I recently tried to describe a certain category of Italian restaurant to someone who had spent very little time in Italy. The category is the upscale ristorante di pesce, or fish restaurant, and all over the Italian peninsula, this kind of restaurant stands out to me as its own special genre. The Italian fish restaurant also happens to be one of my favorite kinds of places in the world to enjoy a great meal.
I'm not talking about any old fish place. Sure, I love seaside spots where you can actually see the water your dinner came from, quite possibly caught just hours earlier. Italy excels in this type of dining experience too, though I've been lucky enough to have enjoyed plenty of great seaside restaurants around the world, from the Aeolian Islands to the Amalfi Coast to Venice, Thailand to Tel Aviv, Uruguay to southern France, Maine to the Florida Keys. I'm also not talking about the beloved seafood shack, where you can enjoy home-style specialties like lobster rolls and clam chowder, Old Bay-dusted crabs and fish and chips. I love those spots too, in all of their rubber-boots-in-sawdust-covered-floor glory. (I can still clean a crab, peel a shrimp, and deconstruct a lobster faster than most -- skills I learned as a young girl). No, I'm talking about the elegant, refined dining of an Italian ristorante di pesce, which may be at the beach or in a port, but is just as likely in a metropolitan city like Rome or Milan.
My favorite spot in all of Rome for fine fish and "fruits of the sea" (frutti di mare) is a spot tucked on a back street off of Campo de' Fiori, and just down the street from my old beloved apartment on the edge of the Jewish quarter. In fact, it's the old site of what used to be called Sotto Sopra, location of the second incarnation of our American brunch in Rome -- a story for another time and another blog post. The space it occupies, meanwhile, is a gorgeous, cavernous bi-level restaurant with a raised, glassed-in kitchen and arched cathedral ceilings hung with beautiful chandeliers. The subterranean area (once the dungeon-like downstairs of a messy discoteca) is perfect as a wine cellar and temperate spot for sipping some of Il Sanlorenzo's delicious vintages.
But beyond the vibrant, sophisticated atmosphere, the important thing here is the food -- and above all, the quality and freshness of the seafood itself. There is a display when you walk through the entrance featuring the day's fresh catch, which may include any variety of local white fish (branzino, turbot, gilthead bream), tuna, swordfish, crustaceans galore (the Mediterranean offers a wealth of shrimp varieties we've never seen in the States), mussels and clams, sea urchin, squid, octopus...and the list goes on. Much of it comes from the waters off the coast between Rome and Naples, though some items may come from Sicily and Puglia, all the way north to Venice.
The most talented Italian seafood chefs know that the best thing they can do to top-quality fish and seafood is to do very little. Let the delicate flavor of the fish shine through. Which is why a dish in the tasting antipasto of crudi (raw items) like the tartare trio is so enjoyable. We tasted three types of fish -- yellowfin tuna, sea bass, and amberjack -- cut into a small dice and mixed with extra-virgin olive oil, a squeeze of citrus, and a few fresh herbs. That's all the fish needs.
The raw antipasto continued with one of my personal favorites, the carpaccio di gamberi rossi. They flatten the famous red shrimp from southern Italy into a paper-thin disc on the plate. It's then dressed with little more than olive oil, sea salt, a zest of lemon and a squeeze of lemon juice. It is beautiful on the plate and on the tongue. We proceeded with possibly my favorite of all elegant sea creatures: scampi. Don't be confused -- these are not the shrimp in 'shrimp scampi' (which makes no sense in Italian, by the way: it means 'shrimp langoustine' and does not exist as a dish in Italy).
These are crustaceans of their own category, known in various parts of the world as langoustines, or Dublin Bay prawns, or in Italy, scampi. They are the sophisticated cross between a shrimp and the most tender baby lobster you can imagine. They can be cooked gently on a grill or in a saute' pan, or lightly poached, but to me, they're best raw. Like the red shrimp, their delicate briny flavor is best experienced with a soft, pliable texture that you can only have before they're cooked. There's not much meat for all the work required to get at it, but patience is rewarded with unique flavor. I think it's worth it. The final plate of our raw appetizer tasting was, per our request, some delicious, fresh-from-the-sea ricci di mare, or sea urchin, shown in this posting's opening photo. Again, it's not about quantity of substance, but rather the briny, unctuous punch packed into the tiny, flame-orange pockets of the prickly shell. These are actually egg sacks and offer up a creamy, custard-like saline treat you scoop out. To note is that all of this was accompanied by some delicious, wire-thin grissini, and washed down with a delicious, crisp rose' champagne. To me, the best accompaniment to fine raw seafood is often something sparkling.
The pastas on offer here are delicious and well-balanced -- memorable is a long pasta with lobster in which the pasta is cooked in lobster stock for an added layer of flavor. We split a primo so as not to throw our meal completely off course, which was a lovely tagliolini with a ragu featuring my beloved gambero rosso, both cooked and raw, with fresh uncooked tomato and herbs. It was light and silky and the perfect portion.
Often, when a meal features spectacular antipasti, by the time you get to your secondo (main course), it can be a bit anticlimactic. Not here. There were so many options to tempt, and I know from past experience here that the simplest of dishes (a salt-baked spigola [sea bass], for instance) is anything but plain when done well. We decided on one simple main, and one less so. A delicious piece of Mediterranean sea bass was perfectly cooked, skin crisped, and set atop a bed of wilted greens and served on a clean, oven-roasted tomato consomme.
We also thoroughly enjoyed the swordfish, marinated in soy and charred on the grill,which was plated on a brilliant spiral of sweet-and-sour vegetable sauce, garnished with frigitelli (small sweet green peppers) and pistachios. The two mains complemented each other well, and proved to be substantial enough that there was no way we had room for dessert! It's a shame because desserts here, too, are accomplished and decadent. But we had many more hours to go in our evening, and we didn't want to weigh ourselves down after an already grand meal. It turned out to be a good choice, all of it. My boyfriend said then, and continues to claim, that he felt as good after that meal as any meal he's ever eaten. It's quite a statement, but one with which I agree. Il Sanlorenzo makes you feel pampered with good service, well-fed and overwhelmingly happy with a delicious, fresh Italian seafood feast, and sends you off into the night, elated and satisfied. And really, what more could anyone ask of a great meal?
Ristorante Il Sanlorenzo
Via dei Chiavari 4/5 Roma
+39 (06) 686.5097