ROME, July 28, 2009 -- The regions of Italy are similar to the states in America, administrative areas that can be as different as Texas is to Vermont. Over the years, a few of Italy's regions have become household names in the United States thanks to books, films and travel. Most people will have heard of Tuscany, Umbria, and Sicily.
The mention of Tuscany brings visions of rolling hills, vineyards and the names of a number of well-known books; Umbria might stir thoughts of hill towns, St. Francis of Assisi and Perugino chocolate; and Sicily might first be thought of as the original home of the Mafia although there is much more to Sicily than the mob.
Foreigners by the droves have purchased rustic farm houses in these areas, restored them and rented them to even more foreigners in a way that perpetuates the love for these famous regions.
But there are 20 regions in Italy and each has their own peculiarity that makes it special to Italians, but is often overlooked by visitors planning a visit. That is not to say the tourists don't flock to all parts of the country, but they probably don't choose Venice (in the Veneto region), the Cinqueterre (in the Liguria region) or to the Dolomites for hiking and skiing (in the Alto Adige region) because of their familiarity with the regions. And of course tourists flood Rome, which is not only the capital of Italy, as most people know, but they probably didn't know it is also the capital of the Region of Lazio.
The vast majority of Lazio is often overlooked by tourists, who leave Rome and head for the more famous regions that surround it. But Italians know well that there are a lot of treasures to be found here, and the regional government --- happy to take more of the tourist dollars -- is eager to promote it.
Wine, Beaches and Few Foreigners
There are a few things that Lazio is known for that you may already have heard of. Frascati wine is known around the world a light white that is good with almost every kind of food. Frascati is a small town just south of Rome in the Castelli Hills. Nearby Frascati is Castel Gandolfo, the summer home of the Pope.
And while the beaches of Sicily or the Adriatic Riviera might draw more people, the long, white Mediterranean beaches of Sperlonga and Sabaudia -- divided by the Circeo, the mountain that that inspired some of the tales of Ulysses – are beautiful. Ponza, a small island a few hours boat ride off the coast from Anzio is a summer playground for the Italian elite, but not crowded with tourists like on the more famous Capri and Stromboli islands to the south.
Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes know the beauty of Lazio because they chose to get married in a castle on the shores of Lake Bracciano to north of Rome. Lazio also has other large, clean lakes like Bolsena and Vico where you can enjoy summer activities without the hoards.
And while Italians have recently begun buying up second homes in the Sabina hills only an hour or so the east of Rome, few foreigners have discovered the peaceful hill towns nestled against the Apennine Mountains and that so far remain much more affordable than the properties in Tuscany and Umbria.
But to really judge a region on its merits you should do like an Italian does – and talk about them in terms of their foods and wines.
Food and Wine
Here too, Lazio has struggled to make itself stand out from the competition. The delicious red wines like the Barolos from Piedmont, the Sangrantinos from Umbria and the common Chianti from Tuscany are household names in the United States. Typical plates from the north with their scrumptious risottos, polentas, and excellent cheeses all the way to the south with their aromatic fresh pasta dishes, seafood and olives; the other regions have excelled in promoting their homemade specialties.
The one exception in Lazio is Rome, where Roman cooking is quite established. Chicken with peppers, pasta with pecorino cheese and black pepper, and tripe are just a small example of traditional Roman cooking.
Yet, did you know that the small black Gaeta olives cured with citrus rind are from Lazio? To my taste they are the best olives from the dozens of varieties that are found in Italy. South-central Lazio is where the best mozzarella cheese comes from (although the competition from Campania is close) in all of Italy.
This is not like mozzarella in the U.S. Fresh mozzarella is served at room temperature soaking in water and is soft enough to cut with your fork. What about a simple sandwich made from porchetta, a roasted loan laced with spices and served on fresh chewy rolls? The best porchetta comes from Ariccia, less than an hour south of Rome.
Sponsoring an Enoteca
The Region of Lazio has recognized that food is the way to people's hearts and decided that they had better start promoting the best of Lazio food and wine. So they are sponsoring an Enoteca (literally a wine bar) that serves up the best of the regional specialties called Palatium.
Palatium is located near the Spanish Steps on Via Frattina. At first glance from outside it looks more like a hair salon than a restaurant. Set on two floors with a glass-enclosed kitchen it is has a very modern décor that sets it apart in this traditional neighborhood known more for haute couture shopping then restaurants.
The enoteca is run by the Regional Agency for the Development and Innovation of the Agriculture of Lazio – which itself is a mouthful. The restaurant boasts that it uses more than 600 regional suppliers to build its menu and that each is certified to be 100 percent produced in Lazio.
The 310 wines make the wine list not only extensive, but it is also incredibly detailed. It explains the character of each wine as well as the winery it comes from. There are 50 types of extra virgin olive oil that are used or sold separately in the restaurant shop.
The antipasto highlights the cheeses, salamis, and produce that is all produced in Lazio. Even the mineral water is bottled at source in the region.
Because the restaurant uses fresh products the menu changes with the harvest season and the cycle of agriculture production of cheeses and meats. This guarantees that each time you visit Palatium the menu will be a bit different.
For sure Enoteca Palatium is not the typical dining experience that many visitors may be looking for. The atmosphere may seem more New York than Rome and while the waiters were well versed in the products they served, the service was slow and the staff a bit cold. But it is a smart effort on the part of the Region of Lazio to offer its gastronomic treasures in one central location to boost the name recognition of its products.
Enoteca Regionale del Lazio Palatium is located at Via Frattina, 96 phone number 39 06 692 02132