Can we breathe?

Three months after Italy locked itself down – one of the first countries to do so – it’s allowed to dine out again. From working only for delivery services to unknown distance and clients without faces, restaurants returned to serve diners. It started with takeaway service, followed by on-site consuming – but only for short periods of time, until the much expected and needed return to normality. Almost.

We decided that for our “back to normality” dinner in the post-quarantined world we would eat in SantoPalato (“The Holy Palate”). No, we didn’t go back in time to 1931 when a restaurant by exactly the same name operated in Turin and was the center of the Futuristic movement’s culinary activity. Almost a century later, in March 2017, chef Sarah Cicolini opened the doors of her SantoPalato – the same name, but definitely not the same concept. Wonderful V. and I have already dined here a couple of times, each one was surprising and tasty in its way, so according to the futuristic system of “breaking the rules”, this article will be a composition of them all.

Comparing ourselves to 1931 we are already in the future (although it seemed as if we got back to the beginning of the 20th century and the lethal “Spanish flu” times). Therefore, we could ask while still at home whether the restaurant is working, does it have a vacancy, is there any special procedure we should follow, can we book a table of four for 20:30, and whether it would taste great. The answer to all of these questions, by the way, was “Yes”.

The tough new rules of social distancing forced the staff to reduce the number of tables, disinfect constantly the surfaces, and to work with masks on. Very unfamiliar, very different from the service you usually get in small restaurants off the city center. It’s a quite spacious restaurant, to begin with, so the number of tables seemed the same, but each movement which was “out of line” – even there were still not many clients that evening – such as moving from the table outside to one inside, draws a reassessment of the whole service. We still had questions after we sat down since it wasn’t totally clear how we should act. Do we need to keep our masks on until food arrived? Can we touch anything which is not the tableware? Can we speak a little loud?

The space is completely different from the original SantoPalato: instead of shiny metal the walls are yellowish-orangey, the light is warm, and the furniture is rustic and fits a small homey restaurant better. On the table, for what seems to be the standard from now on, a QR code that rolls down the menu. Another option is the disposable menu each one should fill up, so it couldn’t serve other clients.

The menu itself combines classic Roman dishes and ones that got Cicolini’s special service. Fried brain? Buttered sweetbread? Chicken offal omelette? The poor Roman cuisine with all the parts that are rejected by other cuisines is pushed forward, or maybe it’s better to describe as pulled up, to more sophisticated areas.

In one of our previous visits we took a great terrine of beef tongue and tail – very close to Nose-to-tail cooking – but this time we chose only one side of the ox. The oxtail, a traditional ingredient in the Roman cuisine, long-cooked, coated in breadcrumbs and fried, was placed on a peanut and lovage salsa – and a pinch of cocoa. There aren’t many options for very soft meat inside a fried ball but to be tasty, and the lovage-peanut cream gave another bitterish dimension to cut through the heavy texture. We hopped on the wagon of the asparagus season and ordered some of them under poached eggs, that ran into a Parmigiano-Reggiano cream. It was a simple dish that was executed spotlessly.

What a great start.

When the futurists wrote the future menu, they left out one dish – pasta. For Tommaso Filippo Marinetti, leader of the futurist movement, and his colleagues, a belly full of pasta was a heavy obstacle on their fast way to the future, so I guess they wouldn’t be so happy to know that not only they serve pasta in Roman SantoPalato, but it’s also remarkable. And almost as to make futurists even more annoyed, the pasta dishes are the essence of roman tradition: Cacio-e-pepe, Amatriciana and Carbonara, and a couple of guests from other Italian regions.

Wonderful V. picked the Amatriciana, while I can never refuse a Carbonara. Both dishes were as traditional as it can get, no innovation, nothing different from the old recipes. Fantastic. Wonderful V. claimed it to be one of the best Amatriciana she had ever tasted – if not the best one – and my Carbonara was thick, heavy, and yellow as it should be.

Also, in the pasta section, there was a green cream and pea blanket that shone over Plin, the Piedmontese ravioli, green as well thanks to spinach and basil that were mixed in the dough, and filled with ricotta and prosciutto. In normal times we would all exchange our plates to taste all the dishes, but this is not a normal time. Our friends across the table said that the bright color was a sign of a bright dish.

Cicolini herself as a head chef turns the futurists over. Not only being militarists, harsh, and a little incoherent, the futurists were extremely misogynists – and weren’t ashamed at all. It’s true, there were also some women futurists that were a minority around Marinetti. Still, it’s not easy to support a manifesto as the futurist one that states in its ninth article: “We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism…, and scorn for women.

In 1912 Valentin de Saint-Point wrote “The Manifesto of Futurist Woman”, which holds in its base the idea of erasing any distinction between men and women, and focusing on the distinction between femininity and masculinity. De Saint-Point didn’t reject the futuristic ideas but looked for an equal spot in them for women, so according to de Saint-Point the two elements resides in each of us in one level or another, and we should find the way to amalgamate them in order to create “a period of super humanity.

Cicolini needs no favors and doesn’t ask to be defined. She came from the mountains of the Abruzzo region to Rome in order to study medicine, but after 4 years decided to leave university and find her path for self-realization. After working in some fine-dining venues around Rome and participating in food events around the globe, in SantoPalato Cicolini is the one who’s responsible for the menu, she is the one who stays in contact with the finest suppliers around the city, and she is the one who gives the tone and vibe around. It seems to me that Cicolini holds in one hand her menu and futurist manifesto, walks towards Marinetti and slams in his face: “So you wanted something different? Here! Here is something different!”

(Sarah Cicolini, from the restaurant's wall)

The futurists’ passion was for synaesthesia, that is why there were in the original SantoPalato’s menu (not for long) dishes that had to be eaten while fondling pieces of cloth, steel flavored chicken, and “Raw meat torn by the sound of a trumpet”. Instead, Cicolini’s idea of synaesthesia is a little mellower but still activate all senses. For example, a small pork rib that is served on lightly burning rosemary stems. Our senses started to work when we saw, heard, and smelled the dish on its way to other tables, and when it was on its way to our table, we could see the heads around us turning as well. This is exactly the effect the futurists wanted to get - without the burden of streaming “violent airplane engine noise” from the kitchen.

For dessert, we couldn’t skip the southern twist. Maritozzo is a soft and a little bit lemony brioche filled with whipped cream, a classic Roman pastry that saw a revival in the last couple of years. In SantoPalato the brioche is made of Grano arso (“burned grain”) with roots in the southern region of Puglia and sharpened it a little with ground black pepper. The sweet cream and the spikey dough have witty dialogue, and for us there’s nothing but joy.

Before I clicked “publish post” I read it again. And again. And again. I figured that between the descriptions of SantoPalato there are still lots of questions about the current condition of the hospitality world, and how is it going to look in the future. It seems that for at least some of them there’s nothing to do but to wait. But in the meantime, slowly and carefully, we can breathe.


Piazza Tarquinia 4, Rome

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