Earlier this week I was reflecting, while tasting vignarola at a more vintage trattoria, upon the widespread torture of vegetables taking place in kitchens across Rome. The classic preparation of spring asparagus, artichokes, fava beans and peas renders these greenest of vegetables into a soft and oily pile of khaki. There’s still pleasure to be found, especially when cubes of guanciale are tossed into the mix, but I’ve often wondered how much better vignarola could be if it were prepared with a lighter touch.
Last night, Trattoria Pennestri provided an answer to this (it’s better!) and to another recurring question – what’s new in Rome?
To call Pennestri “new” is perhaps relative. It opened quietly in April 2017 without much fanfare or social media. By contrast, its closest peer SantoPalato was already celebrated as a hit months before it opened around the same time (I like both). While SantoPalato has been championed in the anglophone press, there has hasn’t yet been a single whisper about Trattoria Pennestri. That’s not true about Italian reviews, which have been abundant and overwhelmingly positive (see below).
What the Italian press seems to appreciate is the sincerity and lightness of Trattoria Pennestri. I wholeheartedly agree. The careful reinterpretation of classic Roman dishes by Tommaso Pennestri isn’t showy or silly. The self-described outsider chef (he’s half Danish) manages to isolate and enhance the heart of canonic dishes while stripping away what’s heavy and unnecessary. The resulting dishes are bright and balanced. The acidity which modern palates crave and which is often missing from traditional Roman fare is dancing here across the tongue. Even a dish like coratella – the heart, lung, liver and other assorted offal from a springtime lamb – is made over into something sparkling and light, with manageable cubes bathed in a plate-licking sauce and brightened with lemon zest and ricotta salata. The vignarola I mentioned earlier is game-changing. Each barely-cooked vegetable retains its own unique character. Instead of swimming in oil, they are dipping their toes into a bright orange pool of egg yolk and supported by the tang of fresh goat cheese.
I’ve had ten dishes at Trattoria Pennestri. Seven of these will probably figure among the best dishes I’ve tasted in Rome this year (see photos below). The sweetbreads, coated with grissini breadcrumbs, are fantastic. Pennestri’s very soupy trippa alla Romana ties with SantoPalato for my favorite tripe in Rome. The moist and tender rabbit salad with marinated vegetables (and just a few tiny kidneys tucked in among the olives) is something I’d like to be eating right now. A daily special of pappardelle with preserved tuna, capers, tomatoes and toasted fennel pollen breadcrumbs would be right at home on the menu of Lilia, the most sought-after Italian restaurant in New York. The polpette are fine, but fail to shine by comparison. Desserts are acceptable, but are not at the same level of the savory propositions.
A final note about service: sommelier Valeria Payero, who is co-owner along with chef Pennestri, has designed a short but intelligent wine list and, more importantly, an atmosphere where the customer feels welcome, engaged and important. She has said in an interview with Gambero Rosso (see below) that they give equal weight to the dining room and the kitchen. It definitely shows. I don’t hesitate to recommend Trattoria Pennestri both for carefully revisited Roman cuisine and for careful and friendly service. And I can’t wait to go back.
We’ve included Trattoria Pennestri among our short-list of Favorite Restaurants in Rome.
Address: Via Giovanni da Empoli, 5
Hours: Open Tuesday-Thursday for dinner only from 19:00-23:00. Open Friday-Sunday for both lunch & dinner from 12:00-15:00 and from 19:00-23:00. Closed Monday.
Telephone: +39 06 574 2418
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Trattoria Pennestri in pictures
Photos by Meg Zimbeck © Rome by Mouth
What people are saying
- Puntarella Rossa (2017) awards Trattoria Pennestri with a Puntarella d’Oro 2018 award for the best trattoria in Rome. They describe it as a trattoria without hype, “an almost revolutionary place in its simplicity that is never banal. The cuisine is solid, with popular dishes in an informal setting.”
- La Pecora Nera in Corriere della Sera (2017) are less convinced. They complain about the noise volume of the dining room (as did Puntarella Rossa in their first review) and wonder if the creative impulse is, in certain dishes, an end in itself. They conclude that there is room for improvement and that their experience at Pennestri doesn’t justify the “enthusiastic tones about which it is spoken.”
- Gambero Rosso (2017) has a really good analysis of the success, “quiet and constant, not screamed, of Trattoria Pennestri, about their lighter approach to cooking, the importance they place on good service, and how they’re more surprised than anyone about the recent acclaim.
- Scatti di Gusto (2017) say that Trattoria Pennestri “amazes” for coratella and sweetbreads cooked in a divine way. They also rave about the service, saying “it is always present but not intrusive,” making them feel at home. They were encouraged to ask for half-portions in order to try more things.
- Identità Golose (2017) calls this “the new destination for those who appreciate modern Roman popular cuisine.” They describe the ambiance as warm and welcoming, relaxed and informal, “exactly as you expect from a trattoria.” The recommend paying close attention to the daily specials, which are a way to test new ideas.
- Luciano Pignatero (2017) praise the all-female waitstaff for their “remarkable elegance and efficiency,” and say that Pennestri avoids being boring, “even though it refers to a too-well-known and sometimes depleted gastronomic heritage.” They find the carbonara to be executed “to perfection” and they really like a reinterpretation of saltimbocca which La Pecora Nera later derided.
- La Repubblica (2017) praise the lightness of this simple Roman cuisine, recommending the tripe, the rabbit, and the lamb coratella.
Another great modern trattoria
SantoPalato in San Giovanni
Old-fashioned trattorias nearby in Testaccio