The Devil in the Hills

The title refers to Cesare Pavese’s novel about life, just following the war, in the hills around Turin. And it is the hills one sees first, coming up from the coast, as we did, from Savona, where the Sanremo-Genoa line splits up through the subalpine valleys.

The Langhe hills between Alba and Barbaresco
The Langhe hills between Alba and Barbaresco
Barbaresco town
Barbaresco town centre

In writing this, we’re indebted to Edward Behr’s awesome the Art of Eating, as well as Fred Plotkin’s magisterial survey of the food of Italy, Italy for the Gourmet Traveller. Both publications, dated as they are, seem invaluable for understanding the food and wine of Italy, and of course, for eating well.

A trip to Piedmont is more about wine than anything. The southern hills, the Langhe, are most famous for the appellations Barolo and Barbaresco, on the southern bank of the Tanaro River. Turin lies an hour away, nestled in its cushion of mountains. The Langhe’s most famous grapes are Nebbiolo (so-called for the fog, nebbia, that blankets these hills), Barbera, and Dolcetto (the “little sweet one”). Nebbiolo sits up there with Sangiovese (the “blood of Jove”), and perhaps, with Aglianico, at least in the opinion of a proud Lucanian, amongst the pantheon of Italian grapes. All the more so because, unlike Pinot Noir or the ubiquitious Cabernets, these vines don’t take easily to the climate, land, or aggressive winemaking of the New World – somehow they mainly flourish in modest bits of Italy.

At Osteria degli Sognatori in Alba.  4 meals in 4 nights...
At Osteria degli Sognatori in Alba. 4 meals in 4 nights…
Carne cruda and, inexplicably, Russian salad
Carne cruda and, inexplicably, Russian salad

To paraphrase Behr, Barolo’s characteristic flavours are “violets, tar, faded roses…leather”, and we’re looking at a pale wine that in age “runs toward orange”. Everywhere in the Langhe, one hears of a division between traditionalist and modernist winemakers, and this goes to the heart of Piemontese winemaking’s 20th-century history. Nebbiolo is a treacherous and fickle grape, autochthonous to Piedmont (first referenced in 1303 AD), highly tannic, phenolic, acidic, and susceptible to frost due to its long ripening period. Its fruit is comparatively delicate. The upshot is that this grape takes at least 3-4 years in the bottle before the tannins soften sufficiently to make it palatable.

A beautiful white made by monks, had in Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)
A beautiful white made by monks, had in Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)
Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)
Enoteca Perbacco (Sanremo)

So why put up with the temperamental Nebbiolo grape? Because, its high tannin content serves to protect the wine and slow down oxidation, giving it more time in the bottle to age, allowing complexity (so-called “tertiary flavours” such as tar and leather) to develop, which simply don’t show up in wines that are easily drinkable within 1-2 years of production. There are nebbiolo-based wines that are drinkable 40 years on. Unfortunately, the problem in the past was that by the time the wine developed complexity, the, already ephemeral at bottling, fruit and flower flavours tended to disappear. Producers and consumers were stuck between Scylla and Charbydis: youthful harshness versus a dry, fruitless senescence (and we’re talking about the wine here). “There was never a right time to drink the wine. It was always too late for the fruit and too early for the tannin.”

Vitello tonnato at Garibaldi in Bra, home of the Slow Food movement
Vitello tonnato at Garibaldi in Bra, home of the Slow Food movement

La Barbera is simpler: as the most heavily planted in Piedmont, it produces a darker wine without the tannin, but is still acidic, albeit drinkable earlier than Nebbiolo. But the everyday grape of the Langhe is Dolcetto, light and easy drinking, wine for food, but not really a vino de meditazione. It goes well with the rich cuisine, the raw beef, the cheeses, the boar.

Excellent gnocchi with chestnut flour and wild boar ragu.  Ristorante Garibaldi (Bra)
Excellent gnocchi with chestnut flour and wild boar ragu. Ristorante Garibaldi (Bra)

In the 1980s, winemaking in the Langhe started to change. Yields were reduced, and vines were pruned aggressively to ensure the grapes were fully ripe before picking, which seemed to reduce the bitter tannic content and maximise the fruit. The cellar technique was also modified – as grape juice ferments in vats, a dense cap of crushed skins forms; the skins, and therefore this cap, contain flavour and colour, but are also highly tannic. Various producers introduced techniques, such as agitating or puncturing the cap, or increasing fermentation temperature, to extract flavours while minimising tannins. Controversially, some introduced equipment, such as rotofermenters, which prevent a cap from forming at all. Finally, instead of the traditional tall botti grandi, which allowed for a slow oxidation and more controlled development of refined flavour, there was a move towards the barriques of new oak. Aromatics in the oak leached into the wine, giving (in the worst case), a distinct vanilla note, but also helped add sweet tannins to replace the bitter tannins which had been prevented from entering the wine by the methods above. To maximise fruit, the modernists drastically cut the ageing time, to as little as 2 or 3 years.

The cheeses at Garibaldi (Bra).  Notably, the stanky old Castelmagno.
The cheeses at Garibaldi (Bra). Notably, the stanky old Castelmagno.

Still other producers used yet more interventionist methods, such as reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation, and so forth, to achieve a desired flavour profile (in some cases, the so-called “international style” of young, easy-to-drink, fruit-forward wine that is promoted by market forces and wine consultants).

One of the few failed meals - La Finanziera.  Cooking was impeccable - just the ingredients were gross - cockscomb, spinal cord, fried testicles were the more repellent items.  The porcini mushrooms were the only edible bits, but they sort of tasted like the spinal cord too....  In the otherwise excellent Scannabue (Turin).
One of the few failed meals – La Finanziera. Cooking was impeccable – just the ingredients were gross – cockscomb, spinal cord, fried testicles were the more repellent items. The porcini mushrooms were the only edible bits, but they sort of tasted like the spinal cord too…. In the otherwise excellent Scannabue (Turin).

Angelo Gaja of Barbaresco has led the modernist revolution in Piedmont. At the other end are producers such as the Conterno brothers, Giovanni and Aldo, Bruno Giacosa, and Francesco Rinaldi, who have tried to maintain the traditional ways, with their higher production and ageing costs, and therefore higher retail break-evens. As Behr says in his 2001 articles, it’s far from clear how much the differences in methods translate into consistent differences, or values, in the final product, and indeed, many producers use a mix of modern and traditional techniques.

View of Turin from Superga, the hill just outside with a cathedral that houses the royal crypts of Savoy.
View of Turin from Superga, the hill just outside with a cathedral that houses the royal crypts of Savoy.
The cable car up Superga.
The cable car up Superga.

We made a 20km walk, along the banks of the Tanaro, from Alba to Barbaresco, through a boar-hunting zone, hazelnut groves, and acres of treacherous mud. But, in doing so, we got a great sense of the distinctive feel of the Langhe hills, rolling along, seemingly all the way to the Alps (the Matterhorn, known as Monte Cervino, was almost always visible towering over the Val d’Aosta). Most of the properties were quite small, with modest sized compounds, and almost no one about. There was the pervasive smell of roasting hazelnuts, perhaps mixed with chocolate, which is of course the smell of Nutella.

Slade head of sculpture Ed Allington's work in the One Torino city-wide contemporary art event !  Matthew Darbyshire also in the same show.
Slade head of sculpture Ed Allington’s work in the One Torino city-wide contemporary art event ! Matthew Darbyshire also in the same show.
Lawrence Weiner & James Lee Byars at the Castello di Rivoli museum outside Turin.
Lawrence Weiner & James Lee Byars at the Castello di Rivoli museum outside Turin.
Sol Lewitt at Castello di Rivoli
Sol Lewitt at Castello di Rivoli

All this was a quiet and contemplative prelude to Turin, comparatively busy and chaotic, but nothing like Rome or Genoa. Turin, first capital of the united Italy, spent considerable time as part of France, and feels French in its Cartesian orderliness and grid-layout, the relatively reserved people. Although generally perfectly nice, they had little of the sparkle of Venetians, the rough bawdiness of the Romans, or the sly dark wit of the Palermitans, rather the Torinese eyes have a distinct sense of the fish that has been dead for some days. The city itself seems to have fallen on hard times, with the recession and Fiat’s troubles. But what the city lacks in warmth, it makes up for in splendid art: a world-class Egyptian collection, currently being renovated (but with a considerable portion still on display); several contemporary art galleries. Everyone seemed to be reading, and the city was filled with bookstores, things we hadn’t seen in Genoa, Sanremo, or Alba, where the sea, truffles and winemaking happily occupy one.

An awesome dish of pig's blood, at Ristorante Consorzio (Turin), an superb Slow Food place.
An awesome dish of pig’s blood, at Ristorante Consorzio (Turin), an superb Slow Food place.

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Fiat factory with rooftop race-track, and the Agnelli art collection (just a few Matisses and Picassos)
Fiat factory with rooftop race-track, and the Agnelli art collection (just a few Matisses and Picassos)

Udine, Cormons, and Orange Wine

Udine's poshest cafe, Beltramme.  Superb porchetta panini.
Udine’s poshest cafe, Beltramme. Superb porchetta panini.

Udine, the second city of Friuli Venezia-Giulia (FVG), is somewhat overshadowed by its beautiful, literary, acutely self-conscious and slightly “tristesse” sister, Trieste. More inland, it’s not far from the foothills of the Giulian Alps and close to verdant vine-covered hills of the Collio. The sea plays much less of a part in both life and food, and the city feels more Venetian than Slavic/Austrian.

Udine's cathedral
Udine’s cathedral

Yet it’s precisely this relative lack of mitteleuropanisch glamour that helps the city, for in June, we heard virtually no English, and the few tourists present were Austrian or Italian. Moreover, Udine (as is Trieste) is well-located by bus for the Roman and early Christian ruins of Aquileia, and those of Grado, a wealthy beach resort filled with some fine 1960s-1970s seaside apartment blocks. The patriarchal city of Aquileia itself was an important Roman centre, said to be on par with Antioch, Milan, and Trier. Grado, similarly, had its own patriarch (we had the pleasure of sampling a grappa Due Patriarchi which celebrates the curious schism). Both have lovely cathedrals that hint at their importance in days of old.

Aquileia: Roman ruins
Aquileia: Roman ruins

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Udine’s food was rather heavy (for the summer), but distinctive and terroir-infused: cjarsons, a ravioli with a complex filling of sweet things, herbs, and/or nuts, in a melted-butter and aged ricotta sauce; the delicious gnocchi di susine, a potato gnoccho with a ripe pitted plum in the middle, which softens as its cooked, again a mix of savoury and sweet; frico, a disc of montasio cheese that is fried until most of the fat renders out, leaving it crunchy or chewy, depending on the variety; and lastly, the lovely San Daniele prosciutto, second only to that of Parma. All quite different from the distinctive sausage, cabbage, or marinated fish cuisine of Trieste; or the intensely fishy food of Venice. A favourite place was the enoteca La Spezeria Pei Sani, dating from 1939 but with recent new (and very hip) owners. Great wines, very knowledgeable and friendly, awesome meatballs, stun-negronis. For more substantial food, the Osteria al Vecchio Stallo was very likeable and warm-hearted, even if the food was simply good (again in the middle of winter, this old horse-changing stall would probably come into its own).

Polpette and negroni
Polpette and negroni
At the "Stallo" restaurant
At the “Stallo” restaurant

Cormons is the centre of the Collio wine zone and is close to Udine (the other main wine zone is the Carso, near Trieste). We didn’t explore the town’s enotecas but did spend time walking through the surrounding hills and vineyards, basing at the superb inn and restaurant La Subida (1 Michelin star). It was at La Subida where we had exquisite orange wine of Gravner: the 1998 of Friuli’s autochthonous ribolla gialla grape (made before he started using Georgian amphorae in 2001) from nearby Oslavia. We also had La Castellada’s excellent ribolla gialla, again from vineyards near Oslavia. Oslavia, a good 2 hour walk away over the vineyards in the heat proved out of reach, and we missed Stan Radikon’s intense, but temperamental (owing to a no sulphur approach), production. The food at La Subida was memorable, particularly a goose ragu nestled in a basket of semolina, which softened in the sauce to become like a pasta.

La Subida's food and Castellada's orange wine
La Subida’s food and Castellada’s orange wine
Gravner and grappa "Due Patriarchi"
Gravner and grappa “Due Patriarchi”

Further reading:

Eric Asimov’s blog on the NY Times has quite a lot on the orange wines of Friuli, particularly on Gravner and the other pioneers.

http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/03/orange-wines/

For food in FVG, as in most of Italy, a great starting point is Italy for the Gourmet Traveller by Fred Plotkin (2010, Kyle Cathie Limited, London). He covers the cuisine, wines, and towns/villages of Italy, and gives restaurant recommendations, which are, at least, a starting point. A few will perhaps have changed owners or even gone downhill, but fortunately things in Italy change but slowly…

RAW Natural Wine Fair, London

On an otherwise grim, sometimes overcast, Sunday in the Essex-hinterland that is Brick Lane, I made an effort to find the RAW Natural Wine Fair in the Truman Brewery (which incidentally was filled with nasty old clothing and a great deal of “street food”, served indoors and at decidedly non-street prices).

RAW wine fair, London
RAW wine fair, London

It was a breath of fresh air – I arrived at 10.30am, and found 5 long tables of animated, occasionally a little tipsy, mostly just mad, winemakers, babbling in tongues ranging from Provencal to Georgian. The show was organised geographically, Italians in one set of rows, French in the other, Georgians with a massive clay amphora, and Austrians and Germans nestled in the middle. Without a map, you could divine provenance just by looking at clothing and manner: the green trousers and red-rimmed glasses of the Piemontese and Tuscans, the ample proportions and generous gesticulation of those from Rhone and Languedoc, and the ruddy yet anxious faces of the Germanic peoples. Up and down the rows were cardboard boxes filled with a mix of sawdust and what looked like tobacco leaves (but obviously weren’t), and as the day went on, these filled up with purple spitoon-juice. Occasionally, the more experienced tasters, particularly from the trade, would vigorously slosh the wine around in their mouths and spit, all in one motion, from a great height, with considerable noise and velocity. Mostly they were admirably accurate in hitting the box, but a wise newbie would do well to keep distance.

Friends.  From Casa Gravner.
Friends. From Casa Gravner.

The tasting itself, as always, was a matter of discipline – faced with some fantastic, hard-to-find and expensive wines, it was hard to spit out, but nothing could be worse than peaking early, or worse, dropping one’s glass or flattening an elderly fair-goer. Speaking of which, there were a great number of florid gentlemen of a certain age, copiously making notes, and I never did actually see one of them avail themselves of the boxes.

The winemakers were super-friendly, even to retail visitors (distinguished by blue wristbands as opposed to the red of trade and journalists). It reminded me, by way of contrast, to commercial contemporary art fairs like Frieze. There are also similarities: newish wine (which a great deal of the wine at RAW was), like new art, has a greatly evolved technical jargon, extreme differentiation, a high level of subjectivity underpinned by a certain rigour, and a healthy sprinkling of frauds and charlatans.

My favourites are below but with a slight caveat: my experience and taste are mostly confined to Italy and Friuli Venezia-Giulia (FVG) at that.

A couple of notes: “natural” has a quite precise definition (available on the webiste http://www.rawfair.com), but the long and short of it is: organic/biodynamic cultivation of the grapes; hand-harvesting of the grapes; no yeasts or additives, except for sulfites, which should be (far) below EU levels and more imporantly, documented by lab tests; limits on mechanical processing/manipulation, chemical processing like acidification and chaptalisation. In practice (looking at it postively), this means the wines more distinctively express their terroir and altitude/temperature conditions when the grapes were picked, with minimal influencing post-picking to achieve a “house” or “international” style. Some detractors would say the wines are highly variable, vintage-to-vintage, even bottle-to-bottle, are unstable when opened, have weird smells (“farmyard” is the euphemism), and in the worst cases, are indistinguishable from homebrew or vinegar. Indeed, certain of the offerings would have done my accomplice’s father’s vintages proud (albeit his are made with rhubarb or elderflowers).

The pantheon: Gravner, Radikon, Bini, Princic, Cornelissen, Vodopivec
The pantheon: Gravner, Radikon, Bini, Princic, Cornelissen, Vodopivec

A particular interest are orange wines: these are made from white grapes (such as Friuli’s Ribolla Gialla or Malvasia), which after pressing, are held in contact with skins and sometimes stems, for 1-30 days. In some cases (as in certain Georgian wines), the wines are even crushed/macerated in clusters, so have a massive amount of skin/stem contact. This contact gives them tannins but also the distinctive orange (or “amber” as Gravner prefers to call it) colour. So one gets a wine that has the fruit or perfume of a white wine, but with the slight firmness (of flavour) that tannins provide to balance the often-intense aroma, as well as often the mouthfeel of a red. I believe the tannins also allow the wine to age better without sulfites. Certain orange wines (though this is by no means confined to orange) are aged in clay amphorae, which allow the wine to breath without imparting oak flavours.

Orange wine
Orange wine

Orange wines have very little similarity, other than perhaps a morphological one, with rose: the latter are made from red grapes that are macerated without skins (so the colour is coming from the pulp of the grape not from skins or stems). Roses generally aren’t especially tannic and only some have any noticeable complexity.

Frank Cornelissen: we had the honour of an extensive tasting by Frank (courtesy of Tutto Wines and Noble Fine Liquor), who is one of the most revered winemakers of the Italian natural wine world. He’s a Belgian who set up a vineyard on the shoulders of Mount Etna in Sicily, and has made some fantastically distinctive wines, usually challenging, but made with great passion. See below for his site/blog, other tasting notes, and retailers/importers. My favourites were his orange, Munjebel Bianco 8 (2011), and his entry-level red, Rosso di Contadino 9 (2011). Both are using Sicilian autochthonous (the lovely word for indigenous, from the Greek – in fact the archaic Greeks believed their were “autochthonous”, borne directly from the earth, ie. not settlers from elsewhere, therefore not foreigners nor barbarians) grapes. I believe “Munjebel” is the old Arabic name for “mountain”.

Stan Radikon: Radikon’s wines have gravitas, particularly the orange wine with its strong tannins. The first time I had his wine, upon opening the bottle, I was convinced it was skunk – and then over an hour the wine evolved beautifully. This doesn’t mean it necessarily went well with food, this was very much a conceptual wine, a Duchampian experience (food for another post – conceptualism in food & wine). There were 6 wines in the tasting, but I still lean towards the austerity of the Ribolla Gialla. Incidentally, his vineyard is near the Gravner estate in Oslavia – though Gravner wasn’t at the fair, his wines are probably the most famous of Friuli, and he’s done the most to bring the old (Georgian) winemaking back and has done a great deal to market the wines of FVG.

Antipasti with Radikon's orange wine
Antipasti with Radikon’s orange wine

Gabrio Bini: Bini is another iconoclastic winemaker who produces on the tiny Sicilian island of Pantelleria, closer to Africa than it is to the Italian mainland. His white, with the Zibibbo grape, is aromatic, while the moscato, made with the Moscato di Alessandria grape, is amazingly perfumed, yet the slight sweetness and aroma blend into a full finish, that is never cloying. He’s also a great person to talk to, and in between greeting visitors, he stopped by the Georgian stall and waxed lyrical about how his grapes came from Georgia via the Levant and Egypt to Sicily.

Lagvinari: This was a great pleasure of a stall – there were 3-4 Georgian wines available, and one winemaker made the long journey to talk to visitors. This gentleman I think was from Lagvinari, and spoke with great pride about Georgian winemaking in general (said to be 8,000 years old and therefore probably the oldest in the world) and the specific characteristics of the various wines on offer, his own and others. Two macro observations: the orange wines and natural processes, particularly skin contact and amphora-ageing, that are fashionable in Italy and other places, clearly have historical antecedents in Georgia (hence are less likely to be a twattish fad that one might at first think). In fact, Gravner imported his amphorae from Georgia. Secondly, the Arab and Georgian influence was richly but subtlely intertwined with wines in the fair – most obviously in the names (Munjebel, Moscato di Alessandria, etc.). The Arabs acted as excellent conduits in bringing the gift of Dionysius to the modern world, before foreswearing the whole business in more recent times, and the Georgians provided a model for a particularly poetic and attractive method of wine-making. The winemaker talked of one wine, called “Colchis”, after the mythical land where Jason and the Argonauts went to find the Golden Fleece.

Although these wines aren’t that easy to find in London, they’re worth seeking out; I last had Georgian wine while living in Moscow (before the embargo after which it was a black market luxury), and it goes splendidly with the gutsy, spicy, outstanding food of the country.

Josko Gravner and his amphorae
Josko Gravner and his amphorae

Others: There were also some lovely wines from other producers, particularly the Austrians Weingut Sepp Muster (near the Slovenian border, in Styria/Sudsteiermark); Strohmeier (from Weststeiermark). Of the Italians, I liked the Tuscan Macea (northern Tuscany, not far from the sea and Carrara); the Venetian Daniele Piccinin (Verona zone); Le Coste (from Viterbo, nearer the sea than Rome, overlooking the Lake of Bolsena); Quarticello (Emilia Romagna) is one of our favourites on a value basis, particularly their two Lambrusci, which have an awesome acidity that makes them delicious for drinking with food, while their Le Mole is one of the most reasonably-priced orange wines we’ve had.

I would add an honourable mention for Stefan Vetter of Germany (northern Bavaria) with his Sylvaner wines, for his enthusiasm and effort in making it to RAW. The wines perhaps need a little more work, and we look forward to seeing next year’s production.

Blogroll

http://www.tachu.net/frank/blog/

http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/a/eric_asimov/index.html

http://www.starchefs.com/cook/features/orange-wine-guide-sommeliers

http://dobianchi.com/

http://www.rawfair.com/

Winemakers

Cornelissen: http://www.frankcornelissen.it/

Radikon: http://www.radikon.it/azienda

Gravner: http://www.gravner.it/

Bini: http://www.serragghia.it/

Lagvinari: their link (www.lagvinari.com) appears to be broken, Dynamic Vines are the UK importer

Quarticello: http://www.quarticello.it/

Daniele Piccinin: piccinindaniele@tiscali.it.

Sepp Muster: http://weingutmuster.com/

Strohmeier: http://strohmeier.at/

Macea: http://www.macea.it/

Le Coste: lecostedigradoli@hotmail.com

London importers

http://www.dynamicvines.com/

http://www.tuttowines.com/

http://www.gergoviewines.com/

Incidentally, Gergovie have an very good enoteca/restaurant, 40 Maltby Street.

http://www.raeburnfinewines.com/

info@georgianwinemerchants.co.uk

Retail

http://wearenoble.co.uk/

http://hedonism.co.uk/about-us/reviews-/

Linguini with Vasco and Piero’s fresh tuna sauce

Finally managed to replicate one of the outstanding dishes at the great Soho Italian restaurant, Vasco & Piero’s Pavilion, on Poland Street. Given the prices at that unassuming temple to the food of Umbria, I’m chuffed to be able to make this one on my own (though their fish secondi, huge Negronis, and that all-but-vanished air of 1990s louche Soho, make it well worth the visit).

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The key in this dish, since the tuna provides very little actual flavour – rather it’s all about texture, is to get umami and body in the sauce before the tuna shows up. Start by making a standard soffrito of onions, carrots and celery, and sweat them until all are soft, with a clove of garlic and some parsley going in at the end. Just for grins, I add a pepperoncino and a few Sichuan peppercorns; they (especially the latter) are definitively not part of the recipe at Vasco !

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While the soffrito is softening, blanch a tomato for 10-20 seconds, remove the skin, and chop up, reserving the juices. Toss into the sauce, and simmer until the tomato has broken down. At this point, I add some fish stock – the gelatinous stuff in the photo (from a poached bream I made the day before). I also pour in a little white wine, and raise the heat to high. Reduce the mixture over heat, and add some salted capers, which have been soaked for 15 minutes to desalinate. Check for balance, it should have a slight sour edge, and I needed to add a little vinegar.

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Gelatinous fish stock
Gelatinous fish stock

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Put the chopped tuna in last, so it doesn’t overcook. Once the pasta (I’m using Voiello from Caserta, near Naples – current favourite over De Cecco or Barilla) is ready, place it in the pan, along with a little of the pasta cooking liquid and some olive oil. Agitate violently over a high burner, driving from the shoulders & hips, to get it all to mix, and serve with fresh parsley.

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Vegetable was sprouting kale from Broadway Market, and the wine is an orange wine from Friuli’s Carso zone, Vodopivec. Pretty decent wine, but at the price worse value than La Mole (from Quarticello in Emilia Romagna), nor as exciting as the (more expensive) Ribolla Gialla (from Friuli’s Radikon) nor the austere reverential Breg (from Friuli’s Gravner).

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Food and wine in Rome

This is a bit long – but is basically stuff I loved about Rome during my 5 week stay there in the summer of ’12. As ever, my taste is idiosyncratic !

Neighbourhoods/hotels:

I liked the Hotel Eden from years of staying there, almost on top of the Pincian Hill, sort of above the Spanish Steps. It is very dear, and even if you aren’t staying there, it’s worth splurging on a drink or cigar, in the rooftop bar; on summer evenings, I’ve seen starlings massing over the Tiber.

For apartments, Rione (District) Monti is unbeatable: just up the hill from Via dei Fori Imperiali, putting it equidistant from the Colosseum and the Quirinale (Presidential) Palace. So very close to the main touristic spots, but relatively few tourists loiter there, as there’s nothing in particular to see. It also means that one can wander around the Forum and the Campidoglio at all hours, which is a lot more rewarding than going there during the day.

Restaurants/bars I tried & liked: for brevity I omit tens of others I never bothered with, once I found below and started cooking. See NY Times for excellent, and fairly up-to-date, tips on Rome.

Pommidoro – in San Lorenzo, it is my favourite. An old working class restaurant, yet with splendid game, some of it from the family’s hunting estate, it was a haunt of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and is filled with some of his artwork as well as old gallery posters. Very few tourists, and a somewhat artsy crowd due to the studio complex next door. Great steak, offal, mushrooms in season. They make & bottle their own oil for sale.

pommidoro
Pommidoro

Trattoria Da Teo – in Trastevere, but slightly removed from the busy bit. Very crowded, mostly regulars, but they try to accommodate. The potatoes mashed with tomato, bacon/lard, onion and garlic is gorgeous.

patate
Potatoes with tomato
pasta_ovoli
Fresh pasta with mushrooms at Pommidoro or Teo

Enzo – in Trastevere. Honestly, I don’t really remember the food, this is a humble trattoria, but I suspect we really liked it, as I retained a clipping from Il Messaggero on the best meatballs in town, and this place showed up.

polpette

Ristorante ai Marmi – in Trastevere, an old pizza joint. Named for the marble topped tables, recalling a morgue, very fast food: pizza and fried things, and precious little else.

Piperno – haven’t been here in a few years as it’s expensive, but the food is excellent, and a great place to try Jewish specialties (it is in Ghetto). Best anchovy stuffed zucchini flowers I’ve had.

piperno
Piperno’s dining room

La Matricinella – via del Leone. Quite touristy, but also lots of regulars/Italians. Food is standard Roman fare, very good, moderate prices.

Al Moro – near Spagna. Excellent food, very expensive, and sometimes requires a bit of spine, as they will try to stuff tourists into a back room. The preferred outcome is to sit in the second room (the front room is mostly regulars and a group of old men playing cards). The waiters are nice enough, the maitre d’ isn’t particularly pleasant (more accurately, he is strafottente…somewhere between arrogant and obnoxious). The food is great. Americans: you will really fit in a lot better if you don’t wear shorts, but do as you please (technically they don’t allow shorts, but a seemingly wealthy family of four were allowed in).

In Monti, on a street parallel to Via Baccina, very near to the Via dei Neofiti intersection (if not actually that), there is a fine little trattoria. Very good food.

Ai Tre Scalini – on Via Panisperna in Monti. Lovely wine bar, friendly staff and customers, they suffer hapless tourists with civility. The food is really good, albeit pre-cooked and warmed up (as you’d expect in a wine bar).

Also on Via Panisperna, further up the hill (going away from Pza Venezia), is a cafe, white I think, very simple, on the left side of the street. There is a very tall Argentine and a short bald man who run it, it’s nothing special, but great for coffee. Not open after 8pm.

Mother India – Via dei Serpenti, very good Indian food, and excellent service. Expensive (for NYC/Ldn conditioned curry-eaters), but pretty few choices if you get an itch… It is a stop on 3-4 coach tours from India, per day, so can get fearsomely crowded, best to call or stop in to check conditions. Sunday night I think was good – one of the few places where a channa masala actually has a burnt-tandoori flavour.

Al Vino al Vino – just across from Mother India, there is a little wine bar that’s perhaps less young and laid back than Tre Scalini, but is still pretty good, and quite possibly, less touristy.

Pizza – close to Vino al Vino is a pretty good pizza place, mainly for takeaway. Get pizza there, some beer from the tough old Filipino (I think) lady across the street, and grab a spot in the little square across from the church (with the fountain)

On Via Leonina there is a splendid paninoteca , I think the outside is a little garish and there are black-and-white pictures plastered inside; she makes super sandwiches, particularly with vegetables (marinated, as well as sauteed), anchovies (in oil or marinated), etc. I et there most days.

Ristorante Relazioni Culinarie – check before you go, but I think this was a Sicilian-inflected place, which is actually really nice once you’re sick of lard, pecorino romano, tripes, etc.

Bar Fico – for aperitivo a very chic bar/cafe with a found-object aesthetic inside, nice staff. There is a restaurant of similar name (probably the same business) around the corner, I prefer the bar, which is under a fig tree, and in the evenings has a gaggle of old men playing chess.

Shabby chic at Bar Fico
Shabby chic at Bar Fico

Pizza – at, or very close to, 284 Corso Vittorio Emmanuele is a takeaway pizza place. I shouldn’t rush across town for it, but I thought there pizza was great, and (it might be a chain) they took great pains to explain about their dough etc and it’s great digestibility/lightness !

Across from Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, on Via di San Michele, there is a little white bar/cafe with good drinks, very good food, that is mostly local office-workers. Is great for a cocktail while watching life in the, relatively tranquil, Piazza. The staff are nice and negronis good.

Bar Camponeschi – Piazza Farnese, very pleasant to spend a summer evening here watching the square. The staff are wonderful, the clientele rather posh (after all the restaurant/bar is in the ground floor some elderly Principessa’s palazzo).

Vineria Reggio – Campo dei Fiori, the journalists bar, and a touch more sophisticated than the others. Have a drink watched over by Giordano Bruno – Heretico, impenitente, pertinace, e ostinato, and stop by Fahrenheit 451 bookstore

Roscioli – there are two, one is a pizzeria/takeaway, one is a very fancy businessman/diplomat place serving simple food. I prefer the informal one, and there pizza marinara is outstanding.

A little enoteca on Via dei San Martino ai Monti, have a glass under the monastery and the big tower. Almost magically quiet, only 5 minutes from Cavour.