I immediately feel put on the spot when someone asks me to tell them which is the best restaurant in Rome. It’s not that hard to count on the fingers of two hands those that represent the tip of a pretty big iceberg. To be honest, though, many restaurants are below the proverbial waterline, while singling out just one to recommend is rather limiting. I have decided to pinpoint the one that I believe to be the most in vogue: Cristina Bowerman and Fabio Spada’s Glass Hostaria. I have always liked this restaurant in Trastevere, especially because it makes a real change from the usual quaint little old-fashioned eateries on the other side of the Tiber, which belong to a Rome that doesn’t really exist anymore. Glass’s architecture is one of its great strengths and not even more recent highly prestigious and larger establishments – like the Open Colonna at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni or the Macro in the former Peroni brewery – seem to have the same innovative effect. The Glass Hostaria’s growth in popularity has been exponential in the last 15 months. It is very frequently fully booked, and a table on a busy evening has to be reserved a long time ahead. The combination of Spada and Bowerman works very well indeed, and the dining room ticks over with great precision thanks to an efficient team that can count on the affability of Riccardo Nocera.
Cristina has often let me try the dishes she was working on and so I have been to appreciate the way in which they have gradually developed. And what invariably strikes me is her ability to exalt what she seeks to communicate through a given dish. Cristina’s recipes are the result of much reflection, and if on the one hand some people may complain about their being too “intellectual”, on the other one can always appreciate the pure quality of her creative vein.
On a Saturday when the restaurant was full to the gunwales I sampled the long tasting menu with its 7 courses and amuses-bouche and petits fours added at Cristina’s discretion, along with one or two other dishes. I would like straightaway to demolish one of the most boorish, commonly-held preconceptions regarding gourmet restaurants, which is the one regarding the tiny size of the portions in tasting menus. I didn’t succeed in working my way through to the chestnut soufflé.
The cream of lettuce with tomato confit and anchovy sauce of the amuse-bouche prepares me for the interplay of colours and flavours of the dinner.
The raw red shrimp with sesame seeds, winter melon, cream of bottarga (cured fish roe) and Soba noodles are a delicious, fresh and pungent starter. Cristina immediately lets her guest understand that her cuisine ranges amidst suggestions from different worlds and fusing them together is her speciality.
Then comes the first “diversion” from the set menu, with one of Cristina’s signature dishes and one of my all-time favourites: sirloin Steak Tartare orange, capers, tobiko (flying fish roe), wasabi sauce and miniature vegetables. Delicious, as usual.
And the diversion becomes a real detour with a second “interloper” that I had specifically asked for: glazed sweetbreads with dates, tuber broth, broccoli and white truffle. Here is a perfect modern version of offal with an accompaniment of cauliflower and truffle that catches you on the wrong foot and makes the delicate caramelising of the dates even more tasty. My next piece of advice is to pay attention: if this dish isn’t there in the menu that you have chosen, ask them to add it on!
Let us return from this highly justified digression to the tasting menu proper, with the grilled cuttlefish, bok choi, carrots and Kombu algae and pork belly, which is a fine divertissement of textures and contrasts between surf and turf: a dish that you wouldn’t expect to be so well-balanced and in which the only possible criticism is of a slight fibrousness of the meat.
Then it’s time for the pasta and, in the set menu, Cristina proposes Felicetti spaghetti with goat milk curd, frigitelli peppers and bottarga, with a red pepper coulis. This is an outstanding and spectacular dish with its silky, mouth-filling creaminess and delicately vertical and vegetal notes that deserve a round of applause. I fall in love with it and I could eat a barrelful, convinced that I have found the dish of the evening.
But that Italian-American pixie has two more classy recipes up her sleeve. There are the intensely-flavoured tiny pine nut pasta buttons in a herb consommé, which are so perfumed as to have a balsamic effect… and there is also a harking back to real pine forests with those stunning pine nuts: another dish that is a challenger for the championship of soups that are able to satisfy my taste buds, even if I am not always a great fan of liquid textures.
The knock-out punch comes in the shape of the little ravioli stuffed with Parmesan cheese (matured 5 years!), asparagus and Normandy butter. This is a masterpiece of intensity, with pasta that has been calibrated to the millimetre in order to contain the melted cheese that is just ready to burst out in a wave that smothers the asparagus and truffle. I would happily grab hold of a shovel in order to get my fill of these ravioli, but I politely tell myself that I must come back sometime and order a personalised menu of just three courses: ravioli, followed by ravioli and then yet more ravioli. My proverbial battleship has been truly hit and sunk.
But not for good, because then there arrives the vanilla confit cod with papaya and aubergine. Can one define as cerebral baccalà whose savouriness is perfectly homogeneous? Perhaps, but it also thrills you with the smokiness of the eggplant that accompanies it.
I take a bit more poetic licence with the menu in order to try the restaurant’s trendy dish: venison, foie gras sauce, berry fruit gastrique, smoked potatoes and chocolate. The gaminess has been masterfully tamed and the time the meat has been hung contributes towards making this dish quite "urbane". I make a mental comparison with my preferred very rare meat dish, pigeon salad, and I recognise the same balance that the most ardent carnivores might accuse of lacking in gutsiness.
Cristina also lets me taste the previous week’s new entry, the seafood Rossini. Scallops, mushrooms and foie gras come together in an explosive dish that is almost a meal in itself, even if after all the varied dishes I have eaten it risks losing some of its punch. It is a dish that is both delicate and strong, brash and “come hitherish”, creamy yet well-defined. This is one of Cristina’s new experiments, and I’m convinced her skills will perfect it even more in future.
I raise the white flag, once again happily surrendering in front of a series of well-conceived and elegantly prepared dishes. Around me, the faces of the other diners express satisfaction at having been perfect targets for Cristina’s creative genius, which leaves little room for doubts as regards the way her food should be interpreted. At most, you might think to yourself that the character of Trastevere has changed, and - I can assure you - that’s no bad thing.
Vicolo del Cinque, 58
+39 06 58335903
Closed on Mondays