A writer eats her way through the eternal city's newest wine bars and, between rapturous meals, discovers why these places are sending out shock waves through the Italian restaurant scene.

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.

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?

Birth of the Wine Bar
With his blue jeans and shaved head, Giampaolo Gravina, the 35-year-old who owns Uno e Bino with his sister Gloria, could be mistaken for one of his customers. Learn his story and you'll understand why Romans of his generation are so excited about the rise of the new wine bar.

When Gravina arrived in 1989 to study philosophy at the University of Rome, he didn't even drink wine. Back in the '70s, when he was growing up, Italian wine was a cheap staple, like bread. It was crisp and light and made for drinking with mamma's cooking. When the jug was empty, someone would take it to the neighborhood vini e olii and have it refilled. Most winemakers were more interested in how many tons of grapes they could grow per hectare than in the quality of the wine the grapes produced. No wonder Gravina stuck to beer and Coke.

But by the late '70s, the Italian wine industry began to change, thanks in part to improvements in American wines: Italian wines made for export had to improve to compete. Rome's first wine bars opened, places where you could drink something good by the glass, perhaps with a plate of cheese or sausage: Cul de Sac, Cavour 313, Il Cantiniere di Santa Dorotea, Enoteca Costantini, Il Goccetto. By the mid-'80s, established wine shops like Enoteca Buccone, Trimani, L'Angolo Divino and La Bottega del Vino di Anacleto Bleve were evolving into wine bars. Gravina hung out at these places when he wasn't in class, supplementing his studies in semiotics and structuralism with informal tutorials on barrique-aged Barberas and Lombardy's new, French-style sparkling wines. In opening Uno e Bino in 1997, he took the wine bar to the next logical step: He added a kitchen and started a trend.

The launching of this movement in Rome had a lot to do with Gambero Rosso, the Rome-based gastronomic publisher and broadcaster of television cooking shows. Stefano Bonilli started Gambero Rosso in 1986 as a food and wine supplement in the Communist newspaper Il Manifesto; circulation started spiking on the first Tuesday of each month, when the section appeared. Disagreements over its glaringly bourgeois content led Bonilli to launch his own magazine and, subsequently, a restaurant guide. In 1988 Gambero Rosso teamed with Arcigola, a cultural arm of the Communist party (which evolved into Slow Food, the grassroots group dedicated to preserving regional diversity), to publish a wine guide, Vini d'Italia. For the first time, these guides offered a critical, consumer-oriented approach, rating food and wine from every region of Italy. Italians who had always expected to eat and drink a lot and pay a little were now willing to pay a little more--if the quality was there.

This history lesson made sense, but left me wondering why the new wine-bar trend hadn't hit Venice, Milan or Florence. "Venice is dead," a writer for Gambero Rosso told me flatly. "Everybody leaves at 6:30 except the tourists." Milan, Italy's business capital, worships its alta cucina restaurants and has little interest in places like Uno e Bino. And Italians who want to do things differently don't move to provincial-minded Florence. They go to Rome.

Putting Great Wine on a Pedestal
Compared to Uno e Bino, the competition for tables at Al Bric or Al Ciabot, both up the street from the Campo dei Fiori, is slightly less fierce. If you call in the afternoon, you can get a table that night--the same wood square that you see at virtually every wine bar in Rome. But even at 10:45 on a Sunday evening, the banquettes are filled with attractive young couples and their leather jackets.

Third-generation wine merchant Roberto Marchetti, 37, opened Al Bric in 1998 and Al Ciabot just last year. Unlike most wine bars--even the newest--which vanish into the cityscape when they're closed, Al Bric and Al Ciabot have large windows filled with Italian and French cheeses that invite people to stop. Al Bric also has an open kitchen, which is nothing special in New York City, maybe, but is eye-popping in Rome. Wine crates from Ladoucette, Sassicaia, Cabreo, Gaja, Antinori, Quinta do Noval and Santa Inés hang on the wall, a preview of the bottles on offer.

Al Bric and Al Ciabot each have a storage room with shelves of wine and a single, thick list of over 2,000 choices, with an especially large number of half bottles. At Al Bric, this tome sits on a pedestal, and diners may need to wait in line for a look. Marchetti has a passion for Burgundy and Piedmont--his restaurants take their names from Piedmontese winemaking terms--and these regions are well represented. He has Barolos and Barbarescos from all the great producers, but also their lesser-known, inexpensive labels. My Dolcetto d'Alba, a rich, dry, medium-bodied wine with the acidity and tannins for just about any Italian dish, came from Paolo Scavino, one of Piedmont's great Barolo makers.

This passion for Piedmont extends to Marchetti's menus. I loved the fonduta, a Piedmontese fondue, prepared at Al Bric with homemade potato chips and white-truffle oil. But Marchetti doesn't ignore Rome's cuisine. If all you know of Italian bread is the bland, pallid stuff of Tuscany, you need to taste Marchetti's crusty, chewy pane casareccia. In his version of the Roman Jewish classic carciofi alla giudea (deep-fried artichokes), he takes Rome's tiny, wonderful artichokes, flattens and fries them, then grills them with Pecorino Romano and guanciale (cured hog jowl). He also serves mezzi bucatini cacio e pepe (pasta with Pecorino Romano and coarse pepper), a dish that disappeared from Roman restaurants 20 years ago. His abbacchio, roast baby lamb cut into slices the size of a quarter, reminds you why, with all the Italian restaurants in the world, you need to go to Italy to eat: because you can't get this food anywhere else on earth.

An Enoteca's Evolution
I had learned not to bother making dinner reservations in Rome for before nine o'clock because no one shows up earlier. At Enoteca Ferrara, I'd make that nine-thirty. By then you should be able to see the first orders roll out of the kitchen, which will help you decide what on Maria Paolillo's menu to order. Her food is inspired by Italy's cucina povera (the hearty--and creative--cooking of the poor), like involtini di pesce spada from Sicily. But this is more poetry than peasant food. Thin fillets of swordfish are rolled around a delicate cinnamon-flecked filling and served with a sauce of tomatoes, pine nuts and Gaeta olives.

Enoteca Ferrara, which expanded in 1999, quadrupling in size--becoming large enough not only for a restaurant but also for a wine cellar, a traditional wine bar, a wine shop and a food market--proves just how far the wine scene has come in the past two decades. In the early '80s, Lina Paolillo, Maria's sister, studied with the Associazione Italiana Sommelier in Rome, then went to New York City to work at Ferrara, the esteemed coffee and pastry shop in Little Italy. When she returned to Rome in 1987, she persuaded Maria, an architect, to help her open a minuscule wine bar in Trastevere with six tables. "The first two years, it was just me, Lina and our ideas," Maria says. They served wine, cold cuts and zuppe--"nobody was interested in eating anything else." Then came the new demand for more ambitious food. "It was a natural evolution," she says. "Our audience grew. We were serving princes and students outside in the street."

Although deciding what to eat at Enoteca Ferrara is difficult because of so many delicious options, it may be harder to decide what to drink. One of the three sommeliers, all women, will deliver two thick books filled with labels to the table--one for reds and one for whites. From a selection of 850 wines (all Italian, with an exceptional number of jeroboams), I tried a Le Vigne di Zamò Colli Orientali del Friuli Rosazzo Ribolla Gialla. Friuli's native Ribolla Gialla grape, which makes elegant, complex wines, just might tempt Americans beyond the familiar, flabby Pinot Grigio.

Once I had accepted the concept of the new wine bar, one thing still puzzled me. I couldn't figure out why, in a country where cigarettes are still as central to a meal as bread and olive oil, everyone at Uno e Bino kept popping outside to smoke. Giampaolo Gravina's explanation amazed me and confirmed how seismic a change had occurred. "Smoking gets in the way of the food and wine," he said, "so I banned it."