by Mario Batali
On my every trip to the region, my first important moment of contact with Lazio takes place right in the DaVinci airport, in the town of Fiumicino. The moment is always intense. After clearing customs, I head immediately to the bar/cafe located to the left of the airport exit, and order “un cappuccio tiepido”, a tepid cappuccino. Then I take a deep breath or two. That cappuccino is always the very best one I’ve had since my last visit to that exact same airport bar. Though forever linked to cappuccino in my mind, Fiumicino, situated just east of Rome, is also the capital city of both Italy and Christianity.
Rome, the very center city of Lazio, is so uniquely significant that we have decided to leave the eternal city for its own travel page, to be featured in the spring. Lazio as a province is vast and varied, from the beautiful windswept beaches outside of Sperlonga in the south and Tarquinia to the north, to the beautiful borders of Umbria and Abruzzo, and the magnificently simple pastoral scenery of the Castelli Romani area, located just southeast of the capital. This central area is made spectacular by an abundance of visual and gastronomic treats. The entire region is covered with grapevines, and glorious fields of vegetables and fruits. Dotting this region of sky and field are literally hundreds of small trattorie, ristoranti, osterie, and little roadside trucks and stands. All of these spots serve porchetta (roasted pig), abbacchio (lamb and kid), and infinite glasses of deliciously simple local white wine.
The town of Frascati, a classic Lazio town, is instrumental in the production of the quaffable white wines that are native to the region. For intimate dining, I love the simplicity of Zaraza, just off the beautiful Piazza Vescovile. Ask for the terrace tables and dine on splendid gnocchi (available only on Thursdays throughout all of Lazio) and the killer zuppa di cicerchie, made from a twisty-shaped kind of garbanzo traditional to this region. For something a little bigger and bit fancier, but not overly-polished, I really enjoy Cacciani. It’s a huge place and pretty much the main event in town, and for good reason… the dishes are classics and very well done. This is the place for pastas like spaghetti cacio e pepe, simply dressed with sheep’s milk cheese and black pepper, or fettuccine with “regaglie” a ragu of chicken livers, gizzards and cockscombs.
15 minutes east of Frascati lies the tiny town of San Cesareo, home of the diminutive Osteria di San Cesario. Though unassuming, this traditional kitchen turns out stupendous, old-style homemade dishes. The pasta and the bread are made from artisanally ground flour, and the menu is written in the Lazio dialect. Everything here is definitive, the lane der pecoraro, pasta tossed with baccala and pecorino, the coda alla vacinara, (braised oxtail with celery and currants), the magnificent “tordi”, fake birds made of thinly sliced rolled lamb or beef. Only 32-seats large, you definitely need to make a reservation, probably a week or so in advance.
On the way home, I always recommend an overnight stay back in the town of Fiumicino. There, the airport Hilton is just a short walk to the terminals and the town has 3 great dining options. The first two are top-level seafood restaurants. At Isola d’Oro, try simple and market-based seafood classics, such as sauteed clams and mussels in a sweet and spicy tomato broth, seafood risotto, gnocchetti with shrimp and squash blossoms, and a delicate fritto misto of the highest quality. The second restaurant is a bit pricier, but well worth the cost, especially if Signora Bastianelli is in. At Bastianelli al Molo there is a beautiful terrace garden on which to sip an aperetivo while perusing the menu. That first drink can set the tone for the entire evening. The elegant dining room features flowing curtains that create a kind of Phillipe Starck feeling. But the food is still the main event. Antipasti include the classic marinated raw anchovies. The superb pastas include bavette with tiny tomatoes, lobster and hot chilis, or a bold plate of spaghetti “al nero di seppia”, dressed simply with squid ink and thinly sliced scallions. The mains include the usual suspects… the mixed grill, whole fish “al forno”, simply baked with lemons and olive oil, the fritto misto… but it all adds up to something a little more than special. The third option in Fiumicino is to eat at one of the two (or both!) porchetta trucks. Jonathan Gold, in my opinion one of the great gastro-poet laureates and an American national treasure in the field of food writing, wrote a great article in Gourmet outlining his foray into the differences between the two. Why not go and make the comparison yourself?