ROME, Italy – Some fancy restaurants want to offer a prim and proper atmosphere. Some like to go over the top. Some fine-dining establishments make everything extra-formal, strict, procedural, and every single move is associated with a specific etiquette. And some other higher-end restaurants simply want (you) to have fun. For me, restaurant Imago, in Hassler Hotel Rome, is in the last category.
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Chef Francesco Apreda is not your typical Italian chef. Not only is he cooking with seemingly unrelated flavours – “Indian spices, Japanese techniques, Italian ingredients”, says his official bio – he’s also doing so in one of the fanciest, best-located hotels in Rome.
On top of that, he’s from Naples, the bastion of no-bullshit, straightforward, don’t-mess-with-recipes Italian cooking. If Naples is a living, breathing contemporary nostalgia hub, chef Apreda’s cooking is anything but.
And then, there’s the dining room itself. You see, restaurant Imago is located in the Hassler, on the top floor, overlooking the Spanish steps. It doesn’t get any more central – and touristic – than that. It’s an iconic hotel, and the décor of the rooms and the hotel itself tend towards old-guard, regency styles. The restaurant, however, sports a somewhat strange, turn-of-the-century look, with purple lasers shooting up from the floor at the feet of roman columns.
But all of that doesn’t take anything away from the view, one of the most beautiful in the city.
And it certainly doesn’t divert from the food itself.
If some dishes are quite mild, none of them lack seasoning. Some are heavy on the spices – chef Apreda constructs his own spice blends, a heritage of his time in India, where he’s still a restaurant consultant.
Imago Restaurant in Hassler Hotel Rome – Fun Fusion
Things like “bonito ravioli”, “soy vermicelli”, “duck tandoori” aren’t served in any given restaurant. This is fusion cuisine through and through, but much like any other guilty pleasure, the only thing that counts is that it’s pleasurable. And Imago’s food is exactly that: entertaining and surprising.
A startling example of chef Apreda’s work can be exemplified with the scallop dish. The scallops seem smoked; a grating of bottarga, which has undertones of umami and salty miso; black truffle; leeks; artichoke. The Italian ingredients and Japanese suggestions are undeniable, yet the food itself never lacks seasoning. And this particular dish is spectacularly tied together by the wine pairing, a (very local) Frascati Villa Simone Vigneto Filonardi, 2014. To my surprise, the wine smells of bubblegum, but tastes nothing like. The combination of the dish and the wine returns the whole fragrance of the dish towards its origins: the sea.
The ravioli dish combines a bonito dashi and a liquid parmesan concoction inside an extremely delicate pasta pocket. I can’t keep myself from comparing it to chef Heinz Beck’s signature carbonara. The extra hint of Japanese-ness is as subtle as it is important, as if to make sure that we’re having chef Apreda’s food, and not anyone else’s.
A cacio e pepe risotto is adorned with one of Mr Apreda’s many signature spice blends, this one focused on pepper, its varieties and their contrasts. Much more fragrant than it is pungent, the pepper on the risotto reaches deep down in the spectrum of tastes found in the parmesan and fetches its genuine funky goodness, only to be amplified further by a sip of the matched wine, Feudi di San Gregorio Ros’Aura 2013. The musky wine is an unexpected pairing, but a surprisingly delicious one.
One thing that I noticed, about one hour in the meal, is that the place can be somewhat loud, for a fine dining establishment. But carefully placed speakers around the tables create acoustic walls, separating each table and providing a false sense of intimacy within the bouncing dining hall. This is remarkable, especially after my over-the-top church-like experience at La Pergola.
If the techniques, general tastes, ambiance, aromas, ingredients, décor don’t match at all with the location – smack dab in the middle of ancient Rome, one of the most assertive culinary regions on the planet – it’s certainly a novel culinary journey that’s presented by chef Apreda, and, first and foremost, a very amusing and entertaining one. The food certainly speaks for itself.