The chef trained by Heinz Beck who makes an unforgettable panzanella (and doesn't make you miss the original)

Jun 4 2024, 14:03
We followed Heros De Agostinis in his movements, but since he returned to Rome, he hadn’t been making us feel great emotions anymore. Now the tune is changing: we were blown away by Heros De Agostinis' creative panzanella at Ineo in Rome

Twenty-five years ago, when he came to Rome invited by Gambero Rosso to explain his new idea and practice of cooking, Ferran Adrià ended his lesson with a reflection that was both a warning to those who cook for passion or profession: "When the creative reinterpretation of a grandmother's dish makes you miss the original, then that new dish is wrong." A simple and humble thought from a chef who, in a very few years, revolutionised the very concept of cooking and contemporary dining. Yet, in its simplicity, this consideration should be the guiding principle for every cook, especially those who make cooking their profession. And we know well that often creative dishes make us miss traditional recipes quite a lot, if only because there is an emotional bond with those youthful flavours that take on an absolute reference value in our taste landscape.

Heros De Agostinis. To start, his "seafood panzanella"

From Canederli to Panzanella

Well, you've endured this long preamble: but why? Because I want to tell you about an encounter with a panzanella. A "seafood panzanella" that opens as an appetiser on the tasting menus of a fine dining restaurant - as they are called today - specifically the one by Heros De Agostinis at Ineo at the Anantara Palazzo Naiadi Rome in Piazza Esedra (or della Repubblica). We have already written about him and some of his dishes, as well as his emotional connection with the Equilino and the Piazza Vittorio market. Heros is a talented and heartfelt cook, one of those who still cooks with passion and emotion. Yet, in front of his dishes at the new location where he is the executive chef, we couldn’t feel deep emotions. Everything was perfect, everything excellent and well-crafted. A luxurious bread trolley, earning him a special award in the Gambero Rosso 2024 Italy Restaurant Guide. Original and meticulously curated menus. New for Rome, a city that lives on tradition or Stars. Well, we couldn't feel emotions in front of the dishes of someone who for a decade (give or take a year) developed Heinz Beck's menus at La Pergola and directed the kitchens of major hotels and restaurants worldwide. Yet he had moved us - paradoxically - fifteen years ago during his second stint away from Beck, at the Hotel Terme in Merano, with his colourful (reinterpreted) canederli and his risotto that echoed a Tyrolean breakfast (with speck and pickles).

In the end, Ineo makes us feel emotions

At the Ineo table a few days ago, we felt those distant emotions again: when presented with the panzanella proposal, the brain almost refused to try it, but then the dish arrived. And the brain followed the palate in a shot of freshness and taste, intoxicating. The panzanella, almost a prototype of panzanella even though it had little of the original, except for bread, tomato, and celery. Yes, the basic ingredients, you might say. But they were something else, much more... A play of flavours, sweetness, and acidity tied together by the briny note of the "usual" Cantabrian anchovy that managed to make us forget even the usual Cantabrian anchovy playing on a completely new and imaginative score. The tomato is meticulously processed (and there are at least three tomatoes) to become that sauce, the celery is an idea (strong, but with the tenuous materiality of a spiritual adventure), the bread that seems whole and as-is, is actually an element that combines tenacity and melt-in-the-mouth texture, soaked like a stale bread (which it really is) but fresh as if just out of the baker's hands. In short, a small appetiser to devour with the heart before the mouth.

Maccheroncini after the panzanella

Then came a maccheroncino al ferretto... Another beautiful experience starting from the Abruzzo of one part of Heros' grandparents and reconnecting with the Eritrea from which his maternal grandparents come through a tiny spicy veal stew reminiscent of zighinì but surpassing it with elegant and harmonious tones. In short, we finally found a Heros free from anxieties and worries, driven only by the passion of his life, the poetry of cooking, and the story of his life’s flavours, which in his dishes become - like in a well-written poem or novel - the flavours and emotions of all of us.

The herb-crusted lamb cutlet. Above, the maccheroncini

Homage to the Capital

Then came the ray ravioli with pepper ragout (a tribute to the ray soup, but in a season when Romanesco broccoli is no longer in season) and then the lamb chops, a sort of flag of Roman cuisine (and Beck's menus) that, however, shifts to spicy tones and French-style cooking (i.e., absolutely pink) that really lets you taste a great meat. In the end, the panzanella was indeed the revelation dish, but it managed to carry along the others that followed, stimulating palate and mind. Not bad, really, for a dinner. Not to mention the right wines paired: from a cellar that is measured and calibrated exactly for this cuisine, narrated and served by highly skilled professionals: Federico Spagnolo (who comes from St George in Taormina where he was sommelier and restaurant manager) and Damiano Verdone (who led the room at Aroma in Rome for 8 years).

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