Sarah Cicolini arrived in Rome a decade ago from Abruzzo, a mountainous region in central Italy known for its grazing sheep and rustic, rural cuisines. She had come to study medicine but was also a passionate cook, learning at her grandmother's side as a child and working in hotels as a teenager. At first, she tried balancing restaurant shifts with her university coursework but soon realised her love of the kitchen was eclipsing her desire to be a doctor. "Neither doctors nor cooks can have second jobs," says Cicolini. "Eventually, the time came for me to choose one and I have been working in restaurant kitchens ever since."
After working in bars, pizzerias and fine-dining kitchens in Rome, the 30-year-old chef is now running her own restaurant, Santo Palato, which she opened in 2017. The place is ostensibly a Roman trattoria, a casual neighbourhood joint, serving local favourites like guanciale-laced carbonara, simmered offal and seasonal vegetables. But the menu also features dishes from Cicolini's native region, a cuisine that harmonises perfectly with that of Rome. Indeed, many Roman classics were influenced by the arrival of peasants from Abruzzo over the past century.
Cicolini serves her Roman-Abruzzese cuisine in the Appio-Latino district not far from where the basalt of the Via Appia Antica begins and where the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano attracts Catholic pilgrims. This in-between neighbourhood is a mix of turn-of-the-20th-century villas, Fascist-era public housing and middle-class city blocks.
"When I thought of opening my own place, it had to be here. It has been my adopted home for 10 years, plus when we first opened there wasn't much staff," says Cicolini. "I had to be close out of necessity." Now, whether Santo Palato is in service or not, you'll likely find Cicolini in its small dining room or even smaller kitchen receiving deliveries or prepping ingredients.
Santo Palato's dimensions keep the menu limited to perennial classics, and plenty of seasonal dishes, too. Some, like lasagne con broccolo romanesco, adapt traditional recipes, while others like fusilli con ragù di pecora feature a modern twist, in this instance a grating of lemon zest to brighten the dish. In all cases, Cicolini's food is thoughtful and never sacrifices tradition on the altar of useless innovation. Every choice she makes is in the service of balance and flavour.
Santo Palato, Piazza Tarquinia, 4a/b, 00183, Rome, +39 06 7720 7354.
Sarah Cicolini will be in Australia in February and March to cook a series of one-off dinners...
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