Over Rome in a Barrel

Roberta Corradin - October 2006

An all-electric kitchen in a 2,000 year old cistern lays the foundation for a new chapter in the history of one of Rome's best views.

The vista from the Casina Valadier is among the most enviable in Rome. Situated at the high point of the Pincio hill, adjacent to the Villa Borghese parklands, amid gardens crossed by chalky paths and dotted with white marble busts, the restaurant commands a panoramic bird's-eye view of the Eternal City.

Built in 1816 precisely to take advantage of that view, the neoclassical "cottage" was conceived by visionary architect and urbanist Giuseppe Valadier as part of a Napoleonic project to reorganize and improve the area around the Piazza del Popolo. After more than a decade of moldering in disrepair, it reopened in June 2004 fully restored, with dining venues on four levels.

The Casina's main attractions have always been both the breathtaking beauty of the panorama enjoyable from its terrace and its neoclassical decor, unusual for Rome, with frescoes recalling the colors and patterns of Pompeian wall paintings and those of Nero's sumptuous palace, the Domus Aurea.

When the caffeaus (the name was an Italian misspelling of "coffeehouse") first opened, in 1817, it was expected to become a preeminent meeting place of the aristocracy and intellectuals. Yet, after a short-lived bout of enthusiasm, Romans soon neglected the new cafe, which occupied only three rooms in the building still under construction. Not only would the restaurant take another 15 years to be completed--its decor and frescoes even longer (the last vault was finally painted in the 1960s)--but the ghost of Nero also hovered in the place in a somewhat less than appetizing fashion.

An example of the Eternal City's architectural stratification, the Casina Valadier was built on the site of an ancient Roman cistern, which had in turn been incorporated into a casone, or "big house." built for storage in the 16th century by the Augustinian monks who kept vineyards on the Pincio hill. Rumors about the cistern, which dates back to the first century A.D., were said to be responsible for the early misfortune of the caffeaus. According to popular belief, it had been used by the emperor Nero to drown Christians--not conducive to creating an atmosphere of charm.

The Casina did enjoy a brief spell of popularity when the building was finally completed, in the 1830s, but its subsequent history resembles that of Napoleon as described in the verses of the famous Italian poet and writer Alessandro Manzoni: "Tre volte nella polvere, tre volte sull'altar" ("Three times a loser, three times a winner"). Its first real success came with the unification of Italy in 1870, when a new restaurant opened beside the caffeaus. It was deserted, however, by the turn of the century; then a second, very successful restaurant, run by the Società Anonima Café e Restaurants Italiani, opened on the premises in 1922. After falling into decline and serving as a tearoom for English officers during World War II, the Casina Valadier enjoyed a third stroke of luck in the 1960s and '70s under the direction of the De Montis brothers. The bar in particular became a much frequented haunt of politicians and celebrities--\and so it remained until the De Montises' company went bankrupt in 1990. The building was then abandoned by all but one former employee, a Signor Pasquale, who proclaimed himself the "guardian" of the Casina and lived there for years, determined to protect the building from robberies, vandalism, and decay.

No doubt Pasquale did what he could. Still, "it was discouraging to enter the structure for the first time," recalls Piercarlo Rampini of the Roman architecture firm ABT, which landed the ¤5 million (U.S.$6.36 million) refurbishment project after the city of Rome held a call for bids for both the architectural restoration and the management of the restaurant in 1998. "The building was in a state of complete neglect."

But like the mythological Arabian phoenix, the Casina Valadier seems capable of continually rising from its ashes. Once Rome's Fine Arts and Architecture councils had duked it out and agreed that the Casina should be restored as a restaurant and not simply as a historic monument, ABT teamed with the new managing company, La Grande Cucina, and its menu consultant, former Relais Le Jardin chef Antonio Sciullo, to plan a multitiered dining pavilion. That scheme involved setting an informal cafe in the garden; reviving the famed bar in the Sala Romana, on the first floor, with its terrace as the main dining venue; creating banqueting space in the Sala Impero, on the second floor; and reserving La Crociera, with its four terraces on the top of the Casina, for winter dining and for occasional groups during the rest of the year.

Hand in hand with these developments, the entire Casina--gardens, roof, facade, frescoes, interiors--underwent a meticulous restoration. The structure had been renovated several times before, most recently in the 1960s, but never with any particular regard for historical integrity. Part of the original terra-cotta floors had been covered by carpets, the frescoes in the Sala Impero were hidden behind a false ceiling, the walls of the ancient cistern had been paved with tiles, and the entire structure of the original Valadier project had suffered a number of irreversible transformations.

The cistern became the signature element of the restoration: parts of the cistern's exterior walls were made visible in public areas on the Casina's ground floor--offering a glimpse of the distant past it encapsulates--while its interior was earmarked for the kitchen.

Nicknamed the gran botte ("big barrel") when it was discovered in 1553, the cistern has rounded walls of cobbled stone that rise two stories, measuring 21 feet high and 110 feet in diameter. The first step in transforming this massive recess into a modern kitchen was the installation of a new wall of glass and steel following the curves of the barrel vault, to preserve the Roman opus signinum (the cistern's interior walls). At the same time, a new floor was inserted at the level of the Casina's ground floor, splitting the height of the cistern and creating two discrete workspaces. The main and pastry kitchens now occupy the upper (ground) level; meat and fish preparation takes place on the floor below. A steel staircase connects the two levels, and the infrastructure of glass and steel gives the ancient space an unexpectedly modern ambience.

In the public areas, the architects--intent on reclaiming and safeguarding as much of Valadier's original project as possible--were forced to be inventive in unobtrusively integrating contemporary technological updating. The Casina has been subtly wired for Internet access and supplied with environmentally friendly under-floor radiant heat. The air-conditioning system was secreted under benches and in the door frames of the Sala Romana, on the Casina's first floor. On the second floor, in the Sala Impero, it flows through near-invisible holes in the ceiling without marring the frescoes, which were restored under the watchful eye of art critic and Valadier expert Federico Forquet, who also took charge of the interior decor.

In the kitchen, however, the same concerns assumed a somewhat different form. There, the most modern technology was utilized, not despite the historic structure but precisely to safeguard it. During the restoration, all gas connections were removed from the Casina, and the kitchens were outfitted entirely with electrical equipment by Electrolux. That means there are no open flames--only induction burners, which confine the heat to where the saucepans are placed, greatly reducing the risk of fire or other mishaps. "There are no gas burners; just electric." confirms the Casina's general manager Alessandro Olivieri. "But this doesn't pose any special problem for the cooking."

The kitchen may beautifully show off the concave shape of the ancient "big barrel," but how does a chef weaned on the flicker of blue flames adapt to an all-electric kitchen? Here and there merely a bit of creativity is required. "In the pastry kitchen, for instance, some experimentation was necessary to find the best way to obtain a satisfying custard cream." And so the pastry chef cooks the custard cream in a double boiler, slightly modifying the original recipe.

The main kitchen works in concert with four small branch kitchens--also all-electric--that have been squirreled into the Casina's various floors. A late addition to the scheme, these became necessary when, just seven months before the grand opening (this is Rome, after all), plans for a classic fine dining menu were abandoned in favor of a more varied "contemporary Roman" menu. To accommodate the change in direction, the new external commissioner, Fabrizio Santucci, owner and manager of Il Caminetto, a well-known restaurant in the Parioli neighborhood, emphasized the need for branch kitchens on each level.

Room was found for modest but well-equipped satellite kitchens on the first floor (serving the main dining room on the terrace surrounding the bar) and the second (serving banquets), as well as for two in the dining rooms on the third (one for first and second courses and another for appetizers and desserts). The last, having displaced a room originally intended for dining, are the most pleasant workspaces in the Casina; they offer a charming view of the Villa Borghese.

The menu is unpretentious and engaging. Starters include such delights as toasted bread with zucchini blossoms, mozzarella, and marinated artichokes. Among the first courses are stracci pasta with chickpeas, clams, and rosemary and ricotta-filled maltagliati with tomato sauce. Main courses include warm beef tartare with dried tomatoes and turbot stuffed with zucchini blossoms and seafood. Desserts consist of plain pleasures like crisp figs with Moscato zabaglione. The all-Italian wine list is modest but thorough, representing almost every region: Piedmonte, Tuscany, Alto Adige, Friuli, Le Marche, Abruzzi, Umbria, Lazio, Campania, Apulia, Sicily, Sardinia, Lombardy, Trentino, and Basilicata.

It's only in the cooler months, when patrons move from the terrace to the third-floor dining rooms, that the interkitchen logistics become complicated. No, it's not working in an ancient cylinder and without gas that bothers the chef but rather the simple lack of an elevator for reaching the third floor's branch kitchens. "These are not independent kitchens," Olivieri explains, "which is fine for banqueting, but for à la carte dining in La Crociera, it imposes some limitations on the menu." To serve the tasty fried appetizers commonly found in the region, such as stuffed zucchini flowers, cod fillets, artichokes, and supplì (rice balls stuffed with mozzarella cheese), the staff learned that they would have to fry them in the main kitchen (since there is no fryer in the third-floor appetizer and dessert kitchen), send them via the freight elevator to the second-floor Sala Impero (as far as it goes), and then have waiters walk them upstairs to La Crociera, where there's only one oven for reheating them and that one not always available. "On the other hand," he says, "the chef found a solution for having to cook the first and second courses in two phases. He pan-fries them in the main kitchen, prepares the mise en place, then sends them upstairs to finish cooking in the oven--and is quite satisfied with the results."

While the Casina's bar and dining rooms can easily seat 300 and are visited each year by as many as 50,000, that represents only 35 percent of the restaurant's overall turnover. The remaining 65 percent comes from banqueting and special events, which can host as many as 2,000 guests. On such occasions the main kitchen--even supported by the branch workspace in the Sala Impero--is not sufficient, and several open-air kitchens are rented and set up in the garden. Anticipating this arrangement, ABT provided water hookups and electrical outlets, hidden all around the garden. While installing them, the architects stumbled across some perfectly preserved Roman mosaic floors, which, in the interest of maintaining the symmetry of the garden's newly reconstructed allées, were duly photographed, archived, and reburied. "Anywhere else," says Rampini, "you would have to open a museum with what we found in the garden. In Rome, you just don't want to be bothered by more Roman ruins."Unless, that is, you cook in one.

Roberta Corradin, a food and travel writer based in Rome, writes for several Italian publications, including L'Espresso, La Repubblica delle Donne, and Il Giornale. Her book of short stories and recipes, Ho Fatto un Pan Pepato (I Made a Spicy Bread), was published in 1996.

Equipment...

"Roberta Corradin"

Convection ovens, deep fryers, flattops, induction burners, ovens, refrigeration, salamanders, slicers Electrolux
Espresso machine Circi
Gelato machine Frigomat
Microwave Panasonic