I first went to Rome in 2001. I’d booked myself into a language school for 4 weeks and was lucky enough to be able to stay in my friends Robert and Jenny’s flat; their first flat but close to the one I visited in March. Just a short distance past the old city walls – i.e. about 5-10 minutes walk – it’s in a residential area with barely a hotel in sight, so eating out is very much a local affair and tourists are thin on the ground. Eating out can also be very cheap if you go to a local trattoria and at the time I was there on my own that spring of 2001, I often ate out. One little trattoria almost next door to the apartment would offer to grill a thick slice of beef tomato and a thick slice of aubergine as a starter. They’d disappear into the back and come back a few minutes later with my instant but delicious little antipasto, the freshly grilled vegetables glistening with fruity olive oil. A TV would be on in the corner – not uncommon in Italian restaurants – and it was all homely and welcoming for a traveller on her own.
One of my favourite trattorias local to the apartment is Antico Casale – which has since become a family favourite. I ate there quite often on my first trip to Rome and would be recognised and welcomed warmly whenever I entered the restaurant in the evening. It was there that I first had the dish I recreated for supper tonight: fish cooked on top of a bed of potatoes and tomatoes with fresh herbs. Like the best of Italian cooking, it relies on excellent quality fresh ingredients which are then cooked so simply but perfectly that somehow a little miracle occurs and your food is transformed into something very special. Antico Casale offer a few fish cooked this way. My favourite is their rombo – turbot. However, I chose some sea bream when I went to the fishmongers earlier today and I have to say that while turbot is pretty wonderful … so is sea bream!
I asked the fishmonger for a sea bream big enough for two people and got him to fillet the fish for me. You’ll also need some new potatoes, 1 medium onion, 1 clove garlic, 6 small tomatoes and a handful of slow-roasted vine tomatoes. I cheated slightly and bought the slow-roasted tomatoes from M&S deli counter. But actually these work better than tomatoes you slow roast yourself as they’re more like semi-sun-dried tomatoes and hold their texture and shape and don’t collapse.
First, boil enough potatoes for two in salted water. When they are just done – even slightly underdone – drain and when cool enough to handle, slice thickly. Meanwhile, thinly slice the onion and gently soften in some olive oil with the finely chopped garlic clove. Don’t allow to brown. Now, put the potato slices in a roasting dish and tip in the onions and garlic with all the oil. Cut the fresh tomatoes in half and add; also add the slow-roasted tomatoes. Put in a good handful of fresh herbs – I used roughly chopped basil and some thyme. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Carefully mix all together, carefully coating the potato slices with the oil from the onions, and then put in a 200C/180 Fan oven for 15 minutes until the potatoes start to brown slightly on the edges.
You could prepare to this stage an hour or so in advance and do the final stage at the last minute – great for entertaining!
Now pour a little olive oil over the sea bream fillets and rub all over, season with salt and pepper and put a knob – about 15g – butter on top. Lay carefully over the vegetables and put the dish back in the oven for 12 minutes.
Another great thing about this is it’s a meal in one – but I do like to serve a nice, crisp green salad with it.
At the end of a glorious hot sunny day, it still warm in the garden but a gentle breeze lifting the air and making it wonderful to sit outside, this was a perfect dish to eat al fresco. Fresh tasting, the fish moist and delicious, all the flavour preserved by the cooking method; the fragrance of the tomatoes and herbs, the sweetness of the new potatoes, all combining beautifully. And for me, a lovely reminder of wonderful Rome and la dolce vita.