January 6, 2022

Foraging may be having a moment right now, especially with the pandemic having an impact on imports and exports. While some find it a bit contrived, in its hunter-gatherer schtick, others like Retrobottega sprinkle its persisting beliefs over the menu with conviction. And for once, it works. A generous shower of fig leaf powder here, a scatter of helichrysum flowers there, does punch up a dish dramatically.  

The strikingly minimalist restaurant is furnished with bare wooden communal tables running perpendicular to a steel-clad open kitchen, while the pass is illuminated by numerous retractable heat lamps. I’m led to a high stool alongside the chef’s station and my heavy combat boots are causing me to swivel around. It’s intolerably warm. If you have snagged an earlier seating, wait for the 8:30 p.m. crowd; some heat will seep out as they enter, allowing drafts of cold air to sweep through. Sensing my discomfort, the maitre’d pours me a glass of Italian sparkling wine—a single vintage Trentodoc made by the Letrari family. Hints of golden apple and brioche take the edge off.

A blitz of snacks proves to be an attention-grabbing opening scene; a tartlet of smoked carrot and quinoa sits atop a hexagonal marbled tile, warm bao filled with mushroom cream and dusted with thyme powder, nestled amongst rosemary sprigs, and pumpkin and mushroom sandwiched in between an amaretti biscuit sprayed with ikiji seaweed powder. It’s a little bit of everything and leans into the lexicon of sustainability.

I take to the dried bread with elderflower butter even as dishes are cleared and my first wine is poured. For once, I find myself deviating from the restaurant’s recommended wine pairing in favour of a prudent approach: wine by the glass, which Retrobottega does boast a healthy selection. The 2019 Pinot Grigio from La Roncaia is a dance of honeydew and tart lemons on the tongue. It is in divine company with the first dish—cod slow cooked in cabbage oil laid on a puddle of pil-pil sauce the colour of daffodils. A leaf of Swiss chard provides shade and texture, and finally, a dollop of chard puree and persimmon marmalade beckons to be schmeared.

The off-season is glorified in the next dish of roasted turnips in a dressing of spicy nduja, showered with foraged helichrysum flowers for kisses of exotic liquorice and aniseed. The chef passes you a bowl of these wispy flowers to muse over, leaving you to imagine two grown men prancing around the Abruzzo region plucking bunches of them in wicker baskets. I am really not jesting: Retrobottega does spotlight the feminine qualities of foraging, which are a sharp contrast to the machoism of hunting. And that is an endearing quality of the cuisine here.

One of my favourite courses on the menu is yakitori grilled cuttlefish paired with beef bone marrow and a generous application of lemon and parsley. It manages to be both farm and sea on the plate. A roulade of fatty pork and cabbage moistened by a red corn based broth is exactly what you need in the cooler seasons. The purposeful placement of Marjoram leaf sings of citrus oils and helps navigate the residual fats; ditto the instinctive use of herbs to amplify a dish.

By now, my palate has been moulded by my environment and I’m ready for the next surprise. A young chef scoops a ladle of risotto into a bowl, taps the bottom to level it out and proceeds to lightly dust fig powder over the plate. A smell like sweet cream simmering on a stove fills the room. The gentrification takes place below the creamy grains where chicken hearts and lungs are coaxed into a satiny brown sauce. It’s simply sublime. 

Now, there’s good service and there’s exemplary waitstaff. The maitre’d, quick to pick up that I’m from the Loire valley, ensures that my last meat course must not be paired with French wine. He pours a 2018 Barbera d’Alba from Cascina Fontana, which brings forth the abundance of blackberries with a touch of moist earth. Sirloin, from a very matured (8-year-old) cow bathed in a mole poblano-inspired sauce and flanked by fermented carrot puree, harmonises well with the ruby tones. 

For those who do not have a sweet tooth, dessert only makes an appearance in one out of the eight courses. Rye bread crumbles and pieces of pink candied sugar beets peek out from under soft folds of creamy mascarpone. This is a confection you gladly want more of. 

A meal at Retrobottega is meant to turn heads, raise questions and explore the boundaries of ingredients used individually and in combination with others. If you’re looking for more traditional Roman cuisine, its pasta lab does the classic amatriciana with handcrafted and organic pasta.

I paid €126 for the tasting menu and three glasses of wine.