What’s not to like about a dinner inspired by the cuisine of Rome? Nothing. And what if it’s a repast put together by Tony Vallone? Well, when that happens, as it did this past week at Ciao Bello, the evening promises some great flavors. Vallone, a mainstay of the Houston dining scene (and beyond), holds these dinners on a regular basis, and they are usually sold-out affairs.
The Rome evening was no exception, and would-be diners on the standby list were disappointed. Not so the 104 guests who managed to book a seat.
Semolina loaves —pagnotta “Trastevere” — were passed around to begin the meal, round and warm and full of provola cheese and sweet red peppers. It possessed a fine crust, and the cheese and peppers melted into the soft crumb in a magical manner. The “first” course — whose filling of crab, lobster, and ricotta is best described as luscious and understatedly decadent — was a fried zucchini blossom. These things I never tire of, and are highlights of my springs and summers (depending on where I am). The blossoms served at Una Serata Romana were light, tasted of the garden, and, were oh so satisfyingly crisp. Biting into one released the filling in a sinful ooze, and if the meal had ended then I would have been satisfied.
But it didn’t. Shrimp sautéed and redolent of garlic and lemon, served over Aquerello risotto, appeared. Don’t overcook your shrimp, is my mantra, and these were on the good side. They tasted of the sea, were firm and meaty without any hint of chewiness, and were seasoned with a light touch. The risotto, which is aged for one year by its producers, was a fine accompaniment, creamy and rich. The room grew quieter as this course was served and eaten.
Stracetti followed, thin pasta “shreds” that were bathed in a San Marzano tomato sauce, a sauce whose taste made me think of some of the finest “gravies” I ever had in New York. Whoever made this knows what he or she is doing, because it was neither too salty nor too bland, and its consistency was commendable — it coated the back of my spoon in a delightful manner. Shaved beef tenderloin and porcini mushrooms rounded out the dish.
Saltimbocca was the next — and final savory — course, and “jump in the mouth” it surely did. This dish is Cucina Romana at its finest, and the version served at Ciao Bello was worthy of the Eternal City: veal cutlets pounded until thin, prosciutto riserva, fontina, sage, and marsala. Simplicity at its best. Earthiness from the sage and prosciutto, acidity from the marsala, and the invigorating combination of the veal and cheese. Minor quibble: I did not need the artichoke.
Dessert ended the evening, a torta alla Romana, in this instance a Pan di Spagna with a rum butter glacé. It’s a sponge cake, traditionally made with nothing but sugar, flour, and eggs (though vanilla and cornstarch have been known to be used). It was moist and light, and a great way to close out the evening. The icing was not overly sweet, a touch I appreciated. A few bites of the cake, along with an espresso, made this course a delight.
I have attended a few of these dinners, and at times have thought to myself, “This is not Vallone at his best.” Serving the same courses to 104 guests is never easy, and though I have never had a bad dish at these meals, they have not always been uniformly excellent. Not so this Roman journey, an opinion shared by a fellow guest, a gentleman who dines out often and has been to his share of Vallone’s themed feasts. “Easily the best one I have experienced,” he told me after the dessert was served. “The kitchen was inspired tonight.”
If you missed this Rome affair, Marche is the next destination you could experience through its cuisine. Vallone has scheduled a dinner based on the eastern Italian region for July 28 at Ciao Bello, and I predict that reservations will disappear as soon as they are available.
Oh yes, wines. Four wines were poured during Una Serata Romana, all apt selections: a 2014 Vernaccia di San Gimignano (Le Calcinaie), crisp and refreshing; a 2014 Vermentino, Colli di Luni (Giacomelli), fragrant and full of fruit; a 2014 Morellino di Scansano (Poggio Brigante), a fresh and bracing pour; and a 2010 Brunello di Montalcino (Torre Fosca), hailing from a great vintage and a worthy mate to the saltimbocca. (Vallone tasted the Torre Fosca on one of his trips to Italy and purchased an inventory of it for his restaurants — order a bottle and enjoy).