open air. It was like a drug and I couldn’t get enough of it. So in the end I had two meals with white truffles: a home cooked Villanti risotto and the Ferrara pasta.
The pasta itself was an egg noodle lightly dressed with a little cream and the wonderfully thin shavings of white truffles. The key to the white truffle is that since the taste and smell are so strong, you don’t need much else to go with it, nor should it compete with any other flavorful ingredient. This simple pasta brought out the best in the truffles and although the appetizers that preceded and the fowl entrée that followed were good, I will not forget this pasta. White truffles are truly magical.
Ferarra is a wonderfully relaxing wine bar that I would love to come back to, even just to sit at the bar in the front. That might even be the best bet, to ensure that I have access to all the deep-fried bread balls that I want. Well, and also to enjoy some good wine, marvelous food and the delightful company of friends, with everyone at the bar having a merry time.
by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
December 3, 2005
Via della Rosetta 8/9
La Rosetta has been on my list of restaurants to try for several years now. A well-reputed seafood restaurant near the Pantheon, even at its high price point, like the Pantheon it’s a spot on the Rome tour not to be missed.
Noriko and I popped in for a late lunch around 2pm, by which time things were nice and quiet in this popular Roman establishment. The menu was short and sweet, featuring just three to five dishes in each of the five categories from appetizer to dessert. It was a hard selection, with everything looking so good, so we decided to go with the lunch tasting menu, which would allow us a taste of two oysters, two appetizers, a pasta, a fish and a dessert, and all of that without breaking the bank.
I love oysters, and it just feels so civilized to commence a meal with them as hors d’oeuvres. We started with one Fines de Claire n˚2, then moved on to the Spéciales de Claire n˚2. Let me start with a bit of explanation: Fines de Claire are considered Europe’s highest quality oysters. They’re raised in the Marennes-Oléron region in France in what are called claires, converted salt marches with a higher mineral content than normal, which imparts the signature green tinge to these oysters’ shell. Spéciales are Fines that are only available during autumn and winter, because they are kept in the claires for twice as long as the Fines with a maximum of 10 oysters per square meter (whereas the Fines de Claires are raised with a maximum of 20 oysters per square meter) and are thus the more refined, top-of-the-market oysters. The number that follows the names denotes the size, ranging from 1 (largest) to 6 (smallest); the lower the number, the pricier the oyster.
Both oysters were extremely fresh, but the Spéciales was fleshier, richer and brinier, so by comparison you can tell why the Spéciales are considered the cat’s meow. Tasting and comparing is always fun. The Fines de Claire was elegant, with a very delicate flavor and definitely of high quality but when compared to the Spéciales was slightly meager in texture. A great starter, the oysters really whet my appetite.
The two appetizers, an octopus salad with broccoli and salmoriglio sauce (a dressing of olive oil, lemon, garlic, and oregano) and a red prawns salad with steamed artichoke, arrived as two small portions on a single plate. I had been anxious the portions would be large, but they were actually perfect for tasting. The texture of the octopus inside and out was so appealing — chewy on the outside and tender inside, and it was paired with a well-cooked Italian broccoli, which is more delicate than its American counterpart. Salmoriglio is a nice, simple olive oil-based sauce commonly used in Italy to dress fish. Its slight pungency balanced the octopus and broccoli, and overall the balance of taste and expression was its keynote. Balanced, refined, gentle, dulce! The prawns were small and de-shelled, and once again, you could just taste how fresh they were. Steamed artichokes sound simple and, indeed, it was a nice simple dish. But I must say, the Italians really know how to cook their carciofi it was boiled to the point of being just soft enough but not reaching the point of being mushy. Both appetizers were subtle and delicious and just the right amount of food. When I finished I was already eager to find out how the next course would amaze me.