Sometimes it seems “Italian” food is everywhere in Cuzco. But whether pizzas, pastas, or meats it seldom lives up to the fine cuisine of Italy. This has now changed. Roma Mia‘s (Calle Procuradores 341,) Chef Danilo Polidori and his wife Ana Padilla bring years of experience in fine restaurants in Rome and the US to this new dining venture in Cuzco. And, from first bite the quality and taste show.
Personable and warm, with eyes that crinkle in pleasure, Chef Polidori says there are three things that make a good restaurant: “the food, hygiene, and attention.” All three typify Roma Mia, on the upper floor of a colonial building on the narrow and exciting Procuradores Street less than half a block from the main square, the Plaza de Armas.
Once you climb the stairs from the street, you enter a space of three rooms that claims Italy, not the version of Italian food that has spread like pizza around the world, but one with buon sapore romano, fine Roman flavor.
The red, white, and green table cloths, the pictures of the Roman Coliseum and Italian stars, as well as a rack of Italian wine suggest you have left all the Peruvian versions of Italian downstairs. This impressions gains force when you see a shelf–no, almost an altar–of Italian ingredients on the wall (bottles of olive oil, boxes of pasta, and cans of vigorously tasty tomatoes.)
It strengthens more when Ana Padilla greets you in her Spanish or English inflected by years of living in Italy and you open the menus she has brought. Artichokes, porcini mushrooms and melanzane (Italian eggplant) seem to leap off the page.
When Chef Polidori comes to greet you, in between calculating cooking times for pasta and risotto at this demanding high altitude, with an engaging smile that belies the pressure of balancing sauces and broths in the kitchen, you know you have arrived at a piece of Rome abroad.
They may bring a complimentary plate of bruschette made from a light but substantial bread. Though Cuzco has an ancient tradition of breadmaking, this is not Peruvian bread. Its flavor and texture are different. Ana will tell you how long she worked in Cuzco to get it right and how the daily practice of making bread is important.
However, the main dishes, the pizzas, pasta, and risottos, either Ana of Chef Polidori will announce, are made with ingredients imported from Italy. “People say ‘why do you use goods from Italy when Peruvian products are so much less expensive,’” Chef Polidori explains. “But the flavor of Italian products is so much better. That is the difference and makes it worth the cost to only use Italian products.”
But it is even more than just goods from Italy. Chef Polidori began cooking as an apprentice in Roman kitchens. After many years of experience in his home city, Chef Polidori received a phone call asking him to come to Florida to oversee the pasta production in the very large kitchen of the well-known Enzo’s on the Lake near Orlando with its “Roman-based cuisine.” As a adventure, he accepted the offer and he and Ana spent, as a result, some years in the United States.
But Peru beckoned. Chef Polidori and Ana wanted a place of their own where they could not only prepare and offer fine Italian fare, but where they could give each guest their personal attention.
If any doubt remains in your mind that you are in a bit of Rome, it will dissipate like the steam rising from the plates of hot food appearing before you once you take your first taste.
Your first bite of pizza, if that was on your order, will shout with Italian zing from the complex flavor of a good crust, rich but not overwhelming tomato sauce, and above all Italian mozzarella. Peruvian mozzarella is getting better but it does not have the flavor of the Italian, especially when combined with tangy parmigiano. To call this latter by the English “parmesan” is like confusing a picture for a person and trying to take the image on a date. Parmigiano is so much more flavorful.
Or try the risotto, with each grain of arborio rice perfectly cooked and yet saucy from the demanding technique of slowly adding hot liquid while stirring. The imported porcini mushrooms gave the risotto we tried a delicious meatiness. Your first spoonful may well elicit a moan from its unimagined delight. And every subsequent spoonful will be just as pleasing.
But it you are lucky, you will visit Roma Mia on a day Chef Polidori prepares his personal favorite, the lasagna di melanzane, the eggplant lasagna.
While everything we have tried over three visits to Roma Mia has been very good, the eggplant lasagna transports you to a different domain. With the combination of Chef Polidori’s technique, his tomato sauce, the cheese, and the eggplant, this lasagna has a dark richness that is like a room of dark wood paneling in which a fireplace glows with a bright flame. It makes you want to settle down and stay a good, long while.
Chef Polidori serves the eggplant lasagna with a slice of his wife’s good bread, “because that is how it comes in Rome. The dish is so rich that you need to bread to balance it.”
Roma Mia brings that balance of good food, a pleasing space, and the personal touch of a welcoming couple. They will make you feel at home and among friends while serving you an outstanding meal. You will want to return.