My first meal at Uno e Bino in Rome was completely disorienting. I hadn't been able to get a table as a walk-in the night before. Why reserve at a place that bills itself as a bottle shop, I thought, especially one in a gritty neighborhood like San Lorenzo? This bottiglieria did have cases of wine stacked around its two small rooms (and a 16-page wine list with exciting, reasonably priced bottles from producers hardly anyone has heard of), but none to take away. It wasn't much more expensive than a traditional wine bar, but there was a proper kitchen behind the swinging saloon doors. And although the small square tables were covered with butcher paper, the food was the kind that would normally be served on good linen. Uno e Bino seemed like a bottiglieria with an identity crisis.
I wasn't expecting culinary brilliance from a wine bar, yet there it was. My chickpea soup with seared monkfish tail was the antithesis of the usual rustic bean zuppa. Chef Andrea Buscema had wrapped the fish in lardo, herb-infused slices of fat, so it was crisp, fragrant and tender all at the same time. And the pasta he'd tossed with pork ragù, then laid atop cool, sweet ricotta, was like lasagna reconfigured by a genius. A robust, tannic Foradori Teroldego Rotaliano, made from the local red grape of Trentino, in northern Italy, was another revelation.
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After my dinner at Uno e Bino, I was sure that something extraordinary was going on, a feeling that was reinforced, time and again, as I visited more of Rome's new wine bars. (The terminology is woolly; they call themselves by a variety of names--bottiglieria, enoteca, osteria, cantiniere, bottega del vino, even wine bar.) Why had these places morphed into full-fledged restaurants with creative cooking grounded in Italian regional tradition? And why was this radical change happening in Rome, of all places?