ANCIENT ROMAN COOKS
JUST AROUND THE CORNER FROM THE PANTHEON, THE TRATTORIA ARMANDO AL PANTHEON IS PUTTING THE COLOUR BACK INTO ANCIENT ROMAN COOKING.
Rome did not fall in a day. Fifteen centuries of pillaging failed to destroy the evidence of its fallen grandeur. Which shows that the vandals proved less talented at taking down than the Ancients were at building. Likewise in the world of restaurants, numerous internal coups have all failed to dethrone the trattoria as king. Rome is obviously not the only international city which has remained faithful to its culinary heritage: Paris has its bistros, London has its pubs, New York has its delis, Tokyo its izakayas and São Paulo its churrascarias... But what makes the trattoria stand out as the vanquishing hero of the genres is its place as the lingua franca for the huge diversity of Roman food. No matter how exclusive or common, no eatery in the Italian capital would dare to pass up on fried artichokes, pasta alla gricia or ossobuco.
The trattoria is therefore clearly the natural mode of expression of Roman cuisine. And Armando Al Pantheon is one of its greatest artists. In this antique restaurant upholstered in cork and parchment diplomas, rows of preserved onions, anchovies with chicory, cocoa-flavoured artichokes and wine-poached pears are laid out on the sideboard, appearing to throb like human hearts. In the kitchen, pot covers line the wall like a treasure trove of barbarian shields. The proprietors are descended from a line that goes back to ancient Rome, and are less restaurant owners than a family. Family ties are the hallmark of this ageless hideaway – each member seems to know their place, and is ready to run to help any family member in difficulty. Dad Claudio and Uncle Fabrizio play their role, while daughter Fabiana and her husband Marco work serving tables and manning the wine cellar.
As the name of their trattoria suggests, the pale frame of the Pantheon lies just a few feet away, like a gaping dinosaur whose arched skull is still admired today. Seeing it gives the impression that ancient Rome was home to an all-conquering, statuesque society draped in civic values. In reality, it was not characterised by the cool of marble, but the weight of bronze. And filled with the violent and bloody atmosphere evoked in some small way by today’s scents of sage, myrtle and ground coffee. This misunderstanding arises from the fact that almost every generation of Roman artists took the liberty of pulling apart the constructions of its forbears and using them in new creations.
After all, Rome hated living amongst ruins, until romantic poets gave her a taste for it. And if you had forgotten that the Imperial city was a pagan sanctuary paved with exotic rituals, that is because the Church that rules here did not want to maintain its memory. But the memory of this world filled with vibrant colours, artificial decorations, sacred bronzes and rotten offerings still survives in the rich and obscure cuisine of the trattoria.
The early diet of the first Romans must have been frugal. Then its inspiration expanded as the Empire grew, until the day it was defeated, leaving nothing but sumptuous memories and local produce. It is the memory of this fallen glory that creates the trattoria atmosphere – simple food with an aftertaste of excess. The Armando Al Pantheon ovens are now reworking the major classics with the single goal of bringing them into line with modern tastes. With specialised cuisine, there is more inspiration to feel like an heir than a successor. Whether it’s brasseries, tapas or dim sum, the formula works like a good thriller novel – suspense is great, but surprises are never good. The Claudio and Fabrizio brothers are happy simply healing their contemporaries' amnesia of flavours that have been forgotten, but still exist – like the viscera, which were not only used by the ancient soothsayers, and for which ingenious recipes bring back to life the sensual realism of the Roman working class. The various repertoires of this great tradition had to be brought up to date by replacing, for example, unappetising lard with olive oil, and removing the grease from the oxtail stew or serving the sweet-and-sour cod of the Roman-Hebraic tradition with taglioni, instead of a meat dish. Some dishes are recreated from childhood impressions, like the cold spelt wheat soup that the chef learnt from his grandmother, cooked with pork cheek, sausage and Pecorino Romano. Or the stew made with little strips of gizzard, crest, heart and chicken liver seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon. Or again, thinly sliced suckling lamb poached with a rosemary, sage and garlic consommé.
And then there are two wonders taken from the treatises on culinary art by Apicius, the Emperor Tiberius' illustrious head waiter who fed his guests with she-camel heels, nightingale tongues, bear blood pudding preserved in aurochs fat and sow’s udder stuffed with sea urchins. Claudio and Fabrizio are less daring, but they have attempted to resurrect a Numidian recipe for guinea fowl with wild mushrooms, stewed in a dark beer stock to replace the fermented barley cervoise for which there is no extant recipe. They have also tried a plum duck that Apicius prepared with honey, onions and silphium, a mysterious wild herb harvested in the Libyan province of Cyrenaica, appreciated by the Ancients for its aromatic and medicinal properties. Many specialists have sought to rediscover this vanished condiment, but the chef here is happy using celery, a more familiar ingredient.
Set against the Apicius recipes, the two chef brothers are like two bodybuilders next to a classical sculpture. Like the filiform beauties that dominate our catwalks, the athletic models of Antiquity were based on an anatomical fantasy that was surely possible, but improbable. At a time when the body was rarely fully developed, the muscular volume of the Farnese Hercules and the Belvedere Torso were supernatural curiosities, drawn from the imagination of visionary artists. It took two thousand years before bodybuilding made these ideals accessible. Likewise, ancient cooking did not lack imagination – but it was short on resources, and had to make do with expedients. Salt was rare, and was regularly replaced by garum, a fish sauce a bit like Vietnamese nuoc-mam. Butcher's special breeds had not been dreamed up. Sugar, tomatoes, maize and potatoes had not yet been brought over from America. There were no refrigerators, so meat had to be soaked in wine, honey and spices to drown out its rotting flavours. Today, nothing forces cooks to settle for approximate ingredients – the vast selection available lets them do precisely what they want. Modernity has given the Romans' culinary heritage the means to achieve its ambitions.
SPAGHETTI ALLA GRICIA
Ingredients: 360 g (12 oz) spaghettoni no. 7 – 200 g (7 oz) guanciale (pork jowl bacon) – 80 g (3 oz) grated Pecorino Romano – 2 spoons extra virgin olive oil – salt and pepper – 1/2 glass white wine.
Heat the oil in a pan and add the diced guanciale. When fairly crispy, add the white wine and remove from the heat. Cook the pasta until it is al dente. Drain, pour into the pan of crispy guanciale and mix with some of the Pecorino Romano. Once the mixture is creamy, serve on plates with a sprinkle of the remaining Pecorino and a pinch of pepper.
TRIPES ALLA ROMANA
Ingredients: 1 kg (35 oz) pre-cooked tripe from the butcher's – 2 onions – 150 g (5 oz) diced smoked bacon – 1 tablespoon oil – 6-8 mint leaves – 200 g (7 oz) grated Pecorino Romano – black pepper – 1 large can peeled and chopped tomatoes.
Place the tripe in a large saucepan of boiling salted water. Cook for 20 minutes from the time it starts to boil again. Drain and leave to stand in a colander. Peel and thinly slice the onions and brown in oil with the smoked bacon in a casserole dish. Add the tomatoes and cook for around 10 min. When the sauce has thickened, add the tripe (cut into strips) and chopped mint. Cook with the lid on and simmer for 1 hour. Serve hot with grated Pecorino Romano and ground pepper.
TORTA ANTICA ROMA
Ingredients: 300 g (10 oz) plain flour – 140 g (5 oz) soft butter – 140 g (5 oz) sugar – 2 eggs – 1 teaspoon baking powder – salt – 300 g (10 oz) fresh ricotta – 300 g (10 oz) cherry jam – icing sugar to garnish.
Butter a 30 cm dish and leave to one side. Form a dough with the sugar, butter, sifted flour, eggs, baking powder and a pinch of salt. Line the dish with some pastry and add the ricotta that you have first drained and crumbled. Spread the jam and cover with the remaining pastry. Bake at 180 °C (gas mark 6) until the tart is cooked. Serve cold, sprinkled with icing sugar.
Ingredients: 4 Kaiser pears – 8 teaspoons white sugar – 500 ml (17 fl oz) red wine – 1 L water.
Wash the pears, remove the core and seeds with a corer and leave the pears whole. Place them on a large dish. Add the sugar, wine and water. Bake at 180 °C (gas mark 6). They are ready when a wooden skewer can pierce them easily. Serve hot or cold in its juices with vanilla ice-cream.
Production Sandrine Giacobetti - Text Julien Bouré - Photography Jean-Claude Amiel