Words by Ilaria Mazzarella
Photo courtesy of restaurant Antica Fonderia
Crossing the Via del Pellegrino heading towards Campo de ‘Fiori in the heart of Rome, I am excitedly on my to meet an old friend. The biting cold air of an anonymous January afternoon chills my uncovered face. After a brisk walk I arrive, and quickly spot Spanish-born chef Alba Esteve Ruiz’s sweet face through the restaurant’s glass doors, absorbed in thought. Alba’s newest place of work is Antica Fonderia, a Roman restaurant artfully blending human warmth with solemn austerity. The cuisine is one of grilling with fire, tempered with a refined and creative Mediterranean cuisine. The space is decorated in wood, marble, blown glass, inlays of brass and lots, and lots, of golden flourishes. Gold trimming is found on the table, tableware and walls giving the feeling is of a well-balanced compositional tension characterized by a passionate attention to detail. The colours of the interior space and carefully curated design details reflect the space’s former life as the Lefevre Foundry where precious metals such as gold were once heated by raw fire, refined and hammered into shape.
Behind Alba’s large, round signature glasses her face framed by the black bandana and wearing a burnt sienna coloured jacket she is instantly recognizable. It’s always her. The spirited Spaniard who, aged just 19, packed her bags and roll of chef knives and left her family to pursue her path of hard work and sacrifice. If that’s a brave move for a man, it’s very difficult for a woman. Her journey has seen her working in iconic Spanish kitchens such as Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca and before arriving in the Roman kitchens of Marzapane where she embraced contemporary Italian cuisine. Then she fell in love. Firstly with the life and spirit of the Eternal City and then with a local boy whom she later married. When later she had the tempting opportunity to return home to Spain or to a kitchen in Milano – she chose Rome. Again. Clear, crystalline, focused ideas which shyness cannot hide. I quickly recognise the essence of the young women that I first met all those years ago.
Well, welcome to the realm of ancestral cuisine, or using raw fire to cook. Take a seat, make yourself comfortable, choose from the menu, and fill your glasses. The show is about to begin. And so starts an adventure in which only a raw fire, a wood oven, coals, experience and cooking skills are demanded. “At the beginning it was a nightmare to get used to this new way of cooking,” says Alba. Today the hand tames the flames and selects the wood works with an enviable ease. The fires on the grill are lit at six, before 45 minutes late the the first log is pressed into the oven. “I use eye drops every day and pour water into the glasses of both. “I have to put cream on my face and cocoa butter over and over again.” Her gaze exudes all the tiredness familiar from a restaurant’s start-up phase. Wasn’t it the British poet and writer Oscar Wilde who said that: “The one advantage of playing with fire … is that one never gets even singed. It is the people who don’t know how to play with it who get burned up.”
“Then everyone rushes to changing rooms, to avoid the initial blast of smoke,” she says. At seven the fire is alive and the kitchen is fully operational. Well dried oak and beech wood get the first started quickly, before the slower burning coal is added on a giant Argentine grill. The choice of wood is crucial to achieve the best flavour profiles. For hot smoking apple and cherry wood works best, with almond wood a natural match for cold smoking. Some preparations are oven smoked with beech. Antica Foneria is owned by patron Cesare Bettozzi, deus ex machina of working with live fire, and himself a Roman entrepreneur who has spent three decades away from the city, mostly in the US. Naturally, there are flashes of Spain on the menu. Jamón, anchovies, baccalà, Segovia’s piglet are all listed. Other meat is sourced from the longstanding Roman butcher De Angelis.
Several of Alba’s signature dishes, such as Crucifere and Carbonara are also listed. Her husband, the Italian with whom she fell in love and stayed in Italy for, is Michel Magoni, room manager and sommelier at Antica Foneria. “I could not think of doing everything alone in the restaurant, you always need the collaboration of a trusted professional,” she says. “Better if it’s your partner”. Indeed, they (rightly) treasure it, reminding us that the most significant catering is almost always done in family-run kitchens and restaurants. “Just don’t take the problems of work home,” is Alba’s advice.
Everything is tested: the large tables, the latest trend, the novelty of the moment. But you inevitably tend to return and sit at those tables where you feel most comfortable. Maybe because it’s like being at home only that you are served and you don’t wash the dishes? Maybe. Honours from critics are important, of course. But is there something that gives more satisfaction than a restaurant full of customers who keep coming and going simply because they are doing well? Maybe not. As the night’s service ends, the restaurant empties, the staff head for home and rest, Alba’s takes one last look around the kitchen and what remains of the fire. She says: “In the evening, the embers are left to die and the next day we start again”.
Via del Pellegrino, 65
00186 Roma (RM)
Tel: + 39 06 6928 2203