Friend Claire from New York makes regular visits to help brother George run their Casale, a beautiful country house at the foot of Monte Porzio Catone, with breathtaking views of the Roman countryside and the Tiburtini, Lucretilli and Prenestini mountain chain. The estate has vineyards and olive groves and is built over an ancient Roman Villa (take a look at their website for more eye-brow raising details: www.casalesonnino.com ). If you think running a normal house is hard work (as I do), you can imagine how much more complicated running a rental home can be, the work is never ‘done’, there is always some Damocles-sword repair work requiring sensitive attention (you wouldn’t believe how often a tractor can break down), appliances needing renewal or furnishings begging for refreshment; come October, freshly picked olives are rushed to the mill (and the milling can go on till midnight!) to make their award-winning olive oil.
Claire and George go to great lengths to make sure their guests are not only comfortable but cosseted too. Rome is the Eternal City and nothing can compare with it, that’s a given. Having said this, however, the proximity to Rome means that their Casale can offer the discerning tourist a very different ‘take’ on a stay in this part of the world, including day trips to historically and scenically attractive hill towns or seaside towns, and all kinds of activities for the more energetically inclined (including painting, biking and hiking). There is so much more to Lazio than meets the eye, and I often say that it is one of the most underrated Regions of Italy. I’m a Lazio Lady, I am, through and through.
Anyway, I am in love with the Casale and have very fond memories of a fantastic, 40 people strong, live-band New Year’s Eve party there a couple of years ago, up on the terrace watching all the fireworks over Rome.
And during a very hot day last Summer, I did a wine-tasting and cooking class there with a small group who were loath to leave the shady headiness of the arbor.
George, who lives permanently at the Casale, is a great cook, by the way. He was making chocolate treats the other day, you know, as one does, just because … I don’t think I could be friends with people who do not appreciate good food, sorry, there I’ve said it. Claire is always on the look-out for interesting places for their guests to enjoy a meal and when she quizzed me the other day, I suggested we go to “Sora Maria and Arcangelo” in Olevano Romano. I had been wanting to go for a while now and this gastronomic jaunt was a perfect excuse for both of us to catch up.
The drive there was pretty enough, the autumnal trees beginning to change the colour of their leaves. I took the wrong turning at one point, driving past a town called Paliano, and that can happen with me sometimes; I get carried away by conversation and end up on the road less travelled.
But get there we did and goodness me! What a great meal. Definitely going to return for more visits with darling husband. By the way, not that it would be any business of the reader, but I do want to make one thing perfectly clear: if I write about people and places, shops and markets, wine bar, tatty trattoria or rolls Royce restaurant, it is because I want to, it is my pleasure – no one pays me for any endorsement. Not that this restaurant needs my endorsement ! They have been slapped on their backs and feted by the likes of the Michelin Guide and Italy’s Gambero Rosso. Eleonora Baldwin (www.aglioolioepeperoncino.com) and Gina Tringali (www.gtfoodandtravel.com), two of Rome’s top notch food and wine connoisseurs are patrons, I know. And by the way, getting any down-town Roman to budge two kilometers from their blessed city for the suburbs or the nearest countryside is a big thing, let me tell you (they can be such sissies that way, you wouldn’t believe!).
There was a truffle based menu … How many of us knew that there were truffles in the Aniene Valley north east of Rome?
Roberto, our waiter, was most charming and attentive without being the least bit intrusive. Not that I can’t knock back a string of wine glasses in the course of a meal but when it comes to lunch, and especially when I am driving afterwards, I usually abstain altogether. This being such a great restaurant, however, I decided that I could sip leisurely just the one glass of wine, and Roberto didn’t look down snobbily at us and suggested we try the following:
And jolly nice it was too. Olevano Romano is known for its Cesanese wine as are the towns of Piglio and Affile (hence we have “Cesanese del Piglio” and “Cesanese di Affile”). Sarah May of Antiqua Tours can tell you a bit more about these wines, and the wines of Lazio in the following interview: http://www.the-beehive.com/blog/index.php/italian-wine-for-beginners.
As Claire and I wrinkled our foreheads in deep concentration over the menu(s), Roberto hovered over us bringing some home-made bread and great olive oil (Quattrociocchi – one of my very very favourites !) to aid us in our decision making:
It was great to see so many choices and to appreciate the origins of the foods … it was quite obvious that sourcing close by and from the best was a hallmark of this restaurant’s approach to food stuffs. The wine list, instead, reaches out to wines from all over Italy and to France too.
Once we had put in our orders. Roberto brought us a little – well, not quite so little – amuse bouche, by way of a rice croquette flavoured the cacio e pepe way; these croquettes are known as ‘supplì’ in Rome. You know me, Fried Food Fanatic … deelicious!
To start off with, Claire and I both opted for chickpea (garbanzo) soup with a fried salt cod ‘lolly’. Roberto encouraged us to dip the baccalà lolly into the soup before biting into it, and then finishing off the soup with a spoon, the proper way. The chickpeas were sourced from Umbria, from the town of Spello.
Next for our little tastings was a meatball made from stewed oxtail. This was a first for Claire but not for me – I had eaten polpette di coda alla vaccinara at the Tordo Matto restaurant in Zagarolo about six years ago. It was one of chef Adriano Baldassarre’s signature dishes. Different in style, so much more tomato sauce chez Sora Maria and Arcangelo’s version, but very very good.
For my main course, I went for the lamb trio. Agnello or Abbacchio as it is called in Italy. I had a lamb chop fried in breadcrumbs and lamb roast in the most delicious gravy.
The third part of the trio was lamb ‘coratella’ – lamb offal sautéed with onion. This can be a little strong on occasion, but not at the hands of Chef Giovanni Milana. It was truly a miracle that he could get it to be so truly tasty whilst curbing its over-meaty overtones. Hats off, chapeau.
A close-up of the crunchy fried lamb chop …
A close-up of the roast lamb and rich rosemary infused gravy.
Claire went for the faraona roast … the guinea hen stuffed with chestnuts and served with cabbage and potatoes. Please don’t quote me but faraona is not usually something I would hanker after and yet … under Chef Giovanni Milana’s expert hands, this fowl brought the word delectable to mind.
Dessert was pannacotta with chestnuts and a persimmon sauce.
I don’t even like desserts much but this one has me wanting to imitate it very soon. This is persimmon season after all.
Little treats, biscuits, to accompany the coffee.
Our waiter, the charming and efficient Roberto.
Claire with Chef Giovanni Milana.
And there am I, basking between the two, happy as Larry, at the end of such a civilised, gorgeous, leisurely lunch.
Good food can put you in the mood, as I like to say … but if there is no atmosphere or if the ambience is unrelaxed or unwelcoming, even the best tasting food has to take a hammering. Grazie Giovanni Milana, grazie Roberto and the rest of the staff at Sora Maria e Arcangelo for bringing such magic to the table. Grazie Claire for a lovely lunch!