August 24, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 29°C


Il Buco: The promise of ingredients handled well.
By Suzanne Dunaway
Published: 2016-08-19

osa has gone. As we peered through the pass-through where for years we had loved watching Sandro shouting orders in Romanesco — A'Ro',n'a griscia e n'a coda, we saw that the wizened lady in the kitchen was nowhere in sight.

A newcomer was at the stove and we thought, "Well, there goes another great little place we could once count on for the essence of la cucina romana." But we were wrong.

When we asked Sandro, the owner of this tiny Via Appia Antica restaurant marked only by TRATTORIA over the door, how it was that our lovely lunch tasted exactly as if Rosa were still in the kitchen, he said, "I can teach any fairly good cook how to make the dishes I want. I know how they should taste, I know what results I will accept, and I work with my cook for a week or so to get everything right."

The crucial part is that Sandro knows what's right.

Fortunato Baldassari also knew what was right (and what he wanted). So it is that Fortunato al Pantheon (Via del Pantheon, 55), known mostly as Da Fortunato, continues to flourish. Alas, many "chefs" do not know, or are easily swayed by trends.

When Americans — high on blogs and reality TV — began asking about the identity of local chefs, Italians were genuinely puzzled. Who needs to know their names? The person in the kitchen is the cook. He or she knows exactly how to play their pots and pans. They don't need to be stars, have a TV show or even a branded-shirt.

Fortunato Baldassari, who founded Fortunato al Pantheon, died in 2014.

The cook cooked — and often made better far better spaghetti alle vongole than the "creative" joint next door known for its bells and whistles and would-be celebrity chef.

These days I remember restaurants based on the ones I won't go back to, which is sad but true.

I understand entrepreneurs work hard to be different. They pop in some foam here or machine-smoked whatever there, but mostly — based on experience — it just doesn't work. I've eaten in Rome for decades. Now, my repertoire consists of a handful of places that still cook the kind of food I love to remember.

An example: 20 years ago I had a meal at Al Moro (13, Vicolo Bollette) I still remember to the smallest detail. The carbonara was a perfect combination of pancetta, eggs and parmigiano. The cheese was the best Reggiano to be had, the eggs right out of the chicken, and the pancetta an ideal balance of lean and fat.

This wasn't some magic act. The owner knew to bring these ingredients into the kitchen and how to use them. He also knew just how the sauce should slide over the spaghetti.

Maybe the subtleties of la cucina romana are now shouted more than whispered, as they used to be when cooks alone presided over the kitchen and chef was only a French word. Perhaps shouting gets more customers, just as invasive music seems to be a must for new restaurants eager to attract a young crowd. What's very clear is that small, family-owned spots with their owner parked at the door are becoming relics.

But they still exist.

In one of our favorites, Il Buco (Via di Sant Ignazio, 8), the owner's wife is the kitchen talent. She oversees the making of her special salsa di noci that coats tender, light ravioli. She makes all of the trattoria's fresh pasta, the tagliatelle cut by hand into thin, even strips, a perfect partner for tartufi bianchi or neri, depending on the season.

What will become of the Rome dining scene, I wonder, when the remaining small trattorie are pushed aside by places that turn up the volume, find simplicity boring, and encourage you to meet The Chef?

Our little jewels are disappearing, all the more reason to sample them while they last.

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Suzanne Dunaway

Suzanne divides her time between the U.S, Italy and southern France.

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