In keeping with my tradition of having one spectacular meal in each major city, I reserved a table at Restaurante Il Pagliaccio for dinner. I had picked this restaurant for a few reasons. One, because the most acclaimed restaurant in Rome, La Pergola, was fully booked. Two, because Il Pagliaccio is a two-star restaurant with a menu that combines Italian and Asian flavours. Being Eurasian myself, I love fusion food and thought it would be a nice departure from the traditional Italian menus seen on every tourist restaurant in Rome. The Chef, Anthony Genovese, takes inspiration from the many countries where he has worked and has created a wonderful menu.
In the morning of my reservation, I visited the Vatican on a group tour and made friends with two ladies from the United States, Shannon & Paige, who asked if they could join me for dinner. Of course, being a two-star restaurant, tables are hard to come by so I called the restaurant to see if there was any possibility of changing my “table for one” to a “table for three”. I could hear the hesitation in the booking manager’s voice when I called but he the stated “he would do his best”.
Shannon is Paige’s aunt and was treating Paige on a European holiday as a reward for finishing high school. I thought that was fantastic and would love to be able to do something similar for my nephews (when the time comes). Shannon is the CEO & Founder of babiesonline.com so it was nice to talk to her about websites and get some advice for my blog.
Shannon & Paige were staying at a lovely 5-star hotel only a few blocks from the festering hellhole of a hostel that I was residing in so we agreed to take a taxi together. The taxi ride was an event in and of itself! Having travelled extensively through Asia, I thought that I was pretty conditioned to wild taxi rides but our Roman driver definitely took the prize. Poor Paige started to get carsick on the way to the restaurant.
We arrived promptly at the reservation time and were greeted at the door with friendly smiles and a comment of “yes, the table for one that’s now three”. I apologized if I had caused them grief but they simply smiled and said “no, we have to seat you at the chef’s table, hope that’s OK”.
Shannon, Paige and I
The chef’s table was in a separate room to the main dining hall and had a view into the kitchen. On one wall was a bookcase stacked with the cookbooks of other famous restaurants (e.g. The Fat Duck, Arzak, Alinea, El Bulli etc) and I could have happily sat there for hours reading.
The meal started with an aperitif of champagne and a small plate of food to accompany it. On the right was a rolled and fried chicken thigh filled with hazelnut mousse, in the middle was a cucumber jelly and on the right was strawberry gazpacho. Eaten in order from left to right, the chicken was homey but very tasty, the cucumber was light and cleansed the palate and the strawberry gazpacho was simply delicious. A whole bowl of that on a hot summer’s day would be the perfect lunch.
After our aperitif, we were presented with the food menus. There is an a-la-carte menu and a choice of an 8, 10 or 12 course tasting menu. We opted for the eight courses to ensure that we would be able to finish the meal (which we weren’t). Like Le Chantecler, no course descriptions are provided, you are in the hands of the chef.
On the menu it also states “Dear Guest, for privacy reason avoid using mobiles or photocameras, filming it’s forbidden without permission”. Not one to be easily deterred, I asked the waiter if I could have permission to photograph and he confirmed that would be fine as long as no flash was used.
To begin with, we were served an amuse bouche of grilled melon with prosciutto and sangria. A modern twist on the classic Italian starter that graces so many menus here in Rome. By grilling the melon, the chef has intensified the sweetness of the fruit and the salty prosciutto is the perfect offset.
The first course of the tasting menu was a potato roll with crab salad and a salsa of mango, pineapple and banana, served with a warm rice soup with coconut milk and Japanese tea. The potato roll was served cold which allowed for the fresh taste of the crab to shine through. The salsa added a nice kick but the star of the dish was the coconut milk soup. It was light but bursting with flavour and the rice added an interesting textural crunch.
The second course was grilled mackerel with clam jelly filled with mozzarella and semolina and tomato water. The clam jelly looked like an amoeba on the plate but was very tasty. The mackerel was well cooked but it is strong fish and overpowered the other flavours.
The third course was fried mini cannelloni filled with artichokes and topped with smoked sardine and miscellaneous foam of indefinable flavour. The cannelloni had a great texture and the smoky filling of artichokes was complimented by the sardine. The waiter, noticing that Paige didn’t finish the fish course and enquiring why (she’s not a fan of fish), informed the chef and served her plate with smoked eggplant instead. I thought that was a really nice touch.
The fourth course was fagottini (similar to ravioli) stuffed with fig and nduja (a pork sausage from Calabria that is spiced with red pepper and spreadable in texture). All three of us listed this as one of our favourite courses. The nduja had the perfect amount of heat, plenty of kick but you didn’t need to reach for your glass.
The fifth course was a risotto with tomato, oregano, lemon, black olive and cream. It was one of the finest risottos I’ve ever eaten. The rice was far less cooked than the risottos I have had in Australia or Hong Kong but I enjoyed it immensely.
The sixth course (the meat course) was grilled veal with a herb and pepper crust, served with apricot and chickpeas, with galletti mushrooms and grilled eschallot. I found the meat to be a tad overcooked (tough) and although it was tasty, I found it to be the weakest course thus far (perhaps a little too safe).
The seventh course (the cheese course) was a passionfruit and apple cream, served with a waterflower and coffee waffle, ricotta topped with coffee, olive oil, orange and sour marmalade and a white yoghurt cream. The ricotta was pleasant and served as a nice neutral base for the other flavours.
We were then treated to a palate cleanser served in a martini glass: a watermelon granita, with vodka jelly, mint and lime. We were getting full at this point so were relieved that it was quite light.
The eighth course (the dessert course) was a zabaglione tart with apricot sorbet, thyme jelly and apricot cream. The tart was airy and not eggy as some zabagliones can be (if not cooked properly). The thyme jelly was a strong counter to the sweet apricots. A highly successful dessert.
Finally, it was time for the mignardises and we were served a long plate of macaroons, sour cream cake, chocolate gateaux and other petit fours. At this point, we were too full to finish this course. We were also given a complimentary glass of coffee liqueur to accompany the mignardises which was most appreciated.
Interestingly, the dress code at Il Pagliaccio is casual which is unusual for a two-star restaurant. However, the majority of the patrons chose to dress to a higher standard and I think casual dress does not suit the style of the restaurant.
By far, this was my most enjoyable meal in Italy to date. Each dish was predominately Italian, but with a modern twist. Based on my observations thus far, modern Italian does not seem to be embraced here in Rome and I didn’t come across any other styled restaurants each day as I walked the town. Perhaps it was because I was in the tourist areas but every other menu I saw was almost identical offering the same standard fare. I commend Chef Genovese for a truly wonderful meal.
Our waiter and I