To taste, to try
I guessed the meaning of the word the first time I heard it, based on the smile on my friend’s face and the delicious tidbit she was offering: “Have a taste. Give it a try. Savor this treat.”
Of all the dishes and delights I've tried over the years, the assaggi (tastings) I remember best were home-made (fatti in casa), often with recipes handed down from a beloved nonna (grandmother). For those of us not lucky enough to have una nonna italiana, a new restaurant in Rome offers the next best thing: the chance to sample traditional recipes (le ricette tradizionali) just like Nonna might have made them—if she were a Michelin-starred chef.
Under the direction of celebrity chef Angelo Troiani, Assaggia offers three, six or nine small plates (piccolo piatti), based on recipes from his and his partners’ grandmothers. The dramatically lit contemporary dining space is tucked into Margutta 19, a chic new boutique hotel on my favorite street in Rome, where Truman Capote and Federico Fellini once lived–and Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn romped in Roman Holiday.
“Assaggia isn’t as much a restaurant as a place to come and stay and taste, like you would in a home, “ says manager Alberto Gaido. “You can eat a little, or you can eat a lot.” You can also pair each tasting with a local wine.
For Italians, the experience evokes all the emotions and memories (tutte le emozioni e i ricordi) of a meal at Nonna’s. For visitors, it’s a chance to learn more about the customs and gastronomic culture (le usanze e la cultura gastronomica) of Italy—and to expand your culinary vocabulary
Among the dishes we tried and loved:
*Carbonara: Cappelli with organic eggs (uova bio), pecorino and parmesan cheeses plus guanciale (cured pork cheek).
*Fiori di zucca fritti in pastella: Fresh zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies (alici), in a lightly fried batter of beer and farina (pastella croccante di birra e farina). Whenever a friend makes these for us, my husband and I eagerly snatch them straight from the frying pan.
*Supplì al telefono: Risotto balls with tomato sauce (ragù al pomodoro) and minced meat with a center of mozzarella strands (un cuore di mozzarella filante), breaded and lightly fried. The long strings of warm cheese are the reason for the “telefono” in the name.
*Polpette al pomodoro: Inspired by a traditional Roman recipe, the most tender meat (la carne più tenera) is cooked as a meatball in a rich tomato sauce. “Da scarpetta!”—worthy of making a “little shoe” with some bread to soak up every last drop.
*Amatriciana: The chef’s signature pasta, with short “mezze maniche” (half-sleeve) pasta with a tomato sauce flavored with guanciale and local pecorino cheese.
*Saltimbocca alla romana: Veal fillet (girello di vitello) from local farms topped with prosciutto and flavored with fresh sage (salvia).
*Puntarelle con pesto di aglio e alici: Crunchy Catalonian chicory with a pesto of garlic (aglio) and anchovies and a splash of white balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico bianco).
*Coda alla vaccinara: Modern Roman oxtail stew cooked slowly in tomato sauce with a sprinkling of bitter cocoa (una spolverata di cacao amaro).
If you don’t have a nonna to visit the next time you’re in Rome, provate Assaggia (give Assaggia a try)!
Words and Expressions
Menu degustazione –- tasting menu
Della nonna –- grandma’s, traditional, home-made
Assaggini –- (informal) appetizers, little tastes
Dianne Hales is the author of Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered and La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.