Retrobottega is the most exciting place to eat in Rome, once you’ve digested the city’s compulsory Carbonara, fried artichoke and gelato elsewhere. It delivers an experience on par with the very best modern meals I’ve had in Paris or New York. That’s quite a statement to make about a restaurant in Rome, where attempts at culinary creativity often fall flat. Such attempts here are usually characterized by a repackaging of canonic dishes into alternative and often asinine forms: salt cod marshmallows, cacio e pepe lollipops, amatriciana ‘sand.’ By contrast, the cooking at Retrobottega is without artifice. It feels urgent, of the moment, and most importantly, delicious.
Not every single dish will be a winner, or to everyone’s taste, as is usually the case with boundary-pushing cuisine. But the success rate is astonishingly high, especially in relation to the price – a mere 50 euros for five mostly-fantastic courses. That’s pricier than most Roman restaurants but a drop in the bucket compared to what you’d pay for a comparable experience at Septime or Le Chateaubriand in Paris or Contra in New York. Particularly when one factors in the affordable and delightful wine list and the extremely central location. What’s more, I strongly prefer it to Il Pagliaccio, where the Retrobottega boys previously worked, and that celebrated 2-star restaurant is more than three times the price.
A recent renovation has revealed a more comfortable but still sleekly modern new dining room with two large tables with eight stools each and still with flatware in a drawer at belly level. Bottles of wine, which were previously retrievable from a cooler near the door, are now presented on a printed list and described with loving detail by Giuseppe Lo Iudice. Reservations are now accepted, even online. The most heat-producing procedures (real cooking) happen mostly out of sight, but all dishes are assembled and plated before the diners’ eyes upon a long and shiny open counter. You’ll watch as the wild boar tartare is garnished with its gelatin disk of reduced sanglier stock and then joined by grilled squid with lemon and oregano. You’ll wonder how these flavors can possibly merge until you put them in your mouth.
There are a few drawbacks at Retrobottega. The format of raised communal tables with four diners on each side renders this unadvisable for groups of more than two, at least until they open the back room – an intimate space for 5-6 guests – for reservation later this month. The toilet is small and grim, recalling a fancy airport (or airplane) bathroom. I hate having to push back my heavy stool each time I need to retrieve a fork from the silverware drawer. It suggests the need to go on a diet, which is not a reminder one wants while in Rome.
None of these notes would keep me from giving Retrobottega my highest recommendation. If you’re coming to Rome for two days and dreaming only of traditional cucina romana, Retrobottega is not for you. But if you’re ready for experimental cooking on par with some of the most exciting modern (yet casual) restaurants in the world, the creations of chef Alessandro Miocchi and his team will make you a believer. I certainly am.
Retrobottega in pictures
Photos by Meg Zimbeck © Rome by Mouth
What people are saying
- “I Cento” by EDT ranks this as their #25 restaurant in Rome for 2018, saying that Retrobottega probably embodies more than any other Roman restaurant the concept of bistronomy (bistro + gastronomy) or high-end food served in a casual setting. They say that the technical preparation and creativity of chefs Alessandro Miocchi and Giuseppe Lo Iudice ensure that even the simplest ingredients are transformed in unusual shapes and original combinations.
- “Roma nel Piatto” by La Pecora Nera gave them a score of 7+ out of 10 points (“good, very good”) in 2018 and 7 points in 2017.
- Katie Parla (2017) hasn’t included Retrobottega among the recommendations on her own blog, saying in a comment to another post that it is “not good,” otherwise she would have included it among her Sunday recommendations. She covered it for Eater two years earlier (see below) but seems to have since soured on it.
- Dissapore (2016) says that during the course of 2016, Retrobottega has become the most innovative restaurant in Rome and praises their “normal prices” and core values: from the interior design to the DIY service to the reduction of food waste, Retrobottega has put in place a “virtuous chain” of recycling and reuse.
- An American in Rome (2016) calls Retrobottega “a food lab, rather than a restaurant,” and says that “Labs push the boundaries of what we already think we know. Labs test and innovate. Retrobottega is doing all of this on a small street a few minutes walk from the Pantheon.” Her overall verdict? “Go.”
- Eater (2016) by Katie Parla includes Retrobottega among its “Ten Hottest Restaurants in Rome” and says it “is part of a new crop of venues that are open all day and provide casual, affordable food to the increasingly frugal Roman public.”
- La Puntarella Rossa (2015) praises the informal conviviality that’s at the heart of Retrobottega, advising us to be ready to set our own table and serve ourselves the dishes prepared in their open kitchen. The cuisine is elevated but the prices are reasonable – especially for central Rome – because they’re not paying a waiter.