Italy's seduction of travelers from around the world starts with the lure of the sights but finishes with that kiss on the lips that is Italian cooking. Unlike the 'haute cuisine' of France, Italy's best cooking is both refined and based in traditional, everyday dishes. No place gives you a better blend of refinement and regional gusto than Vivendo, a wonderful intimate restaurant near the Piazza della Repubblica inside the St. Regis Grand Hotel in Rome.
Vivendo means 'living' or 'alive' and the name is apt for the way the food and the service make you and your palate feel. The decor is inviting, with a retro style dating back to the 30's and 40's but livened by a unique selection of modern paintings by Roman artists. The same gallery selected the art for the St. Regis and here selected works which draw you in to a highly aesthetic state of being in which you feel comfortably at home.
The Restaurant Manager, Federico Galligani, has the same easy, cultured manner that invites you to make yourself at home. He will offer you something to drink and here you discover one of the many pleasures at Vivendo - you can drink from an extraordinary selection of Italian wines by the glass. The St. Regis Hotel has a 'Wines of Italy' program in its bar, room service and restaurant which allows you to request a single glass rather than an entire bottle from an amazing list of 32 Italian labels. The evening we dined at Vivendo, we also had the option of a glass of French blush Bruno Paillard champagne, which was a delicate and refreshing opener for our meal.
The French have a phrase, amuse bouche, which means 'mouth entertainment,' to describe a certain kind of dish or meal that varies texture and taste so as to make a kind of party for the taste buds. Our meal started with sea scallops and dried tomatoes which tasted like the sea itself. Sprinkled on top were curls of fried celery, which added a light crunch which in some way heightened the sense of eating something right out of nature. A cherry tomato suddenly squirted its juice into the mix and olives gave it all grace notes of earthy musk. The effect of taking in the great outdoors in a few bites was intoxicating.
The entire meal at Vivendo had this quality of delight and surprise. My favorite dish was the salt cod mousse with chicory on a bed of polenta. I usually eat fish sparingly and salt fish only as a duty and not a pleasure, so my enjoyment was double to discover this dish as close to perfection as human hands can produce. The salt cod was cut by the bitter of the chicory and then smoothed by the sweet, creamy base of polenta in a study of contrasts emblematic of this city. And although my tastes were formed in an urban, Mid-Atlantic setting, my companion, a southerner, found the dish to be so reminiscent of her regional fare with the greens and the corn as to dub it 'comfort food.'
Prawns are plentiful here and we had them both marinated in a salad with crab, avocado and caviar, and served with a creamy casarecci pasta with wild fennel. The pasta was adorned with a zuicchini flower which was stuffed with ricotta and fried so that the tips were finely crisped while the center was luxuriously creamy. The experience of eating them alone was worth the dinner.
Despite trends toward vegetarianism, I am an enthusiastic meat eater, and Federico brought loin of local lamb coated in herbs on a bed of thyme artichokes that was so sweet and tender I could cut it with my fork. The dish was decorated with lace-thin slices of Parmesan cheese that were slow-cooked in the oven until they were like chips, making it both beautiful and flavorful.
My companion had veal wrapped in ham on a bed of truffle potatoes and garnished with the celery crunches. For a meat eater, this dish is the top of the heap.
To drink, Federico brought us a glass of Ferro et Seta, a Lazio wine by Villa Simone from the hills surrounding Rome. The name means Iron and Silk, and is a remarkable wine for its quality of structure and delicacy. Dark and light a the same time, the wine is like drinking blood that is full of light. It goes down 'easy as silk' just as its name implies.
To cap off the meal, I had a chestnut ice parfait and my companion a selection of ices. This ice or sorbet here compares to American sorbet the way sherbet compares to a sno-cone. It was as smooth as whipped cream with just a little more substance and made a refreshing end to a spectacular meal.
Refined as these dishes are, the garnishes and, for Americans, exotic condiments never overtake the base flavors of meat, potato, fish, vegetable. As Federico explained, the first secret of a great dish is the ingredients. Here, everything used is local and top tier and its flavor is showcased and not buried.
In Rome, the hotels may be more expensive than their equivalents almost anywhere in the world, but the food is remarkably accessible to almost any pocketbook. Even if you go to Rome on a tight budget, treat yourself to at least one meal at Vivendo and savor the flavors and atmosphere that await you like the affectionate double kiss on the cheeks that friends use to greet one another in Italy.
St. Regis Grand Hotel, Rome
Via Vittorio E. Orlando, 3
phone: (+39 for Italy) 06-4709-2736
Dress: Smart Casual
Chef: Francesco Donatelli
hours: Lunch Mon-Fri 12:30-2:30 PM
Dinner Mon-Sat 7:30-10:30 PM