For my next stop, I pulled a metaphysical U-turn back to the central Italian region of Tuscany for a visit to Tullio, a tony trattoria wedged between the snarling traffic of Piazza Barberini and the glitz of Via Veneto. Tuscany is said to be where the purest Italian is spoken, and, fittingly, the byword of its cuisine is simplicity: Just add a dash of olive oil and salt, and let the ingredients speak for themselves. Or, as they do at Tullio, sing.
Fortunately, the restaurant’s upmarket tone doesn’t carry over to the food, which is Tuscan fare as it should be, straightforward, unfussy, sparingly seasoned — and utterly delicious. The fagioli all’olio, cannellini beans, olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and fresh sage, are a study in sophisticated simplicity, and the pappardelle alla lepre, long, flat, perfectly al dente noodles with hare ragú, pack a dark, musky punch.
But what secures Tullio’s place in the pantheon of Roman gastronomy is its bistecca fiorentina, Tuscany’s signature dish. A Spanish friend dining with me pronounced this char-grilled hunk of lean Chianina beef, served bloody rare and unadorned, better than anything he’d ever tasted in his native land. “Or even,” he added after a thoughtful pause, “Argentina.”
After this tasty stopover in Italy’s heartland, it was out to sea again to the island of Sardinia. Forty years ago, restaurateur Valentina Tolu opened Il Drappo, a cozy and refined outpost of Sardinian cuisine a short walk from Campo de’ Fiori, and she’s run it with a steady hand ever since.
“We were the first Sardinian restaurant in Rome,” she tells me a little wistfully. “There are many others now — Sardinian restaurants in name if not substance.”
Tolu is at pains to preserve that substance — and authenticity — at all costs. To that end, every two weeks she takes delivery of a shipment of supplies from her native soil (everything from the characteristically-Sardinian malloreddus gnocchi to the island’s famed sheep’s milk cheese). Even the centerpiece of the decor, a silvery silk sheet draped in undulating folds from the ceiling, harks back to the traditions of the homeland, where natives celebrate the festival of Corpus Christi by unfurling bolts of fabric from their windows.
Curiously, fish is a fairly recent arrival in the Sardinian diet. For centuries, seafaring raiders harried the indigenous Sardinians into the island’s mountainous interior, resulting in a cuisine heavy on hoofed proteins. After a starter of carta da musica — a paper-thin, crispy flatbread once favored by shepherds and swineherds because it didn’t spoil — topped with chopped tomatoes, celery, and olive oil, I paid homage to those agrarian roots by diving, fork-first, into the meltingly tender flesh of a roast suckling pig garnished with myrtle (su porceddu al mirto, in the Sardinian dialect).
But don’t think that just because they were latecomers to seafood, Sardinians aren’t experts at working wonders with it. For my money, the best at Il Drappo is linguine al’astice, or lobster linguine. It’s sometimes not on the menu, but don’t lose heart. Ask and you shall receive.
Indeed, what you see isn’t always what you get in Rome — and what’s true of menus goes double for the city’s dining scene as a whole. Behind the veneer of predictability thrives an eclecticism every bit as varied as Italy itself. For a taste of that richness, all you need is a ticket to Rome, a good pair of walking shoes — and a hearty appetite for the unexpected.
Marc Mewshaw can be reached at email@example.com.