The highlight of the early days of this Roman holiday was dinner at Agate e Romeo, a small restaurant on a grand and sombre avenue near the crown of the Esquiline Hill. We thought we had stumbled across an undiscovered treasure but that turns out not to be the case – the ristorante already has a Michelin star and a loyal following among Rome’s cognoscente. Getting in can be a challenge. We had reserved online before leaving Canada – and were obliged to share credit card details – but received no confirmation and could not reach the restaurant by phone once we got to Rome. So we just showed up at 7:00 p.m. outside the discreet entrance, looking smart and hoping for the best. The door was locked and we were wondering whether we shouldn’t just go round the corner to the always-reliable Trattoria Monti when a waiter appeared. “Momento.” He disappeared and came back with the chef and co-owner, Signora Agata Parisella, who looked us up and down and told us to come back in half an hour. We never did find out if they had registered our reservation but, once we were inside, the staff, led by chef’s husband, Romeo Caraccio, were entirely welcoming.
The dining room isn’t large or particularly posh (Agata Parisella’s forebears ran it as a porchetta joint back in the 1890s) but it has an idiosyncratic charm with hundreds of antique and vintage teapots displayed against the pale green walls and some colourful abstract canvases commissioned for the room. Downstairs, a fabulous modern wine cellar fills every nook and cranny – the pride and joy of host Romeo who was one of Rome’s first certified sommeliers, back in the day. We were served by his young lieutenant who proved perfectly adept at matching each dish we chose with something from the small list of wines available by the glass. We could have opted for the long tasting menu or a second set menu featuring some of the dishes Agata Parisella is best known for – including a renowned, super-rich version of spaghetti with cheese and pepper. Instead, we ordered à la carte and did not regret the decision.
The first amuse bouche was like a quick musical overture previewing some of the themes and stylistic nuances that lay ahead – three tiny, perfect, technically complex bites of food daintily set out on a plate. The first a slice of sea bass bottarga on a dab of ricotta, the bitter-salt marine flavour of the pressed roe delightfully contrasted with the bland, sweet cheese. The second was a miniature ball of crisp, greaseless golden batter concealing a zucchini flower and a dab of near-molten mozzarella. The third was a sphere of fried cheese, intensely flavourful and dramatically spiked with white pepper.
Then the breads arrived – four distinct and freshly made styles including tiny pizza, heavy foccacia and little round brioches in paper shells. Bread is so foten disappointingly dull or borderline stale in even quite good Roman restaurants that such bounty was a pleasant surprise.
The second amuse appeared – so simple but so amazing – about a tablespoonful of raw marinated whitebait, each no more than half an inch long with a wee black dot of an eye against the pale flesh. They were dressed with lemon juice and olive oil on a morsel of crisp bread and they tasted like the ozone-charged scent of the sea.
My first dish was Chef Agata’s vision of how oysters should be served. There were three huge, plump, firmish French Atlantic oysters removed from their wet shells and set upon the plate beside a nest of samphire. Daubed onto those tangled, crunchy green fronds were three shapes of white foam that turned out to be oyster mousse, as aromatic and salty as the ocean itself. The big contrast of the dish, like an island of earthy sweetness, was a ball of red onion ice cream. It sounds weird but it was no more than extrapolation of a mignonette, I suppose – strangely delicious and a brilliant purple colour, topped with a jaunty little yellow Szechuan button that I saved to the end, using it as a tongue-numbing finale to the dish. The young sommelier paired it with a sharpish, resonant 2010 Verdicchio from Bucci in Il Marche and it worked like a charm.
All this time, Wendy had been tucking in to her own first course, a five-part treatise on trout. She had smoked trout teisted into a rosette and used as a cup for trout roe with a stripe of fresh cream for dipping. There was cured trout smothered with a salad of aromatic seedlings. Then a slice of poached trout flattered by capers, sundreied tomatoes and chopped black olives. A little hill of trout mousse was topped with herb butter and a deep-fried scrunchion of ethereal pork fat. The final movement was a sliver of citrus-cured trout with a sauce of lemon, grapefruit and orange and a pearl of grapefruit sorbet. A wedge of black bread, twice-baked and both dyed and flavoured with cuttlefish ink, was a fine idea.
That bread reappeared with the pea soup, a super-rich purée so thick it held a peak until the bowl looked like a sculpture of the sea. Snow white against the green was a mound of slivered cuttlefish, marvellously tender and somehow managing to be both raw and warm.
By now we had twigged that Chef likes to take an ingredient and play with it every which way. Next up it was artichokes, still just in season in Rome and one of my favourite friends from the world of vegetables. Here, they came in disguise, turned into an artichoke crème brûlée; transformed into a delicate little tart like a miniature quiche with a grill-browned top and some flecks of bacon; fried as tempura; and finally simply steamed with a sprinkling of chopped fresh mint. All this as an accompaniment to four impeccably fried pieces of sweetbreads.
There are all sorts of reasons why main courses are often more straightforward than appetizers or the final dessert. It’s like a symphony, where the speed and invention of the first two movements give way to a more meditative slow movement before the final allegro vivace. To be sure, my main course of duck (breats sliced pink, leg frenched and confited, foie gras grilled with a zigzag of red fruits sauce and a wee quenelle of sticky black rice) and Wendy’s of lamb (three joined-up chops so pink and tender, a nest of fried shoestring potatoes) were perfectly executed. If they seemed somewhat conventional after the drama and fun of the apps, the effect was intentional. But the pre-dessert that followed set the ball spinning again. Just a shot glass with layers of various creams – a base of cake, about five millimetres thick, then sambucca-flavoured panna cotta, a plum fool, half a teaspoon of very dark chocolate sauce, a crystallized rose petal. It was by no means sweet but it roused the palate like nobody’s business.
And then dessert – “la fragola” – strawbery mousse topped with strawberry gelee on a whisper of sponge. Three chocolate-dipped strawberries. An intensely refreshing strawberry sorbet. A compote of strawberries and black pepper.
It was all splendid, quite expensive (a Michelin star does push the prices up) and I recommend the place highly. The web site and the business card disagree about whether they are open on Saturday nights but they are certainly closed on Sunday – and there’s no earthly point in showing up before 7:30. They’ll just send you away.
Agata e Romeo is at 45 Via Carlo Alberto. Telephone 06 4466115 (good luck, mate). www.agataeromeo.it.