Updated: Oct 1, 2018
“Are you studying?” Mauro interrupted himself to call out my furious scribbling.
“Of course I am!” The endlessly charismatic and tangent-indulging sommelier at GustArte in Rome let out a laugh with all the kindness in the world behind it. I was surprised he was surprised—I can’t imagine having the opportunity to sit down with someone so expert in salumi, cheese, olive oil, and wine, and not feel compelled to take notes.
GustArte is a hole in the wall with every ancient inch lined with products from their own organic farm an hour north of Rome, and a selection of the best cheeses produced around Italy. Mauro spent an hour with me and four other travelers waxing eloquent about five cheeses and five meats, letting us in on the origins of each and sharing secrets on how best to appreciate each bite. Accompanied by Mauro's endless knowledge, quick wit, and red wine, the diverse and really, really delicious platter was arguably one of the most memorable lunches you can find in Rome.
I stuck around after the tasting to keep “studying…”
You mentioned that Rome is beautiful, but was better 10 years ago. What changed?
The mentality, the Italian mentality. All the people try to go away and remains all the people that—well, we think that we have a great mind and a great economy, but it’s not like that. We continue to think that we are the Roman people that come from Roman Empire, we build it all… but it’s 2000 years ago. It is very complex and Italy starts to go a little bit down. Not with the food though. The food, it’s still the best.
Well, for some of us that’s the most important thing! Italian food is very regional, right? What is it that makes Roman food uniquely Roman?
Roman food is guanciale, Pecorino, we use this because, you have to know, in the past we don’t have cows in our land. 2,000 years ago you look around and you see only sheep, so we use sheep's cheese, Pecorino, Percorino, Pecorino in everything. You see it in cacio e pepe, carbonara. I don’t like too much the Roman cuisine. It’s too much heavy for me. If you eat every single day, this is not possible. We love eating salad, start with a salad, because it makes you full, and then you just need 80 grams of pasta or meat. This is the better way to enjoy Roman food.
Has this shop been open long?
We open here just one year ago. Before, we open and sold at markets. But Italian people are very crazy. They buy chewing gum. One box is 8 grams and 1 euro—that means they pay 100 euros for 1 kilo. But 8 grams, just 1 euro. That’s fast and easy to pay. So they see a 6-year aged cheese, no chemicals, all organic. It’s 70 euros for 1 kilo. No, it’s too much! So we go away from the market and we open here and people come who want to want the real Italian food experience.
And the farm raises its own animals for the salumi—you also make the olive oil? I’ve heard raising olive trees is a lot of work.
It is not too much. In some places where it is very hot, then it is not so easy. Olive oil is very easy but it takes time. Normally we used 70 kilos of olives to make 10 liters of oil. You have to understand, 1 liter is extra virgin. We call it that because the olives have never been pressed before. 3 liters are virgin, and the rest is what we call “salsa.” You use salsa for baking cake or just need oil from a vegetable. Like corn oil.
Does the EVOO have the biggest profit because it’s the best?
It is not too much more expensive, not too much. But people want to buy it because it is the best. We use a lot of the extra virgin olive oil here. But weather can destroy our production. When the rains become ice… how do you say? It’s falling down ice?
Hail, when it’s raining ice? Hail.
Hail. It destroys the production. And if we have a very hot summer, the olives remain very teeny and don’t produce a lot of oil. And then there are a lot of weathers that can reduce the production, and then the cost of the olive oil grows a bit. But it is not like truffle or saffron, it is not crazy expensive. But we use it for everything, we use it for the hair, for the skin. It’s full of the good fat. I drink a lot of olive oil just to be healthy. If you drink it and it leaves a film in your mouth, it is a bad olive oil. If it’s heavy, it’s not good. Restaurants may try to give you bad olive oil, but if you ask for a glass, they will know you know what’s up and give you the better olive oil.
You clearly know what's up... have you worked with food your whole life?
Yes, I had a big restaurant. I was the chef, now I am the owner. I leave the kitchen. I end up without life.
Yes! I used to cook professionally too and I had to stop. I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t eating well, I had no life outside of the kitchen and it was killing me.
I love so much staying in the kitchen, I love so much to cook. At my restaurant, I stay all my life in the kitchen and then I take this kind of job at GustArte because my life was only behind the stove. I prefer to cook for my friends and for me.
I found that when I was cooking for my job, I stopped cooking for me. I stopped loving it and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that just to cook for a living.
Yeah, yeah! You have to be very crazy and you have to love it too much, to cook, you have to love it more than you love your life. If you remain cooking, you are not happy. I don’t want this kind of life.
If I could talk about food all day every day, I’d be happy, though.
This is what I do!
Visit the shop:
Via Giulia 195/A