19 April 2011

n.d.p. in roma: rockin': roscioli restaurant

For me the greatest benefit of having spent time in the restaurant industry has undoubtedly been the continued friendship of former bosses and coworkers. Great chefs, sommeliers, and managers, simply through their passion for their metier, invariably become walking indexes of the best dining and drinking destinations worldwide, and it's to them I turn for recommendations whenever visiting foreign cities. (Blogs, Chowhound, and native inhabitants all have their uses, of course, but nothing beats the opinions of actual professionals.) 

Immediately upon purchasing tickets for Rome, I shot an email to my former boss D, and within five minutes he'd replied with a single, unqualified recommendation: Roscioli Restaurant. "Best carbonara of my life," was his only description. 

Situated just off the Piazza de Campo dei' Fiori, Roscioli is in fact an encyclopedically well-stocked specialty delicatessen that doubles as a rocking great restaurant during meal hours. The carbonara was indeed stunning (almost everything was). But the real draw, for me and I suspect for D as well, was a vast, impeccably curated wine list, including just about every Italian wine I loved, and many more I'd heretofore only heard wonderful rumors of. 

I'd booked ahead, sight unseen, for the night the Native Companion and I arrived in Rome. Traveler's instinct is to take it easy the first night, because Lord know's what state one will be in, but I have this other consideration, which is that upon arrival in a foreign city I get seized with the urgent need to have some local experience of genuine appreciable quality. I can't just chance it on whatever's open in the neighborhood. This doesn't sound very controversial on the surface, I know, but as many friends and ex-NC's can attest, I become a total dick when this need goes unmet - when I'm in bad restaurants - just way beyond the realms of decency.* It's something I have to work on. 

Happily it took about two seconds - one sweeping glance at the excellent wine bottles stacked on one side of Roscioli, and the gleaming deli case of artisanal meats, cheeses, and sauces - for me to ascertain that D hadn't let us down. 

Further reassurance came, perversely, when it turned out they'd botched the reservation - had it down for the next night - and were actually apologetic about it. They wedged us in for slightly later in the evening, with the result that the NC and I had the chance to take yet another Aperol spritz at Obikà around the corner.** 

We were eventually seated in the non-atmospheric basement level, where many (but not all, as we discovered later) of the wines are stored. I didn't mind, myself - just happy to be there - but it seems worth mentioning that the real energy of the restaurant is up on the ground floor.

Downstairs among the bottles you not only get slightly forgotten - if you are me, you get hopelessly distracted, nearly unable to finish sentences in conversation, on account of all the familiar names and regions lining the racks around you. (I remain grateful for the NC's beneficent patience in these scenarios.)

We began with the 2006 vintage of what I've long held to be one of Italy's greatest white wines: Villa Diamante's Fiano di Avellino "Vigne della Congregazione." 

At my former workplace in LA I'd only tasted (and bought loads of) the 2002 vintage - a famously awful year, Italy-wide, but one in which Villa Diamante nevertheless managed to make a truly gorgeous wine. 

More back story is perhaps necessary when discussing Italian wine, as compared to French: I can't in good conscience just blather on about the finer points of cru Fiano without first introducing the grape itself, something that would be unnecessary with, say, Chardonnay. Anyway, Fiano is arguably the most interesting of the triptych of noble Campanian white varietals, the other two being Falanghina and Greco. Ageability, as much as anything else, is what sets Fiano apart.*** When young it's known for racy, herbacious, pine-nutty flavors; as the wines age these can broaden and deepen impressively, such that the 2002 "Vigne della Congregazione" that I tasted in 2008 was already showing more evolved iodised, brazil nut flavors, and remarkably changeable smoke / white-floral aromas. (Despite the preponderance of nut-related terms in the above descriptions, the grape is in fact particularly resistant to oxidation, and retains acid beautifully.)

Villa Diamante is, however, not a typical producer. As the excellent sommelier / server Gaetano memorably put it, "That guy's a real farmer." I read that winemaker Antoine Gaita has been certified organic since 2003, although I seem to have it in my head he practices biodynamic viticulture (not sure who told me that, possibly his former LA importer, VinoBravo, since gone bust). In any event, from his vineyards north of Montefredane, he makes what are widely considered to be the greatest examples of Fiano, using non-interventionist methods. The "Vigne della Congregazione," his top bottling from late-harvested fruit from certain north-facing crus, is entirely steel-aged and sees extended lees contact. 

The 2006 - which the NC and I shared over eggplant caponata and a plate of grilled spalla (cooked ham) di San Secondo garnished with Lambrusco jelly - was in shimmering fresh form. A honied, floral nose ceded to mineral, brazil nut, kerosene, and white peach flavors, all wrapped in a lovely salinity. 

What impresses me most about great Fiani is they attain classic profundity via a flavor lexicon utterly apart from the signifiers we usually associate with Greatness. These are genuinely exotic wines that nevertheless far surpass the realm of novelty. 

We split a plate of the famous carbonara for a mid-course. It was probably the second best carbonara I've had, to be honest, but only because I have strong sentimental feelings about a version I once had late at night in an apartment in Brooklyn during a summer storm that had grounded my flight out of the city. This, on the other hand, was objectively amazing carbonara. I think the key was the judicious use of an exceptionally fatty, outrageously flavorful pancetta that imbued the entire dish with a rich meaty intensity that belied how few bits of pancetta were actually visible.

Despite a general desire to drink Lazio or adjacent-regional wines while in Rome, I found myself scouring Roscioli's list for an approachably priced Nebbiolo, only because the NC had never tried one, and I could think of no better way of communicating what it was that was so enthralling and unique about the world of Italian wine than the chiseled perfumey spice of Nebbiolo. I was initially disappointed to note only three selections under 50€ / btl, all Langhe Nebbioli. But after a short prospecting detour through the Barbera section - during which Gaetano and I realized we had very similar tastes, each rejecting the same few producers as "too modern" (Sandrone, Grasso, etc.) - I landed on the 2008 Guiseppe Rinaldi Langhe Nebbiolo.

Tasting it made me appreciate the Roscioli list all the more. Suddenly it didn't seem miserly or dismissive of thrifty clientele that they'd included just three Nebbioli under 50€. Their stuff was just really, really well-selected. Of countless Langhe Nebbioli and Nebbioli d'Alba to choose from (most Barolo / Barbaresco producers make one), they'd chosen Rinaldi's 2008 for a high-movement spot on their list, presumably because it was showing in absolutely star form: a landscape of cinnamon, leather jackets, and black cherry.

I had it with a beamingly fresh beef carpaccio that despite my enthusiastic entreaties the NC was unwilling to taste. She really doesn't do raw beef.

While sharing a cigarette before dessert, we encountered Gaetano outside, also having a cigarette. We geeked out about wine for a bit, and he offered to show us Roscioli's other cellar area, beneath the restaurant's sister bakery across the street. So without hesitation we all descended into the cramped cellar, which was of course much like many other cramped old wine cellars, except this one was illuminated by Gaetano's evident enthusiasm for the selection of Champagne, Chablis, and Burgundy he and the Roscioli team had managed to amass there.

I got a real kick out of this - proof that he and Roscioli as a whole possess a global perspective, a desire to succeed by an international standard of dining, even as they present delicacies that are fundamentally Italian, and truly, vitally regional.

* During one altercation with the owner of a cruddy pizza place, I was hit in the face with a pizza. It happens in real life, too, apparently, not just cartoons. 

** Waiting for tables was kind of the theme of the trip, apparently. It seemed like years since I'd had to wait for a table anywhere. I realized that at home in Paris, whether consciously or not, I actively base much of my social life around the necessity of never waiting for tables. 

*** People whose opinions I respect have sworn up and town that they've tasted great aged Grecos. I'll believe it when I taste it... For this reason I did in fact purchase a bottle of Villa Diamante's Greco to go at the end of our meal. While at time of writing I have not yet cracked into it, I don't foresee this particular bottle attaining much age. 

120, Via del Giubonnari
00186 ROME
Tel: +39 06 6875287

Related Links: 

A great tasting with winemaker Antoine Gaita at Villa Diamante @ WineFriend (a nice personable blog - shame about the name - it reminds me of those old Stuart Smalley skits on SNL.)

Some Giuseppe Rinaldi tasting notes @ Vintrospective
A terrific substantial discussion of organic viticulture with Giuseppe Rinaldi @ WalterSpeller

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