By Robert Damien Santagata
I enter Il Gabriello and am greeted by a smiling host. I am surrounded by images of Marilyn Monroe, though I would have greater appreciation for Sofia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida. This is Rome, after all. The room is crowded. I don’t feel the least bit self-conscious about being here alone. I feel extremely relaxed, if a smidgen tired. By now I am ravenous. I order a glass of Frascati and peruse the menu. I am craving charcuterie, so I order a plate of salami, prosciutto crudo, culatello (made from the thigh of the pig) and mixed grilled vegetables. The pasta will be the carbonara. Though I can count on one hand how many times I have eaten veal, I order the veal piccata (with lemon sauce).
This is not a spacious restaurant, but it impressively sports beautiful vaulted ceilings and very tasteful wall-hangings, Marilyn included. It is located in a basement. I sit and take it all in. I would rather be sitting near a window and watching the motley parade pass by, but I am in a cellar, basically, and there is no parade down here. I look around me. I see people from all walks of life, mainly tourists. I have read positive reviews about this very Roman restaurant, and I anticipate a sumptuous repast.
The Frascati is a crisp, refreshing, highly quaffable white wine that – I don’t care about traditional wine and food pairings here – excels with the charcuterie and grilled vegetables. The salami is sufficiently fatty and the veggies reassuringly charred. I nibble on the salty, slightly oily tubular pork product and am gladdened from head to toes. The paper-thin prosciutto is not excessively salty and rather melts in my mouth. It is most satisfying. This is prosciutto and salami! The accompanying bread is crusty and warm, swaddled in a red napkin to maintain its warmth. A nice combination. I am pleased with the antipasti and anxiously await the arrival of the carbonara. I feel like I am reviewing restaurants once again, for I am taking mental notes as I eat. In Chicago,
I worked for a while as a food and travel writer at a magazine. I reviewed restaurants and wrote features under the moniker “The Wandering Gourmet.” How nice it would be to work as a food writer in Italy!
The spaghetti alla carbonara arrives – a modest mound of pasta, which is a good thing. Italians generally don’t consume heaping amounts of pasta, particularly if eating out; it is merely a first course. Elsewhere in the world, it is routinely eaten as a main course, which the Italians perceive as lunacy. The Italians are generally not obese, for they do not sit down and gorge themselves on pasta, pizza, and tiramisu. Everything in moderation, nothing to excess: a rule we should all live by.
Spaghetti alla carbonara is a dish that is bastardized and corrupted like no other. Purists like me cringe when we see what “extra” ingredients are added to an otherwise perfect classic Roman pasta dish. Pancetta, eggs, Romano cheese, olive oil, and freshly ground black pepper are the necessary ingredients that should be used to create
a rich, creamy, almost buttery spaghetti delight. I have known people who add peas, chicken, spinach, broccoli, and mushrooms to the mix. The addition of mushrooms is especially problematic for me, for they are both moisture-rich and flavor-intense once cooked. This is a bad combination, particularly because the carbonara’s flavors are delicate and balanced, and consistency creamy, at least if prepared purely and properly. The flavor of the fungi can and usually does overpower the otherwise subtleness of the dish, and the moisture they release dilutes the sauce – not good! Therefore, I am a purist! Call me a snob if you must. Certain things in life should remain inviolable and untouched, the recipe for authentic spaghetti alla carbonara included.
The dish of creamy pasta steams before me. I inhale the heavenly aroma and am happy I am here, in Il Gabriello, in Rome, in miraculously beautiful Italy. The steaming, modest plate of pasta beckons me emphatically with tantalizing scent and expert presentation. I can resist no more. I twirl some on my fork and bring it to my eager mouth, insert the pasta therein – my taste-buds immediately dance the tango and earn perfect tens. How delightful! I think to myself. I am compelled to stand up and loudly exclaim my reaction for all to see and hear, but I refrain. I take another forkful. I am enraptured. It is indeed rich and creamy, even silky, with just the right amount of pancetta to impart a subtle saltiness to the dish. Although undoubtedly made without the addition of cream – as is often the case when non-purists take too many liberties – it is ideally viscous and creamy rich. The freshly grated black pepper offers a little bite that marries perfectly with the saltiness imparted by the caramelized pancetta. Needless to say, the spaghetti is al dente, probably too much for the average non-Italian, but ideal for me. My mother often revisited her one and only trip to Naples, particularly when boiling pasta herself, presumably because the Neapolitans like their pasta rather “under-cooked.”
The veal arrives at just the right time. I crave meat, but delicate, thinly-sliced, bathed-in-lemon-sauce veal medallions and nothing too, well, meaty. It has been at least 10 years since I last ate veal. I have always thought it was flavorless, but I am feeling particularly Italian tonight and don’t hesitate to cut into the meat. The thinly pounded out meat is buttery and extremely tender; the sauce is, predictably, bright and a smidgen briny from the combination of lemon and capers. I find it satisfyingly delicious. My taste-buds are delighted – where have you, veal scallopini, been all my life?! This is an informally elegant plate of food before me, artistic in its subtle combination of flavors and not merely its appearance. I take another bite and savor the Vesuvian explosion of flavors once again in my mouth. I dispatch of the veal in a matter of fifteen minutes, pausing periodically to sip from my second glass of Frascati, which is utterly crisp, clean, and smooth – a friendly, comforting wine that has me feeling snug and carefree.
It is time for the espresso. I immediately order a double shot. I will forgo the dessert, for I am engorged and have enough calories to walk off on the colorful streets of Roma tonight. As Italy is the spiritual home of espresso and espresso-based drinks – not pumpkin-spiced latte, mind you! – it is rare that the brew fails to meet my expectations. The espresso I literally toss down now is no exception: it is rich, strong, robust, and topped with the natural coffee crema (coffee froth), without being harsh or bitter. This is an espresso! I say to myself. I am tempted to order another, but opt to pay the bill and begin my leisurely stroll through the Roman streets to burn off at least some of the savored feast.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The author of this series, Robert Damien Santagata, is a “rabid Italophile” and the author of the 2020 book “The Paradise of Exiles.” This series presents his vivid, evocative descriptions of his search for the soul of Italy – rapturous descriptions that the author attributes to Stendhal syndrome, a psychosomatic condition in which overexposure to any form of great beauty induces a state of euphoria that can include elation, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations and even fainting.