You know that joke, ask an Italian where the best food is and they’ll tell you to eat at their grandmother’s? Well, that’s not entirely inaccurate. I have such ridiculously high standards when it comes to Italian food that I genuinely feel bad for every Italian restaurant I go to. If the food isn’t prepared the way my grandmother would or doesn’t taste as nice as that little restaurant I stumbled upon once in the Tuscan countryside ten years ago, I am pretty much guaranteed never to set foot in it again.
Cue to me entering an Italian restaurant, desperately trying to relax and enjoy my glass of wine; inside I am a ticking bomb nervously looking around for the first thing that will set me off. I see dill in pasta and I shudder. The balsamic on the pappardelle makes me teary. I don’t want to be that person but I am that person so I silently suffer at the sight of pesto on top of anything that isn’t pasta, or chicken on pizza.
It’s instilled in us from a young age, this fierce over-protectiveness of our food, the infinite rules of what it’s acceptable to eat, what goes with what, what dramatic consequences that splash of cream could bring into our life. We Italians live by a moral code that knows no logic but is stronger than any attempt to rationalise it.
I read a Giles Coren review last week, the first paragraphs of which were dedicated to insulting my messy, heartbreakingly beautiful, chaotic, ancient hometown: Rome. Traffic is terrible, he says (true); the people are grumpy (huh? Did he go to the post office?). The food inedible.
I’m not sure whether Coren has ever actually been to Rome, but it’s true that its food scene can be very hard to navigate. The millions of rip-off tourist trap restaurants with cookie-cutter decor, menus in seven languages and bland pastas served alongside overcooked burgers can truly be off-putting. And the ‘cool’ new places are also largely disappointing, offering overpriced fare that was innovative maybe ten years ago. Its protectiveness over its cuisine, the lack of receptiveness of different approaches to food has made the Roman restaurant food scene a little stale. I get that.
But food in Rome is somewhere else. It’s crispy, fried supplìs with their melty mozzarella heart, in a brown bag rendered translucent by oil, eaten in tiny cobblestoned alleyways, green vines climbing up earth-coloured walls. It’s squares of chewy pizza al taglio, the edges crispy, pockets of mozzarella atop delicate courgette flowers. It’s the 4-am flaky pastries and doughnuts from the bakeries that stay open all night, the tripe sandwich served in a knackered food truck by a bleak roundabout. It’s the carbonara you make with friends, while fighting over the recipe (you put egg whites in?). The long pizza tongues with a stripe of bright red sauce running through them. Neighbourhood osterias that sell wine by the litre with menus handwritten on a blackboard and paper tablecloths. Locals tucking into creamy fried brains, bitter greens, sweetbreads, fried artichokes. It’s the salumeria, cheese and cured meat shops, and the sandwiches they will prepare on the spot with the salame of your choice; the utter simplicity of crusty bread and marbled slices of coppa.
So while Giles Coren’s review angered me, it also made me discover a Roman-cuisine restaurant in London, and I was eager to try. Palatino, apart from the slightly off-putting Ancient Roman font which makes me think of theme parks and the gladiators in front of the colosseum with their plastic helmets, sweat dripping in the sun, is a beautiful restaurant with some odd features; just round the corner from our industrial-chic area there were some steps with cushions to sit on, and at the very bottom, an office?
The menu looked quite attractive, with lots of Roman dishes (never thought I would see pajata -intestines of milk-fed calf- outside of Rome) and a few less Roman dishes (fried gnocchi -as a side- and the very Northern polenta). The starters were truly lovely: the creamiest, milkiest stracciatella on toast with a delicate anchovy, and light-as-air fried courgette flowers, the green, soft bloom complemented by some vinegar for dippage.
Pastas were served in generous portions; we had the small size and it was no smaller than any other pasta serving I have ever had. Cacio e pepe, a simple dish of pasta with pecorino and pepper, was creamy and violently peppery but could have used more cheese, while the white ragù offered much more depth of flavour (still prefer my auntie’s, I muttered. I’m a nightmare). Saltimbocca alla romana, veal escalopes with prosciutto, were cooked beautifully, the meat soft but supple, but still lacked quite a lot of the aggressive savouriness and saltiness that characterises Roman cuisine (and the amount of prosciutto was rather stingy). Roman food is salty. Not too salty, just immensely satisfyingly salty. If it doesn’t leave you thirsty for the rest of the afternoon, you’ve done it wrong.
Palatino is not, nor is it trying to be, the neighbourhood osterias I long for. It’s sophisticated, elegant, maybe a little toned down. But it’s beautiful Italian (Roman!) food nonetheless.
71 Central St,
London EC1V 8AB