As you saw in my earlier post Agrodolce: Our favorite Roman trattorias ten years on, we spent six weeks in Rome in the spring and early summer of 2013. During that time we revisited many of our favorite restaurants from when we lived our version of la dolce vita back at the turn of the centry. In that earlier post was a review of La Carbonara in the Campo dei Fiori. In a followup posting called Agrodolce: Infinitely Curved Pizza we reviewed Sora Margherita. Both of these old favorites were a disappointment. And the bad streak continued with Agrodolce: Gastro-Deletion on the Accretion Disk where we reviewed Costanza Hostaria. We weren’t discouraged, though, and continued on our quest.
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Anacleto was another mainstay during our sojourn in the Ghetto. It was a world-class wine store that served a gourmet buffet lunch. The wine end of things was the province of Anacleto Bleve while his wife Tina did the cooking. Lucullus had a weekly ritual worthy of his allonym wherein a two-hour lunch was followed by the purchase of a mixed case composed of the various wines sampled during the meal. Anacleto always supplied expert and varied wine pairings for Tina’s food, which was composed of the freshest produce from Rome’s markets and artisan meats and cheese’s from Sicily to the Alps.
This simple and elegant culinary approach ignited a success-fueled roller coaster ride that almost ended in tragedy. Elizabeth Minchilli, in partial recompense for her unfathomable praise regarding Sora Margherita, picked up the Bleve’s story in the early ‘naughties with a recent blog post upon which most of the following summary is based. The mob of locals and expats that swarmed the Bleve’s Ghetto location every day for lunch cried out for expansion and what followed had all the elements of classic gastronomic over-reach. Anacleto turned the wine store over to family members while he and Tina decamped for a much higher end restaurant location between the Pantheon and the Piazza Farnese. Christened Casa Bleve, the new space featured lunch and dinner in a beautifully renovated Rennaisance Palazzo located over a wine cellar built amidst the 1st century remnants of the Baths of Nero.
Not content with this transformation from what was essentially a mom and pop operation into Rome’s most expensive wine bar, the Anacleto empire established three more outposts, this time in the culinary wasteland of Fiumicino’s international airport. The new wine bars proved hugely popular to flyers desperate for a respite from fast food and wretched wine, so Tina moved out to the airport to help Anacleto run the three wine bars. At the same time, she turned their Bleve flagship kitchen over to a Michelin-level chef, who promptly took the menu and prices from the stratosphere into geosynchronous orbit.
That is when things started to fall apart. First, it turned out that Anacleto’s nephews did not have their uncle’s head for business, and the Ghetto location devolved from cash cow to loss leader. The only way to hold onto the location was to go into a partnership called Beppe e i Suoi Formaggi, which is a glorified cheese shop run by a Piedmontese podex control freak who refuses to allow photography in his establishment where he lectures customers on what cheeses they should buy (this and the rest of the paragraph are Lucullus’ opinion and not that of Ms. Minchilli or several other prominent Rome food bloggers, again for reasons that remain obscure to Team Mago). Anacleto’s wine selection is relegated to a few shelves, and while the vino on offer is excellent, the place is a gutted relic of its former self, presided over by a tyrannical cheese monger with scant knowledge of Italian wine beyond the marches of the Piedmont.
Next came the demise of the airport provinces that were rendered unprofitable by usurious rent seekers. Meanwhile Casa Bleve had strayed too far from its roots and lost its original customer demographic just as the punters it was up-gunned to appeal to became rather thin on the ground with the collapse of the Italian economy. Anacleto and Tina saved this story from its predictable denouement by firing the chef along with most of his retainers and re-establishing their original business model at Casa Bleve.
We were so happy to find the Bleves back at the helm that we decided to do our dead level best to make their numbers for the month of June by indulging in two ruinously expensive debauches. Our first visit coincided with our 32nd anniversary, a date upon which Fulvia will grant almost any level of excessive indulgence to Lucullus. Perhaps the best part of the meal came just as we walked in when Tina came around the glorious buffet case to greet us. She remembered us after at least a decade and was so clearly happy to see us that it made Lucullus feel a like legate again. Tina rushed over to Anacleto, who was closeted with a wine merchant, and told him that she had been right about the reservations Lucullus had made under his nom de gastronome, Seniore Cuore. Anacleto left his seat and came over to gravely shake Lucullus’ hand and kiss Fulvia on both cheeks.
The entrance to Casa Bleve opens into the buffet area where you eat first with your eyes before proceeding into the dining room proper. Once beyond the glorious display of Tina’s gastronomic tour de force, one is ensconced in a cool, quiet, expertly lighted palazzo that would do the Medici’s proud. It is the perfect space for a romantic meal for two, a large gathering of foodie expats, or family drinks and nibbles after a time spent in the hot, crowded, and chaotic center of Rome. The huge over-the-top neoclassical space allows for significant distance between tables so that a couple’s intimate murmurs are not disturbed by the comradely banter of other diners. Riedel stemware and Hepp flatware are shown off to fine effect with understated off-white table linens, blond wood tables, and comfortable leather chairs.
The wait staff is made up of long-term Bleve family retainers that have stuck with Anacleto and Tina through the years of expansion and retrenchment. I thought I recognized our waiter from a decade ago, and he certainly treated us like regulars in good standing. Alert to any changes in routine or standard, both Fulvia and Lucullus, already reassured by our reunion with the Belves, were delighted to find that the opening tripartite ritual to a meal had not changed over the years.
First came the complimentary glass of prosecco, a delightful Cantadi Castalli that was very dry with a lingering berry-like finish.
Next came the bread—wonderful irregularly shaped crusty rectangles surrounding gorgeous fluffy white-latticed crumb—baked that morning at Antico Forno al Ghetto. As far as I know, Tina is the only Roman restaurateur to use this particular type of bread, which matches her food perfectly, or patronize this archetypal Roman Jewish bakery. This was indisputable evidence that the Bleves were assiduously tending their culinary roots in the aftermath of their unfortunate gastro-dieback.
The overture hat trick culminated with an amuse-bouche of mashed potatoes containing roasted red pepper bits, pepperoncini flakes, and olives topped with parmesano regianno, baked in a terrine and served slightly warm. This perfect bite exemplified Tina’s approach to every dish she serves, beautiful, simple, ingredient-driven fare. She appeared just as we were finishing our prosecco and grinning at each other like fools. In short order she had prized the fact that this was our anniversary from Fulvia and pressed another glass of fizz upon us.
While we were chatting, our waiter appeared with the diminutive menu and the herniating wine list. Tina told the waiter to put both documents away and bade Lucullus to accompany her back into the buffet room. Flute in hand, I perused the bounty while Tina explained each dish. I decided on two mixed antipasto platters, one vegetable and the other fish. These would be followed by melanzane al forno and a cheese plate.
Returning to Fulvia, Lucullus next addressed the matter of wine. Anacleto’s wine list is a tome the length of a doctoral thesis and filled with treasures from all over Italy and beyond. It would make great reading on a cold winter night with a glass of vintage port near to hand and a crackling fire to lend authenticity to the experience. In practice, I have always simply asked our waiter to match a white and a red wine to our meal. Anacleto trains his staff to a level of expertise rivaled only by sommeliers at 3 star gourmet temples located in Paris, Dubai, or Tokyo, and his cellar is a match for all but a handful of establishments world-wide. So I was not surprised when the waiter thought for a moment and then opined that he had a “nice Tuscan white” that would go well with our fish and vegetable antipasti.
This unprepossessing description turned out to belong to a 2011 Bianco del Borgo from Luigi d’Alessandro (Cortona). Made from 100% Viognier grapes stored for six months in oak barrels and then finished in stainless steel tanks, the wine has a nose of grapefruit and lemon peel. The fruit on mid-palette was like the grapefruit my mother used to make as an appetizer back in the 60s and 70s. She would segment half a grapefruit in the skin, sprinkle it with sugar, caramelize it briefly under the broiler, and then serve it with a maraschino cherry in the middle. I swear I could taste that cherry on the wine’s finish. This unusual Viognier also had medlar notes and a stiff mineral spine that was perfect with the veggie and fish plates from the buffet. Fulvia, who despises viognier in almost all its guises loved it to the point of openly doubting the label’s veracity.
The antipasto platters arrived with the wine. Lucullus remembered all of the vegetable offerings from years gone by. There were roasted red peppers stuffed with a whipped salty tuna concoction that was a perfect foil for the rich, fat peppers. Tina’s “pomodorini dolcissima” were spectacular: large piccalilli cherry tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and thyme and then cooked low and slow for five hours–resulting in both concentrated flavor as well as a juicy mouth feel. Al dente haricot vert the size of kitchen matchsticks shared a dish of perfectly boiled zucchini and potatoes that was garnished with fresh datterini tomatoes from Sicily, supplying an intense flavor and textural contrast to the milder elements of the dish. More robust flavors were provided by a rustic chicory timbale and a dish of fried Friarelli (small mild green pepper—a Roman take on pimentos del pardon).
The penultimate veggie antipasto was a raw ovolini mushroom salad with mache. Ovolini (little eggs) or amanita caesarea are commonly known in English as Caesar’s mushroom. Ovolini were first described by Giovanni Antonio Scopoli in 1772, but it was a favorite of the early Roman emperors long before then. Ovolini may well have composed the dish of mushrooms that the empress Agripinella used to murder her husband Claudius. In any event, ovolini are highly prized to this day by the Romans, as their price in markets at triple the cost of fresh porcini attests. Tina’s version of Caesar’s mushrooms was amazing, needing only a drizzle from the bottle of superb Tuscan EVOO that she brought to our table and pinch of flaked sea salt.
Tina’s signature dish, however, is stuffed raw zucchini flowers. An interpolation of the ubiquitous fried zucchini blossoms that one finds in every Ghetto restaurant and pizzeria, this dish more than any other demonstrates Signora Bleve’s culinary mastery. Large ultra fresh squash flowers are stuffed with a whipped ricotta and almond mixture and dusted with mild pecorino cheese. Rather than the salty batter of the fried variant, Tina’s approach yields a slightly sweet vegetal crunch from the fresh raw flowers, while the stuffing complements rather than overpowers the taste of the blossoms. The Bianco del Borgo proved to be an ambrosiacal pairing with this refined and understated twist on a traditional fried snack. The flowers were served with tiny pitted picolinni olives (how in the hell do they do that?) that supplied a welcome hit of acid in contrast to the rich ricotta stuffing.
Four types of fish adorned the next platter. A ceviche-like treatment of white fleshed sea perch was redolent of fresh dill. Carpaccio of bacala proved to be very different form the version we had recently enjoyed in Barcelona. Tina’s approach was quintessentially Roman. The salt cod was not soaked as long and it was cut much thicker than the Catalan approach, resulting in a very robust flavor that played off the other softer textures on the platter. The marinated anchovies had been swimming less than 24 hours before and were a perfect contrast to the unctuous belly cuts of smoked wild salmon.
Our “secundo” consisted of a dish of eggplant baked with tomato and béchamel sauces as well as parmigiano reggiano. Here the ingredient-driven nature of Tina’s cuisine was overtly manifest. The eggplant had been picked at the precise moment of ripeness. The tomato sauce was derived from those unbelievable roasted picallili cherry tomatoes and the parmesan was definitely Stravecchio (aged 36 months). Bound together with a decadently rich béchamel, this was definitely not your nonna’s eggplant parma.
Lucullus told the waiter that he was free to chose a red for the eggplant and the subsequent cheese platter, with the single proviso that the wine needed to hail from Sicily. The result was Cantine Paolini’s 2010 Gurgo, a blend of Frappato and Syrah. Frappato is an old Sicilian varietal that produces light grapey wines until it is blended with Syrah, probably the most popular of the recent red varietals introduced into Sicilian viniculture. This specimen had a huge nose of Flathead cherries followed by succulent gobs of bing and sweet pie cherry fruit accompanied by black pepper notes and ending in a long, lingering French kiss of a finish. The Gurgo wines from Cantine Paolini are a modern interpretation of 12th century secret formula made by Paolitti monks. Perhaps the monks poured all the frustrations of celibacy into their wine. Indeed the label describes the ingredients as “grapes of passion.” In any event, you can take it from both Fulvia and Lucullus that it is the perfect wedding anniversary wine.
The Gurgo was great with the eggplant, but it really came into its own with the cheese platter which held six kinds that constituted a spectrum composed of blue, sheep, raw milk, runny , and firm variants. The perfectly ripe cheeses served at room temperature were accompanied by spicy hot fig and sweet strawberry marmalades (in addition to more of that wonderful bread).
Dessert was a mixed fruit torta of orange, pinapple, and apricot. One word: superb. Our outstanding espresso was accompanied by a Grappa di Barollo, which equaled or exceeded any Marc de Bourguignon that I have ever tasted. We were at table for over three hours of amazing food and wine, doting attendance by Tina and the rest of the staff while Anancleto did wine business at a nearby table. It was just like the old days, and it made us want to weep with joy.
Choosing Casa Belve for our last dinner out in Rome was a no-brainer, but Lucullus had reason to doubt his judgment shortly after our arrival and effusive greeting from the Bleves. The problem was the bread. It sucked. Lucullus asked if there was an alternative bread on offer. There was and it sucked too. Fulvia agreed with his assessment as a premonition of doom threatened to destroy our almost giddy conviviality. Then domina looked thoughtful.
“What day is it Lucullus?”
“Uh,” I fished out my cell phone and consulted it, “this thing says it’s Saturday.”
“Well, there you are. This is the Sabath and Antico Forno al Ghetto is closed.”
I was relieved that there was a good explanation for the execrable bread, but worried that the absence of a decent fall back was a more general indication that the dinner service at Casa Bleve would prove to be a poor cousin to lunch. This concern was reinforced by the fact that the buffet, so beautiful and bounteous at lunch was not laid out for the evening meal, making the entrance experience far less exciting. Further confirmation developed when I ordered Tina’s lasagna. With a look of pain and worry on her face she told us that she only makes a small amount of lasagna at a time because it does not keep for more than a day and it had all been consumed at lunch. She suggested leantils with meatballs as an alternative and I gladly agreed.
My qualms were partially allayed by the amuse-bouche, pizza di verdure consisting of broccoli, carrots, olives, and eggplant mixed with béchamel and then baked in a breadcrumb crust. The flavor of the dish was greatly enhanced by the spectrum of soft and crunchy textures, which was achieved by par cooking each of the vegetables separately before assembly and baking.
We ordered an antipasto platter composed of the zucchini flowers and tomatoes described above along with veal carpaccio and DOP bufala mozzarella from Paestum. The carpaccio had a gorgeous pink color that contrasted nicely with the accompanying course-grated soft pecorino cheese and wild arugula. The meat was cut thick for carpaccio, giving it a little more chew than one usually encounters with this dish, but with the compensation of awesome flavor—especially when dressed with olive oil from San Gimignano, freshly ground black pepper and sea salt, all brought to the table for this dish. The buffalo mozzarella was as good as it gets in Rome, being a day or so old but loaded with wonderful silky milky flavor. The mozzarella was also served with wild arugula and more of those killer ‘maters.
We washed all this down with a 2011 Tenuta Belguardo Vermentino from Tuscany. This dry white opened with a floral and citrus nose followed by lemon peel, grape fruit and pear notes with a little taste of honey and a long citrusy finish. It went very well with the appies, especially the zucchini flowers.
Evidently Tina did not think we had ordered enough food (or she was still feeling bad about running out of lasagna), so she sent over a small dish of artisanal salami, redolent with righteous porkitude. We nibbled on this while I set our waiter another oenological challenge. This time I wanted a red to match our next course, the lentils mentioned earlier and fusilli with lamb and artichoke ragu. The wine had to come from southern Italy but not from Sicily. Evidently this was a bit of a poser for our worthy waiter and he went off to consult with Anacleto.
The result was a 2009 Aglianico del Vulture from Cantine del Notaio in Basilicata. Fulvia was enchanted from the first sip. She declared it a “summer solstice” wine, made for drinking at festivals under the trees as the stars unfolded on the longest night of the year. The nose was red roses mingled with berry fruit. Then the fruit really hit, wild strawberries perfectly ripened in the sun after a heavy dew followed by figs already breaking apart on the tree, and finally black mulberries that stain your hands with gooey dark sweet juice. The finish went on until I fell asleep hours later.
We were well into a winegasm when the second course arrived. The lentils were from Castelluccio (of course) and cooked in a tomato-based sauce. The meatballs were veal, incredibly delicate and wonderful. They got even better with a drizzle of olive oil and some grated pecorino.
The fusilli with lamb and artichoke ragu was dubbed “the essence of lamb” by Fuliva. It was certainly like no other fusilli that I have ever seen. Not the traditional corkscrew type, but more like intertwined mobius strips. The lamb was coarsely ground and perfectly cooked in a very rich sauce containing slivers of almost completely broken down artichokes that the pasta incorporated to the saturation point. A wonderful meld occurred with the grated sheep’s cheese. The pasta was just stunning with the Aglianico.
Fulvia was indeed waxing rhapsodically by the time we dug into the tiramisu: “So much the real thing, a perfect blend of alcohol and coffee. Maybe the best I have ever had.”
A second dessert showed up along with a glass of Primitivo Dolce (a sweet red zin, about which Fulvia declared “we’re drinkin’ straight prunes here,” I detected sweet raisiny notes as well). The dessert was a freshly fried doughnut filled with crisp warm apple slices. Then two glasses of Grappa Nonino: super smooth and soft.
Fulvia’s final take on the evening: “We’re gonna die, but we are gonna be so happy while we do it.”
Mago tip: Lunch is definitely better at Casa Belve than dinner, but if you can only make dinner, it is still very much worth it. In any event avoid Saturdays and Friday dinner, because Antico Forno al Ghetto is closed.