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Retrobottega’s Vegetable Menu Plays a Game of Provocation

Ethnobotany on the Table

“So now, for me, the goal is to make these people understand that vegetables can satisfy you.”

Innovative and rooted at once, Retrobottega brings the countryside straight to the heart of Italy’s largest metropolis. Sure, the restaurant’s sleek, minimalist design is on par with the rest of Rome’s contemporary dining scene, and servers in the front of the house are smartly clad in starched white button-ups, but looking past appearances, there’s something more going on here. Rather than being held back by the stale norms of Roman cuisine (primo: carbonara; secondo: hefty cuts of meat; repeat), the team at Retro is propelled forward by a more deeply rooted tradition: times of modest means in the Italian countryside when vegetables, and particularly foraged plants, were at the center of the plate, sustaining the Italian people for centuries. Meat, meanwhile, was reserved only for frugal seasoning or the rare celebratory feast. At Retro, these humble histories are celebrated through the exciting, ever-changing menu that will have you facendo la scarpetta with each dish. 

The Retro project is not one concept but four: what began with Retrobottega, a fine dining spot with a fixed tasting menu, spun outward and gave birth to Retro Vino & Caffè, an all-day coffee and wine bar with a la carte dishes resembling those of its fancier sibling; Retro Pane & Pasta, a pasta shop showcasing seasonal and foraged fare in their rotating pastas which can also be enjoyed on site; and, most recently, Nudo Kopi ‘röster, a torrefazione (coffee roaster) producing specialty blends and single-origin roasts for direct sale and for the other Retro restaurants. If it seems like Alessandro Miocchi and Giuseppe Lo Ludice, the two brains behind Retro, have their hands in a little bit of everything, it’s because they do: the dynamism produced between this duo is unstoppable.

On my most recent trip to Rome, I swung by Retro Vino to experience Alessandro and Giuseppe’s ethnobotanical eats firsthand. No sooner had I taken a stool at the wine bar and turned to chat with the couple next to me (who promptly informed me that they were regulars and came to Retro, well, just about every night) did a wine glass appear in front of me. Giuseppe, with no pretext given–or needed, for that matter–walked over and filled my glass with a bright orange pet-nat from Piemonte, my first of many wines that evening from Retro’s extensive natural wine list, sourced from all around the country. As I dined on a rich plate of sautéed agretti, or Monk’s beard, finished with bagna cauda, hazelnuts and shaved black truffle, I chatted with Giuseppe about the wine philosophy he brings to Retro. Of course, the wine should be produced ethically and sustainably, he told me, but it should also “abbracciare tutto il palato” (“embrace your entire palate”) with a complex layering of flavors. I also got to sit down for a chat with Alessandro, Retro’s head chef, who was gracious enough to share his time even as the dinner service was already picking up in the kitchen just five steps away from us.

Rachel Kent: What inspired you to open Retro?

Alessandro Miocchi: The beginning, more than any concrete idea or concept, came out of necessity. Giuseppe and I had both done our culinary training when we met in a restaurant in Rome, and there comes a time in your professional life when you have to choose what exactly it is that you’re going to do, no? So for both of us there was this need to prove something to ourselves. You’ve studied it all, and then comes the point where you ask, “adesso, che cazzo faccio?” (“now, what the hell do I do?”) But really, deep down, you already know what to do. You just have to get down to work and do it.

To say a bit about myself, I first began working in Piemonte, at Piazza Duomo, where I learned a ton about vegetables–but more about cultivated varieties than wild ones. My only contact with the wild world was through my grandparents, i miei nonni. Through Piazza Duomo and through my grandparents I realized that the only way to truly and deeply express myself culinarily was using both vegetables cultivated in careful, healthy ways and foraged foods, which could give energy and strength to the kind of food I was cooking.

RK: So how did that background translate into the multifaceted Retro project you have today? You’ve got a lot on your plate!

AM: Since our background is in fine dining, we needed a place like Retrobottega, on the one hand, where we’re able to do more experimentation and research. Currently, we serve two menus at Retrobottega–one with animal meat and one showcasing vegetables–and in both cases we use wild foraged plants like roots, fruits and berries. Here at Retro Vino & Caffè, on the other hand, we’ve made a space with a more democratic format–a menu composed of dishes made to share. You won’t find a classic primo or a secondo. Then there’s Retro Pane & Pasta and the torrefazione. And the project is definitely not complete. Each spot leads into another as our general vision expands and transforms, and in the end, it’s always been a kind of puzzle constantly taking on new shapes. 

RK: Why have you chosen to prioritize ethnobotany at Retro?

AM: Well, the really cool thing about ethnobotany is that it’s fundamental for safeguarding traditions. Without the field, these local traditions would run the risk of being completely lost. So for me, this is one of the most important aspects from a cultural perspective. In my case, without my nonna, who’s always been a farmer, I wouldn’t know a single thing. The ethnobotany I practice today owes a great deal to her. Recently it’s been important for me to recognize and research those ingredients that otherwise would be entirely unknown today. I chose to prioritize ethnobotany to save the flavors, traditions, recipes and knowledge that would otherwise be lost.

RK: Can you talk a bit more about your relationship with your nonna?

AM: I would always go on walks through nature with her, but it wasn’t like she was teaching me technical information about plants. What she absolutely taught me was passion. When we would eat misticanza–a kind of raw, foraged salad–she always said we needed to pick the greens with our hands, because it gives it more flavor. In one sense, that might not exactly be true–or maybe it is. But the point is that there was this sort of ceremony for eating this misticanza. It was evident how much importance she placed on these leaves. She didn’t explicitly teach me to recognize the leaves, but she passed on the idea of how important it was to respect things done in the right way.

RK: And with passion, knowledge will follow. Today at Retro, how do you express the surrounding landscape in the plates that you make? Especially given that we’re in the literal heart of Rome, how do you manage to be a link between the city and the country?

AM: Allora. It’s not that I do a menu of the city or a menu of the countryside. I curate a menu that’s very personal. It comes a bit from my past, a bit from my experience, a bit from what I like to cook or, in some cases, a bit of a fixation. For example, maybe I have a passion for beets in a certain moment: our current menu has a dish which is composed of five slices of beet laid on top of each other. It gives the illusion of being a steak, but in the end it’s all beet. And nobody would think to eat beet like this at home. So it’s not just a plate that serves food, but rather one that serves an idea. It makes you think. 

Another plate that’s also very interesting, which reflects our work with vegetables and foraged plants, is the insaccato. Are you familiar?

RK: No, tell me more! 

AM: Sausages are insaccato (in casings). But in this case, I apply that method to vegetables. The casing is entirely vegetable-based, made of corn fiber, and I put a mix of vegetables and foraged leafy plants inside and then I grill it. So this plate arrives at your table and, given the visual presentation, makes you think of meat. But it turns out it’s not meat at all–it’s just vegetables. So it’s a game of provocation, no? The message is that it’s just as valid to eat a plate where vegetables take center stage as it is to eat a big plate of meat. It’s not that we shouldn’t eat meat at all, but rather when we do, we should be eating carne giusta (ethical meat) that should be carefully selected and consumed only in small amounts. Because when it comes to producers who are raising truly good meat, they’re only able to produce maybe five heads a year. If they slaughtered all the animals in one week, then they’d suddenly be without a livelihood. Instead, maybe they’ll slaughter one animal now, and then after two months, they’ll slaughter another. This is why we should eat meat sparingly. 

The vegetable menu, also as a means of provocation, has the same price as the meat one. Even though, obviously, my profit margins are a whole lot slimmer with the meat menu because the raw materials are much more expensive. But I’m not doing this for my own personal profit. The purpose is to incite a bit of a political discourse and to be provocative, because the importance that I place on vegetables is the same importance that I place on meat. So why should the vegetables cost less? We treat the vegetables exactly like meat, because this is the best way to make meat-lovers appreciate vegetables too.

RK: Is it difficult to turn meat-lovers into vegetable lovers? Have you encountered any challenges with this mission?

AM: This menu [gestures to the meat menu] for me is stimulating, but this one [picks up the vegetable menu] is more of a challenge, because the objective is to make people who would always choose the meat menu understand that the vegetable menu isn’t just side dishes; it’s a menu that has its own identity. So now, for me, the goal is to make these people understand that vegetables can satisfy you. And whether it’s the price for the meat menu or the price for the veggie menu, you’re paying not so you can walk away from the table stuffed, but so you can leave satisfied. Which is a totally different thing. It means that you’re happy because you’ve seen beautiful things, you’ve eaten good food, you’ve talked about intelligent topics, you’ve been in a lovely place, you’ve been at ease and the wine was well-curated and delicious. I mean, you shouldn’t feel bad [after eating out in a restaurant]–you should feel good. So this is a price linked to the experience.

Also for me, this game of disguising vegetables as meat is quite entertaining. Right outside of Rome, there’s a place called Castelli Romani on the hills, and they make something called “carne secca”, a kind of dried meat from pork. Here, I make it with artichoke stems instead. And it’s really interesting, because generally speaking, if you can trick people’s eyes, you’re also able to govern their taste. [Alessandro shows me a photo of the dried artichoke sausage.] Look, it’s got all the spices–the exact same ones as you’d use for meat. It looks like carne secca. 

RK: Completely. 

AM: I like to play tricks with appearances, but of course, in the end, I tell the truth. I admit that this is dried artichoke. I have a lot of fun with that.

RK: It seems like you like to play with your food?

AM: Yes! And the people who dine with us are like, “But this is meat!” Vegetarians obviously choose the vegetable menu, but then when they start to eat, they become so confused and ask, “What is this?!” 

(Here I’ll interrupt Alessandro briefly to say that, well, he’s right. I recently ate at Retro Vino & Caffè for my birthday–there’s nowhere in the whole of the Eternal City I’d rather spend the day–with three friends, two of them vegetarians and one a self-proclaimed “vegetable avoidant”. Not until we turned to the menu did these dietary differences become apparent, and I nearly despaired–what was I thinking, assembling such a group of friends to dine at a restaurant based on shared plates? We came to a tenuous compromise and decided to start with a few meatless dishes, and, I promised my carnivorous friend, if we were still hungry afterwards, she and I could split a plate with meat. As it turns out, there was absolutely no need to worry–our initial selection proceeded to roll out with thin ribbons of perfectly crisp summer squash dolloped with bright mint pesto, charred friggitelli with sumptuous stracciata fondue, puttanesca-style red peppers delivering salty-umami goodness with every bite of black olive crisp, and, of course, the notorious BBQ beet, this time cross-hatched, roasted whole over the fire and served with avocado purée and frizzled onions. Though I’d been forewarned, I wasn’t prepared for just how flawlessly satisfying the beet would be, and between mouthfuls I turned to my friend, a newly converted vegetable aficionado, and apologized–this was the first beet she’d ever tried, and I assured her it would ruin her for all the rest.)

AM: I’d like to arrive at a point where we at Retro are speaking only one language in the sense that, rather than offering the two different menus, we serve only the vegetarian menu. I’m not saying that everything would necessarily be entirely vegetarian–we’d still continue to do some meat at Retrovino–but the language, the message of Retrobottega, which is our primary spot, would be only vegetable-based. But I still haven’t quite found the courage to do that. I mean, I know that I personally like the vegetable menu more–and of course, I always try to do what I genuinely like–but in a city as old-style as Rome, it would be a bit difficult. To be able to sell enough covers, it’s necessary. But in the future, I imagine doing only the vegetable menu with a mix of cultivated vegetables (coming from super responsible producers who use regenerative farming and protect the soil) and wild foraged vegetables.

RK: Love it! Well, I could talk for hours more, but I should probably let you get to the kitchen–is there anything else you’d like to add, though, that I didn’t ask?

AM: Hmm–no, I think that about sums it up. Except, any chance you want to see some of the preserved, foraged vegetables we make?

RK: I thought you’d never ask!