Jump to content
  • Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create a free account.

Sign in to follow this  
francesco

Vissani - Baschi

Recommended Posts

On Saturday, October 23rd, me and Claudia, my wife, had the opportunity to try for the first time this restaurant. I was particularly curious for several reasons. The first reason is that Vissani is a household name in Italy but is virtually unknown abroad, so that we have this paradox of the most famous chef in Italy is someone that very few foreigners ever get the opportunity to try or even know about.

In Italy, Vissani's celebrity is of a very special kind, not at all dissimilar to the status of someone like Gordon Ramsay in the UK, for example. But there are significant differences which say much about the different prestige chefs have in the two countries, and this in turn, I believe, explains much of what we experienced on our visits. In the UK, Ramsay is very famous for being temperamental and I am sure he wouldn't score very high in a popularity contest. However, and this is crucial, he is respected in his job: very very few would dare challange Ramsay as a chef. In Italy Vissani is known for his constant presence and self-promotion on the TV screen and for his frequent struggles with Italian grammar and syntax. But Italy is also a country where about 50 million people believe they know more about football than the current manager of the national team and a similar number believe they are knowledgeable about food. Not only that, a significant number of these "experts" never entertains any doubts about what is right and wrong in cooking. This is a country where anyone who tries to serve peaches with Parma ham instead of melon risks being labelled as a phony nouvelle-cuisine idiot, no matter their credentials. No surprise, then, if I witnessed some time ago a housewife calling Vissani a buffoon on national television simply because he dared introduce shellfish in a dish with meat. She's not alone: the vast majority of Italian would probably tell you that they have a very low opinion of Vissani (who has two michelin stars) as a chef, not (only) as a TV personality.

This national attitude, to me, has very significant consequences on the way haute cuisine is done in my country, something on which I have already elaborated in other threads. However, to me this is nowhere near being so obvious as it is with Vissani. I am not a psychologist by any definition of the word, but I got the feeling much of what the restaurant is about comes as a response to a very strong inferiority complex.

This is almost immediately obvious: the restaurant is located on an artificial lake on the road between Orvieto and Todi and used to be a trattoria run by Vissani’s parents. Anyone who is familiar with Italy would quickly realize that the place used to be one of those restaurants that specialized in weddings and similar functions. Vissani must have spent a fortune in trying to hide this. About 50 streetlights with round bulbs line up on the road that runs along the restaurant, so much that you would imagine some small airplane might try a landing mistaking it for an airport runway. The restaurant can only be accessed through a gate that would not be out of place at Buckingham palace, the entrance is lined up with food products that Vissani endorses, some modern wood sculptures that resemble trees adorn the dining room we were seated in, almost surrounded by bookcases. In the bookcase closest to my table, there was a complete 30-40 volumes edition of the Treccani encyclopedia (Italy’s equivalent to the Britannica). The (soft) background music was Beethoven’s string quartet op. 127. You get the picture.

Service was also not at the level you’d want or expect. Vissani’s son, who ran the service, told us that the restaurant never quite reaches full capacity but that evening it did and were not capable of handling it fully. I can understand from a business perspective that if you can do 45 covers max but always get around 25-30, the one time you do get 45 you might not be prepared as well as you’d wish, but this is more difficult to excuse in a restaurant with two Michelin stars and 3-star ambitions. Mind you, the one thing that went seriously wrong was the length of the service, we had 6 dishes, started at around 8:30 and finished at half past midnight. Apart from that, it was clear that some waiters had little experience so that on many occasions they seemed uncertain and fearful of making mistakes. I suspect that getting quality help in this part of the country is not particularly easy. The wine list seems fairly comprehensive, at least for Italy but prices are high and the list itself is in alphabetical order, which doesn’t help with the selection.

Reading back what I’ve written so far, I realize that this doesn’t exactly seem like a ringing endorsement, but I have left the food for last. Both me and Claudia chose the larger of two tasting menus, which at 155 euros is quite expensive by Italian standards. Throughout the meal, the kitchen would continuously send out bread fresh from the oven, with each course supported by a particular kind of bread. Thus we probably tasted 8-10 different kind of bread, all of them very good to excellent with particular mention for the bread with cannara onions and pecorino and the bread with tomatoes which were fabulous.

We started with an extremely simple amuse bouche. This consisted of very thinly sliced raw ovoli mushrooms with a slight touch of just pressed olive oil from Vissani’s own production and some very old parmesan shavings. This reminded me of the amuse bouches you often get at Aimo e Nadia in Milan, which consist of some very basic ingredients such as olive oil and tomatoes but often the best you’ve ever tasted. The philosophy is the same and is, I think, the best introduction to what Vissani’s cuisine is all about. Yes, the combinations are daring, unusual, but flavor remains the overriding concern: if simple achieves the objective, then simple it will be, if complex is needed, then complex it will be. Anyway, this was simply perfect and I don’t care if someone tells me that anyone could prepare that dish. Yes, but let me assure you not anyone can procure ingredients like that. A special mention for the olive oil which was very spicy and had an incredible deep green color.

The first dish of the menu proper was a flan of lettuce and anchiovies, ficatum with garlic and rosemary in black truffle and chestnut sauce.

I am pretty sure this was the best dish of the evening. The lettuce in the flan was “spiked” by a hint of anchiovies that cut right through the fois gras (ficatum is produced in Mortara, near Milan, and is obtained by feeding the animals with dried figs). The quality of the liver was really high but what made it really special was how well it interacted with the unctuous sauce. For me, this easily made the evening worthwhile because everything fit together so well. The flavors, the fact that this dish was a short summary of what autumn can be, the melt in your mouth, almost soupy feel of it all.

One word about presentations: Vissani’s presentations are really simple for a restaurant of this caliber. There is nothing in France, the US, the UK or anywhere else that I am familiar with that compares to this. Only in Italy do you find something similar at places like Guido or Aimo e Nadia. Again the flavor combinations can be as sophisticated as anybody’s but the flavor is also the only thing that matters: we are miles away from a Veyrat or a Aitkens.

[end of part I, I hope to be able to finish this soon]

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Francesco, I hope you do as well. This is a restaurant I have had great curiosity about for a long time. Your essay is very evocative; I can almost see the setting while getting a good notion of the goings-on. Visanni is a chef-restaurateur one nevers reads about in any detail in English. Your reportage is a ground breaker.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Francesco,

thank you for this enthralling appetizer, looking forward to the main course :biggrin: .

Very intelligent comments on Italians and food, as usual. Mind if I slightly adapt what you said to use it as a signature line?


Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Excellent review thus far. I was always curious about Vissani's restaurant.

He really does no favours for himself on TV, which is the way most people know about him as you say - however it doesn't really help when you only have five minutes to explain what is potentially a very complicated recipe with several people surrounding him that do not care at all (I am thinking of his daily appearances in the morning shows)

However, the wider issue is that italians are simply suspicious of anyone messing with tried and tested recipes or ways of doing things - the "italian way" is almost always better. The most recent story I have is my mother-in-law, who after having been taught by us how to cook chow mein (which she loved), phoning to say that she had improved it... she removes the pieces of chicken from the noodles to create a pasta with vegetables as a primo and the chicken with some of the sauce as a secondo!!

looking forward to the rest of the review...


Edited by katiaANDronald (log)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Francesco,

thank you for this enthralling appetizer, looking forward to the main course [...]Mind if I slightly adapt what you said to use it as a signature line?

No problem with the signature line, of course. I posted a first part because I realized that it was taking me forever to do the whole thing and I had promised to report back. Please bear with me.

Francesco

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Super report, Francesco.

Hurry up with the next installment!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

No, Robert, still staying north of the Italian Mason-Dixon line (altho I have made a few changes in the itinerary)

But that doesnt stop me from applauding Francesco's virtuosity, and thirsting for more. : :smile:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Cy, what changes have you made? Ideally we should start a "Cy's Trip" thread, but posting here is one of the perogatives of a forum host. :biggrin:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

[Alberto, Robert, I didn't know whether to merge the two halves or not: whatever you want to do is fine with me] (edited by albiston to add NOTE: merged)

The second dish on the menu was a onion, parmesan and taggiasche olives risotto with “curls” of red mullet and white wine and sage sauce. The dish does not present the risotto as a flat surface for the other ingredients but rather separates the different components and it’s up to the diner to assemble them. I didn’t find this had a particular logic as what you end doing is spreading the risotto on the sauce and putting the curls on top anyway, so that didn’t make much sense to me. The risotto with the sauce in itself was all that you could expect at this level: perhaps not a particularly daring combination by Vissani’s standard, but again something that did work very well nonetheless. However, I didn’t find that red mullet added much or anything at all to the dish. I can only conjecture that the chef might have had qualms about serving such a risotto “as it was”, thus going against what I think is his more natural instinct that if simple will do it, then simple it will be. This was the only case during the dinner where this principle seems to have been abandoned, but the consequence was the least exciting of the dishes we had that evening.

We next had a much stronger “primo”. These were ravioli of thrush with pecorino and rosemary sauce, and a puree of Williams pears. I don’t have much experience with thrush as food (or otherwise) but they are small wild birds, similar in taste and size to snipe. Apparently they are also related because they belong to that rare category of game birds for which the entrails can also be eaten.

Anyway, this was another highlight. On one level, the connection between pears and the cheese sauce was the perfect embodiment of the Italian saying “al contadino non far sapere quant’ e’ buono il cacio con le pere” [literally: don’t let the farmer know how good sheeps’ milk cheese is with pears]. On the other, this truly classic combination which was the perfect foil for the ravioli, given the gaminess of the meat which was quite evident even in a filling.

I have struggled in the past few years with grouse, a meat that many (including myself) find almost too much to bear for how gamy it is, but I have recently discovered how the old British way of having bread sauce with it: the fattiness of the sauce covers the unpleasant bitterness while letting the taste of the animal come through. Well, this dish gave me a similar feeling because the sweetness of the pears and the fattiness of the sauce accomplished much the same thing.

Our “secondo” was a very simple rib of beef with “rissole” (croquettes) of yellow pumpkin and a sauce of lobster and rosemary. By now certain patterns were emerging quite clearly. Firstly, Vissani has a clear predilection for herbs: we had plenty of dishes with rosemary and we would also get a chance to have one with majoram later. Secondly, Vissani plates his dishes by choosing a main ingredient, adds some secondary item of a different nature (so meat vs. fish vs. vegetable) and invariably adds a sauce to bind the ingredients together, where in many cases the sauce provides the most interesting contrast. The first thing seems to me to be a quintessentially Italian thing to do; the second is, I believe, entirely original to him. By this I mean that the pattern is insistent and does not seem to know (almost) any exception, at least according to the recipes in his cookbooks. Thus, in a sense he is highly predictable, in another, this self-imposed restriction seems to be designed to emphasize his strengths: if you are great at sauces and contrasting flavors and you don’t care much about texture or presentation, this scheme is perfect for you.

This dish was again at the highest level for me. The beef was flawless and in slices about 1/2cm thick: the lobster sauce was incredibly dense and so creamy you would have sworn that some cream had been added, except that there was no taste of cream anywhere. The rissole, just seemed the perfect answer to the more obvious roast potatoes you would expect in most other places. Again, very simple.

Finally, for dessert we had a warm tartlet of sabayon and Muscat grapes with a peanut sauce and a perfume of majoram. When I realized what this was, I had a bit of a laugh. From the outside it looks like a small pastiera napoletana dusted with icing sugar. However, when you open it with your spoon, you realize that this is the Italian answer to Bras’ coulant ;-) The effect is very similar, and I could not help but think this was done on purpose. First of all, the shape of the tartlet is immediately recognizable to anyone with interest in Italian cuisine (or any Neapolitan). Secondly, instead of piping hot dark chocolate you get an equivalently luscious sabayon which is perhaps more obviously Italian. At the same time, flavor combinations are not forgotten and the grapes and the peanut sauce are just enough to provide a contrast to the sabayon which would otherwise be too sweet compared with the more obvious dark chocolate. The majoram was barely perceptible but did seem to fit quite well. The only problem with this dessert was that due to the length of the service, we were by now really full with bread and such a heavy dish was quite difficult to finish.

The petits fours were quite good and I should add that when the desserts were served the background classical music gave way for a live piano bar performance which I thought fit quite well with the rest of the ambiance (not in a good way).

To drink throughout the meal (I can’t drink much) we have a Gaja Chardonnay Rossj Bass 1994 which, at 80 Euros was very expensive. No half-bottles were available.

To conclude on a practical level, I should probably say that service-wise we probably were particularly unlucky because of the full house. My information is that this really is a rare occurrence. On the ambiance, as I’ve mentioned before, I think the assuredness and creativity that Vissani shows as a chef are completely absent so that showing off seems to be the substitute for good taste. I should add that I am probably too sensible to these things and I suspect others will be less bothered by this. Nevertheless I really think Vissani the restaurateur cannot hold a candle to Vissani the chef.

Cuisine wise, I got the impression of an enormous talent at work. I don’t thin this means that if you eat here you will invariably be happy: the use of herbs, for example, is so sustained that I can see how easily things could go wrong in execution if not in conception. Also, the a la carte menu seemed to me to be more adventurous than what we had. Having said all of this, there are so few chefs in the world that can still surprise even if they are willing to take risks and so many capable of very competent but “more of the same” cuisine. At this point in my, I personally prefer the former. Note that Vissani makes things difficult for himself by doing this in a meal with so few courses: if you propose few courses than you usually take the Ambroise route of few dishes tried and tested to perfection. If you propose many courses, then you can experiment and afford a few misses. Vissani wants to be creative but also wants to keep the traditional structure of an Italian meal in place.

I’d definitively go back.

A few more notes: I'd definitively recommend the Agriturismo Tenuta di Canonica, near Todi as a Hotel (don't know about the food because we were at Vissani). The rooms are fanstastic and this is really a small, rustic, but luxurious hotel.

We also stayed and dined at La Bastiglia in Spello. The hotel has 4 stars but it isn;t worth much: the restaurant is good. The cuisine is creative and has ups and down but not bad at all. the wine list is pretty good and much less expensive than Vissani.

Finally, I hope to be able to write about another great Italian restaurant I've tried, Lorenzo, in Forte dei Marmi, on the nothern Tuscany coast. Again, please bear with me.

Francesco

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks Francesco for superb reports and painstaking details and useful tidbits. I knew the ending but was still excited!

Understanding your taste and your approach, it is no brainer that you did like my favorite seafood temple in Italy: Lorenzo. But it is already too popular with Italians and my self interest so far had trumped my enlightened duty to share my entusiasm with the general public. But I guess you will open the Pandora's box and I may chip in...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

[note to hosts: I posted this here and not in reply in the Q&A session because I am under the impression that Q&A sessions should not be the place for debates, but I am obviously happy to discuss this with Ms. Willinger and /or to have this moved to a more proper place if you think appropriate]

I have been following Faith Willinger's Q&A session and I happened to stumble upon this particular comment of hers on Italian chefs and the conservative attitude to culinary matters in the country.

There are some chefs who are totally experimental, like Gianfranco Vissani, playing with new techniques and unheard of ingredients. I usually try to avoid them. Most of the hot young chefs stick pretty closely to regional flavors, even when they do wild and crazy things--foams, jellys, cryovak, whatever. I think that the tried and true regional flavors have stood the test of time. These are dishes that people want to eat over and over again. Although I've had many delicious innovative preparations, I've never had one that I've lusted to eat again. Massimiliano Alajmo at Le Calandre in Rubano is a great example of a creative chef working with classic concepts, impeccable ingredients, innovative techniques. Antonello Colonna at his restaurant in Labico, is another fine example of a creative chef working within a regional context.

I also notice Vmilor's question in the same session which seems to imply (correct me if I am wrong) that this view has been published by her in one of her books

With all fairness, you seem to be skeptical at best when some chefs (such as Vissani) are giving free rein to their imagination in the kitchen....

I am very confused. Either she's been to Vissani many years ago and he has changed quite a bit since (but I have a book, "Il Vissani" with dozens of recipes over the years and I don't think so) or I don't know what she is referring to. Having been at both Vissani and le Calandre within the space of one year, I would have to say that of the two it is Vissani who is definitively the one that uses the more Italian ingredients and the one who uses the more traditional techniques (even though I think both chefs clearly do Italian cuisine). Edoardo Raspelli (former curator of the Espresso guide) is one of Italy's most conservative food critics and has pretty much never had to say anything good to say about chefs such as Massimiliano Alajmo (he toned it down when he got 3 stars) or Davide Scabin, giving them ridiculously low marks while praising Vissani to the stars. Raspelli has many drawbacks, in my mind, but he can be replied upon to spot someone who doesn't stray the "Italian tradition" line in a second.

Now, preferences are not at issue here and I will not presume to discuss Ms. Willinger's (anyway, I liked Vissani but I also liked Alajmo) but I feel like I've just been told by someone that s/he doesn't like Pierre Gagnaire for his experimentalist use of ingredients and techniques but enjoys the more down to earth approach of Ferran Adria!

Francesco

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Interesting points Francesco.

Ms. Willinger, in her Eating in Italy book and on p.356 wrote on Vissani:

"The perfectly executed dishes of Gianfranco Vissani are those of a genius, idiot-savant or idiot, depending on your point of view, and have little to do with Umbrian, Italian or any other cuisine eaten on the face of this earth".

Assuming that you are Italian, clearly there is a disparity between what she considers authentic Italian and what Italians consider authentic Italian. Ms Willinger also wrote in the same page that:"Evidently ...Vissani has been to France and has been greatly moved by the experience". On my part I think this speaks well of Vissani as it proves that he is no chauvinist and there is great food to be had in France. By the same token, I will respect a great French chef such as Ducasse, Gagnaire, Pacaud, whoever, if they say that they have been in Italy many times and have been greatly moved by the experience as there is great food to be had in all parts of Italy.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Interesting points Francesco.

Ms. Willinger, in her Eating in Italy book and on p.356 wrote on Vissani:

"The perfectly executed dishes of Gianfranco Vissani are those of a genius, idiot-savant or idiot, depending on your point of view, and have little to do with Umbrian, Italian or any other cuisine eaten on the face of this earth".

I think Francesco has a point. I also find Faith's reply to another post on Italian chefs quite contradictory.

The restaurants and chefs that thrill me the most express a sense of place and season. I just came back from a trip to Campania, where Gennaro Esposito of Torre del Saracino in Marina di Seiano, the Fischetti family at L'Oasis in Vallesaccarda, Berardino Lombardo at La Caveja in Pietravairano, and the Iaccarino family at Don Alfonso in Sant'Agata all express the greatest Italian traditions.

Having eaten recently at Torre del Saracino, and some time ago at La Caveja and Don Alfonso, I am a bit confused by her previous comment on creative cooks. La Caveja is certainly a traditional kind of place and Torre del Saracino might count as creative but is certainly deeply regional in its dishes. Don Alfonso on the other hand is IMO pretty much a creative place: sure Chef Alfonso Iaccarino uses only local if not self grown ingredients (the restaurant has a fantastic tenuta agricola called, if I remember correctly, Le Peracciole) but his dishes, flavor matching and especially his plating style are not what I'd call traditional.

The best thing to do is ask Faith directly I guess.


Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I am curious, Francesco, was the chef there? I was there at the end of September, having decided that I should not be the last person in Italy to try this restaurant... chef was not in the kitchen. I thought the food was good (i did tasting menu, too), no complaints except for the price, which I found exorbitant. At least you would hope for good service, but all of the attention went to the only other table occupied, a group of eight men. eh.


Pamela Sheldon Johns

Italian Food Artisans

www.FoodArtisans.com

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I am curious, Francesco, was the chef there? I was there at the end of September, having decided that I should not be the last person in Italy to try this restaurant... chef was not in the kitchen. I thought the food was good (i did tasting menu, too), no complaints except for the price, which I found exorbitant. At least you would hope for good service, but all of the attention went to the only other table occupied, a group of eight men. eh.

He wasn't there when I went. Shame about the service but I would not have been too concerned about Vissani's absence. He is usually around on weekends, but has organized the kitchen to handle his frequent absences.

The price is actually more reasonable nowadays. The price of a tasting menu was 250,000 liras 5 years ago, almost the same as it is now. So while everyone else really raised prices since, he stayed stable. This to me says that his pricing policy is due more to the restaurant's few punters and the need to break even than to "greed".

Francesco

Francesco

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm planning a visit in late July, but in working out my intinerary, I discovered that Vissani is not in the Veronelli. Has anyone taken note of this? Why might this be?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I'm planning a visit in late July, but in working out my intinerary, I discovered that Vissani is not in the Veronelli. Has anyone taken note of this? Why might this be?

Veronelli (who passed away last year) and Vissani, both men of strong character, had a egregious fight two-three years ago about frying oil, widely reported by the Italian press. Veronelli suporting the olive oil thesis and Vissani suggesting sunflower oil as a much better choice. I'm not sure if this was the main reason, but it could be a good explanation for this.


Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I'm planning a visit in late July, but in working out my intinerary, I discovered that Vissani is not in the Veronelli. Has anyone taken note of this? Why might this be?

Veronelli (who passed away last year) and Vissani, both men of strong character, had a egregious fight two-three years ago about frying oil, widely reported by the Italian press. Veronelli suporting the olive oil thesis and Vissani suggesting sunflower oil as a much better choice. I'm not sure if this was the main reason, but it could be a good explanation for this.

Indeed, this is the reason. Veronelli essentially said that any chef who argued that sunflower oil was a better choice than olive oil for frying was incompetent.

At the end, however, I am not sure whether it was Veronelli who didn't want Vissani in his guide anymore or viceversa whether Vissani didn't want to be in Veronelli's guide.

Francesco

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Note: As the fourth installment of my eating trip in Italy this summer, I didn't intend to devote an entire post to Ristorante Vissani, but rather, as the first paragraph below states, a summary of the five fancy restaurants I went to (six if you count Al Bersagliere, which I have already described). However, I couldn't stop writing about Vissani and am happy to join forces with Francesco to give detailed coverage to this great institution of Italian gastronomy.

It’s dining at the top end that occupies nearly all of the foreign gastronomes to Italy, particularly the four Guida Michelin three-star restaurants and several of the two-stars. Also there are several with one star and no star ratings that make the radar screen by being in one of the four major touristic cities. In planning the 16 full days we recently spent in Northern and Central Italy, we decided for the most part to play the country bumpkin and small-town hick with the result that we dined only at one three-star ( Le Calandre), three two-stars (Vissani, Gambero Rosso and da Caino) and a single one-star (Paolo Teverini) that is one of the 20 Tre Forchette establishments in the Ristoranti d’Italia del Gambero Rosso guidebook.

Looking back, visiting the great provincial restaurants of France in the heyday of La Nouvelle Cuisine was close to shooting fish in a barrel. I’m not at all convinced that star-chasing in Italy is quite worth the effort and expenditure even though with a modicum of intelligence and open-mindedness, eating in general in Italy most certainly is. Batting .400 in baseball has eluded all the great players since 1941, but going two for five such as we did at the top end is not, practically speaking, much above the Mendoza line.

Note: Named after Seattle Mariner and Pittsburg Pirate shortstop Mario Mendoza whose batting average one year kept bouncing above and below the .200 mark, which in baseball lore is now the Mendoza line.

Dining at Vissani was an experience that can make going far out of your way highly worthwhile. If you’re lucky, once every several years you will step inside a restaurant and have not just a meal, but an entire afternoon or evening when the gustatory Gods have singled you out and rewarded you for living an exemplary gastronomic life. Our lunch at Vissani was one of those very rare occurrences.

“People either love Vissani or hate it” a young Italian who teaches at UCLA told us. Because he was at the table next to us with his American girlfriend and colleague at Locando al Gambero Rosso (the one that’s the low-price bastion of delicious Romagnese cooking) the chef’s husband introduced us. I must have heard that about Vissani before because I kept telling my wife that her birthday dinner could be either great or awful. While the couple had never been to Vissani, they gave us a little background on his place in Italian gastronomy. Yet what was most interesting is that the owner of Gambero Rosso, Sr, Saragoni, had no idea where Vissani’s restaurant was. Neither did we, for all practical purposes, when we set out at noon three days later from our hotel in Orvieto to honor our lunchtime reservation. Had I paid attention to the guide books we had with us, I would have known that Vissani was in Civatella di Lago, a “localita” of Baschi instead of in Baschi itself. It made the trip twice as long and nerve-wracking especially since we saw various signs for hotels, campsite and other restaurants, but not for Vissani. Not posting any signs was clearly deliberate because, as I found out on our departure from the restaurant, that his carte de visite doesn’t have an address on it either. Of course in the end we had the restaurant in our grasp, but not before driving past it, only turning around because I strongly suspected that the imposing white structure, 1970’s brute with Provencal touches, by a lake had to be it. Francesco correctly described it as looking like the headquarters of a big catering/private events business, but given my roots, it could also have passed for a supper club on a lake in New England. Regardless of what it reminds you of, Vissani may be the biggest provincial structure devoted exclusively to dining that I have ever seen. There should be a hotel lobby in it somewhere, but there isn’t; just three very large rooms being a reception area; a salon for dessert, coffee, cigars and after-dinner drinks; the dining room;and, additionally, a really big kitchen.

One of my big unrealized fears prior to our meal was eating in a world-famous restaurant with only my wife. I would imagine that the entire front of the house would be annoyed at us for depriving them of an unanticipated afternoon off and that the cooks in the kitchen would play some practical joke with our food. When we walked into the empty dining room at 1:00 PM,. I assumed that since Italians often breeze in as late as two o’clock just for one course, we would have some company. It never happened. Yet instead of worrying if we were being unintentionally mean-spirited, we felt powerfully important, particularly when we learned we had 18 people at work for us, 15 of whom were in the kitchen. First, however, we had to win over the three waiters who had the bad luck of having to work that afternoon. At first they were standoffish and not forthcoming in helping us decide what to order. The maitre d’hotel, when I asked what he thought were the best dishes, replied, “They’re all equally good.” When I answered back, “Every great chef makes some dishes that are better than others”, he began to take us seriously. Together, then, we hammered out our a la carte order.

Are there any instances when a flawed meal can play on your mind with the same intensity as a perfect meal? I had always reserved in my mind that the best restaurant visits I had were those in which every dish we tasted was sober and balanced in conception and whose flavor danced in your mouth. External circumstanced surely played a part to make our lunch at Vissani one of our great restaurant excursions, even though every dish was not on the money. That we were celebrating my wife’s birthday may have made us want to like the food more, while having the restaurant to ourselves imbued the occasion with an unanticipated sense of being the lord of the manor.

Every diner knows the old corollary of “if the bread is great, so is apt to be the food.” The best grissini we have ever had now belongs to Vissani. These semolina ones were joined by tiny rolls of zucchini and eggplant, not just with pieces of the vegetable stuck in, but infused with flavor. At various times during lunch our waiters brought other bread that was equally delicious. On our tour of the kitchen we lingered at the bread station where our waiter told us that the pastry and bread chefs baked all the bread a la minute.

Almost never, if ever, have I had a meal in a great restaurant where the dish that I longed for most was what a woman from New York on our Venice hotel’s vaporetto shuttle called “free food”, otherwise known as the amuse-gueule. ( "I liked all the free food we got at the beginning of our dinner” was how she put it). Yet a small rouget from off Sardinia in a cucumber sauce with a baby scallion was a coming-together of flavors that reached every part of our palates.

A soft spot in the meal was a risotto with morels. On the other hand, our other first course of gamberi rossi with small slices of squab, carrots, leek, and fennel covered with black truffle was terrific. The gamberi were so fresh, they seemed to disappear in our mouths. Another melt-in-your-mouth dish was the faraona or guinea hen in a balsamico sauce with green peppercorns and a radicchio soufflé accompanied by two bon-bon wrapper pieces of pasta filled with beet. Our free-range venison with pea pods and a Sicilian herb called “baie” that came with morels and soft polenta was in keeping with the succulence of the other masterly dishes.

Whether it was the luck of the draw or a chronic weakness of the restaurant, our desserts, which we took in the large, airy salon that faced the lake, were without much interest. All I can recall, as we were probably too far gone with the help of our 1990 Ciacci Brunello di Montalcino, was one dessert made with a rice ball that sounded much more interesting than what it tasted as, but marvelous gelato that came with each dessert. We then had a guided tour of the kitchen, which is one of the better-equipped ones I have visited. The gelato section particularly caught my interest since, as are the breads, the ice cream is made to order. Before we left we spent a few minutes surveying the array of products that Vissani has for sale. Our maitre d’hotel gave us what turned out to be delicious confitures.

We intend for our names to be in the reservations book before next summer is out. I can’t, of course, know if the next meal will be magical as this one was. One aspect that surely won’t change is the feeling of dining at the top echelon regardless of the country. While my wife and I were acutely aware of the lapses in taste of the interior design and accoutrements and accessories, we felt Ristorante Vissani to be a privileged place. For foreign tourists Vissani has the disadvantage of being a long drive from Rome and Florence. But the Cathedral in Orvieto is spectacular, and given its opulent façade and richness in major works of art, is one of the more memorable in Europe. Coupled with a visit to Vissani, it could well be worth spending one less day just about anywhere else.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Note: As the fourth installment of my eating trip in Italy this summer, I didn't intend to devote an entire post to Ristorante Vissani, but rather, as the first paragraph below states, a summary of the five fancy restaurants I went to (six if you count Al Bersagliere, which I have already described). However, I couldn't stop writing about Vissani and am happy to join forces with Francesco to give detailed coverage to this great institution of Italian gastronomy.

One of my big unrealized fears prior to our meal was eating in a world-famous restaurant with only my wife. I would imagine that the entire front of the house would be annoyed at us for depriving them of an unanticipated afternoon off and that the cooks in the kitchen would play some practical joke with our food. When we walked into the empty dining room at 1:00 PM,. I assumed that since Italians often breeze in as late as two o’clock just for one course, we would have some company. It never happened. Yet instead of worrying if we were being unintentionally mean-spirited, we felt powerfully important, particularly when we learned we had 18 people at work for us, 15 of whom were in the kitchen.

It seems you had the "standard" Vissani experience of being in the dining room all by yourself while apparently I stumbled in one of those very rare occasions where the restaurant was full. I guess nobody would expect that being alone in a dining room could be anything less than unpleasant but I have read many other reviews that share your positive experience with the staff in such circumstances.

For foreign tourists Vissani has the disadvantage of being a long drive from Rome and Florence. But the Cathedral in Orvieto is spectacular, and given its opulent façade and richness in major works of art, is one of the more memorable in Europe. Coupled with a visit to Vissani, it could well be worth spending one less day just about anywhere else.

Indeed this is exactly how we did it. I can also hardly think of a day better spent than on a visit to Orvieto followed by dinner at Vissani.

I am really glad you liked it. The man is clearly mad at running a restaurant in that business environment which forces him to partecipate in TV programs about which the less said the better so I can't help but have some sympathy for him.

Francesco

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Nice report Robert, Vissani remains one place in Italy on my radar screen that eluded me so far.

I wonder, however, if he can sustain this level of excellence with so few clients. How can he offer fresh seafood dishes without turnover?

I was intrigued that he had black truffle on the gamberi rossi dish in August.

Was it frozen? I rather have summer truffle.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Since none of us who have reported on the restaurant took pictures of the place or the food, let me point to an Italian blog where there is a report of a visit to the restaurant with some pictures.

vissani pictures

Francesco

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Sign in to follow this  

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...