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When Marzapane opened in Rome, Casa Mia was among the first to go visit. You can read that review here.
Cut to three years later, and here I am finally savoring the sensorial memories of chef Alba Esteve Ruiz, masterfully translated into culinary creations that describe the journey from her home in Alicante, Spain to the kitchen of Marzapane, by way of Abruzzo, where she worked at The restaurant La Bandiera.
On a sweltering late-July Friday, after mopping up the mess of a surprise fridge breakdown, I jumped in a cab and met my friend and foodie accomplice Elyssa for well-deserved girlfriend time. I can never thank her enough for picking Marzapane and reminding me that we owe it to ourselves to occasionally pamper ourselves. Especially when your fridge decides to stop functioning on a Friday, when plumbers are the proverbial needle in the haystack.
The first thing that catches my eye is seeing the young chef busy at work. The kitchen-laboratory is in plain sight behind a large glass partition. The spacious dining room’s design focuses on a natural palette: limestone and clay plaster wall finish, solid wood elements, linen drapes, for an overall elegant, welcoming atmosphere. This is a place where I could easily dine alone and would never feel uncomfortable.
In the deliciously refreshing air-conditioned room, welcomed like royalty, we sit at Elyssa’s table––she’s a loyal Marzapane customer––our glasses immediately filled with Champagne. We decide to splurge and go with the tasting menu, the title of which is La Storia di Alba, “Alba’s Story.”
The chilled bottle of Pecorello wine sits in a glacière out of reach, but the staff is prompt to fill our glasses as soon as they are empty.
Alba’s story begins at her grandmother’s kitchen less than two decades ago. The appetizer spread is nothing less than astounding. As small blocks of wood, plates, and bowls are places before us, I note that besides the glasses, there is no tablecloth, no runner, no silverware on the table. Six delicious tapas tickle our appetite and taste buds. The Maitre encourages us to eat with our hands.
Aceitunas y boqueron – pitted olives and a cream of anchovies enveloped in a fragrant and transparent pane carasau shell. The sweet undertone is a shock.
Empanadilla – small vegetarian empanadas dusted with smoky paprika
Croquetas de bacalao – the best cod fritter I have ever tasted
Cochitoas – a gorgeously presented pork sandwich on brioche bread, seasoned with mayo, bbq sauce and cheese sauce.
Patatas bravas – bite size new potatoes filled with what I can only describe as the concentrated flavor of my sensorial memories of Spain.
Coca frita – fried pizza dough filled with silky slices of jamon serrano, served in a half castanette. I’m in heaven
Time passes, Alba grows up. She lives and works in Valencia, travels back to her home region Alicante, then Girona, in the kitchens of Celler de Can Roca, temple of fine dining of brothers Joan, Joseph and Jordi Roca. The dishes that follow reflect this journey:
The Gazpacho andaluz made me weep. This was among my dad’s favorite dishes and as soon as the plate landed in front of me, the aroma of tomato, sweet peppers and cucumber wafted to my nose and I was transported to the embrace of his broad shoulders.
The Pulpo a la gallega was a sensational citrusy, smoky mouthful of Spain. There are not enough descriptors for the sensation it gave me.
As the menu reads, “Then one day Alba wakes up in the middle of the Abruzzo countryside.” This refers to her 2-year season working at La Bandiera in Civitella Casanova, with chef Mattia Spadone whom she had met in Girona.
Cacio e ova – peasant dish of the Abruzzo region here revisited with elegance and transformed into a fried dumpling that contains a liquid heart of tomato water
Arrosticino – the incredibly tender lamb skewer is served on a magnum box of Masciarelli winery filled with cork stoppers, oenological pride of the Abruzzo region acting as a box of memories.
Alba dreams of the Eternal City, and starts gathering awards, in 2014 she is named the best young chef by the Gambero Rosso guide, and recently winner of the Piatto dei Campi 2018 award. Her signature dishes are astounding:
Red prawn tartare, burrata cheese, smoked eggplant cream, candied tomatoes and mustard, topped with pistachio “brutti ma buoni” cookie – textures, umami and a broad range of flavors envelop my entire being. The burrata crafted by Alba’s skilled hands is the size of a marble, yet it performs as a regular sized ball of heaven. After a sip of Pecorello wine, the sophisticated dish transforms into a familiar and simple statement.
Risotto, French butter, anchovies and candied ginger – This dish alone is worth the visit. Creamy, savory, so Roman… and then surprising with the ginger accent. Perfection.
Carbonara 2013 – it’s inevitable that the last stop on Alba’s journey is a plate of carbonara, Rome’s symbolic dish and litmus test any new chef in Rome must undergo. Alba passes it with flying colors.
Her soul always remains Spanish, but is enriched over the years, gathering experiments, flavors and techniques. The dessert ending the tasting menu is quenelles of peache and achillea gelato, drenched in a balsamic bath. But the Marzapane experience does not end here. Two last sweets are presented under a glass dome, a small almond, cinnamon, candied orange cannoli; and a bite-sized tart with white chocolate mousse, licorice and salt.
Via Velletri, 39
Tel. 06 64781692
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.