Locanda dei Girasoli is the only restaurant of its kind in the whole of Italy. It is a long way from the centre of Rome, set in an ugly, cramped suburb that does not attract many visitors. Yet it is the site of a highly original experiment now eliciting attention and enquiries from Palermo to Milan.
And it is a culinary delight into the bargain. Its ribollita is as light as a souffl, its meatless polpette di melanzane are as succulent as ripening fruit, and local young people wolf down its big, crisp pizzas like the starving. The Frascati wine it serves is the pungent real thing, not bottled but brought straight down from the hills in big kegs. And the prices, unlike those in central Rome, belong to an age gone by the pre-euro one, that is.
Sunflowers adorn every corner of this restaurant perhaps not surprisingly given its name in the popular quarter of Quadraro off Via Tuscolana in south-east Rome. The menu describes the sunflower as the symbol of the joy of living and the pride of being alive felt by our sons and daughters, and three of these help serve tables in the big, two-roomed, rustic-style restaurant, all bright provenal colours with a red terracotta floor.
The three are young people with Downs syndrome. One of them, cheerful 22-year-old Valerio, is the son of Sergio Palladino, the squarely-built Tuscan from Grosseto who runs the Locanda together with his wife Agostina. She rules the team in the kitchen and produces surprise ideas and dishes from Tuscany, Lazio and Sicily, though she had never been a professional chef before. Ive always had a passion for cooking and now Im in my element, she says.
Officially, the restaurant is a social co-operative with partial funding from the province of Rome but, explains Palladino, the idea came from my wife. It was the solution to a problem: While people like Valerio are at school, theres no problem. Theyre integrated, looked after, and fit in with the other kids. But what happens afterwards? There are special courses for them, but whats their life going to be? One course after another, without end? We decided it couldnt be like that. So the idea was to find an outlet for them in the working world.
The three young people with Downs are flanked by seven other staff, including Valerios younger brother, 20-year-old Giulio, one of the three waiters in the restaurant. On the day this writer visited, they were quick and busy, because although it was a miserable Tuesday night in winter, some 40 diners had braved the damp and cold for the cooking. This was nothing, according to Agostina, because at weekends the place is often full.
Theyve improved so much, remarked Palladino, meaning Valerio and his two friends, 26-year-old Claudio Crescenze and Viviana Polsolli, aged 28. They get paid, you see, and thats not only a source of great gratification for them, but it gives them a degree of autonomy. They can go out and buy anything that takes their fancy. They like that. Helping in the restaurant has also got them competing against one another. He knows how to work the coffee machine, one might complain. I want to make it work as well. So they learn about the machine and feel proud of themselves. Theyre beginning to realise they can handle some of the challenges of life and theyre getting what they never had before confidence in themselves.
Of course, Palladino goes on, weve had setbacks. Only a short time ago, we had to persuade a Downs girl to leave us. She was cut up. She wanted to stay. But her parents would bring her in the car every day at the same time and then come to take her away at the same time. She was breaking up the sense of community we try to establish here and her regular comings and goings disturbed the others. So I had to be very firm and tell her parents: This is no parking lot, you know. They didnt understand.
But the Locanda is not community living. It is a restaurant like any other, with everybody living out. Polsolli, for example, lives up at Montecmpatri in the Alban hills, making her own way to work by train and bus.
On the whole, I think the experiment is a success, states Palladino. What has contributed to this in a small way is a quixotic place only paces away, as anomalous as the Locanda itself: an eccentric new hotel. Why a hotel of all things, in a remote, down-market quarter like the Quadraro, and a smart hotel at that, stylishly decorated with spacious rooms? The young owner of the City Guest House, Giuliano Bettini, explains: Were looking for the young in spirit, who want to get out of the centre and see what Rome means to most Romans. Its only ten minutes away from the centre by metro. One attraction is the price: a single room costs e40, a double e75. And visitors are delighted to discover they can have an excellent dinner almost on the doorstep. We send people to the Locanda, and theyre amazed at the quality and the price, says Bettini.
A recent survey found Rome limping along with no new ideas. There would seem to be some exceptions.
Locanda dei Girasoli (dinner only, Mon closed), Via Sulpici 117/h, tel. 067610194, e-mail: email@example.com.
City Guest House, Viale Opita Oppio 76, tel. 0676983140, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For both the Locanda and the Guest House, take metro line A to Numidio Quadrato and walk down Via Cartagine.