Friday, April 17, 2015

Where to Drink Cocktails in Rome-The Jerry Thomas Project

(I wrote this soon after my first visit to The Jerry Thomas Project. I’ve since been back, though not as often as I’d like. The city has also seen an explosion of high-end cocktail bars in the last few years. While I haven’t been to all of them yet, I’ve tried a fair few of the top contenders. I still find JT to be the best all around experience due to the consistent excellence of the cocktails paired with perfect service.)

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of sipping a cocktail or three at the Jerry Thomas Project, a speakeasy here in Rome. Now, I have always been grumpy about the speakeasy trend in the States, mostly because I don’t like having to plan ahead to have an excellent drink. In cities like San Francisco or New York, there are so many high quality offerings in so many different kinds of cocktail bars that it becomes simple to imbibe the best and still avoid making reservations. In Rome, the selection is more restricted.
            Let me put it in perspective. I love, adore, delight in great cocktails, deep spirits lists, and bartenders that appreciate my requests and improve upon my fantasies. These things, however, are not historically among the wonders of Rome. While it is easy to find a drinkable Negroni or a Spritz, and the occasional bar will turn out a passable Old Fashioned if I am very specific with the bartender, someone coming from a historically cocktail centered city like SF is going to miss the ubiquitous high quality of the drinking culture. By someone I mean me, in case that wasn’t clear.
Cut to a couple weeks ago, when I went out to girls’ night at a place my embarrassingly cool hair stylist had fleetingly mentioned (and that I totally pretended to know already, because you have to maintain credibility with your stylist). I got to the unmarked door and rang the bell, rolling my eyes at the process and hoping this place was worth the sweaty bus ride to the Centro Storico. Trying not to feel ridiculous, I gave the password and the name of my friend. Minutes later, seated on a comfortable pouf, I was explaining to the charming (bearded) gentleman semi-hopefully what exactly I was seeking in a cocktail.
The perfectly balanced and wonderfully complex martini of Sipsmith London Dry Gin, Vermouth del Professore and a teensy dash of bergamot bitters he brought me soothed a homesickness that I did not even know I felt.
When the aforementioned gentleman returned to check in, the relief and pleasure I felt must have been clear to him. We ended up talking, and I discovered that they have a lovely deep spirits collection, that the vermouth they use is their own production, and that I had found a sort of spiritual home in this city full of churches.
You’re thinking, “It’s just a bar, Homie, don’t be so dramatic!” Maybe, but it is a damn good bar. You like gin? They have the best, from Genevers to London Dry, and they’ll make you the right cocktail with each. Rum, you say? The last time I was there I sniffed out some of their selections, and they are not playing. I think whisky, scotch, bourbon, rye go without saying. But the best part? The part that makes my Mexican heart flutter in my chest and brings an absurd smile to my face? Mezcal! Not only do they have a well-curated selection including anonymous looking bottles that probably aren’t available to mere mortals, but the owner behind the bar is passionate about and expert with them.
Friends, I sipped things I had never even heard of. This is not to be taken lightly. This is any spirits lover’s dream-to have every visit to the bar be a learning experience with the lingering finish of shared enthusiasm. The fact that I have found a place of that caliber in Rome is a gift from a whole pantheon of wine gods.
Is it as good as the spots in SF, New York or London? I would say yes, it is. Like everything, it is slightly different from its hometown counterparts, due in part to its dual role as a bar serving the Italian palate and a locus for greater visibility of cocktail culture in Italy. I think they do an admirable job of being accessible to the less trained palate and interesting for aficionados. The only thing I wish is that I didn’t have to make reservations, but such is the price I must pay to have my gin and drink it too. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Pescheria dei Consoli, or Hurry And Go Before Success Ruins It

I’ve discovered the Roman fish restaurant, and it is called Pescheria dei Consoli. Though far off the beaten track, this tiny place is worth making the necessary reservations and taking the Metro A down to Numidio Quadrato. The restaurant started as a fish market by day, eatery by night, but well-deserved success has seen them add a lunch seating and expand the restaurant a bit. If it is always packed to the brim, it is with good reason. The fish is impeccably fresh and as locally sourced as possible, the chef has an uncanny ability with pasta sauces, and the prices are borderline ridiculous in their affordability. Anyone who has gone out to a fish restaurant in Rome knows how hard it is to find quality, even in the higher price ranges. Here, they deliver every time.
I took my parents when they were last here, and I admit we gorged ourselves. We started with two mixed fried seafood plates, which meant perfectly crispy moscardini (tiny octopus), whitebait and tender calamari. Next came two platters of marinated seafood and salads such as octopus and potato, octopus and roasted pepper, seafood salad with carrot and celery, boquerones, salmon and pink peppercorns in olive oil and more. Each preparation was delicate but flavorful and clearly made with the freshest of ingredients. 
At this point, our bottle of Vermentino from the Gallura region of Sardegna had run dry, so the friendly staff brought us another, along with the three pasta dishes we had ordered to share among the five of us. The best of the three was without doubt the scialatelli with crab, a huge portion of fresh noodles shaped like thick fettuccine tossed in a fragrant and creamy tomato based sauce and topped with about half a succulent crab. The linguine with lobster and paccheri with perfectly done scampi and truffles, while both delicious, couldn’t compete with the incredible combination of sweet crab, chewy rich noodles and velvety sauce.
Though you might not find the scialatelli on the menu, which changes depending on the catch of the day and seasonal ingredients, there is always at least one dish as extravagantly wonderful. For my last birthday, the chef made the best paccheri (wide smooth tube shaped pasta) I’ve ever had, with cherry tomatoes, scampi, mazzancolle shrimp and squash blossoms. We crave it regularly.
That time we decided to skip their secondi, but I can attest that the grilled calamari, shrimp and scampi are perfectly done and as with everything else, exquisitely fresh. With a bit of lemon squeezed on top, they make you feel as if the beach might be just on the other side of the Pescheria’s nautically decorated window. Even the oysters and sea urchin are excellent, so you really forget you're in Rome!
My only complaint is that service used to be slowish (before the expansion) but was carried out by two really sweet women that liked to go out salsa dancing after work and put correspondingly good music on the restaurant’s playlist. Since growing a bit, service has fallen into the hands of two young men who are perfectly competent and friendly, but attempt to order for you at least once a dinner. For example, you’ll order three mixed fritture, look around at your table mates to make sure they agree, and they’ll break in to say, “Why don’t we do the risotto with lobster and a grilled fish tonight?” complete with diminutives inserted wherever possible (risottino,  prosecchino, that type of thing). You get the feeling that both of the waiters have at least a couple small children each at home and haven’t gotten the hang of turning off dad-mode while at work. 
Nonetheless, it is easy to accept this small flaw by keeping in mind the casual vibe and the correspondingly low price tag of an evening at the Pescheria. We five ate extraordinarily well, drank two bottles of wine, water, and shared a few lemon sorbets, digestifs and coffees between us, and the bill was about 110 euro. For the quality, at that price, I’ll put up with being brought the “conticino” when I ask for the bill.