Thursday, January 19, 2012
Ok. Bear with me.
I know you’ve become used to seeing gorgeous photographs of food, landscape and other pieces of Italy on my blog. And I realize that the above photo looks kind of like the type of dive you’d not only pass up, but probably not even notice. Rusty sign out front, cars almost driving through the dining room, and architecture that is reminiscent of an illegally built addition to an illegally built strip mall.
And when you saw the words ‘Santa Marinella’ in this post you were probably thinking more along the lines of this report, from my last visit to this sea side town north of Rome.
Last Sunday we headed back there, once again to visit my friends Doug and Guido. And once again Doug said “I know a great place.” But he’d been describing this place for a while, and it didn’t sound promising in terms of setting. And when we walked across the busy Via Aurelia (taking our lives in our hands) and headed into this place, you can imagine my trepidation.
Doug did warn me. He said it was kind of like eating in someone’s garage. He also swore that it was the best seafood restaurant in a town full of seafood restaurants.
Doug don’t lie.
Once we sat down in what has got to be the most jerry-rigged restaurant I’ve ever seen, the food started to arrive. Directly from the sea, with the all important stop in the Sardinian cook’s kitchen. Because while this place - a simple tavola calda - has rotated through a succession of owners over the years, the current proprietors hail from Sardinia and are now preparing and serving what everyone agrees is the best sea food in town.
First up: antipasti. Small plates alternated between fish and land. But by land I mean vegetables. And before we get to the fish, can I ask, when is the last time you had wonderfully cooked, fresh vegetables brought to the table with as much pride and care as the main event? These included zucchini tossed with mint; lemony bean and red onion salad; and a plate full of paper thin finocchio with big chunks of orange tossed in olive oil. We all agreed that the house marinated olives - with fennel seeds and red pepper - were the best any of us had ever had.
But back to the fish, which was of course the main event. Slowly stewed cuttlefish; snails bathed in tomatoes; raw squid ‘cooked’ in lemon juice and olive oil; tiny, crispy fried anchovies; the best seafood salad, full of crunch celery and carrots, ever; crayfish that held on to the tender morsels of sweet flesh for dear life. And since the owners were from Sardinia, brittle sheets of freshly baked carta musica, drizzled with oil, to make sure we pushed every last bite onto our forks.
And that was just the beginning.
We opted to for two pastas to share among the table. One spoke Sardo in a big way: mezzamaniche tossed with plump mussels and strong pecorino from Sardinia. The other was more local, and just as good: a tangle of spaghetti and every kind of bivalve imaginable.
Our attempt to skip a main course was thwarted by the table next to our. The couple had ordered lobster, and when it arrived the portions were so generous, that our table was the happy recipients of half. Fresh lobster, steamed just enough, piled dramatically atop a salad of potatoes, winter tomatoes and crunchy celery.
Needless to say, we didn’t order dessert. But that didn’t stop the waiter from bringing us each a perfectly made, dark chocolate truffle. And, (since they are from Sardinia) chunks of the lightest, fluffiest, almond-studded nougat.
I know you can go to other restaurants and get similar looking dishes. But believe me when I say, someone really knows what they are doing in this kitchen. Every single dish was perfectly prepared, using not only the freshest fish (which isn’t hard in this part of the world) but combining them with just the right seasonal vegetables (which is harder than you think and takes way more effort and skill).
We went in the dead of winter and ate in the wood-paneled architectural folly they call their addition. I guess in the summer you can nab one of the outside tables. (No. You won’t have a seaside view. And yes. It may feel like you’ll be hit by one of the cars speeding by on the Aurelia. ) Or eat in the main dining room, which makes no claims to be anything other than the flourescent-lit tavola calda it sort of is.
But do go. Did you notice the photograph I took of the bill? We were 8 people. The bill came to 170 euros (yes, we also had 3 bottles of wine). Did you do the math yet? That is 21 euros a person. Which is gonna make me really not care about the setting. You shouldn’t either.
Tavola Azzurra 2
Via Aurelia 111/B
Open daily. Closed Mondays during winter.