With so many outstanding restaurants in Rome, it is sometimes hard to pick a favorite. The Spirito Di Vino restaurant (the name is a play on words that mean either“The Spirit Divine” or “The Spirit of the Wine) is one of Rome’s finest featuring an eclectic menu that changes daily depending on what is available in the market. It is the domain of Chef Eliana Catalani who, together with her husband, Romeo and her son Francesco, opened the restaurant in 1998.
The ancient building in Trastevere in which it is housed was Rome’s first synagogue until Pope Paul IV forced the Jews into a ghetto across the Tiber River. In the arcaded loggia above the side entrance of the restaurant, you can still see Hebrew letters carved in the marble pillar. The building has also been home to a convent, a shop, a private residence and, now, a restaurant.
However, its origins are even older than that as we learn when we arrive for dinner. As we walk into the restaurant, Romeo greets us and leads us up a small flight of steps to a table under multiple arches and terra-cotta walls. The white tablecloths, crystal glasses and silverware gleam under the soft lights. Romeo immediately pours us two glasses of Prosecco Millesimato Brut and pulls up a chair to chat. He highlights the most unique items on the menu and spends a bit of time describing the history of each. He comes back at regular intervals throughout our meal to see how we are doing.
Once we have made our selections, Francesco arrives with recommendations on the best wines for each dish. He invites us to visit the wine cellar and explains its extraordinary history.
THE WINE CELLAR
As you carefully pick your way down the steep brick steps to the dim, dank cellar, you travel in time to the first century level of Republican Rome. Every step down is equal to 75 years of time. The wine cellar is 160 years older than the Colosseum, its walls protected by the Ministry of Archeology. Even the wine bottles stored down here are not allowed to touch them.
Several archeological treasures that are now on display at the Vatican or Capitoline Museums were discovered during excavations. One, the “Statue of the Athlete”, the so-called “Apoxyomenes”, has given its name to the small alley outside the restaurant’s side entrance, the Vicolo dell’Atleta. It is a Roman marble copy of an original Greek bronze by Lisippo (4th century BC). It depicts an athlete scraping olive oil from his body. The second is an original Greek bronze horse from the Classical era that was once part of the monumental equestrian sculpture commissioned by Alexander the Great to honor those who fell in the Battle of Granico.
We notice that the bottles are all wrapped in plastic wrap. Francesco explains that since the cellar has a constant temperature of 50-59 degrees F with 30% humidity, the plastic is required to keep the labels from peeling off. One employee is responsible for wrapping and unwrapping the bottles.
Chef Eliana is the only person who prepares the food. Before becoming a gourmet chef, she spent 37 years as an internationally acclaimed virologist working with 1986 Nobel Laureate Rita Levi Montalcini. Chef Eliana gave this up to follow a dream and open her own restaurant. An early proponent of the Slow Food Movement, the raw materials she uses are purchased daily at the market and come from organic farmers and small producers located within a few miles of Rome.
Eliana sees her kitchen as an extension of her laboratory, bringing the same scientific rigor to her cooking as she did to her research. “I want every recipe to tell a story,” she says. “Instead of words, the aromas and tastes of each dish provide the narration.” Eliana believes that, through her cooking, she is conveying the multi-cultural influences of Rome.
We start our meal with the liver paté served with rounds of toast and a side of wild apple jelly. It is a reminder of the building’s Jewish heritage. Romeo describes some of the 18 different herbs and spices with which it is made. It is smooth and silky on the palate, the richness of the paté offset by the sweetness of the jelly. It is a flavor that is difficult to forget. No other chicken liver paté will ever taste the same.
For our main course, we select the Magro di Maiale di Manzio or the Lean pork made in Manzio’s style. Manzio was a contemporary of Julius Caesar, known for his authorship of three volumes on gastronomy, as well as his horticultural skills. (The Spanish word for apple (manzana) has its origins in the apples that Manzio grew.)
Eliana has recreated this dish, slow-cooking chunks of pork shoulder with apples, onions, honey, vinegar, red wine, herbs, and spices. Instead of salt, she remains true to the original recipe by using a garum (or fermented fish sauce) similar to the Vietnamese nuoc mam. (In Caesar’s time salt was too expensive a commodity to use on food). Notwithstanding what you might expect, there is absolutely no fishy flavor to the meat, which is served with a side of applesauce. We accompany this with a glass of Terre Siciliane Molino a Vento Syrah recommended by Francesco.
To conclude our meal, we select the tiramisú and the Crema cotta, the Italian version of crème brulée but without the hard sugar-coating on top. They are both delicious and gone much too quickly.
In addition to the outstanding food, what makes Il Spirito Di Vino so special is the attitude towards the guests. At no time do you feel as if you should hurry up and leave. Each table is booked for only one party per evening. In fact, Romeo and Francesco invite us to sit back and have another cup of espresso or a digestive spirit and chat some more. Perhaps the greatest treat of all is meeting Chef Eliana herself! With all the outstanding restaurants that you can find in Rome, Il Spirito Di Vino is our favorite.
IF YOU GO
Il Spirito Di Vino Restaurant is open Monday to Saturday 7 to 11 pm; closed on Sunday. It is located at Via dei Genovesi 31 in Trastevere, a block from the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere Tel 39-06-589-66-89; email@example.com).