Thursday, October 27, 2005

Rome – Porto di Ripetta

Piazza del Popolo derives its name from the way the square was used. In ancient times the square was the arrival point from the Catholic controlled cities of Ancona and Bologna. You could say it was a grand central station with carriages instead of trains. Thus, it was called the square full of people. There are many interesting things in and around the square, an obelisk carved in 522 B.C. brought back from Egypt, 2 magnificent churches with paintings, affreschi and sculptures by Andrea Bregno, Mino da Fiesole, Lorenzetto, Raphael and Bernini.

Books may be written on each single artifact or structure, but, today’s treasure is found just down via Ripetta about 50 yards on the right. The entrance to “Porto di Ripetta” is unassuming and always locked. When you ring the bell a jovial gentleman will arrive, look you over and decide whether or not he can accommodate you. As you make it through the door you will notice several large platters with fresh fish on ice. Take a look at this because it is most likely dinner. There is also some large fish under salt that is definitely worth trying.

The restaurant seems to be very small, maybe 10 tables, a small bar and a place to hang your coats. As you follow owner you will think he is going to seat you in the restroom or at best on a stool at the bar. Do not despair! A winding staircase becomes apparent in the back corner just about the same time you are sure that you will end up in the restroom. Down the stairs, you arrive at the kitchen. No, you will not have to work for your dinner, at least he never asked me to work. Maybe I did not make a good enough impression.?. Perhaps only those who look like the actually know something about food get the opportunity to exchange the meal for work…

At the bottom of the stairs you enter a much larger area, divided in two parts. This is really neat. It is the cantine, or basement, so you have the brick arches from the 1500s as the ceiling. The water level in Rome has risen over the years so while the cantina would have been about 4 meters high, today the room stands, in the center, about 2.2 meters, or 7 ½ feet. On the sides it is about 5’ 4” (vaulted ceilings…).

This would seem to be a problem, yet it is fabulous. The tables run horizontally so when you sit you have sufficient headroom, even if you’re tall, while in the center you can walk comfortably without any problem. The earthy feel of the brick with the arched structure so low gives you a feeling of being protected and takes you back in time. The round table in the right forefront, half visible in the picture, is actually my favorite table.

Porto di Ripetta serves only fish and mollusks, done many different ways, but still only fish. I would choose the carpacio, this is paper thin slices cooked by either dousing with lemon or vinegar. This enhances the fishes natural flavor and when fresh is really good. Prosecco is the wine of choice with the appetizer, you could ask for something else however, Prosecco is bubbly and not sweet so it is a perfect match for the carpacio.

Since I rarely eat appetizer, first, second and dessert, my choice would then be the Fettucine alla Pescatrice. Fettucine are handmade egg pasta about as wide as your pinky finger and as long as spaghetti. They have sufficient consistency to give you the impression you are chewing something. The sauce is a “fresh catch of the day, all included” and will usually be prepared in a wine or butter base. The resulting plate gives you the satisfaction of biting into something, good balanced flavors of the sea, and the gravy like sauce holds everything together, complimenting without overpowering.

Raffaella would usually choose the second course, the Spigola with Radicchio and lemon sauce is really good. The Radicchio is lightly grilled, wilting it a bit and at the same time accentuating its flavor. The Spigola maintains its body relatively well and when cooked properly will not fall apart. Porto di Ripetta knows fish so the consistency and flavors are well balanced.

Wine with the dinner should be a white from Abbruzzo or Lazio as they will best compliment the various dishes. There are a few reds that will also work, but I would ask the waiter to suggest. Porto di Ripetta has a well stocked cellar with wines that will work with the dishes it serves.

There are many fabulous desserts but, again, I am a chocoholic. Porto di Ripetta occasionally has a dessert that seems made for me. It is a Chocolate Mousse, almost as good as the one I make at home. My Chocolate Mousse is better because, well … I make it. I also use 2 tablespoons of either Cognac or Rum when I melt the dark chocolate that adds an additional kick to the chocolate. The Chocolate Mousse, made in house, is creamy, fluffy, and a true chocolate kick. This is one dessert you want to have with some wine and finished off with an espresso doppio.

Do not allow them to take away the espresso cup once you finish because there is one more thing at Porto di Ripetta that you must try. The owner is from Abruzzo and still has a farm there. His family makes a special version of limoncello. The commercial limoncello is usually bright yellow and extremely sweet. The commercial stuff is made with tons of sugar, lemon extract and lemon peel. The limoncello made by Porto di Ripetta is made with the lemon leaves and no additional sugar. It is not sweet by any means but has this dominating lemon taste. This is definitely a must try even for those who do not drink.

I suggested that you not allow the waiters to take away your empty espresso cup. The reason is that once you have tried the limoncello in the glass, pour the remaining amount into the espresso cup, better if you left just a little coffee in the bottom. The mix is great!

Since this limoncello is a homemade product it is not always available and usually is offered to close friends and family. It is worth a try, so ask for it, the worst thing that can happen is they will say that they have finished it.

The service is great here. The owner will come by, most likely take your order, the staff is attentive and not overbearing and they know their business. This is a place where you know that you will get a great meal of fish, good wines, and you will have the opportunity to try what I consider is the best limoncello around.


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