When it comes to vibrant flavors, Chef Rosario Romano's Carciofi Agli Olio (Baby Artichokes in Olive Oil) comes to mind. The unhampered freshness of untampered with ingredients explode onto the palate in a starburst of natural flavor. Indeed, Romano’s cuisine remains true to the essential flavor of each ingredient, as he is an unwavering stickler for freshness, simplicity, and purity of flavor. His longevity at Panorama substantiates the assertion. Throughout the menu, his creations sing in sound, simple and scintillating tones.
“The Carciofi is a good example of my approach,” Rosario confides, insinuating a humble air of confidence, not the strident, front-man bravado that diminishes many of his kitchen contemporaries. “I don't try to do too much with my dishes. I let the ingredients speak for themselves. They're the stars, not me. Once you've eaten fresh artichokes, you're never happy with anything less.” He adds, “That's all you'll get here – all I serve. We shop daily and I personally inspect everything we buy. Some chefs assign that task. I don't - never did, never will. Ensuring the quality of ingredients is perhaps the most critical task in the whole operation. It determines how good or bad every dish is.”
“In cooking, adding often subtracts – a concept some chefs can't grasp. One trip to Italy would convince them. When those chefs talk about freshness, they mean fresh that day – fresh as in just picked, just harvested or just caught. The difference in taste one day makes is unmistakable.”
The KISS principle (or “Keep It Simple, Stupid”) has stormed into boardrooms and onto corporate business plans in recent years, lagging by a few millennia behind the dominating philosophy that holds true in Mediterranean kitchens. Simplicity, Rosario feels, generates the eternal appeal of Italian cuisine. “People love Italian food because they can understand it. It's not overly complicated or overcooked.”
Panorama's gastronomy is also distinguished by the spirit of Italian abbondanza and mangia, “A winsome hominess rules.” Romano explains, “My heart has to be happy and I have to pass that on to the guests. Dining is important to everyone's well-being, so it's important that our whole team make people's dining experience special. We are like a family at Panorama.” He continues, “The front and back of the house harmonize. That doesn't just happen either. We make it happen. I treat our waiters as though they were customers. They're my link to the dining room. They carry my attitude to every table.”
The hominess theme is essential to this chef. In his own home, Rosario, a life-long-Philadelphian, observes revered Old World rites. He still cooks Sunday dinner for his extended family. He also makes all the Panorama sauces at home, from scratch. But that goes without saying.
Harnessing power in simplicity is no simple matter. Success requires an elusive trinity of instinct, savvy, and experience. Rosario has this gift. He coaxes soul out of foodstuffs like a gifted sax player coaxes soul out of cold metal. Take his Calamari alla Panorama: The calamari is specially tenderized (the method is a secret) before being marinated in olive oil and poached. Sublimely delicate, calamari is a Panorama hallmark. “This dish does tell the story,” Rosario affirms. “Some restaurants hide the calamari in heavy breading or overpowering sauces solely to cover up deficiencies. The calamari they buy and serve is simply inferior. And they make no attempt to serve it at its peak.” Romano notes, “That's when the calamari speaks for itself and needs no masking. Some garlic, some lemon zest for a bit of lift, and it doesn't get better than that.”
Rosario's classic approach pays its greatest dividends in Pastas. Each of the nine types found on the menu ishome-made. His pasta selection for each dish is flawless. “You have to know food and know the interplay of different ingredients. It's a matter of pairing and harmonizing textures and subtle tastes, and exploiting the unique characteristics of each pasta.” Thus, bucatini, a hollowed-out and buttery tender pasta, brings ambrosial unity to sautéed sweet onions, pancetta, Mount Vesuvio cherry tomato sauce and fiore di sarda.
Simplicity, warmth, attention to detail – all fall under the umbrella of exceptional Italian cuisine. In effect, they describe the Italian approach to all art. The Italian maestro Michelangelo downplayed his sculpting genius, citing the marble as the marvel, not he. “The sculpture is waiting inside the marble, hidden,” he explained. “I simply release it.”
So too it is in Rosario Romano's philosophy. Two artists working with different media; one releasing splendor for the eye, the other splendor for the palate. Dali opined that all art is edible. I don't know if that's always true. But it is in Rosario Romano's case.