Editor's note: On Thursdays, Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma checks in with Seriously Italian. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats. Take it away, Gina!
"In Rome, the 'best' trattoria is the one that you love and claim as your own, period."
I received a flurry of emails and phone calls on Sunday after the New York Times published an article on Roman trattorias headlined "Let The Debate Begin." Everyone seemed very excited at the notion of trattoria wars and was anxious to know if I had been to any of places featured in the article. "Which one do you think is best?" I was asked repeatedly, breathlessly.
My answer must have been a disappointment, because I could only respond that the question, or challenge, posed in the article didn’t make much sense to me. In Rome, the "best" trattoria is the one that you love and claim as your own, period.
Everyone I know in Rome—natives, transplants and expats alike—has a trattoria that they hold dear and above all others, a place they are proud and happy to proclaim and defend, where meals closely resemble what is served in their own homes: simple, but stunningly good, soulful food shared with extended family and close friends. The trattoria table is second only to your mother's, it is close to where you live or work, and there is always someone happy to see you when you walk in the door. At any given moment you can conjure up the taste of your favorite dish.
The trattoria menu is dictated by custom, comfort and quality rather than the relentless drive to innovate and reinvent. It is a format is easy to love, because at heart, it is a collection of longstanding, local food traditions that move with the changing pace of the seasons. ("Localism" is the fancy word we use for that these days, a concept that most Italians would respond to with a matter-of-fact, blank stare.) We love to list, classify and define things in America, but the qualities of a great trattoria are more elusive than that. The trattoria you love is the one that is wholly genuine, embellishing the classics with plenty of personality and serving it all up with warmth and kindness.
It's Love at First Sight at La Cabana
"My" trattoria is called La Cabana, a Spanish name that has never been fully explained to me. It is cheery space tucked into an otherwise dark and abandoned alleyway, a few steps away from the bustling Piazza Venezia. Truth be told, I hijacked it from my two dearest friends in Rome who truly claim it as their own; as a couple, they’ve been eating at La Cabana every week for almost a decade. During my numerous visits over the years we would always share multiple, happy meals there, and when I lived in Rome last year it became my weekly haunt, too.
The love begins upon arrival. It never matters what time it is, how tired or busy they are, or what assorted mishaps may have befallen the staff that day; my friends and I are always greeted like rock stars at La Cabana. As soon as proprietor Fabio Soccorsi spots us in the doorway, arms fly up into the air, hands clap together, and there is much scurrying about to get us seated. Nobody is gruff or grouchy despite their challenging schedule of 12-hour shifts, six days a week, and strangers who wander in with guidebooks are welcomed as potential new friends.
What to Eat at La Cabana (Everything!)
It is a deeply Roman place, but also a statement of the Soccorsi family’s heritage. Dante, the patriarch, is from Abruzzo, and one of the many personal touches at La Cabana is its homage to the Abruzzese mountain tradition of meats grilled over an open fire. The large iron grill faces the dining room, and today's special cuts of meat are proudly displayed in a butcher’s case next to it. After you are seated and settled with water and wine, you're encouraged to wander over and pick out whatever catches your eye.
I can never resist the lamb chops, especially in the spring, when young agnello arrives from Abruzzo. The chops are perfectly seasoned with garlic and herbs, then grilled with a slick of olive oil and just enough sea salt to bring out the full flavor of the meat. You eat them with your fingers, scottoditto, or burn-your-fingers style, sizzling hot and juicy. Another meaty favorite is a the trattoria classic, straccetti di manzi, sliced tips of beef, seared with olive oil and rosemary and served over ruchetta with a drizzle of balsamico.
If fish strikes your fancy you’ll find it, fresh from the market, iced and also on display just around the corner. (Wave to the chef through the kitchen window as you go by; “Ciao, come stai?!") Consider the spigola, or sea bass, roasted whole. Just as an Italian mother would, he cooks it surrounded by sliced potatoes and plenty of rosemary in the same pan; the potatoes suck up a splash of white wine and all the juices from the fish, before turning crispy and golden at the edges.
After taking the tour of proteins, it is time sit down and talk about the rest of the meal. I’ve never seen a printed menu at La Cabana; I am sure they have them ready if needed, but in true trattoria style, decisions are made after a question-and-answer session with our waiter or Fabio. They are very proud of their careful selection of cured meats and cheeses, many of them local, or you can sample mixed antipasti of colorful vegetables, marinated or grilled, with plump, tender beans, dressed up in herbs and good extra-virgin olive oil. In season, La Cabana has the best carciofi alla Romana, or Roman-style artichokes I’ve ever tasted.
There are always the excellent versions of classic Roman pasta dishes to choose from for the primi course: amatriciana, cacio e pepe, carbonara, gricia, or maybe spicy arrabiata? Sometimes we opt for the house’s special pasta allo scoglio or from “the reef,” hand-cut fettucine adorned with a pile of shrimp, mussels, clams and tomato. And I can't forget the pasta of the moment: artichokes in the spring, zucchini flowers in the summer, wild mushrooms in the fall. I always need greens with my meal, so the conference ends with a choice of contorno, sautéed spinach or broccolini with another characteristic La Cabana touch: spicy peperoncino, just enough to make your tongue tingle.
Dolci, e caffé? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but if it is yes, there is ricotta cheesecake, tiramisu, panna cotta or a fresh fruit crostata (tart), all made by matriarch Maria’s expert hand. It was always a simple meal at La Cabana; on many occasions the exact blueprint of the last one, yet always so much more than mere the sum of its parts.
What Makes a Trattoria Special?
The Roman trattoria is usually a family affair, and in my experience what makes it special and unique from other types of dining is the level of warmth and generosity with which the food is often served. If you are lucky enough to become a regular, you can actually form a surprisingly intimate and lasting connection, morphing the trattoria into a place of immense security and comfort.
Just as Mom will keep something warm and ready if you are working late, your trattoria family will keep a burner lit when your flight has been delayed and there’s nothing to eat in your apartment.
They always remember if you prefer your water frizzante or naturale, and can tell if you need a digestivo from a look in your eyes or the way you tug at your pants.
You feel their pain when a busload of tourists pulls up in the last 15 minutes of lunch service, and they feel yours when visiting Aunt Gloria asks for a grilled vegetable plate, no oil.
They know how things are going at your job, or if someone in your family is ill, and they care about it. They can see into your life, even when it is messy or unhappy, an insight that comes from nourishing both the body and the soul.
The trattoria can be your happy place, or your contemplative place, or your get-down-to-business place. And it is all ok, because in every situation, you need to eat, whether you are embracing the world or taclking it head on. It’s your trat. You belong to them and they belong to you.
Via del Mancino, 7/9, Rome, Italy (map)