Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hostario dell'Orso de Gaultiero Marchesi; some raves for Rome's one Michelin-starred historic spot

Buon giorno tutti from Rome, Italy where we have started our month-long European jaunt, and while we will be on board our cruise ship for much of this time, we intend to get some pre and post-cruise fine and local dining in.

One of yesterday's highlights was a stop at GIOLITTI, perhaps Rome's #1 gelateria, and it was no disappointment whatsoever. We were happy to brave the 10-minute wait and make our way to the dozens and dozens of choices of clearly the creamiest and best ice cream around. Samuel opted for the simple yet fruitiest STRAWBERRY, while I took a combination of WHITE CHOCOLATE and FRUTTI di BOSCO, literally meaning fruits of the woods, but here a combination of wild berries with small chunks of fruit in the berry delectable gelato. Will, feeling a need for refreshment from the 95 degree heat we have been having daily, stayed on the fruit side with PINEAPPLE (actually with chunks of fresh pineapple) and a tasty LIMONCELLO, that fabulous tart lemon after-dinner drink that we can't forget to enjoy while here! Giolitti is a must not miss stop on any gastronomes tour of Rome and is only blocks from the Pantheon or your no-way-I-can afford-this shopping area on the Via del Corso.

Since the 14th century HOSTARIO dell'ORSO has been operating without closure(save for during the two world wars) as in inn on the banks on the Tiber River just blocks from Piazza Navona. Located on the amazingly narrow and adorable medieval-like Via dei Soldati (#25c) the restaurant also sports a piano bar and disco. During the summer the dining room is moved to the entry level with the tables outside, and I am confident that the one Michelin-starred chef GUALTIERO MARCHESE barely makes an appearance during this season from June to September. Nonetheless, he has created a menu that survives the summer heat and makes the most of the wonderful fresh ingredients we have come to love so well in Europe. We started with a glass of Prosecco and enjoyed four small amuses which included a refreshing high quality grade raw tuna with a wild blueberry on top that was a bit bland, pasta-based cornetti (horn shaped) filled with ricotta cheese and herbs (which we giggled at as our server Roberto pronounced it "harabs" making us think he had said it was filled with "Arabs!" Pineapple and Salmon was an interesting combo, but the hit was the tiny pastry filled with a creamy Black Squid Sauce and tiny chunks of Octopus.

Our first wine was a SANNIO FLANGHINA 2006 from Santiquaranta-Molinara in Campania of the south of Italy. I can't recall ever having this sauvignon-like refreshing wine which had a huge grassy nose with a sharp refreshing essence on the palate that dies fast and makes a great aperitif. When our adorable serving assistant showed me the bottle, I could not help saying "I like the bottle...and...." but left it at that. Our second white was a revelation from ASCEVI LUWA in the north region of Friuli, a 2005 COLLIO SAUVIGNON (Blanc) "Ronco di Sassi" that also had a huge nose and was drinking a creamy basket of citrus fruit. The manager/sommelier Luciano knew we were happy, especially since he had recommended some excellent wines so reasonably priced in the 30-40 Euro price zone (I should add that while the Euro now costs about $1.38, the buying power of one euro is perhaps barely equal to that of $1,00).

The several types of bread and biscuits could have easily been forgotten, but the breadsticks were delish. A second (well, really the fifth) amuse came in a gorgeous Ginori bowl (with the concentric) striations around the rim in the form of a superb miniature tomato filled with a puree of Italian white beans and some small pieces of tuna (that were so salty, I could have sworn they were anchovy!).

The main meal started and we all chose to order a la carte rather than opt for one of the many tasting menus (going from a vegetarian option at the price of somewhere around 50 Euros to the chef's choice at 145 Euros) which just seemed to be too much in the heat. The starters were SEARED SEA SCALLOPS on a salad with a zingy GINGER & PINK PEPPER dressing, GLAZED QUAILS and their EGGS, my refreshing and light Carpaccio of SICILIAN RED PRAWNS with Seasonal Vegetables and the largest chunk of FOIE GRAS I have ever seen on a plate with MELON SOUP, PINEAPPLE & PISTACHIO that there seemed to be enough of for everyone to share multiple bites of.

The pasta courses were enjoyable, but not truly revelations as I would have hoped. Will's RABBIT RAGU (I forget on what type of pasta) was the lightest ragout I have ever tasted, and actually was quite nice for the summer, the HOME MADE TAGLIOLINI with a light creamy sauce of SEA URCHIN & TOASTED ALMONDS was also good, but needed some zing, perhaps a small piece of fresh sea urchin or a touch of caviar. The heaviest was the BASIL & POTATO GNOCCHI with EGGPLANT MOUSSE, TOMATO & Smoked Cheese, which was amazing, but just to rich for me. Our friend, Mel could not stop raving. We did notice that while Hostaria sports a Michelin star and the staff is kind, helpful and courteous; they seemed to be a bit rushed and busy at times (perhaps someone didn't show up for work?) and they often cleared the plates haphazardly and not at the same time (a pet peeve I find bothersome). The worst offense, however, was the men's room that clearly needed cleaning despite its adorable risque prints on the wall.

We all gave in and ordered the highly recommended by Roberto VEAL "ROSSINI" di Gualtiero Marchese which had a filet topped with a large piece of foie gras (from Perigord in France) and a magnificent nose of Italian BLACK SUMMER TRUFFLES as the four plates wafted towards us. A small dish on the side held some yummy spinach with raisins and pine nuts that we wished there was more of. The meat was perfection, but it was the truffles that made it "over-the-top we are all very happy now campers." Luciano suggested and amazing 2004 MONTEPULCIANO d'ABRUZZO "Aldiano" from Cantina Tollo that was simply perfect with the food and as I said to our adorable assistant server "It's bigger than what I expected" which Mel responded, "It's what we pray for." Now giggle a lot, but it was so funny, because this drop dead gorgeous guy spoke a halting English and clearly could not understand the innuendos, but we were all so happy it did not matter.

After a nice break (everything was served at perfect intervals) we opted to share a cheese plate which came with a nice TALLEGIO,an UBRIACO from Tuscany that packed a small bite, a boring TOMINO (I was told also spelled Tommino sometimes) from Trentino on the Adriatic north of Venice and crumbly tasty PARMEGGIANO REGGIANO and one of the best GORGONZOLA's I have ever had that was mild yet so rich and creamy it resembled a French triple-creme. Four fresh fruit sauce accompanied the cheeses. Luciano again recommended a perfect dessert wine in a TERRE die CHIETI PASSITO 2004 from Tollo in Abruzzo that I would enjoy
after any meal because it is sweet, yet not too intense (especially in the heat, which still was strong at almost midnight!).

The desserts were a wonderful MEDITERRANEAN CHOCOLATE (it was dark, yet not bitter or intense) and TOMATO JAM CUSTARD CREAM with Balsamic Vinegar that got stars just for the jam itself. A LEMON TARTKET with WILD BERRIES, LIME JELLY and Meringue and some creamy flavor-filled homemade gelati. The mignardises were promptly finished by the four of us and included a spoon of SPICY GUAVA Gelled Fruit, a boring chocolate cup with cream, a superb BABA Au RHUM (which Roberto told us originated in Naples), but the piece de resistance was a small bar of CHOCOLATE covered in COCONUT that I saved for last and made me feel that while the meal was perhaps not all perfect, there were so many sweet moments, the overall experience was a truly great start to a month abroad with two great friends, Juan & Mel.

Incidentally, after dinner Roberto gave us a quick tour of the gorgeous upstairs dining room which has original frescoes and some amazing original wood beam ceilings from the 15th and 14th century.