Walk down any street or alleyway in Rome after noon, and you are likely to see at least one person digging into a scoop of gelato. But take a stroll around Via del Corso, Rome's main shopping strip, and the person you pass will probably be spooning cheese out of a paper cup. Gorgonzola to go? In a city that prides itself on tradition, this is just the latest rule breaker from Alessandra Marino and her husband, Alessandro Tudini, the owners and creative forces behind 'Gusto, Rome's only food emporium.
When Marino and Tudini launched 'Gusto in 1998, it included a serious restaurant, a wine bar, a pizzeria and a cookbook and kitchenware shop, all housed in a 7,500-square-foot space off the huge, marbled 1930s Piazza Augusto Imperatore. Since then they've added an osteria (a neighborhood trattoria), a cheese shop and a wine shop. And they're planning to launch a café sometime next year.
Meanwhile, American architect Richard Meier is busy redesigning the west side of the piazza, linking the historic Ara Pacis, a monument to peace, with the mausoleum of Augustus, who ruled imperial Rome until his death in a.d. 14. When Meier completes the project, he will have turned much of the piazza into a pedestrian zone, undoubtedly bringing more visitors to 'Gusto.
As 'Gusto continues to expand in ways its founders couldn't have imagined, Marino recalls the impulse that led her to launch it in the first place. "If I meet someone for a drink after work," she says, "and we are comfortable and having fun, how annoying is it that we have to get up and go looking for a restaurant if we are hungry!" The idea of a bar that is also a restaurant simply did not exist in Rome before 'Gusto came along. "But at 'Gusto we have everything, even live music," she says.
Every part of 'Gusto challenges the Roman orthodoxy in some way. Consider the Osteria, which Marino and Tudini opened two years ago on Via della Frezza, on the side of the 'Gusto complex that does not face the piazza. On the one hand, the place sounds quite old-fashioned, with its menu of nonna-style dishes: delicate little meatballs with sage, tonnarelli cacio e pepe (pasta with pecorino, Parmesan cheese and black pepper), eggplant parmigiana. "I wanted to return to the idea of home cooking and re-create all the dishes I remember from childhood," Marino says. But quite unconventionally, the Osteria also offers cicchetti, inspired by the snacks, usually cheese or salami, served in Venetian bars. Indeed, customers can order almost anything on the menuincluding pastas and entréesin cicchetti-size portions.
Then there's the glass-enclosed Formaggeria (cheese shop) tucked into a corner of Osteria, with windows that open directly onto the street. Along the shelves of the compact space are about 300 cheeses, which change according to the season. "Although Italy is a country with fantastic cheeses, in Rome it's strangely difficult to get anything other than very local cheeses," says Marco Gallotta, the executive chef at 'Gusto (whose delicious recipes follow). But the buyers for the shop search out rare choices such as aged Ragusano from Sicily, and raw-milk robiola and artisanal Gorgonzola, both from Piedmont.
The Formaggeria's cheeses are aged in the cellar, also home to 'Gusto's school, informally known as la scuola, where people can take classes or come for tastings. "I hate it when an overly didactic waiter intimidates a customer with too much information about a particular cheese or wine," says Marino. "The classes are for anyone who wants to learn more outside the framework of a meal."
From the beginning, the serious restaurant at 'Gusto has been known for its wine list, with more than 1,200 labels, including many hard-to-find Italian regional choices. So it made sense when Marino opened an enoteca (wine shop) too. Like the Formaggeria, the Enoteca is small but there's a lot going on. Customers seated on barstools at a wooden counter can consult a massive list with exhaustive information on each wine, including grape variety, provenance and vintage as well as comments by the wine director. In addition to these bottles, the Enoteca sells a vast selection of accessories, plus what must be one of the largest selection of wine books in Rome.
"When we opened 'Gusto in 1998, the piazza was dead," Marino recalls. "There was no reason at all for anyone to go there." Now 'Gusto attracts stylish young Romans from all over the city with its hip dining spots. After centuries of neglect, Emperor Augustus is finally getting the attention he would have believed he deserved.
Elizabeth Helman Minchilli is the author of five books, including Restoring a Home in Italy. She lives in Rome and Umbria.