In a stark wasteland overlooking the Tiber, dotted with the skeletons of abandoned factories and water towers, a new so-called city has emerged, claimed by its admirers to have no equivalent on earth.
Only two years ago it was a forlorn skeleton itself, the remnant of a big granary owned by an agricultural consortium. Now it is a five-storey example of avant-garde architecture totally devoted to the taste buds and palate, conceived and managed by Gambero Rosso, Italys version of Frances Michelin Guide. They call it, perhaps not surprisingly, La Citt del Gusto, the City of Taste, dubbed in its advertising the only city anywhere to be founded on flavour.
All bare black girders and escalators with pipes and gleaming ventilation ducts exposed on the outside like entrails, the futuristic extravaganza is only a stones throw from busy Ponte Marconi, close to where the Tiber sets out on its final meandering amid luxuriant vegetation and birdsong before finding the sea. It faces Romes gaunt and deflated gasometer on Via Ostiense across the river, and is a bizarre combination of a huge television studio, a university for gourmets and a food and drink exhibition. It is a mecca for choosy diners, soon to be welcomed in two luxury restaurants, a planned great ballroom, and what must be the biggest wine bar in Rome, just opened to the public. The bar is belted by 250 metres of terrace and is a top-floor panoramic paradise for connoisseurs, a wood-panelled preserve of plush alcove seating surrounded by shelves housing bottles of wine bearing 30,000 different names.
The City has always been the dream of our editor-in-chief, Stefano Bonilli, explained Marco Capocci, his events organiser. The idea was to make taste something tangible in a modern setting and to bring the scattered bits of the Gambero Rosso world under one roof.
Launched in 1968 as an eight-page supplement in a left-wing national newspaper, Gambero Rosso quickly turned into a monthly magazine, now read worldwide, and spawned a restaurant guide, a publishing house and the only satellite television station in Italy devoted entirely to gastronomy. The City of Taste is the apotheosis of it all, its every space permanently equipped with cameras, lighting and microphones linked to its own digital television studios.
The gem of the place is the so-called theatre of the kitchen, a four-tier lecture horse-shoe. Here the students face a stage occupied by some prestigious chef who, televised, prepares dishes in front of a theatrical backdrop depicting a bustling kitchen. The real kitchen is on the other side of a maxi glass partition, where lesser cooks copy the chef and finally, with a flourish, serve his creations to the ravenous observers at the tables.
Theres no place like this in the world, enthused Isabella, a dynamic young German who was once a cook at the Hilton Rome Cavalieri and now runs the City of Tastes already popular schools, where professionals and amateurs alike attend cooking classes, wine seminars, courses on wine marketing and gastronomic journalism.
Aspiring cooks work in four inter-linked kitchens, soaking up tricks of the trade from a well-known chef performing at a cooking range in the centre, who then moves around dispensing advice. A current star on the teaching staff is Heinz Beck from Germany, head of the award-winning rooftop La Pergola restaurant, also at the Hilton.
People get quite excited because the kitchens become rival teams vying to meet the challenge first, said Isabella, who reported that the most sought-after courses today were for singles only, those enrolling being mainly between 25 and 30, with a clear preponderance of men over women. Interesting, isnt it? Isabella was amused. They were often, she said, the kind of busy professionals who never miss a concert or art show and who think of the kitchen only as a place for making coffee in the morning, until they run into a pair of friends in the street and, without thinking, invite them for dinner, only to realise too late that there isnt anything in the fridge, and that they can hardly cook an egg.
Such is the crisis scenario dealt with by one of Italys greatest chefs, Fulvio Pierangelini, a Roman known for a famed restaurant near Livorno called by sheer coincidence Gambero Rosso. His recipe for such last-minute cooking is not to fight shy of playing imaginative games with simple ingredients to produce surprise visual effects, because the eye is always the accomplice of the appetite. He explains how the classic trio of tomato, basil and mozzarella, for instance, can be turned into a novelty never before seen by guests. Or he demonstrates how to produce spectacular ravioli candied with cream of lemon out of a little frozen sfoglia pastry and a single lemon.
Such wisdom, however, does not come at bargain basement rates. Five lessons for amateurs under a different chef every night costs 500; a weekly basic wine seminar spread over three months costs 900, and five two-and-a-half hour lectures on entertaining at home cost 380. Taste clearly has its price.
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Television station: RaiSat Gambero Rosso Channel,
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Picture: The city of Taste in Rome is reputed to be the only city anywhere to be founded on flavour.