What do you imagine when you think of a Michelin-starred dining experience, and indeed, a Michelin-starred chef?
The drive out to Michelin-starred restaurant Il Tino in Fiumicino takes you past meadows flanking dusty roads; slow traffic on a single carriageway skirting the edge of the seaside town. We turn into the ample carpark of a boatyard, the marine blue and white of the workshop ahead: to our right, a low-slung building with large windows overlooking a vivid, blue river, and a gardener uncoiling a hose to water yards and yards of herb garden.
We walk to the building; the gardener pauses and flicks the hose with an expert wrist before coming over to extend a hand, a warm smile, that crinkles up to marine blue eyes. The gardener is Daniele Usai, the Michelin-starred chef of the restaurant in question. Whatever expectations I might have had have been reset.
Today, Il Tino, 1 Michelin star, occupies a prime garden location on the Fiumara, the estuary to Rome’s Tiber river, which flows flanked by green fields through the moorings at Fiumicino. But, like Usai, like the river itself, the restaurant’s home has shifted over the years. More moored, than fixed in cement, all three.
Usai, now 42, started out as an apprentice chef in the UK in his teens before returning to Italy for military service. Duty done, he returned home to Ostia for his first ever restaurant project, the earliest incarnation of Il Tino. Working alongside Gualtiero Marchesi, Usai grew in stature. Dishes emerged from narratives of the coast: the Roman catch of the day, crystallising in the colour, sound and smell of the daily fish auction in Fiumicino.
The Michelin star arrived in 2015. A year after, thanks also to the input of partners Stefano Loreti and Domenico Stillitano, Il Tino transferred from Ostia to Fiumicino, taking up its present home at the historic Nautilus boatyard.
Alongside Il Tino, the new structure had space for a second restaurant, the straightforward fish-focused trattoria Quarantunododoci, its named inspired by naval coordinates. Downstairs, the companion eatery comprises wooden tables and quality dining in a garden restaurant, with ancillary spa: upstairs, Il Tino is an ark of a restaurant, with its ship-like interiors and removed air: dining here is to navigate far out to sea, in search of a new reality.
Il Tino’s open-kitchen is a smart galley where Usai and his team of chefs toil. In the restaurant, expect elegant service with a smile and a story.
We start with an amuse-bouche of contrasting colours and textures where everything is actually made from white prawns, including transparent prawn crackers, sushi, and a prawn roll. It is accompanied by a marine-blue infusion which prepares the palate and is our first hint of the narrative of the sea which is to come.
The first course is Usai’s Giardino Iodato: an underwater garden of sea vegetables enriched with morsels from the catch of the day. Encountering these flavours and aromas is to gulp down the sea, while the plate is sheer child’s play in an octopus’s garden. Beautiful with exquisite aromas and textures.
Usai’s restaurant is a mystical place, but the food is full of common references. The next dish, panunta bread, with lamb offal, prawns and caramelized onion, is a nod to grandmother’s kitchen with bread scraped through oil from the pan, served with Roman offal. The prawns hold their own in this bright box of flavour.
We move onto the pasta course, and perhaps my favourite dish of the night: pasta buttons filled with white prawns and saffron, served with nasturtium leaves. These buttons are all filling: there is no thick layer of pasta to get through – a bite yields a mouthful of aromatic prawns, with a rich prawn glaze. Deeply satisfying.
Next, gnocchi made from aubergine and ricotta, with shellfish and camone tomato broth, dressed with artemisia, the so-called ‘coca cola’ tarragon. Here, sea laps over essential Mediterranean ingredients to create something strong yet subtle. The roast tomato broth is all flavour, but retreats to give place to the densely flavoured gnocchi, the fresher-than-fresh fish, and the sweet playfulness of the tarragon which brings a hint of Haribo cola bottles to the table.
The following dish is a feast for the eyes and revisits sweet and smokey flavours with a scorpionfish risotto, dressed with scorpionfish ham and dehydrated red peppers. This is a fine dish although the al dente rice nears a floury texture in the heart of each grain (a little too much for me).
Usai’s bouillabaisse is a return to top form: filleted sections of catch of the day are flooded at the table with a rich bisque extracted from the fish won at Fiumicino the same morning. Presented like this, it’s a cross between a deconstructed dish and a refined interpretation, but is still an honest take on this classic fisherman’s soup.
We move onto the final main course: root vegetable flan with steamed snapper. This is another simple but effectively executed dish.
It’s time for dessert, and my lemon and wild strawberry tart is a starry sky over the sea, the sort that guides sailors home. We’re at the end of our journey and concluding one of the finest meals I have ever tasted. I am truly, deeply mad for this kitchen, this story, and Usai’s humility, talent and sense of adventure which translate into smooth sailing at the very highest level.
Prices start at €95 for the seven course degustation menu, with the dishes selected by the chef, or €120 for nine dishes. Four or five glasses of wine can be paired for €50 or €65 per head. A la carte dining is also available.
If you want to try the best of contemporary Italian dining, don’t miss Il Tino when in Rome. This is truly an extraordinary restaurant and unforgettable experience.
Il Tino| Via Monte Cadria, 127 | Fiumicino | Italy | 0039 06 562 2778
Testaccina was a guest of Il Tino