Fusion isn’t a word you’d associate with Italian cooking, would you? Not that this was something I’d given a whole lot of thought to before my recent trip to Rome, nor have you, I’d be so bold as to assume. Whenever I’ve eaten at an Italian restaurant anywhere in the world it’s been proper Italian food – and when I say this I am NOT referring to Italian American food as it has mutated from Italian food into its own genre of cooking that doesn’t resemble anything close to real Italian cuisine (rant over). There are lots of gorgeous pastas with carefully measured amounts of sauce, fresh flavors bursting in your mouth with each bite, grilled and roasted meats, lovely seafood, crunchy simple pizzas. And no matter which region of Italy is represented in the dish, you still know you’re eating Italian food. However, unlike other famous and much-lauded cuisines, it doesn’t really take to being joined by flavors from another part of the world. Unlike French, which marries so beautifully with the flavors of Asia, Italian food is too much of a bully to allow anyone else onto its turf. It’s almost like the delicacy of French flavors invites bolder cuisines to use their fastidious techniques and play with the food. Now please understand, this isn’t criticism, just an observation after six days of eating at some of the top restaurants in Rome.
Now, all that said, there was one meal we had, at what’s being called by some the hottest restaurant in Rome, that sort of sullies my thesis here. Read on. Settembrini in the residential Prati neighborhood just north of the Vatican, was by far the best meal we had during our trip. We arrived early for our reservation and poked around in the cafe and bar of the same name next door. Apparently when chef Marco Poddi opened his small eight table restaurant it was such a smash that they needed overflow space, hence the cafe and now another outpost has opened just across the street too. It was almost warm outside on this particular evening (let’s not kid ourselves, the weather while we were in Rome was dreadful) and what appeared to be a children’s birthday party was happening at a long table in front of the restaurant set under whimsical lanterns. The children were wearing miniature wool jackets and eating from plates of thinly sliced salumi and cheese. Next to them, a table full of who I can only presume to be these precocious children’s parents, sat drinking wine and snacking on bright green olives and potato chips. The signs were all there, promising an authentic evening of food, not the nearly inedible meal we’d endured the night before, surrounded by fellow tourists.
Based on all of this, we ordered the five course tasting menu and unbidden, the restaurant’s host/manager/sommelier came dashing over with a bottle of prosecco and poured us each a large glass. The menu didn’t tell us what the tasting menu would offer and we simply told the waitress that we were in the hands of the chef, please bring us whatever he does best. Then the parade of plates began. First came an amuse bouche, a little ball of salt cod coated in breadcrumbs and fried, served on a zucchini puree. It did exactly what it was supposed to do and was also a clever nod to the chef’s Sardinian roots. Next was a cuttlefish ravioli with potato, soy sauce, candied lemon zest and black salt. Please look at the picture – it’s among the prettiest dishes I’ve ever eaten and was delicious too. Second course, seared scallops with sausage on a bed of broccoli puree. There was no doubt this was delicious, we agreed it was one of our favorites, but what we still don’t know is if the sausage was served raw. I think it was and it was a revelation in texture and flavor, sort of like a sausage tartare. And the broccoli, which is one of my I can live without it vegetables, was delicious and smooth.
It was at this point that my darling husband, who I’ve decided likes eating even more than I do (and has taken to suggesting what I should be writing about in my blogs), leaned across the table and asked me if I thought perhaps we should up our order and try the seven course tasting menu instead of just the five. I laughed and our waitress looked at us like we were a little mad, but upped our order for us. Next to come (it was really quite the game to try and figure out what was coming next by what cutlery they laid out in front of us before each dish was served) was beef, seared only on one side, the other was completely uncooked. A line of intense salty shellfish puree was drawn in a very thin line on the plate, offering the most powerful, of the sea, salty taste. Pickled mushrooms and escarole with sesame seeds and a vaguely asian dressing were artfully arranged on top of the steak. The contrast of the hot and the cold, the cooked and the uncooked was such an interesting idea and way to experience eating meat which I sort of just take for granted. It wasn’t my favorite course, but it was really well thought through.
Next came a ravioli dish that smelled strongly of the sea as it was set on the table. The ravioli was filled with green cabbage and shrimp and was incredibly delicate. On top were two grilled langoustines, crispy on the outside, and fennel tops were the crowning glory. The only sauce was a bit of melted butter in the bottom of the bowl. This was my favorite course of the meal and I can’t wait to try and make my own shrimp and green cabbage ravioli. Who would have thought? Another pasta course followed, a play of linguini and clams with lots of sauteed onions and thin slices of bottarga (a Sardinian delicacy of cured grey mullet roe). At this point it was all I could do to get the food down. My full level had been reached and still we had two more courses yet to come. I don’t know if it was because I was so full that these final two didn’t impress me much – a cod with ricotta, black olives, toasted breadcrumbs and anchovy oil and finally, duck breast with carrot puree, blood orange and broccoli rabe. My lovely dinner companion really didn’t like the cod and felt that ricotta had no place with a sauteed fish, but I quite liked the silky texture that the ricotta had been transformed into by the slippery anchovy oil. The duck was really just ok….I’m sure it was done well, but it was far too rich for me at the end of all of these courses.
Included in the price of the tasting menu is dessert even though it isn’t counted as one of the courses (yes, there’s more). Anyway, the desserts are simply named, brown, white and yellow on the menu and really, your guess is as good as mine. They first brought us a tiny brownie bite with a divine citrussy yuzu jam – nothing remarkable here. The tenth, and final plate set in front of me, was the white dessert which I described at the time as tasting like Christmas and looking like Superman’s home. Underneath all of the shards of meringue and the light layer of whipped cream was a white bean puree. I kid you not! It was delicately spiced (like Christmas) and really delicious….another idea to take home and play with on my own.
I don’t think that this meal completely overthrows my earlier thesis that Italian cuisine doesn’t play well with others. Chef Poddi does wade into very shallow Asian waters here and there, but really what he’s doing is modernizing and playing with Italian techniques and traditional dishes. The ingredients were absolutely fresh and lovely, and for the most part I loved every mouthful. Service at Settembrini, as opposed to many of the places we tried, was excellent, the host/manager/sommelier suggested delicious wines and really couldn’t have been more friendly. And it didn’t have the air of a special occasion place, more of a neighborhood spot for the well-t0-do of this area who want a good meal. An older couple came in and were greeted warmly by the staff, regulars wearing lush tweeds and cashmere, their motorcycle helmets tucked under their arms. A group of girlfriends sat and drank wine, all wearing heels so high that I’m not sure how they navigated Rome’s cobblestoned streets. And then there’s that group of children out in front that I mentioned, in training to become this brand of chic Roman. I loved it.
Via Luigi Settembrini, 25
t: 06 323 2617