travel

In Rome: nearly every restaurant has a story, and the one I like best involves Trattoria al Moro, in the centro storico. I first heard about this popular spot from an Italian diplomat when I asked him to name his favourite restaurant. (He then, diplomatically, asked to remain anonymous) I did some homework and learned that it’s one of the places to see and he seen for politicians and local power brokers – and woe to the outsider who expects a warm welcome or a good table. So I put off booking, hoping to find a well-connected dinner companion who would save me from Siberia. And I did, eventually, find the perfect person, but too late: it was my last night in Rome when, after much text-tag, I met Andrea Purgatorio, an award-winning journalist, screenwriter and quintessential city insider.

Description: one I like best involves Trattoria al Moro, in the centro storico.

I like best involves Trattoria al Moro, in the centro storico.

At one point during our long dinner at Settimio all’Arancio, one of Purgatorio’s favourites, I bemoaned the fact that I had run out of time to visit Al Moro, which particularly pained me once I learned that spaghetti alla carbonara was a house specialty. Purgatorio, who clearly has put in time there, told me that the director Federico Fellini often cast his films off the street and had asked Al Moro’s owner to play that part of Trimalcione, an ageing voluptuary, in the film Fellini Satyricon. The man agreed, but when he arrived on the set he hadn’t learned his lines. “Just count out load,’ Fellini said, ‘and we’ll dub it later.’ But the man felt silly doing that. Exasperated, Fellini asked: ‘OK, what can you say?’ ‘The menu,’ he replied. ‘So give me the menu!’ Fellini shot back. As he camera rolled, Trimalcione recited: ‘bucatini all’amatriciana…spaghetti alle vongole… pollo arrosto’, and hiss dialogue was added later. (He has since died, and the restaurant passed to his son.)

Description: Settimio all’Arancio

Settimio all’Arancio

Purgatorio also know the back story of every government scandal (the troke that sidelined a party bigwig? Brought on by mixing Viagra and cocaine), and he could parse the politics of every transaction in town – because politics always enters into it. At one point I mentioned a conversation I had just had with a non-Italian who married into one of the country’s prominent political families, I was gushing to her about how seamlessly Rome seemed to have integrated modern architecture, contemporary cuisine and nifty web guides into its historic fabric. But she cautioned me not to be misled by the veneer of 21st-century trendiness: Italians remain so traditional that they go not only to the same beach town and the same beach over the course of a lifetime, but to the same beach umbrella.

Description: I was gushing to her about how seamlessly Rome seemed to have integrated modern architecture

I was gushing to her about how seamlessly Rome seemed to have integrated modern architecture

Purgatorio immediately revealed the number of this own parasol station, which he has had for decades, at L’Ultima Spiaggia in Capalbio. Your designated spot is handed down ‘like a noble title’, he explained, even though that specific beach is favourited by Rome’s left-of-centre elite – politicians, writers, media figures. In Italy, even the sand is political.

Description: Purgatorio immediately revealed the number of this own parasol station, which he has had for decades, at L’Ultima Spiaggia in Capalbio.

Purgatorio immediately revealed the number of this own parasol station, which he has had for decades, at L’Ultima Spiaggia in Capalbio.

And politics, sometimes, can be the making of a new chef. Purgatorio told me the story of Filippo La Mantia, a Sicilian who was working as a photojournalist when he was framed for abetting the Mafia’s murder of a policeman. By the time Giovanni Falcone, the crusading prosecutor who was later murdered, secured his release from Palermo’s notorious prison, La Mantia had developed a passion for cooking. In 2003 he opened a restaurant in Rome sumply called Trattoria and became a culinary star, famous for updating Sicilian classics while disdaining onion and garlic (he prefers citrus flavours). Trattoria set Rome atwitter because its minimalist wood, stone and rope décor brought the kitchen into the dining room, the two separated only by a glass wall. Before long, this was being copied all over town. Now it is quite common not only to see the food being made, but also to have an eagle-eyed chef come out to greet an enthusiastic diner or chide a picky one. We were warned that this might happen at Le Mani in Pasta in Trastevere, a neighbourhood spot with a city wide following, so we were careful to do justice to an elaborate platter of seafood, this is the sort of wisdom I gathered over 10 marvellous days in Rome, as the weather seesawed between warm sun and chilling showers, I hadn’t been there for several years, so I eagerly accepted the task of finding the city’s best eating, all along the price scale. But when I began gathering recommendations from my sources – diplomats, lifelong Romans, seasoned expats, food-and-wine experts – I discovered a good deal of disagreement. And surely that can be explained in part by the social aspect of eating in Italy. In contrast to the French, who approach restaurant dining with a detached ‘show-me’ discernment, Italians like to ‘talk the food onto the table’, as my friend, the writer Chris Dickey, explained in part by the social aspect of eating in Italy. In contrast to the French, who approach restaurant dinning with a detached ‘show-me’ discernment, Italians like to ‘talk the food onto the table’, as my friend, the writer Chris Dickey, explained. They salute the chef, banter with the staff, discuss high and low points of the day’s market, offer up a few suggestions and personal preferences, and generally feel as if they’ve participated in orchestrating the fine meal that follows – often without a single glance at the menu.


Description: Trastevere

Trastevere

Description: Italians like to ‘talk the food onto the table’

Italians like to ‘talk the food onto the table’

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