My first night in Rome, I pushed through my travel exhaustion and found myself almost immediately on Italian time and seeking dinner after 8:00. It was a Sunday, which limited my options somewhat, but I got lucky and stumbled upon Al Peperoncino, a neighborhood spot close to where I’m staying.
Note: While I don’t mind eating alone, I imagined sharing this meal with someone special. My impressions of the food below are the product of the internal narration occurring as I pictured the seat across the table from me filled by someone we can call #4.
It’s artichoke season. I took a photo of some for sale at a market and they are almost purple. For my first dinner in Rome, I ordered those on bruschetta, along with spicy broccolini and speck and cheese filled rice balls. I think.
The vegetables arrive first and are cooked softer than I expected, yet still vividly green. The spice comes slowly on the tongue and the back of the throat. Creeper, which I really like. I can imagine people discontented with the heat level, asking for crushed red pepper to spice it up, but that would be a wrong move. It’s perfectly seasoned, you just have to be patient and let it happen.
There are a lot of situations in life you’ll discover that that can be said about.
The greens are a little oily, but it’s a GOOD oily, kind of the same way people describe desert heat as dry as if that makes it more palatable. I’m convinced olive oil is probably the magical elixir responsible for Italians shiny dark hair and olive skin. Looking around the restaurant at the other diners, it seems they’re on to something.
I imagine the greens would be great under poached eggs.
The artichokes, served on a toasted and olive oil brushed slice of bread are perfectly cooked, not mushy in the slightest. They resemble sautéed mushrooms but their flavor is unmistakably artichokes. They are what I was expecting, without disappointment or surprise.
Later in my meal, when I revisited the 1/2 slice of bread upon which the carciofi had been placed, which I had originally sacrificed in favor of dessert, I realized I had made a mistake. Instead of trying to consume the bruschetta within moments of it having been served, while it was still hot, I should have left it like a Cardona’s sandwich to linger a little while. The bruschetta definitely benefited from marinating a bit to soften the bread and that final pre-dessert bite was memorable.
Funny thing – there’s a couple dining nearby whose sign language conversation I originally mistook for Italians speaking with their hands.
I totally did not understand what I was ordering when it came to the speck and cheese dish. Instead of deep fried rice balls, I got a piping hot crock filled with bubbling cheese, topped with a layer of smoked speck.
This is not a complaint.
I was warned to avoid touching the crock and left to my devices. I’m still not sure if a fork and a knife were the typical attack tactic, but it worked for me as I found myself repeatedly going back to transfer more of the rapidly cooling Toma cheese onto my plate. In between bites, I chased the salty, crunchy cheese bites with a few forkfuls of broccoli.
Because, I wanted desert.
And my leftover bread, greens and cheese, maybe even crowned with a fried egg, were going to make a banging breakfast tomorrow.
The panna cotta I decided upon was a revelation. Again, my first taste was similar to the mild broccolini when I had been promised spicy – it was simply too sweet. Except it wasn’t.
It was just right.
It was milk white underneath its berry compote topping with a texture which was reminiscent of crème brûlée, It felt good in my mouth. Honestly, if I ever I lost all my teeth this would be only thing I imagine sustaining me.
With my dessert I was served, and sampled, a strawberry digestive delivered gratis. The waiter described it as strawberries soaked in red wine and vodka and it was delicious. The fruit retained its brightness and the alcohol added a soft note because, once again, the balance between sweet and assertive was perfectly achieved.
Dinner was a warm welcome to a city, and restaurant, to which I intend to return again.