Rione X1 and "Roman-Jewish Ghetto Cuisine" in Wychwood Park/Hillcrest Village
BY BRYAN LAVERY
As anyone who reads my columns regularly is aware, I have been a student of the Italian kitchen for the last thirty years, so genuine regional Italian cooking resonates with me.
Until the unification of Italy in 1861, one could not speak of a national cuisine. The reality of Italian cookery is an amalgamation of distinct regional cuisines more diverse than anywhere else in Europe.
Like the rest of Italy, Rome is made of many districts, each with distinctive traditional specialities. Additional subsets of cuisines remain both strongly regional and localized.
The self-proclaimed "Roman-Jewish Ghetto” cuisine, a form of cucina povera (literally meaning the impoverished kitchen) distinguishes the newly opened Rione X1, from a number of other Italian-inspired restaurants on the Wychwood/Hillcrest Village restaurant strip in Toronto.
The inspiration for Rione X1, I am told by the waiter, comes from the cobble-stoned Jewish ghetto in Rome, which originated in the mid 1500’s. The concept is the invention of Danilo and Sandrelle Scimo of Pizza e Pazzi who brought Neapolitan hand-crafted pizza to prominence in the area. Rione X1 literally means region eleven, referring to the 11th of the 14 regions of Medieval Rome.
Rione X1 is not to be mistaken for the ersatz trattorias that seem to have a pathological focus on faux-Italian cuisine. The offerings may be simple, but they are classic, prepared by Chef Pena Lellimo, with traditional ingredients and executed with some finesse and an eye for presentation.
Dinner begins with a generous basket of good Calabrese bread, which is both rustic and delicious. The best-known dish from the Roman-Jewish repertoire is carciofi alla giudea, or artichokes Jewish style. The dish has several variations, depending on where you have it and the type of artichoke used. Traditionally the artichokes are of the Romanesco variety. At Rione X1 the artichokes are the long-stemmed variety, deep fried until brown, crisp and crunchy, flaky in parts and served with a wedge of lemon. On another visit they are just the fanned-out globes (artichoke heads) Both times they are a revelation and alone, they are worth the visit to Rione X1.
The menu is designed to be shared. After the artichokes, we began with a board of crostini con alici e burrata: a mass of arugula served with a large crostini, in the centre of the platter was a ball of fresh and creamy burrata (the outer shell was a solid pouch enclosing fresh cream and mozzarella) surrounded by “heirloom” and sun dried tomatoes. Perfectly charred radicchio was a great accompaniment to the dish but the promised anchovies were absent.
The air-cured bresaola is a stand-out appetizer, served again on a bed of arugula with thinly but generously shaved Parmigiano Reggiano.
The owners of Rione X1 may be well-intentioned but the cuisine does not lives up to the Roman-Jewish Ghetto culinary ethos (one "Jewish-inspired" piatto consists of salmone con mascarpone: smoked salmon with mascarpone). More authentic would be carpaccio of baccalà or a good in-house salt-cured salmon.
The menu features a short list of pasta dishes that are made in-house. There is ravioli freschi – on my first visit it was sold out due to its popularity– our waiter explained, that the kitchen is a one-woman show. The fresh ravioli on our second visit filled with sage and ricotta was uninspiring. The commercial variety that we were served the following evening just down the street at Ferro Bar Café was superior.
Gnocchetti sardi in crema di carciofi e gamberetti is the Sardinian-inspired pasta, aka malloreddus (small morsels of gnocchi-shaped semolina) with charred artichoke leaves and the tiniest shrimp imaginable in a gray cream sauce. There are ribbons of fresh tagliatelle with a chunky (actually it was well-braised) but tender beef ragu.
Also on offer was slightly over-cooked sedanini (elbow-curved pasta) with bresaola slivers in an over-salted, eggy carbonara sauce. There is much superior pasta up the street at chef Giancarlo Carnevale’s PROP restaurant.
Guance di vitello al sughetto are tasty stewed beef cheeks served on mashed potatoes (I had to ask the waiter what I was eating. At first, I thought it was semolina, it was so creamy but undistinguishable. For some reason I was expecting polenta or something a bit more traditional). There is Venetian-style calves liver on the menu.
Contorni are vegetable side dishes, which you order independently and are served in a separate dish, never on the same plate as the main course — and usually pay a premium for. We ordered the ceci al tegamino (sautéed chick peas) which were devoid of flavour and could use the Yotam Ottolenghi treatment with some ground cumin, cardamom and allspice. The pan-fried eggplant was unavailable and on another evening it was merely lacklustre. Other choices consisted of peas and sautéed rapini.
The Roman-Jewish culinary connection is certainly an interesting concept, though that’s all it appears to be at the moment. However, these are the very early days and there are still a few things to iron out, too many offerings have the commercially cultivated arugula as a base. The pasta dishes need help. There are too many repetitive ingredients on the menu.
First impressions in new restaurants are important and the word of mouth on the street is interesting — actually, good. And there has been some hype/advertorial in the neighbourhood press, which got me through the front door. I tell myself to remember, Rome was not built in a day and this just might be a new neighbourhood hot spot if the owners give the kitchen a bit more attention.
One thing I have learned in my many years as a chef, restaurateur and food reviewer is that “authentic” is not necessarily the same as “good” and vice versa. My dispute here is by referencing Roman-Jewish Ghetto traditions, they seem to make a promise that they are unable to live up to.