“Ah, Rome,” murmured my Italophile friend wistfully. “The city of eternal heartburn.” He has a point. Spend a weekend in the Italian capital grazing on supplì (rice croquettes, filled with stringy cheese and sometimes a meaty ragù), deep-fried artichokes and pasta richly anointed with butter and pecorino, and your indigestion might well be physical as well as cultural: see Rome… and diet.
At Assaggia, tucked away in a quiet street near the Piazza del Popolo, the risk of gustatory overload is mitigated by the menu, which offers many of Rome’s greatest hits in tapas-sized portions. The decor – a sleek, lounge-like room with bar and terrace – might be contemporary, but the kitchen is fired by the city’s rich culinary history.
Supplì are never delicate, but Assaggia’s version is as close as they get: crisp and greaseless, an intense beef ragù concealing molten strands of mozzarella. A classic carbonara features short tubes of excellent pasta dressed with beaten egg, pecorino, Parmesan and shards of guanciale (cured pig’s cheek); sticky, slow-cooked oxtail is bathed in a glossy, deep-flavoured sauce.
Lighten the load with excellent raw fish – prawns, bonito, mackerel or ricciola (amberjack), dressed simply with various herbs and top-notch olive oil – and a salad or two: fragrant slivers of fennel, for example, with segments of orange and tiny, bitter olives. Assaggia makes the heart and soul of Roman cuisine much easier on the stomach.
At Aroma, the Michelin-starred restaurant atop the Palazzo Manfredi, overlooking the Colosseum, head chef Giuseppe Di Iorio puts an altogether more modern spin on his city’s cuisine. Octopus, marinated with red cabbage and cooked to the perfect point between springy and squidgy, is matched with sweet potato crisps; a lime and saffron jelly adds a citric tang. Fillets of rabbit are infused with thyme, partnered with a robust tomato sauce and topped with a cacciatore foam. Rosy spring lamb has tiny spring vegetables for company: fennel, spring onion, turnip, carrot and asparagus, all singing with as much flavour as if they had just been plucked from the soil.
My favourite dish, however, was Di Iorio’s version of a classic Roman primo piatto. Eschewing foams and jellies, it was a seemingly simple dish of riccioli – curls of durum wheat pasta – luxuriating in artichoke purée, the sauce flecked with tender chunks of the same glorious vegetable, with little splinters of guanciale and a scattering of pecorino adding savour and crunch. Its flavour, texture and (appropriately) aroma were superb: it may well be the finest plate of pasta I have ever eaten.
Some people would go back to Rome just to see the Colosseum again: I would return simply for another plate of that artichoke pasta. Happily, thanks to the restaurant’s splendidly located terrace, Aroma’s guests can do both at the same time.