Over the past year or so, I’ve been picking up on a tiny, barely noticeable change in Rome’s restaurant scene that is slowly percolating. The first signs were chefs focusing on prime materia, the raw or original material of Italy cuisine such as foraged greens, home made sotto oli, quality grains and local sourced produce and meats. The focus became more intense – on creativity and inventiveness within and out of the boundaries of traditional recipes, and finally I started seeing a determined attentiveness to aesthetics and service. I called this new culinary vibe the Evolution of the Trattoria, Trattoria V.2 or Next Gens, where young chefs were embracing their backgrounds and traditions, and pushing the boundaries in an area that really need a push. But these restaurants are not always easy to find, when many focus on bringing in tourists and turning out numbers.
When I first heard of RetroBottega, I had a good feeling but I had to see and eat for myself. It is not easy opening a new restaurant in Rome, especially not in the very epicenter. Located on via della Stelletta (between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon), Retrobottega is an ambitious gambit on a busy street- because Chefs Giuseppe Lo Iudice and Retrobottega partner and fellow chef Alessandro Miocchi aren’t interested in netting the tourist traffic but creating a community space and communal-eating concept for Rome residents and visitors alike.
First impression: Pretty primordial and absolutely avant-gard, Retrobottega could be a minimalist mancave, but I prefer to call it a people’s cave. Miocchi and Iudice are front row and present every single day at RetroBottega – a deliciously dark-walled open space/hang out with just a few details like the polished chrome counters, moody lights and large tables. And it is eating-obsessed where everything revolves around the exposed kitchen and chef’s counter, creating an interactive experience. The community wooden tables counter are nostalgic of traditional trattoria-style restaurant. The space (and subsequently all of the Retro line up) is designed by MORQ, known for the gorgeous lines and prima materia, of course.
Form fits with function. Lo Iucide and Miocchi have high-profile kitchen experience and wanted to bring their own culinary identities to Retrobottega, which means a love for tradition, a love for creative plus a mix of produce from the orto (garden) and fro their weekly foraging adventures in Abruzzo and the Northern part of Lazio. Likewise, Lo Iudice and Miocchi are faithful to the food sources, investing in only local and seasonal so the nuances of the menu will change just as incrementally as the seasons do. In fact, each week provides different variations of the same ingredients too, meaning the restaurant experiences constant evolution with new tastes from week to week, so if you do spot the tortelli pasta with Roman broccoli and anchovies, eat it.
For those with a little patience: one of my favorite Retrobottega dishes is not one but 20 Bites, a crazy Pac-Man insipred tasting menu of their 20 best dishes from antipasti to desserts, a line up which changes every two months.
Whenever I chat with Lo Iudice and Miocchi about Retrobottega [and by the way, I love talking with them], the conversation always is about the community of eating, and how they want to bring back community to the neighbor that from an outsider’s perspective is very touristy and lacking in local. Lo Iudice disagrees. He knows that there is a micro-neighborhood around via della Stelletta, and views an investment in the center as fundamental to maintaining the vitality of Rome. And this is just one reason why Retrobottega spawned off RetroVino, a local enoteca, and RetroPasta, Miocchi’s baby-a tiny pasta laboratory/lunch spot where you can sit at the counter and watch the RetroPasta team handmake pastas.
Retropasta is a mecca for the pasta connoisseur. The team searches out shapes- traditional, forgotten and territorial filled pasta shapes like plin, anolini, raviol, tortelloni, tonnarellii and so many more. Recipes range from traditionally expected like cacio e pepe to fabulously unexpected like tortelloni di coniglio alla cacciatora. You order by the weight 50, 100 and 150 grams and the price is old-school affordable – 4 euro, 8 euro, you get the idea.
RetroVino, Intimate and hidden enoteca that unleashes 21st century culinary creativity in the heart of Rome’s centro storico- seats only 14 guests. I like to consider it the much needed evolution of the stereotypical Roman enoteca. MORQ stripped down a ground-level cantina/storage space in 16th century townhous to its original architectural lines by focusing on simple design, warm tones and natural materials all highlighting the wine display (3 levels of industrial metal shelves) flanking both sides of the oblong space. Cozy and effortlessly cool. Lo Iudice and Miocchi hand select wines from small, lesser known and hard-to-find producers and offer a delicious selection of Roman tapas from salumi and cheeses, sottoaceti and sottoli (pickled and oil cured vegetables foraged by Miocchi and Lo Iudice) to particular creations including peperoni tonnato and home-made pastrami. The last Sunday of the month, Miocchi invites chef friends like Daniele Usai (Il Tino, 1 star) for Pasta Games- where they battle a new filled pasta recipe, with DJ. Menu changes monthly- known as PastaGames. If you go, you’ll probably see me.
IN THE EPISODE
[06:21] In the Retrobottega kitchen
[10:16] Chef Giuseppe Lo Iudice on Foraging
[12:09] What’s on the Menu?
[19:21] 20 Bites
[24:17] Wines and menu
[31:34] Giuseppe’s Rome