Roberto’s restaurant is bathed in pink and purple light. It’s lines are lean and angular. Textures mingle subtly, only noticed when one is thrust betwixt them. The crowd is genteel and demure, effortlessly gulping Japanese oysters and flippantly smoking Cuban cigars. It’s so un-Italian, and yet, so very very Italian all the same. Robert’s takes inspiration from Milan, Italy’s sassiest city, and paints us a different picture that many have seen in travels or trattorias – but just as authentic, none-the-less.
Italian restaurants outside of Italy have come a long way since Spaghetti Carbonara accompanied by gingham tablecloths, candles thrust in Raffia Chianti bottles, and Dean Martin swooning in the background. It’s been wonderful to watch a global populace discover that Italian food is not just all about pizza and pasta – and yes, I’ve seen it happen in my generation. As a teenager, the epitome of Italian dining for us was Sophia’s – a hole-in-the-wall pizzerria that evolved into a food barn due to surging popularity and some very clever business by the owners. It was where I had my first cannelloni, my first tartufo, and my first oyster (Kilpatrick, of course – a disputed invention by the Australians, named for the Irish and adopted by every single Italian restaurant in Melbourne in the 1980s). Gourmet, no?
Ten years later, it all changed. After laying their claim on dining in Australia, Italians finally felt confident enough to show us what REAL Italian cuisine was. They brought us agnolotti stuffed with delicate crab meat, risotto with truffles, carpaccio, squid cooked in it’s own ink, osso buco, caponata, salads to make us forsake the iceberg lettuce forever more, and the desserts – my God – cannoli, paneforte, soft stracciatella gelato, zabaglione. And it didn’t just happen in my home, this occured all over the world.
Italian food is predicted to see an enormous resurgence this year, and for many, this comes as a surprise. For me, it does too – I don’t believe it ever declined in popularity – but I do see sense in the theory. Italian food is delicate, comes in small serves to aid digestion, and relies on fresh seasonal ingredients rather than tricky technique. In an increasingly sophisticated society, with an understanding of diet and it’s long-term effect, and a desire to eat good clean food, it’s where all our market research indicators point.
But behind this lovely theory of delicate, clever, green and clean food is an underlying theme of simplicity. And herein lies a great problem. How does a restaurant serving some very simple dishes fare, particularly in a market where Asian cuisine, the most technical of all, is the food they get at home? They do what Roberto’s do – they give us bells and whistles.
For me, it’s partially unnecessary. Of course, I admire the sleek surroundings, and the way they display their prestigious and expensive ingredients, so you know you are paying for the real thing. I like the smooth tunes, the waiters with their elite Roman swagger and just-over-the-edge attitude, the luxurious seating and the covert darkness (that makes it nigh-impossible to take a photo of dinner for this site without disturbing a 5-meter radius of diners in the process). But I’d pay the money without most of it.
I understand the effort that went into making my beetroot carpaccio glisten with caramelization without being soggy or burned. I appreciate the tenderness of the salmon tartare, the balance of flavours and the simple yet tasty garnish of cleverly twisted vegetables. Thinking on it now, I yearn the simplicity of an angelhair pasta with languistines and asparagus cooked perfectly al-dente. I am happy to pay for a piece of super quality tuna that I could have made at home, because I know that I couldn’t make that quality of caponata to go with it in less than 5 hours. And I’ve had enough lemon tarts to realise that this one is worth coming back for (It’s surpassed it’s neighbour at La Petite Maison, in part due to the contrasting meringue, which I think was cassis and ginger flavoured).
Many however won’t get all this. They will find these simple dishes lacking the punch they are prepared to pay 180AED a plate for, and for them, Roberto’s must turn on it’s other charms. So far it seems to be working. But I do ask if people go to Roberto’s for Italian food, or if they attend to be wrapped in their superflous surroundings. If this is the case, then Roberto’s charm may wane as it weathers, and is replaced by younger, fresher venues, and they will have to find other ways to bring their customers back. I’m not convinced that Roberto’s is quite perfect enough in these other ways to do this as it stands, with some seating arrangements and uncaring service needing to be addressed to ensure the current customers leave with a smile on their faces.
..And I know for a fact there are two swanky DIFC outlets opening in coming months. Perhaps my own theory will be tested.
Pros: fantastic design, excellent al fresco area, comfortable seating, very good Italian food, impressive seafood, super DIFC location, knowledgeable staff
Cons: varying service, tables for two too close to other tables (not so romantic), some non-Italian dishes on the menu not executed perfectly, quite expensive
Reservations nearly always necessary
ph. +971 4 386 0066
Gate Village 1, DIFC. Map
*A guide to ratings: These take into account the price, quality, service and the facilities, and in effect are a value rating. A venue with mains at 30AED has just as much chance of getting a 10/10 as a fine dining establishment.
- 0-2/10 = exceptionally overpriced or tremendously awful. Avoid at all costs.
- 3-5/10 = overpriced in respect to quality. Lacklustre. Don’t eat there unless there are no other options.
- 6-7/10 = reasonable value. Check other options in the area just in case, but not a bad choice over-all.
- 8-9/10= worth seeking out. Tremendous food and ambience. One of if not the best restaurant in the area.
- 10/10 = As good as it gets. Stop what you’re doing, book a table now.