Going Back in Time With Every Bite

Restaurateur Rolando Ramoscelli believes in the past.

Pictures and memorabilia cover the walls of Rolando Ramoscelli’s restaurant, but one black-and-white photo echoes his philosophy especially well. The portrait of 10 men seated around a table proclaims: family begins at the dinner table.

Da Rolando, located in San Costanzo, is a time capsule containing the rich tradition of art, culture, and especially food in Urbino and the surrounding Marche region. The restaurant features recipes handed down to Ramoscelli not only from his mother, but also from his grandmother and great-grandmother.

Ramoscelli opened Da Rolando in 1987 after attending culinary school for five years. He brings his own skills and personal signature to his dishes, creating unique yet comforting meals with traditional foods from the region. But his cooking experience really began at a much younger age, observing and accompanying his grandmother as she prepared meals.

Black and white photo

This black and white photo captures the essence of family dinners and is featured in many of Ramoscelli’s books.

“I remember my nonna would wake up early in the morning and take me to the market,” he says. “There was not always much to choose from, but she would get the freshest foods we could afford.”

In addition to running a successful restaurant and food and wine shop, Ramoscelli has written more than 15 books focused on the food and history of Urbino. One of his most popular books epitomizes the connection he sees between food and family. Entitled Le Ricette di Nonna Felice and published in 2011, it features all the recipes his grandmother Felice handed down to him.

“The recipes are very old, very classic, and very good,” says Ramoscelli. This summer he released another cookbook called Urbino a Tavola, which is filled with stories, illustrations, pictures, and the history of the renaissance city that he holds dear. Beyond educating others through his cookbooks, Ramoscelli teaches a culinary class in Carpegna.

Despite all the misery [during war time], food brought joy into my life.

Ramoscelli was born and grew up in Fossombrone, a half-hour from Urbino. When his grandfather left for war, he began spending more time with the women in his family. His grandmother and mother raised him on humble foods that had a big impact on his life.

“Despite all the misery [during war time],” Ramoscelli says, “food brought joy into my life.”

Looking at a photo of his grandparents in the kitchen, Ramoscelli recalls that while his mother had more experience with “dolcini,” or sweets, his grandmother specialized in savory dishes. He smiles broadly as he remembers his nonna’s zuppa di verdura, a vegetable soup with beans and potatoes, and melanzane al formaggio, eggplant with cheese.

Ramoscelli prepares his food the same way his grandmother and great-grandmother did. His pasta is made fresh and by hand, and all ingredients are local and in season. Every morning at 7:30, he calls down to his wife Palmina from the upstairs kitchen—“Pa!—to discuss what ingredients are needed for the day. After a short consultation between the chefs, Ramoscelli is out the door.

Although Da Rolando is a few dozen feet from a convenient chain supermarket, Ramoscelli embarks on a lengthy journey, traveling to many separate locations for the items on his list. After a twenty-minute drive, he arrives at a small vegetable market that showcases its products in open crates so the shopper can look, smell, and touch. Ramoscelli is drawn to fresh Romano salad, light orange tomatoes, and firm cucumbers that he will use for a farmer’s salad for lunch. Michele, the shop attendant, recognizes him from his restaurant and chats as he bags the vegetables with care. Ramoscelli treats the young man to a coffee next door.

Next stop: Letizia, a bakery that Ramoscelli has been going to for 20 years. “They are like family now,” he explains as he is invited to the back for samples of just-baked cornetti (croissants). He buys fresh loaves of bread that will be sliced and placed on the tables or cubed and toasted for croutons in salads.

Next door is Loredana Pasta, where again Ramoscelli is invited behind the scenes. Women in floral aprons and hairnets bid him “Ciao” as they feed all-natural dough through machines that turn out fresh pasta in thin strands and various other shapes.

Ramoscelli wastes no time driving to Giuliano Manna’s Macelleria, a trusted butcher shop located in San Filippo sul Cesano. Manna offers Ramoscelli samples of fresh prosciutto and capocollo. He urges him to try the salsiccia with tartufi (truffles) rolled into the meat. Manna cuts a slice and brings out a bottle of his family’s white wine. What began as a grocery run has now turned into a small meal over which the two discuss Manna’s growing son, grape fermenting methods, and other topics. On his way out, Ramoscelli asks the butcher to wrap the rest of the salsiccia, “for Palmina to try.”

Best kitchen in Italy, 100 per cent… your truffles are the best.

“Urbino is a small place, and San Costanzo is a small town,” says Ramoscelli. People even have trouble finding the region of Le Marche on a map, he says. Ramoscelli’s response is to make his restaurant a place that marks his town and its culture as important to the area’s culinary history. Da Rolando was featured in the Michelin Guide of 2013 and is visited regularly—and raved about—by many food and wine blogs. His customers return often, leaving messages of thanks in the restaurant’s guestbook. “No words left, just emotions,” wrote one customer from Germany. “Best kitchen in Italy, 100 per cent… your truffles are the best,” gushed Elena Kapise.

“The future is uncertain and there are no guarantees,” says Ramoscelli philosophically. “But we can always look back and learn from the past. It is the key to our future.”

In Le Ricette di Nonna Felice, along with images celebrating the region’s culture, art, and history, there is a photo of nonna Felice herself, sliding bread into a brick oven. She has a big smile across her face, similar to that of Ramoscelli when he sees customers walk into his restaurant. “Ciao Rolando,” they say as he greets them with a kiss on each cheek.

“It’s difficult to make everyone happy,” Ramoscelli says. But he believes that his nonna would be content with his business as it is, and would be brag that his menu features some of the best Italian foods of Le Marche. “My nonna was noble and authentic, and very ambitious. I think she would be very proud of me now.”

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About Laura Miele

I had always planned to return to Italy to see the great sites of Rome and Venice. However, this opportunity to visit the small town of Urbino has enriched me with new insight into Italian culture. Urbino may be small and hard to find on a map, but the piazza at night feels as though it is the centre of the world. The liveliness of the students and families that reside here is just as beautiful as the rolling hills and architecture. Urbino has preserved the renaissance so well that you cannot help but feel re-vived when walking through the narrow alleys and grazing the antique bricks on either side of you. This has truly been one of the most unique and amazing experiences of my life.