In 1945 the Brioni fashion house established its first atelier on Via Barberini in Rome, a street of airline offices not far from several luxury hotels and the potential clients inside their walls. That same year the restaurant Tullio opened around the corner on a backstreet with an impossible name (Via San Nicola da Tolentino). Like Brioni, it was a small neighborhood establishment with great ambitions—ambitions soon fulfilled by the stream of tourists who flocked to the city after the war. As Brioni began to grow, it became customary to end a day of fittings by inviting regular clients (the roster included such Hollywood luminaries as Clark Gable and Henry Fonda) to Tullio for the ultimate Tuscan meal; similarly, it was suggested to well-to-do diners that they might enjoy a trip around the corner to Rome’s most skilled tailor.
At first glance Tullio is a standard trattoria: cotton tablecloths, simple wooden chairs, highly vocal waiters. But these trimmings are just a comforting introduction to a wine list, a menu, and, ultimately, a check befitting a truly fine eatery. Unlike the many Italian kitchens that present a lengthy list of dishes accompanied by a couple of daily specialties, Tullio’s menu features a handful of ever-changing offerings wholly determined by which ingredients are available and ripe for eating that day. Regulars will notice their diets morphing with the seasons—grapes in September, mushrooms and truffles through the fall, artichokes in winter, peas in spring….
It’s not just the produce, though, that abides by a culinary calendar. Glorious Roman lamb is served only in winter, and in January and February you can indulge in bianchetti: tiny newborn fishes—best eaten boiled with a little oil and lemon—so flavorful you’ll quickly be able to identify the different varieties despite their identical appearances.
But the real treasure here is one of the few things that is, thankfully, always available: the mozzarella di bufala. Each morning the restaurant receives a package from a small artisanal maker near Naples who sends the day’s best selection. In all my travels—and I’m on the road nearly six months of every year—I’ve never found a version even remotely as firm, juicy, sweet, salty, or sexy as what you’re served at Tullio. My clients agree: Many leave lunch carrying a doggie bag of mozzarella, and I have one customer who requests that our tailor bring a batch to his home in Cairo almost monthly (fortunately, he shows his gratitude by ordering more suits!).
I’ve learned that mozzarella seems to change flavor throughout the day, gradually losing complexity—I have found it’s best consumed in the morning. My obsession with Tullio’s supply has gotten so out of hand that I’ve recently taken to stopping in around 10 a.m., before the restaurant has officially opened, and having some as a midmorning snack while the kitchen bustles with chefs peeling and dressing artichokes for the carciofi alla romana and performing the surprisingly theatrical cleaning of mushrooms.
It is at mealtime, though, that the room is at its most electrifying. The line of those awaiting tables stretches out the door, and Tullio’s owners—Duilio, now over 90 but still shockingly energetic, and the 56-year-old Gianni—rush about, gabbing with customers and making certain everyone is having a ball. One never knows who will be seated at the next table. I my-self brought the King of Malaysia and Kofi Annan, to name just a couple. Friendships start and strengthen in this room, romances intensify, business discussions slide from the slick to the sincere. It’s the kind of place where it is impossible not to relax and revel in your proximity to friends and strangers alike. I remember one occasion during which my guest, an Irish real estate billionaire, and I began singing impromptu arias with a Korean opera star one table over. Granted, this took place after two bottles of Sassicaia, but it was a quintessential Tullio moment nonetheless.
There is a final joy that stems from this place. After a Lucullan lunch at Tullio, it is near impossible to return to work, especially in spring, when the languid Roman wind blows in from the seaside. Then, after you finally set down your fork close to four o’clock in the afternoon, there is only one thing to do: Head home for a nap.
Lunch, $195. At 26 Via San Nicola da Tolentino; 39-06/474-5560; tullioristorante.it.
—Umberto Angeloni served as CEO of Brioni from 1990 to 2006.