Last month I went with a couple of friends of mine to Romano in the seaside town of Viareggio in Tuscany. I have to say, the quality of the seafood they get is incredible. And aside from a couple of problems with the primi, this was a very good meal. My report is below and the pictures, if you care to check them out, are here: http://www.alifewortheating.com/italy...
We splurged on a very drinkable bottle of Billecart-Salmon 1996 Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart Brut Champagne and the scampi were still twitching on the plate they were so fresh. I think those two bits of information basically sum up our evening at Romano. My work here is done…
What, you want details? Well, it was a meal full of bubbles. Perhaps every night in Viareggio is full of bubbles. I have insufficient data to either confirm or deny that. But no sooner had we sat down than a smiling gentleman began pouring Philipponnat NV Royale Réserve Brut champagne into our glasses. He posed a deep philosophical question — what good is a drink without food? — half to himself and half to us, before vowing to come right back with a snack.
Soon before each of us he set a piccolo fritto, a little mixture of this fried fish and that. I didn’t have much of a clue what we were eating, but my friend is like a friggin’ marine biologist when he’s at the dinner table, particularly when he’s hungry. So while I knew there was a head-on gambero (shrimp), tiny moscardini (baby octopus), and an anchovy, he pointed out the nasellino (hake) as the freshest and most flavorful thing on the plate. I didn’t question him. The thin, crispy batter was addictively salty and not at all oily. But even more importantly, you could taste the freshness of everything.
I hadn’t even seen the menu yet but I was smiling, thinking that if this kind of a welcome was indicative of Italian hospitality in general, international diplomacy in this country must be incredibly effective. The maître d’ gave us a minute to peruse the menu and then gave us an offer we couldn’t refuse — he offered to put together a tasting for us. We popped the cork on the Billecart-Salmon and the games began. First was the fantasia di pesce crudo secondo il pescato, literally meaning a plate of sashimi the fantasy of raw fish according to the catch of the day. Working clockwise from the oyster, there were slices of ombrina (shi drum), dentice (dentex), and gallinella (tub gurnard). No, I didn’t make up those fish names in English. How dare you imply such a thing! Fortunately now I know the scampi were the ones trembling when I put them on my tongue and closed my eyes to better concentrate on their amazing sweetness. Meanwhile, the sparnocchi, the Tuscan name for another type of shrimp, were also just as fresh as they could be.
The fantasia was not over. A second round of raw seafood came laid out among six spoons. This time, there were sogliola (sole), triglia (red mullet), two each of the sparnocchi and scampi, and a cicala di mare (mantis shrimp). Did I mention these guys (and Franca Checchi, the matriarch who heads the kitchen) go to the docks to buy fish twice a day? We could tell. Unlike the previous round of crudo, a couple of these fish came with friends. The sole, for example, came with basil and the red mullet with radicchio. The drops of olive oil on each spoon were flavorful but not distracting. So far, so very, very good.
I almost wanted to say “domo arigato” to the Japanese guy who must’ve been hiding in the kitchen and move on to the sushi portion of the meal; but then I remembered that we were in Italy. I could’ve guessed as much from one look at the Filetti di triglia, olive, pomodoro, basilico ed olio extravergine d’oliva. Red mullet fillets were covered by a small diced tomatoes and even smaller diced black olives, and the whole lot was given a drizzle of a very fine olive oil made in the nearby town of Lucca from a combination of Leccino, Frantoio, and Moraiolo cultivars. The fish was fresh and tender, the flakes of flesh breaking apart anytime I so much as looked its direction. If there were ever a time to fare la scarpetta (that is, clean one’s plate with bread) this was it.
Another reminder that we were in Tuscany was the Sparnocchi con fagioli “schiaccioni” di Pietrasanta, featuring local shrimp and fat white and green beans grown in the nearby town of Pietrasanta. Despite the name of the dish on the menu, they also snuck scampi, cicale, and moscardini (tiny octopuses that, like the babies of many animal species, are delicious) on the plate here, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. Even cooked, the shellfish had a tenderness and sweetness that suggested they hadn’t been out of the water much longer than we had been in the restaurant. This was a dead simple dish: just shellfish, beans, and more of that delightfully fruity olive oil. But again, we couldn’t help but be happy.
Romano is a family business and the Calamaretti ripieni di verdure e crostacei is a recipe that’s been in their arsenal for years. I tasted it and quietly wondered if there were any daughters in the family I had not been introduced to that might be of a suitable marrying age. Here baby calamari are stuffed with vegetables and shrimp. This was so frustrating to eat — the taste was incredibly good, the recipe incredibly easy, and the raw ingredients, I realized, completely unattainable anywhere else on the planet. But these are precisely the moments I hope for as a diner: transient flashes of irreproducible flavor. This dish was a mouthful of Viareggio.
The last of the appetizers (yep, we were still on the appetizers) was Sparnocchi, lardo di Colonnata e farinata di cavolo nero. A single head-on shrimp was wrapped in a blanket of one of the finest cured pork fats in Italy (the other great one, in my opinion, is lardo d’Arnad). Hard to complain about that combo. Beneath it was a thin puck of a Tuscan’s take on farinata, the Ligurian chickpea flour pancake. Here instead of chickpeas, they utilized bread and cavolo nero (black cabbage) to create a sort of condensed version of ribollita soup with a texture not unlike a latke. Quite flavorful, surprisingly, and much crisper than I had expected.
We had unfortunately killed off the last drops of the Billecart-Salmon, so we broke open a bottle of André Beaufort Brut Grand Cru Rosé to get us through the rest of the meal. Drinking this immediately following the previous champagne made the bubbly rosé seem more like, well, a wine. It was a nice change of pace. The Billecart-Salmon had been a lovely match for the more subtle flavors we had seen so far, and the Beaufort rosé would prove to keep up very nicely as we transitioned to more assertively flavored dishes.
The primi began with the Risotto alla Pescatora, con gamberi e molluschi, the “fisherman’s” risotto with shrimp and molluscs. This was assertive, alright. But unfortunately in the sense that it tasted too strongly of pepper. The broth used was dull and watery. On the positive side, the rice was cooked to the right degree, and I liked that the risotto was served a little loose (this is a neither “right” nor “wrong”, just a preference thing). There were, however, several small shards of broken clam shell hiding in a few places that nearly left us looking like Michael Strahan. I’m a forgiving guy; but that mistake is, to put it mildly, not okay.
A plate of Paccheri di Gragnano alla marinara con pesce di fondale, gamberi e calamari also fell victim to an irreversible error: the pasta itself was good, very good in fact. But the tomato and seafood sauce was just too bloody salty. I wanted to save the shrimp, and those innocent little calamari. I really did. But alas, the whole dish was assaulted by the sodium chloride reign of terror. Our plates went back to the kitchen looking much the same as when they had come out.
There was one dish in particular I just had to have: the Sparnocchi al miele di castagno. The local shrimp we now knew and loved were bathing here in bittersweet chestnut honey. The sauce was heady and complex, and the shrimp, exceptional. Adam distracted me for a second with an asinine comment about the restaurant’s decor; and when I looked down, a shrimp was missing. He found the sauce a little too sweet, perhaps even under-salted. But for me, the bitterness of the honey really accented the natural sweetness of the sparnocchi. The fact that there were very good fried artichokes on the plate was a mere bonus, the Italian kiss on the other cheek, if you will.
Adam, meanwhile, had the Scampi e sparnocchi al guazzetto. Guazzetto is a colorful Italian word that literally means “splashed” but usually refers, as it did here, to a thin stew of either fish or meat. These two types of shrimp were splashed with a very flavorful white wine butter sauce redolent of fresh herbs. Adam found the sauce excessively rich. I disagreed; if anything, it was excessively French. Meanwhile he continued learning the Italian language by doing — or rather, eating — when our friend taught him the phrase fare puccetta: to dip a chunk of bread into a broth or soup. These are the kind of life lessons he will never forget. Clearly there is an Italian phrase for every food-related activity in the world.
Our friend showed signs of slowing down (can you really blame him considering what we’d already eaten?), so he pushed much of his Triglie con salsa al vino rosso over to me and Adam. The same red mullet we had eaten way back near the beginning was painted this time with a much more assertive brush. The red wine sauce worked quite well, I thought. Our friend wasn’t as fond of the tangled mound of thick-cut potato chips that shared the plate with the fish. To him, it felt like filler. To me, I just wish it had been a touch more crispy on the inside. The fish itself and the delicacy with which it had been cooked were, again, hard to fault.
Our champagne was gone (notice the use of the passive voice to imply that it disappeared on its own), and so, it seemed, were the savories. This is always a sad time in the meal, but the maître d’ must have seen our long faces, since he brought a glass of Braida 2008 Vigna Senza Nome Moscato d’Asti DOCG. This was to keep us company while we munched on the Piccola pasticceria in anticipation (or, in Adam’s case, dread) of dessert. The various cookies, mini creme caramels, and cream puffs were all good, but the cantuccini (Tuscan almond biscotti) were exceptional.
Adam passed on dessert, and by that I mean he chose not to take years off his life to pursue further gluttony like I was doing. Our friend, ever level-headed, chose to keep things liight with the Sorbetti di agrumi, citrus sorbets. Merely for discussion’s sake, I tasted each and every sorbet. Twice. How else could I be sure that the four flavors — lemon, grapefruit, orange, and tarocco blood orange — were really as fantastic as they seemed the first time around? Tasting purely of fruit, they left a clean and tart taste lingering in my mouth.
That is, until the vin santo arrived. I had ordered the Semifreddo ai cantuccini Toscani con salsa al Vin Santo for dessert, which meant that it was my duty, nay, my honor, to enjoy a glass of Tenute Marchese Antinori 2004 Vin Santo del Chianti Classico DOC with it. Semifreddo is often more like a semi-frozen custard or mousse than it is like gelato, and that was the case here. Showered with crunchy bits of cantuccini and spiked with vin santo sauce, this dessert was fabulous. The vin santo itself didn’t hurt, either. It was assertive up front but had a really smooth finish.
So did the meal, come to think of it. As I sipped my caffè (Indian Mysore Plantation A, if you’re curious), I considered that the beginning and end of the meal had both been very strong, and the only dip was with the two primi. Even then it wasn’t the ingredients that could be faulted; it was the cooking. There is a two-fold challenge in any cuisine, and especially so in one as technically simple as Italian, and that is: (1) find the very best ingredients, and (2) don’t screw them up. Certainly the first part had been satisfied throughout. Frankly, I think you could count the number of places in Italy with seafood of this quality on both hands, maybe even on one. But when the cook occasionally stumbles (and everyone does), it reminds you that sometimes food is best left unadorned or even raw on the plate. Maybe with a drop or two of olive oil for good measure.