Carbonara, carbonara, carbonara - there could be worse ways to write a Roman menu. At Marta they've opted instead to take a proper lunge at offering a real taste of the food of Rome. The artichokes, that specialty of the Jewish quarter, are present and correct, fried whole till the leaves are crisp and the heart is tender. The suppli - crumbed balls of risotto, beef ragù and mozzarella - are as hearty as any at Roman trattoria Cesare al Casaletto. Carbonara there is, yes, but much more to tempt and delight - and at prices the Romans wouldn't baulk at to boot.
Flavio Carnevale runs the floor with as much brio as his brothers and sisters in Trastevere - and a lot more patience. He also has the stones to have taken a well-liked restaurant like Popolo, the southern-Italian eatery he opened on this site in 2014, and flip the script. The smart bistro lines are the same, but now the flavours are focused on Rome, the prices are lower (lower!), and the can-do attitude is cannier and doier than ever, right down to the kids' menu, and the offer of 10 different kinds of Spritz.
And so to the carbonara. Care has been taken with its materials. The guanciale is the right stuff, the black pepper is properly peppery and the DOP Pecorino Romano strong and pungent, so you get that emphatic salty whack that these dishes are all about. It is okay. If you like your eggs, cheese, and the fat from the guanciale nicely emulsified with the cooking water from the pasta, the way the good places in Rome do it, you might think the Marta version falls short of the mark. The cacio e pepe is much better.
Tonnarelli cacio e pepe
Kudos to the kitchen for choosing apt but less obvious pasta shapes. The carbonara is made with the short, wide little tubes called bombolotti, while the cacio e pepe is done with tonnarelli, a spaghetti they make in-house.
If you happened to be a Roman person you would almost certainly take exception with how not especially al dente the dried pasta is. Then again, if you were Roman you'd probably think the pasta wasn't al dente enough if it was still wrapped in its packet sitting on the shelf at Woolies. And hey, both dishes are $22, not the $32 usually charged by full-service restaurants in Sydney.
Bar seating at Marta
There's a bit of fresh seafood going on (mussels with cherry tomatoes and bucatini; baby octopus in a little pie with black olives; a neat little arrangement of buttery skate wing; sardines in an aptly sweet-sour setting of curly endive and breadcrumbs), but if you want to hew to the most Roman dishes, things involving preserved fish are the order of the day.
Thickly battered salt cod is the perfect twofer - Rome loves a hefty fried thing. And anchovies: order them wherever you see them, whether on one of the schiacciate (the fancy small pizza-like ovals of dough that make up the majority of the main courses) or, better still, on the antipasto that places them simply on toast with butter. Lots and lots of butter. Oh, yes.
Chef Christuan Jordaan and owner Flavio Carnevale
All this saltiness calls for something excellent to drink. Marta upholds the expectations set by the excellent Popolo cellar. The offering is 100 per cent Italian, with subheadings for orange wines, wines made in amphorae, and wines made in Lazio, the region that is home to Rome. It caters as handsomely to the one-glass blow-in (lots on by the glass, lots of it under $15) as it does the deeper-drinking crowd (cult producers, lesser-seen grapes), the wines poured from bespoke ceramic decanters by an informed and fast-moving floor team. Page for page, it's one of the best Italian lists in the country.
The brilliance of the wine makes decisions easy when dessert rolls around. There's nothing wrong with the coffee granita or the zabaglione, or the tiramisù. It's lovely to see the maritozzi, a sweet Roman bun filled with whipped cream and candied orange, make an appearance, too. But the choice between them and more wine is no choice at all.
Maritozzi, a Roman bun with whipped cream and candied orange.
Noisy, dark and full of life, Marta doesn't promise delicacy or artful innovation. It promises caciara - the joyful chaos that so delights the people of Rome. A restaurant for everyone and every day, not the special and the special-occasion. It's an all-in, brawl-in sort of place that nonetheless has a style all its own, and gives every impression of being run by people who value their customers' satisfaction. Say it loud, say it proud.