After a long afternoon of trekking through Roman ruins, we were more than ready for a good meal. A year ago, on our last trip to Italy, we met Carmine. He is an Italian chef with a wonderful slow foods seafood restaurant in Fumincino. Over the course of the last year, we have kept in touch over email and Facebook (Facebook is good for a few things….). When he heard we were visiting Rome this trip, he said he had a great recommendation for a restaurant for us. His friend Eliana has a restaurant in Trastevere that is slow foods certified. We were thrilled. Even better, it worked out for him to join us himself, and we met up that evening on a lovely bridge and walked to dinner together.
At Spirito DiVino they had a large table set and waiting for us, and we were met by the chef’s husband, who functions as a host and manager. He is quite a character, appropriately named Romeo, and has a fantastic sense of humor. Both he and Carmine speak English, which made the evening so much easier for us. We learned that the chef, Eliana, originally was a scientist. She did research on viruses with the Nobel Prize winning researcher, Montalcini, and accompanied her to receive that prize. So she’s a pretty big deal. Now she uses her scientific skills in the kitchen, and it was our privilege to benefit from them tonight.
Carmine ordered a bottle of wine, and we commenced with our antipasti. He chose a dish of fresh burrata cheese over a fresh tomato and olive oil confit. The tomatoes were not only fresh and perfectly ripe, but the richness of the confit in olive oil added a vibrant tomato flavor that complemented the creamy cheese.
My antipasta dish was couscous, cooked with bold African spices and mixed with chick peas and shrimp. Although there was not much fat, there was no lack of flavor in this dish, in fact it was so strong it almost stayed with me the rest of the meal! The fresh cherry tomatoes confit in oil added the needed brightness. I love chick peas and found this plate incredibly satisfying.
Jay’s antipasta, of all things, was a salad. He rarely orders salads, but made an exception since this one included slices of salty cured venison, called bresaola. Simply dressed with oil and vinegar, the mixed greens were tossed with fresh grapes and sprouts. This salad was my favorite starter. It was fresh, wonderfully balanced, and the slices of bresaola were heavenly.
For our pasta course, we all were served two selections from the chef. The first, mezze maniche (half rigatoni) in “white sauce”, or ragu bianco, was made with ground veal, chicken, and pistachios. The meat sauce was very light, and needed the sprinkle of parmesean cheese, but also showed off the delicious flavor and texture of the pasta.
The second was Eliana’s take on the famous spaghetti carbonara. Instead of tossing the pasta in the rich egg and cheese sauce, she tossed it with the meat and placed it on top of the sauce. The fatty pieces of pancetta (unsmoked bacon or pork belly) were addictive and just the right texture of crispiness. Regardless of the presentation, this was the star dish of the night. I was happy I had my own plate of it, no sharing happening here. Incredible flavor, perfectly emulsified sauce, and wonderful salty bits of meat – it hit all the right notes, and looked good doing it.
For my entrée, I ordered the guinea hen. This was prepared in small pieces using flavors of clove and orange, (and possibly nutmeg?) and was tender and juicy. The bite size pieces were fun and easy to eat, and the rosemary-roasted potatoes were so delicious I was sorry I was so full already.
Jay’s entrée (and Carmine’s as well) was the specialty of the house. It was a pork dish, but prepared according to the recipe invented in ancient Rome by the chef of Julius Caeser, Gaius Matius. This dish involved a very long, slow cooking process, and included many (I mean MANY) ingredients. I’ll name a few, but I doubt I got them all: apples, leeks, honey (2 kinds), wild mountain celery seed, onions, wild mint, coriander, black pepper, red wine, colatura (a type of liquid seasoning made with anchovies) and no salt because the anchovies provide the saltiness. For the amount of ingredients, it was presented very simply, and served with applesauce and wild greens called agretti. (These greens are mild, usually cooked with olive oil and a bit of garlic, and have the unfortunate English name of saltwort).
Carmine does not eat dessert, and I was unable to imagine eating anything else, but both the chef and her husband insisted that we try their crème brulee, so Jay was convinced. It was creamier than any crème brulee I had ever tried, almost like a pudding, with just a thin hint at a bruleed crust on top and a melty, custardy texture underneath.
During dinner, we had an amazing time catching up with Carmine; he is a wealth of information on Italian ingredients and cooking. He ordered some delicious wine to pair with the food, and after dinner Eliana took us to see their wine cellar. They are extremely proud of it, and it has nothing to do with the contents. The foundations of the building that houses the restaurant were from a structure dating back to the original Etruscan settlement, even before the Roman republic era. (The Roman republic predates even all of the famous Roman emperors.) So basically their place has been around since hundreds of years before Christ. And the original walls are what house all of their wine.
Some famous archeological artifacts have been found on the site of their building, and are housed in the Capitoline Museum in the center of Rome. In an interesting coincidence, we had visited that museum that very morning, and had seen one of the exact items that was found on that site. Not sure what that means, but it certainly added to what was a truly significant and enjoyable evening in Rome, one of the best of our trip.