This time, Roberto Giuliani takes the stand:
It isn't at all easy to open a restaurant in the hyper-protected heart of Monterotondo, a small town in the hills not far from the Via Salaria, about 20 km from Rome. Maria Luisa Conrado knows this well; the bureaucracy, which makes things difficult under the best of circumstances, given a setting like this becomes the major obstacle to the realization of a dream. Not too long ago, in 2008, she took over a wine bar with the goal of transforming it into a real restaurant. The change came January 16 2010, with the birth of the Rocca del Gusto: the place has 6-7 tables in a single hall with inviting niches in the walls, and an arched ceiling, evidence of the building's original function. The color apricot predominates, and the furnishings are simple, but provide a warm, relaxed atmosphere.
Maria Luisa, self-taught and driven by passion and the desire (realized, I would say), to have a place that isn't based on aesthetics, though they do play their part, nor extreme transformations of the raw materials, but rather absolute quality. As Maria Luisa says, "a different kind of food, one not standardized, not mass-produced, not what everyone already knows."
Hence her constant search for niche products, when possible with no carbon footprint, preferably organic, privileging direct relationships with producers, and thus the steady search throughout the area, drawing also from those who have already considerable experience in these matters, for example Slowfood's Presidia. "To make people talk about what the land provides" is, in a nutshell, her philosophy. To not give space to chefly narcissistic impulses, but make the ingredients the true protagonists of the dishes.
It doesn't take much, one might think, and one would be wrong. Every ingredient does undergo some sort of preparation, either being cooked or simply being placed next to other ingredients or sauces. Nothing is taken for granted, one need only make a mistake pairing, or in the proportions, or cooking time, and the dish is no longer what it must be to be appreciated. All elements Maria Luisa has mastered, as I have found in my many "visits," which are in part due to my good fortune of living nearby.
In the kitchen she uses organic eggs, flour, honey, chocolate, and extravirgin olive oil as the starting point for a variety of dishes, which change monthly. There is no want for surprises, including the Monterotondo Ricotta Pie with tarama sauce (made with bottarga and lumpfish roe) or the delicious Cream of seasonal organic vegetables.
If you like Antipasti you have many options, including Antipasto Lucano (pezzente della montagna materana (a Slowfood presidium), soppressata and Pecorino di Moliterno, or organic Pecorino di Scanno 'Mbriaco with organic Aleatico gelatin, or an organic Sardinian antipasto with Fiore Sardo (a fresh cheese), pickles, pane caresau (a traditional Sardinian flat bread), and salame. And what can one say of Bruschetta di Castelmagno with the aroma of Porcini? Or you may come on a night dedicated to Slowfood Presidia, the perfect occasion to discover Susaniella Viterbese, Marzolina di Caprai, and Roman Caciofiore. I could continue at length on the Antipasti, but leave the pleasure of discovering the many options to you.
With regards to first courses, of late I have much appreciated the home-made spumoni in Anguillara broccoli and salted ricotta, but have also much enjoyed smoky Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe, an alternative to a classic Roman dish, and was also gripped by Speghetti with cured prok jowl from a Cinta Senese and zifft (ground sweet peppers from Lucania).
There are seconds worth a journey too, including the delicious No Carbon Footprint tender pork loin with aromatic herb sauce, and if you'd rather not meat, then the superb middleastern organic Capena chickpea pie or stewed organic faro and radicchio seitan with balsamic sauce.
Desserts? No problem; one can go to town with the 70% extrta chocolate cake (flourless and with fair trade organic chocolate). Crepes with monterotondo Ricotta and Sardinian Scrub forest honey, or the superb Madagascar Vanilla (a Slowfood presidium) ice cream with hazelnuts in organic honey, or as an alternative aged goats'milk cheese with a compote made of Williams pears from Modena and Passito Torre Quarto. That enough?
And to drink? Wine, of course, a careful selection ranging from the Alto Adige to Sicily made with the assistance of her sister Maria Paola, a sommelier, to perfectly accompany the dishes presented. There are also surprises, including Mariotti's excellent Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi or Carbone's Fiano from the Vulture, and if you like bubbly there's Carlino, a pinot Grigio brut from the Collezione Giuseppe Trisciuzzi (Veneto); from Campania come the wines of Ciro Picariello and Masseria Venditti, and then there are great reds including Fratelli Cavallotto's Barolo Bricco Boschis and Monte dell'Ora's Amarone della Valpolicella Classico. With dessert one can enjoy Laus di martinez's fortified Malvasia, head to Umbria for Poggio Turri's Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito, or enjoy Di Filippo's Vernaccia di Cannara.
Obviously, all this Bounty of God is made even more attractive by Maria Luisa's friendliness and openness; she doesn't hide in the kitchen but rather comes out to chat and discuss things with her guests. That the place is small does have advantages.
Prices? Honest; from start to finish will be about 30 Euros, wines not included.
Ristorante La Rocca del Gusto - Via della Rocca, 36 Monterotondo (RM)
Open: Wednesday to Sunday, 8-11 PM
email: laroccadelgusto (AT) gmail.com
Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.
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