Bruno Barbieri. If you live in Italy, you know Bruno. He's been playing foil to chef Carlo Cracco since the very beginning of Masterchef Italia, and is a wolf in sheep's clothing. The seemingly harmless Emilia Romagna-born Barbieri is a culinary force, tallying up 40 years in the kitchen and 7 Michelin stars. He's been all over the world, including a research sabbaticaI in Brazil. Of all the places he appears, I never expected to see him at the neighborhood sushi joint in Rome.
Sushi in Rome has come a long way, baby. At the turn of the century, pre-made, tiny one room shops stocked with refrigerated California rolls populating the city as an economical answer to Hamasei, Rome's historic Japanese restaurant. For a self-declared California girl like myself, these sushi nooks quenched some nostalgia cravings but not quite. Even with the k-rab rolls, I still missed my cheap, strip mall sushi joints where fresh uni, red bean miso encrusted cod collar and cherry blossom moshi were mandatory on almost every white-board menu.
Over the years, Rome grew into the sushi culture, and it evolved from novelty to locality. Nippon-syled restaurants like Rokko opened in the center, while trendy mod boat sushi started appearing on the outer center neighborhoods like Prati neighborhood, and a triangle of Ostiense (Via Ostiense -Via del Gazometro- Via del Porto Fluviale) became a neighborhood of Japanese restaurants. Somewhere in this timeline was Daruma Sushi.
I like to consider myself Daruma's first client. Alessio Tesciuba opened the original outpost (one of those tiny shops with of rolls, Japanese soft drinks and bags of wasabe peas) somewhere around the time I moved into my Piazza Navona adjacent apartment in 2005. From the moment I spied Daruma, I was front and center, showing up once or twice a month for some rolls and a chitchat with Alessio. We talked about everything sushi, Japan and California. Eventually, I moved out and Daruma moved on- opening new take out/delivery spots around the city and finally opening a sit-down restaurant (among others) in Rome's the historic center by Piazza del Parlamento.
Alessio and his brothers Daniele and and Dennis are overlords of an empire which includes delivery, take out and sit down restaurants, originally sushi and Japanese cuisine, and now Italian-Japanese fusion, thanks to a little help from Bruno, who coincidentally is a client like me- serendipitous finding the spot a few years back and befriending the owner. Returning from a visit to Japan, Bruno and the Brothers Tesciuba brainstormed the idea Daruma Seasons, the culinary mash up of Bruno's expertise with inspirations from Japanese cuisine.
"I like the philosophy behind [Japanese food], and the way they treat food with respect", says Barbieri. "Food is a kind of deity and eating is a real ritual", with similarities to Italian cuisine in "its profound culture of food .... with deep, probing flavors". Bruno's take is a seasonal experiment of flavors and techniques from both cultures, featuring two new dishes each season season. My beloved spaghetti alla chitarra, is a crunchy, flavored spaghetti with dried seaweed powder, with lobster, fresh mixed algae and flavored with typically Mediterranean aromas like capers, bottarga and aromatic herbs, and winter's cartoccio di tonno is simply tuna cooked in paper bag and seasoned with peanuts, toasted sesame, vegetables and Teriyaki sauce.
Lately, I've noticed I am not always willing to suggest non-Roman, non-Italian restaurants, but it's time I've updated my mindset. Barbieri's Daruma Seasons are well-crafted, delightfully tasty and easy pleasers. Less Italianization (a style of watering down Asian cuisine to make it similarly "palatable" for an Italian audience) and more of a thoughtful plate evolution where Japanese flavors and techniques overlap with Italian counterparts.
LOCATION: All over. Daruma has six sit-down restaurants across the city in areas including Daruma Parlamento in the historic center's Campo Marzio neighborhood and Daruma Sushi Kosher in the Ghetto. Other Japanese-inspired spots in my little black book: Sakana, a boat sushi spot suggested by my friend Sachiko as a kid-pleaser. Excellent soups. Kiko for the cool factor. Doozo for its zen-garden inspired private terrace, and Zuma for the view and the cocktails.