Italy has so much coastline and so many lakes. How could the country not produce great oysters?
That was out thinking when Michael and I planned our summer road trip from Rome southward to Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
We knew we could find oysters on the menus of Italy’s leading restaurants. But when we first arrived in Rome, we found only Bélons from Brittany.
While Bélons happen to be among our favorites, after last summer’s road trip through Halifax and Prince Edward Island, we longed for some variety.
Unfortunately, Our concierge at Hotel de la Ville Roma did not have a clue where to find a restaurant with a selection of oysters in the Eternal City. So Michael and I spent our next few days wandering around the city, inquiring – in vain -- about oysters.
One evening over cocktails at our hotel’s Emperor Terrace bar, we watched the sun set and the stars emerge. Enjoying the view of Saint Peter’s in the distance, we began to eavesdrop on our fellow guests. Soon, we overheard a local businessman giving restaurant advise to clients who were staying at the hotel.
Should we admit to eavesdropping and ask for advice?
“You need to speak with Emanuela Gismondi,” he said with an air of certainty. “She knows more about oysters than anyone in Italy.”
I sent Emanuela an introductory e-mail message and she quickly responded, inviting us to Tuna the following evening.
Located on the Via Veneto just off Piazza Barberini, Tuna is simply alluring. The ice filled window display of today’s fresh offerings from the sea beckons you in. Elevated just behind a huge steel basin of seafood, the chef is busy working his magic – much to the delight of people strolling by.
The restaurants all-white interior removes any distractions from the purpose of your visit – the most creatively prepared raw shellfish and seafood in Rome.
Minutes after a waiter seated us on white couches in the Oyster Bar – just across from the chef’s station, Emanuela came out to greet us.
“I apologize. I only have four varieties of oysters today. We usually try to have at least seven,” she told us. “It has been a busy weekend.”
I assured her that we would be delighted with “only four.”
Suggesting we pair the oysters with champagne, Emanuela selected one of our favorites: a nonvintage Gosset Brut Excellence. Although Tuna has one of Rome's best wine lists, we stayed with champagne throughout our visit.
As we sipped the Gosset, we asked Emanuela about her clientele.
“We have a lot of politicians and business leaders.” she said. “They deserve the very best
seafood.” And, relying on Emanuela and her staff, that is what they enjoy at Tuna.
“One of our clients was so impressed with our oysters, he insisted I write a book about them,” she mentioned. The book is due out later this summer. (Unfortunately for us, it will only be available in Italian).
On the day of our visit, the featured oysters included Bélons, Marie Morgans, Speciales d’Utah Beaches and Royale d'Isigny.
Starting from the top of the platter were a pair of Marie Morgans from Brittany. Meaty and crunchy, strong and flavorful, the oysters were perfectly complemented by the Gosset, as well as Emanuela’s ruby red mignonette sauce.
Moving clockwise, the next pair were the Royale d'Isigny. We loved the uniquely sweet taste of these soft meaty oysters from the Bay of Veys in Northern Normandy.
Next were the plump Speciales d’Utah Beach from Normandy. They were were succulent and briny, with a sweet, almost creamy taste.
And finally, a pair of the petite Bélons from Southern Brittany, These firm fleshy oysters were immensely flavorful, very briny yet slightly sweet, with a almost gentle flavor.
Each type of oyster was uniquely different – and wonderful. We were definitely in the right place
Tuna’s well deserved reputation is due in great part to Emanuela’s meticulous talent in selecting the items which appear on her ever changing menu. Three times a week she gets up at dawn and makes her way to the Mercati Generali. There she has her choice of the freshest shellfish and seafood from all over Europe.
Although we had planned on just sampling the oysters, Emanuela insisted we try some of her amazing house specialties.
Her first offering was a beautifully plated Tartare di Ricciola (amberkack) and Carpaccio di Pesce Bianco (sea bass).
The nicely chunked pink amberjack in the center of the plate presented an incredibly sweet flavor. The tartare perfectly complemented the thinly sliced sweet sea bass. Truly a remarkable – and beautiful - combination of fish and flavors.
Watching us savor the carpaccio, Emanuela asked, “Have you ever had shrimp carpaccio?” Before we could answer, she nodded to the chef, who began to prepare.
From across the room, Michael and I watched as the chef selected, prepared, butterflied and marinated the shrimp, before he gently pressed them down between the sheets to shape his Carpaccio di Gamberoni Rossi.
The waiter bought the dish over for Michael to photograph, and then offered just a hint of fresh ground pepper.
I meant to ask Emanuela about the marinade – specifically about the olive oil she used. But after my first sweet mellow taste of this elegant carpaccio, my mind wandered. The freshness of the shrimp was distracting.
Another glass of the Gosset appeared as if by magic. Again, the perfect complement to this wonderfully presented house special.
Drawing our evening to a close, we thanked Emanuela for a truly remarkable experience.
“But, how can you leave without trying our pasta?”
Obviously, we could not, especially since all of Tuna’s pasta is hand made.
In minutes, a plate of Pasta alle Vongole, wonderfully plated with an abundance of fresh clams, appeared at the table.
While Michael was fascinated with the rhomboid shaped pasta, I was impressed with the abundance and the freshness of the claims. And again, I was so distracted, I forgot to ask about the olive oil that brought it all together.
That just gives me yet another reason to return to Tuna next time I am in Rome.
11, Via Veneto - Rome
All above photography by Michael Ira Thayer.