Flavors of the Empire 

A Roman expat brings tastes of his hometown to Lamorinda.

"What is patriotism but love of the good things we ate in childhood?" Chinese essayist Lin Yutang once wrote.

The owners of Moraga's Ristorante Amoroma would probably agree. Owners Hafiz Haidari and Michele Lavecchia so loved Lavecchia's hometown that they named their Moraga restaurant "I love Rome." The duo's logo-slash-crest contains a wolf (the surrogate mother of the city's mythic founders, Romulus and Remus) with fork in paw. They've picked waiters with cute and authentic-sounding Italian accents. They've even written the menu in Roman dialect.

Needless to say, the food at Moraga's newest and chicest restaurant is Roman, too.

Haidari spent twelve years at Il Fornaio, and Lavecchia, the scion of a Roman restaurateur and former general manager of Blackhawk Grille in Danville, designed the menu to spotlight Roman specialties, mixed in with California and pan-Italian favorites.

America's taste for regional Italian cuisine flared up in the 1980s with the "discovery" of Tuscan food. Suddenly we learned that there was a difference between Northern and Southern Eye-talian food -- it wasn't just red or white sauce on your spaghetti. Now we're curious about the differences between the foods of Venezia and Tuscany, Sicily and Calabria. New restaurants calling themselves "Italian" only are rare.

I think this burgeoning interest in regionalism is tied to our craving for a sense of place. In a country where you can sip the same Starbucks mochaccino in Poughkeepsie and Portland, and where you can buy asparagus in December and grapes in April, food that has the aura of the specific is becoming increasingly romantic. After decades of yearning to eat like the French and the Italians -- who won't drive past a new town without looking up its signature dish first -- we're finally starting to figure out how: By asking chefs to cook us the good things they ate in their childhood.

True to Italian tradition, Amoroma separates its menu into antipasti, paste, and secondi -- appetizers, pastas, and main courses. They range in quality from decent to very good. A lively Californian citrus vinaigrette set the tone for a spinach salad with blood oranges, red onions, and shaved fennel on a spinach salad, amiably bringing together its sweet and sharp elements. In the li facioli co li gamberi, the robust flavor of seemingly inconsequential strips of prosciutto, which were wrapped around pan-roasted prawns, flavored the big, slightly too al dente white beans the overcooked shrimp were mixed into; flavor won out over texture.

But texture proved the appeal of the li suppri' ar telefono: Underneath the thin, crisp layer of breadcrumbs encasing the football-shaped fritters was a creamy, tender-grained risotto whose only fault was that the tomato-meat sauce stirred into it was too meek. (The fritters' name, "telephone lines," comes from the effect you get when you pull them apart and the cheese stretches out in long wires.) And although we first despaired at receiving a bowl of lima-bean-sized mussels in the midst of their plumpest season, the mollusks were as soft as poached oysters, and we used slices of bread to soak up as much toasted-garlic and white wine broth as they'd hold.

Big enough to be entrées but simple enough to segue into a more substantial secondi, the pastas succeeded more effortlessly. You can find a spaghetti carbonara made the real way, by tossing the pasta and a raw egg with pancetta fat so it emulsifies into a creamy sauce. In le farfallette de Villa Borghese, which sounds like it should be served on a pearl-crusted silver platter, the bowtie-shaped pasta was tossed with chicken breast, prosciutto, peas, mushrooms, and just a little cream. It always amazes me how Italian cooks can pack so much flavor into seemingly invisible sauces. But underneath the robust flavors, Amoroma's toothsome pasta maintained its own character -- you could even taste the wheat.

And Chef Castro's housemade gnocchi had no gumminess to it; substantial but not doughy, soft but not mushy, the nutmeg-enhanced potato dumplings were dressed in a Bolognese sauce that had simmered for so long that the ground meat, wine, aromatics (onions, celery, carrots), and tomatoes melted together. It may have been an intermediate course, but after a few bites I couldn't imagine needing a third.

But don't pass up the main courses, however. A hillock of mussels, clams, prawns, squid, and whitefish was heaped into the center of a bowl of zuppetta de mare, surrounded by a lake of saffron-white wine broth that glowed with color and flavor.

The side dishes, however, didn't. Fluffy-looking mashed potatoes lacked a hefty enough dash of cream and butter to smooth out the mealiness of the potatoes and round out their flavor, so they tasted a little watery. And the both the spinach and the garlic it was sautéed with weren't cooked quite long enough to lose their raw edge. Served alongside a tough sartimbocca a la Romana -- thinly sliced veal with a shaving of prosciutto pressed onto one side -- they made the entire dish a dud. But nothing could blunt the appeal of a braised lamb shank that came with the same accompaniments. A chunky stew of red wine, tomatoes, and aromatics permeated every fiber of a caveman-sized shank, tenderly softening the meat and extracting its succulent gaminess.

But one dish, not even a Roman one, endeared Amoroma to me. It wasn't just that the saffron risotto traditionally served with the veal osso buco a la milanese was so aromatic, nor that the meat on the shank had been braised to the pull-apart point. No, it was the long, slim fork that the owners add to the plate -- for scooping the marrow out of the bone, of course. With a little work it slithered out on my toasted bread, gloopy and translucent, brown around the edges. And then I ate it. In one bite! More unctuous than melted butter.

If you can manage dessert after eating three courses Italian-style, you should be pleased. Though not the best I've ever tasted, Amoroma's tiramesu tasted of rum and coffee, not just cream and cake. One daily special, a fluffy zabaglione spooned over peach sorbet and fresh strawberries, a bright burst of fruit, should be added to the menu. And the Grand Marnier crème anglaise surrounding the Roman torta de ricotta (cheesecake) sent a welcome whiff of orange through the dense, almost cakey torte.

Moraga has needed a place like Amoroma for years. And boy, do the locals know it -- they pack the tables even on weeknights. The room, the color of aged Parmesan and ringed with colorful cartoons taken from Lavecchia's father's cookbook, buzzes without miring diners in their neighbors' conversations. I'm not sure what else you could want from the waiters: They smoothly flow throughout the room, smile a lot, and hit every mark. You may not depart feeling like you've dined in Rome, but Amoroma certainly is cause for some civic pride.


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