“I remember waking up every morning to the smell of tomato sauce, everything revolved around lunch and dinner,” Chef Renato Astrologo, of Renato e Luisa Trattoria, told me as we began our cooking class. Much as I love roaming through the churches, museums, and monuments of Rome, I could imagine no better way to spend a gray winter day than in Chef Renato’s kitchen. Two other American women and I arrived eager to learn classic recipes from this native, whose passion for the traditions of his hometown’s cuisine is inspiring.
“Roman cooking is easy,” Renato said, flashing a charismatic smile. “You just need confidence.” Those words set the tone for a relaxed morning of pitching in with him and his two assistants to make a delicious lunch. It felt more like a cozy friendly gathering than a class, as Renato poured us wine, passed out recipes, and talked about his life and the food he grew up with.
Renato’s family has lived for many generations in Testaccio, a neighborhood that has a reputation for great food and was once home to Rome’s slaughterhouse. His father was a famous Testaccio butcher, and Renato worked for him until he was eighteen before joining the air force, serving as a fighter pilot and parachutist. He followed that adventure with time at the University of Rome studying law and teaching karate on the side.
Serendipity brought him to cooking, when a friend convinced him to take on a job as a chef at a small restaurant. According to Renato, “I had no professional training and spent a few months faking it. But then I discovered I was good at it and I loved being in the kitchen.”
Now, at thirty-nine years old, Renato’s expertise has garnered unanimous praise from critics. Though the Renato e Luisa Trattoria, with its discreet alley entranceway, is off the radar for many tourists, in-the-know natives flock to it to enjoy its old style atmosphere and Renato’s outstanding Roman dishes.
“The preparations are simple,” he told me. “When something is good from the beginning, you don’t have to dress it up.” His recipes pay homage to local traditions, using seasonal ingredients from the nearby markets, just as Romans have been doing since the days of The Forum.
“Look at these,” he said, spreading out zucchini flowers we were about to stuff, “If I met a beautiful woman, I’d bring her a bouquet of these.”
The Roman pastas on the menu reflect the age-old practicality of the locals. When shepherds in the surrounding hills wanted a quick delicious dinner, they lit a fire and mixed pasta with pecorino (cheese made from sheep’s milk) and guanciale (un-smoked bacon from pig’s jowls) to make Pasta alla Gricia. Carbonara was created in Rome during World War II, when chefs combined cheese and pasta with rations of bacon and eggs the American GIs brought in.
“I’ve lightened up the recipes,” Renato said. “These days, with elevators and cars, exercise isn’t part of daily life, so people can’t eat the heavy dishes the Romans used to.” Even though he slightly cuts down the amount of cheese in his pasta dishes and bakes stuffed zucchini flowers instead of frying them, rich flavors aren’t compromised.
“Strepitoso! (Fantastic!),” my classmate Joanne exclaimed, as she tasted the fiori di zucca, just moments after Renato had pulled them from the oven. As I took a bite and the flavors of rich, warm cheese wrapped in a tender zucchini blossom burst in my mouth, I had to agree. In fact, strepitoso summed up everything we ate that day—simple food with subtle elegant flavors, that perfectly captures the authentic soul of Rome.
Visit EIS Tours for more information about cooking classes in Rome.
Photo of Chef Renato Astrologo, Renato e Luisa Trattoria, Rome, courtesy of author.