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Bob's Trip to Italy: Camogli to Viareggio


robert brown
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Having devoted more time than is prudent to reporting on my culinary exploits in Italy, here is a succinct round-up of the restaurants I have yet to mention presented in the order I visited them:

La Cucina di Nonna Nina. Between Genova and Portofino, and close by to Rapollo, sits Camogli, a brightly-painted vacation town on the sea. Nonna Nina is east of the town in a residential area. Dining there in summer is a bit like being in someone’s backyard, but the family that owns it is friendly and cares about fresh seafood simply prepared. We had delicious marinated fish and a mixed grill of fish that were both very good. The restaurant is in "Gambero Rosso", which substantiates my feeling that the food at this restaurant is better than that at amazingly-sited Ristorante Rosa, which sits on a cliff overlooking the town and the Mediterranean coast.

Le Calandre.In his little food village, Massimiliano Alajmo is everywhere you look. If he isn’t in the kitchen prepping meals or circulating in the dining room during the service, he is holding forth in the combination bar-shop-casual restaurant that adjoins the kitchen. Le Calandre is neither in the center of Padova nor in the countryside, but solidly in the urban sprawl just west of the city. Here the Alajmo’s have built a small, modern food empire that also includes a food shop with a good selection of salumi, cheese and wine, and a serviceable hotel that offers breakfasts so bad that you wonder if the family really owns the place. Better to go next door to where Massimiliano hangs out and have a coffee and pastry to get you started to your next destination.

Bowled over as we were by Alajmo’s saffron rice with specks of licorice that was one of the two or three best dishes of our trip, my wife and I nonetheless did not quite share the unbridled enthusiasm of Le Calandre that some of our friends have. A house specialty of cappuccino of black squid was not really a cappuccino in the sense of being foamy like Alain Chapel’s cappuccino of mushroom soup, but tasty nonetheless. The highly-touted pigeon was a good example of the breed, but the dark sauce was short on flavor and richness, and the puree of potatoes was standard issue. The other savory dishes and desserts are gone with the wind. But don’t get me wrong: Le Calandre is rock solid and worth repeated visits. The cuisine is one of near-brilliant-to-brilliant execution. Alajimo’s time spent with Michel Guerard is apparent in the polish and lightness you see and taste in every dish. I imagine that this accounts for much of the reason Michelin gives Le Calandre its highest rating.

Hotel Tosca Romagna/Ristorante Paolo Teverini. If there is one downside to family succession (and at the Hotel Tosca Romagan is has been going on for a staggering 525 years), it’s that the next generation doesn’t produce a chef truly born to the profession. It’s not that Paolo Teverini is technically lacking. It’s just that he, like the hotel property itself, lacks the requisite taste.

Located in the charming, sleepy spa town of Bagno di Romagna, Hotel Tosco Romagna, complete with a full spa, is the best address around. However, the town is bourgeois to the core (except for some of the clients in Teverini’s restaurant) with the people who come for the waters being mainly old-age pensioners unlike the spa at Saturnia that attracts significantly younger clients. “Bad Missoni” covered the corridors and bedroom walls of the Tosca Romagna and the dining room was a hodgepodge of retro Art Deco and tasteless murals.

Teverini’s cuisine was that of a chef who never left his hometown and couldn’t quite figure out what worked with what. Our dinner, however, got off on the right foot with a relatively simple and refreshing carpaccio of melon with balsamic vinegar. Spider crab with cous-cous, a tapenade, balsamico on the side, a gelatin of red onion and a dried beet on top made for an overly-fussy and salty dish. A risotto of tripe was foamy and eggy , but not at all creamy. It had a sliver of dried tripe stuck in the top and a foamy saffron sauce. The meal carried on in this overworked vein, more or less, with quite tasty river shrimps and radish sprouts served with homemade cavallini pasta; then veal cheeks with a thin slice of air-dried cheek as a little show of avant-gardism, and bergamot orange, which is a delicious aromatic citrus of Southern Italy.I had hoped to add sobriety to the meal by ordering a filet of Chianina beef. I didn’t find the meat itself of very high quality, but it was mildly helped along with an onion and red wine sauce joined by mushrooms and carrots in a candied, but not soft, bitter orange sauce. Desserts are a distant memory and were apparently not worth noting.

There are a couple of positive aspects to our two-night stay worth noting. First is the sweetness and caring of Paolo Teverini and his wife. We would return to the hotel or finish dinner late at night and Sr. Teverini was at the front desk doing some paperwork and bidding his clients a good night. His wife reassembled a breakfast buffet that the staff had half removed by the time we arrived from upstairs. And what terrific breakfasts they have there. The buffet is copious and fresh. Beside a chef making omelets, the Teverini’s had what for us were two all-time firsts: One was a freezer containing a few flavors of gelati, including one of the best chocolate flavored ones I have ever had, and an automatic orange squeezer so that there would be no question that you would be drinking what the term "fresh squeezed orange juice" is suppose to mean.

If I have made Bagno di Romagna sound like a town not to bother with, there’s an establishment just down the road in St. Piero in Bagno that will make you think twice, Locanda al Gambero Rosso. It was the one-two punch of full page coverage of Teverini and this Gambero Rosso in the "Ristorante d’Italia del Gambero Rosso" that brought us to this lightly-visited region. Teverini received its full page by being one of 20 Tre Forchetti restaurants in the entire country and Locanda al Gambero Rosso one of eleven to receiver the guide’s Tre Gamberi rating, given to the most outstanding trattorias.

How grateful we are to Gambero Rosso: the guide, the restaurant, the mollusk. It’s what made our two-day layover in Bagno di Romagno worth the voyage. The restaurant , along with Vissani and della Marisa, won our award for most memorable of our trip, not because it had the breath-taking food like Vissani or that it was the most serendipitous and unexpected as was della Marisa, but because it was so endearing and honest. I don’t think we have ever felt genuinely more embraced on a first visit to a restaurant. Put a little alcohol in the mix, and Gambero Rosso could bring tears to your eyes.

This is a rather small restaurant tucked in on a narrowish mixed use street.. There is nothing ostentatious or in bad taste about it, given its white walls and original photographs documenting the early days of the restaurant. Gambero Rosso is into its third generation with founding “mama” and the mother of chef Giuliana Saragoni still with us at age 92. Giuliana’s husband is in charge of the dining room and their daughter, her boy friend and a Japanese stagiere also looks after the clientele. The Locanda is one of the rare establishments that if you evince curiosity about the cuisine and the staff, the world is your oyster. Aware that our neighbors were a young American and her Italian boyfriend from the area, both of whom teach Italian at UCLA, Giuliana’s husband asked the woman to explain the five Romagnian dishes we were going to be served : tortelli sulla lastra (stuffed large tortellini made on a slab); bassotti ( a thin egg pasta); manfrigoli (a pasta in broth with polenta and chickpeas); migliaccio di grano ( a quiche-like dish made with corn flour, olive oil, grated pecorino and formaggio di Fossa, the local cow’s milk cheese); and lattaiolo, a rustic tart made from eggs, flour, milk, butter, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. This was hearty food and, as our Italian neighbor told us, not spicy like some of the food in the Emiglia part of the region. Having never been before to this part of Italy, we greatly enjoyed what were classic dishes that were entirely new to us. The cooking here is flawless, homey, and delicious. It therefore came as no surprise that Locanda al Gamero Rosso is one of the most revered informal restaurants of Italy.

We lingered after our meal, talking to Giuliana and her family about the restaurant and having everyone explain some of the cuisine of the region. Seeing how hard they were trying to find the right English words for preparations and ingredients, I made them a present of my copy of Maureen Fant’s “Dictionary of Italian Cuisine” which they then asked me to write a dedication on the flyleaf. With a promise to return soon, we gave our farewells and, especially having left something to be remembered by, look forward to returning to as a friend of the house..

Southern Tuscany’s pair of two-star restaurants weren’t much better than holding a pair of deuces. Ristorante da Caino in the village of Montemorano, about 40 miles SW of Grosetto is good at serving up arrogance and disdain which I associate more with a big-city restaurant than a charming stone house in a small, quaint village. We smelled trouble when the Andrea Piccini, husband of chef Valeria Piccini seated us in what is commonly known as “the American room” which was out of the sight of the Italians who occupied the other small dining salon. We didn’t avail ourselves of any opportunity to talk to the four people to my left, a gay couple and a married couple from Nevada, brokers all, enjoying the fruits of the real estate boom. They even order a 350 euro Gaja Barberesco, while we had to be content with a 1990 Ciacci Brunello di Montalcino at a mere 150 euros.

I have devoted some thought to the American room, having experienced it many times, especially at Restaurant Girardet in Switzerland where, in my six or seven visits, I never saw what the second dining room looked like. These situations are different from the occasions when you are having breakfast in a luxury hotel in Paris or Venice and complaining about “all the Americans” when you yourself are part of the very phenomenon you are inveighing against. Apparently the restaurateurs who herd Americans together are either engaging in a form of discrimination by shielding the natives from what the restaurant owner imagines to be abhorrent or ostentatious behavior, or they somehow think that Americans want to dine with other Americans, as if that is what they traveled thousands of miles at great expense in order to visit a foreign country. Close your eyes in one of these rooms only if you’re homesick.

Judging by the cuisine at da Caino, the target clientele must be people staying at the Hotel Terme di Saturnia or in Porto Ercole. Valeria Piccini’s cooking is fussy, overly-inventive and not very appealing to taste. We have an innate dislike for dishes whose components are laid out in strips across the plate or otherwise more separated than they have to be. There was some of that going on with our dinner with the result that a few dishes were both good and forgettable at the same time!!! The best was a little round “cake” appetizer with layers of roasted eggplant, tomato, sweetbreads, brains and formaggio di Fasso that was roasty and deep-flavored. Ravioli filled with liquid capers, fresh tomato sauce and olive oil was just so-so, while snails served on a toothpick with caramelized red onions and lackluster pureed potatoes, but a marvelous puree of green vegetables was overly played with, but pleasant. Our two main courses were ingredient-heavy. Rounds of lamb came with another puree of green vegetables, but with orange peels included; a sauce made from the skin of eggplant; small green peppers stuffed with tiny cubes of red and green pepper; potato puree; and cubes of something that reminded my wife of Junket. My roasted rabbit with its liver also included red peppers, spring onion, olives, sun-dried tomatoes , and an olive sauce, most of which were painted across the plate. We lack notes on the desserts, none of which ended up in the memory bank.

We finished our visit in da Caino’s dispensary where we bought some of their good olive oil and a few jars of confitures. Here we settled the bill with Andrea who, casting his eyes on the euro notes I was about to give him, smiled at us for the first time all evening.

Gambero Rosso. “I though my meal was as good as the one we had at Robuchon” I said to my wife after our lunch at Gambero Rosso, located in San Vicenzo on the Tuscan coast about 45 minutes north of Grosseto. It’s too bad that this was the summer of 1996 when Robuchon was just a few months from closing his magnificent and revered Michelin three-star restaurant and the cuisine at Gambero Rosso provided us a meal as great as any we had ever had in Italy. Not so this summer, however. In what was the biggest disappointment of our trip, Gambero Rosso went from first to almost worst for reasons that one can only guess at. We would like to think that it was because we went for dinner this time when the small restaurant was filled; or, like the Sultan of Dining believes, chef Fulvio Pierangelini cooks meat better than fish. That may be right since nine years ago I had a remarkable pigeon dish that Pierangelini had arranged in a circle. We think, though, that like so many other formerly great and fallen restaurants, the perceived decline is a result of belt-tightening with perhaps a case burnt out added in.

My wife has never forgotten Gambero Rosso’s twenty-five year old signature dish of shrimps on a bed of chickpea puree made with massancole, a large shrimp found off the Mediterranean coast around Capri. If there is such as a combination of comfort food and luxury, this is it.

Because it sounded intriguing and fun, I ordered a “sandwich” of raw sea bass that wasn’t anything like a sandwich. Instead it was an agglomeration of a piece of sea bass; its liver; artichoke; and salad greens which tasted as desultory as it all looked. Better were green and white raviolis filled with fish with a kind of vol-au-vent sauce with little pieces of baby octopus. The two main courses were both significant disappointments. My wife ordered a filet of Saint Pierre with olives and peppers and, inexplicably thin slices of foie gras. The fish was dry and overcooked, and when my wife asked the chef’s son who works when needed in the dining room what the reason was for adding the foie gras, he shrugged and said he didn’t know. My fish, a filet of sea bream (dentici) with balsamic vinegar, olive and egg plant was only slightly less banal. My wife noted her dessert as a fried crepe with “silly watermelon sorbet”. I had fried dough that had inside sweet bean paste and red pepper ice cream.

With Fulvio Pierangelini and his wife standing next to the entrance of their restaurant, it would have been awkward to leave without talking to them. So we reminisced about our first visit to Gambero Rosso and asked what their son did, which turned out to be making olive oil and raising pigs. We tried not to mask our disappointment, let alone mention it. They are sweet people which only added to our gastronomic heartbreak. When you feel this way about the single highest rating in a serious guidebook (Gambero Rosso is at the top of its guidebook namesake with a rating of 96), you begin to wonder both about the degree of objectivity or competence of the guide and the accuracy of your own culinary judgment. Our meal may have been an aberration, but it would have had to have been a severe one. All that remained of the most disheartening day of our trip was the 45-minute drive back to the wildly overpriced hotel called the Gallicia Palace in Italy’s biggest disaster area, Punta Ala where condos, golf courses and marinas make it the country’s Pebble Beach for the haute bourgeoisie. We bailed out two days early and spent it up the coast in Lido di Camaiore where we lucked into a gem of an old, stylish hotel named Villa Ariston, and ate terrific seafood in Viareggio before taking the car ferry from Livorno to Bastia on the Island of Corsica.

(Note: With a couple of exceptions, I did not cover several wonderful small, informal restaurants that the "Osteri d’Italia" guide recommends. I hope to write about them in the next several weeks).

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Robert, we went to Locanda Gambero Rosso and had a lovely meal and a lovely time. As we were travelling around (coming from Stia across that spectacular mountain pass!) we even stayed at the Locanda over night.

We had the tasting menu, and everything was fresh and delicious....if a bit too 'bread-centered'. Panzanella to start...some sort of papa pomodoro, etc. Next time, we will order off the menu. The porcini mushrooms at the next table looked just about perfect, we were seriously about to ask him for just a little taste. And the entire staff and family simply could not be more pleasant and welcoming. By the time we left in the morning, I had an invitation to come and work in the kitchen for a week if I wanted. Now, that's a good invitation, don't you think?

By the way...they love you and your wife!! :biggrin:

thanks for the recommendation.

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Hathor, I'm happy you had a wonderful stay. That they invited you for a stage is another mainifestation of the love that pervades the house. My wife and I love them too, and thank you for relaying their sentiments. I am curious to know how the rooms are. You are so fortunate to live near by.

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  • 1 month later...

I told Robert some time ago that his wonderful post had encouraged me to organize my thoughts on the restaurants we visited this May in Italy and Spain. Indeed, several posts reflecting our trip along with the response to Robert were initiated, but never finished, perhaps due not so much to time constraints, which did play a significant role, as to my curiosity about whether a valid comparison could be made between the Italian restaurants and any of the starred restaurants in France and Switzerland we were about to visit. Almost two months and 29 stars later I’m back to finish this post.

That a restaurant doesn’t reflect “terroir” is not enough for me not to make a pilgrimage to it, since the chef’s talent and individuality may otherwise be expressed quite clearly. Enoteca Pinchiorri loses points not for its lack of Italian authenticity, for instance, but for a lack of aspiration, its safe mode to preserve high Michelin status, while being deficient in everything that the classical ideal of the French-influenced style suggests – the clearness, simplicity, grandeur, order, philosophical calm – offering instead satisfactory but hardly memorable fare, good but hardly exceptional ingredients (except for excellent cheeses), the cuisine somewhat austere and “starved,” served in a stiff manner to mostly apathetic patrons.

Annie Féolde is no longer in the kitchen, having given the reins to Italo Bassi and Riccardo Monco, and relegated mostly to handling public relations and business sides of the restaurant. I was actually curious about the meal, having learned that Monco worked with Senderens at Lucas Carton. Hence, lobster (spiny lobster) with vanilla didn’t come as a surprise, though the dish overall wasn’t successful.

Trout with parsley sauce, onion rings and caviar was a dish that attracted my attention. Since the caviar was not described on the menu, I naturally asked our waiter for details. “It’s black caviar, madam,” was the answer. Unsatisfied, I sent the waiter to the kitchen to find out whether the caviar was sevruga, osetra or beluga, the names he diligently wrote down. By the time the waiter returned with the answer, we were already in the middle of consuming this dish. “It is Russian osetra,” he declared. I could not repress my sincere surprise, since it was undoubtedly sevruga, besides, Russian caviar most of the time contains borax, which makes it taste somewhat sweeter and rounder – a flavor not welcomed by many contemporary chefs, who use caviar as adornment in the dish, but welcomed by those placing it at the center – characteristics, not present in the version we were served, therefore implying its Iranian origin. “I’m sorry, but I believe it is Iranian sevruga,” I responded with a profound certainty.

Our waiter, having an engaging personality, had trouble hiding his strong feelings of dissatisfaction behind the curtain of a condescending smile. “No, no, no. I asked the chef, and he told me it was Russian osetra!” the waiter raised his voice. It was not that he was unhappy with the position of returning to the kitchen for clarification from the chef, who might well be justly incensed at being deprived of his working concentration because of one inquisitive customer, but that he seemed to have taken my objections as a personal offense. “No, sir, I can assure you that this caviar is sevruga and likely Iranian,” I persisted. Apparently the thought that I was biting the hand that fed us, and not purely figuratively, raced through my husband’s mind. He cleared his throat while gently attacking my leg under the table, as if pointing out that things had begun to heat up. I becalmed myself, mumbling that it was not really important…but suddenly turned around and reiterated that, still, I strongly believed that the caviar was Iranian sevruga.

The waiter left, hardly maintaining his composure, and a minute later, Alessandro Tomberli, the General Manager appeared in front of our table holding a jar with caviar and a plastic spoon. “There appeared to be a misunderstanding,” he said. “The caviar is Iranian sevruga. Would you like an extra spoonful?”

Based on the waiter’s reaction, he did seem to be misinformed by the chef; therefore, what troubles me is the possibility that the kitchen may have been unaware of the product served to the customers.

A chef whose energies are directed toward creating within the bounds of tradition at all costs, on the other hand, while attempting to blow life into still dishes by adorning them with contemporary technical twists, instead of modernizing tradition itself, creates intellectually justified, but inconsistently coherent cuisine, succumbing to academic temptation as at La Pergola. It’s a shame really, since Beck is committed to using the best local ingredients: fish comes from either Anzio, the coast 40 km South of Rome, or another town on the Mediterranean, Fiumicino. The quality of Iranian sevruga caviar in a zucchini flower and the eloquence of its integration with other elements in the dish were exceptional and prompted my complimenting Beck at the end of our dinner. “If the chef understands caviar, he’ll never use it as a simple garnish,” he said.

Yet, the two best dishes of our meal were Beck’s aforementioned signature deep-fried zucchini flower with caviar and shellfish/saffron consommé; and mille feuille of veal, avocado and tomato in a spinach wrap – dishes not only considerably better than the rest, but also significantly differing in style – both created in 2001! The veal dish appeared on the menu impromptu (a delivery of certain ingredients came in an unsatisfactory condition which forced Beck to improvise, recreating a “golden oldie” – and was supposed to be taken off the menu the next day. The same fate or significant modifications awaited the zucchini dish as well. None of the newer creations achieved the same rhythmic design or fused into such overwhelming esthetic power through gifted, personal and daring use of means of his own invention.

At least on this one visit, we had the impression that Beck renovated dishes through adding external and incongruous surprise elements, instead of searching for a deeper essence of the Italian “new cuisine” through opening doors to other “worlds.” “I don’t care what’s happening in Spain, France or anywhere else. My diners are Italians and so is my cuisine,” said Beck. He also denied any influence of his own German heritage. It was sad to see a great talent to disintegrate in the pursuit of modernity through isolated regionalism, especially considering Beck’s integrity, which becomes even more apparent in comparison to three-star chefs who settle for inferior products in clear conscience when better ones become unavailable, as did Benno/Keller at Per Se, replacing Iranian caviar with American because Iranian became too expensive, or Regis Marcon of Clos des Cimes , who, because his shipment didn’t arrive, replaced coquille Saint Jacque with North American scallops (I had to travel all that way…), the quality of which was not comparable with the day-boat scallops (size 10-20) from North Carolina I got at the end of the season from the Wegmans supermarket in New Jersey.

The point is, however, that when a restaurant aspires to tradition and the spirit of its land, but at the same time goes through the frankest possible acceptance of every requirement of modern taste without regret of the past or idle longing for the future, moving from “homogeneity to heterogeneity” in technique, while preserving the sense of traditional unity – such a restaurant becomes significant despite some significant criticisms it can incur.

I think Le Calandre’s Alajmo is one of not many who have managed to break away from Italian isolationism, and have transformed local tastes into the model of contemporary aesthetics, but without the elimination of identifiable folklore. We can only hope that one man’s tempo will become a part of the orchestration of several, and the effects of these several will assume the character of a movement. However, on a global scale, the meal we had at Le Calandre was far from a three-star performance despite our having a wonderful time at the restaurant, mostly due to the warm hospitality of both Raffaele, Massimiliano’s brother who handles the front of the house, and Massimiliano himself.

The squid cappuccino(Cappuccino di seppie al nero) that Robert mentioned, layered with black squid ink and off-white potato mousse (more of a mashed potato consistency) combined with roughly chopped squid, was served in a transparent glass cup. “Don’t mix the content of the glass. Just scoop it from the bottom up in one strike,” we were instructed by Raffaele. The overcooked and rubbery strips of the squid, the overall strong flavors and the dense consistency of the potato mousse seemed to rob the dish of its potential, despite its cleverness: an interesting marriage of ingredients, which nevertheless failed to create an organic ensemble, lacking both an expected delicacy and balanced tension, perhaps partially due to the faulty execution.

The famous squab, from Sante Marcantoni, a farmer who believes that playing classical music to his birds improves their texture, (“Personally, I like jazz,” said Massimiliano, when placing this dish on our table), had an intensely gamy flavor, yet the tender characteristics of the flesh were expressive. Raffaele noted that in France, squabs are hung for several days to soften their flesh before chefs can use them, whereas at Le Calandre, birds, delivered daily, are ready to be cooked right away. (I wonder whether Raffaele was comparing squab to pigeon, whose meat is indeed considerably tougher.)

The squab’s breast and liver were quickly sautéed; the legs were stuffed(?) with black summer truffles (tuber aestivum) and braised for eight hours; a little bit of jus with a summer truffle scent (not truffle oil), balsamic vinegar, light pear purée and sautéed bitter chicory for contrast seemed to be a more interesting combination than what Robert was served. Yet, the execution wasn’t perfect. The gamy flavor of the bird was too concentrated, probably intensified by the cooking process, which rendered both the breast and liver slightly overcooked, and overall not comparable to the most incredible 3-month-old pigeon (the dish for two) we had at Pont de Brent. Rabaey managed to achieve such individual perfection in rendering pigeon (breast, liver, leg and wing) each part cooked to reveal its unique characteristics, that had I not seen the whole bird carved in front of me (Rabaey cooks the pigeon whole, first sautéing it quickly on the sides and then roasting it for 12 minutes), I would never have believed the pigeon was cooked whole rather than each part of it individually, using different techniques.

Alajmo’s signature risotto (Risotto allo zafferano con polvere di liquirizia), on the other hand, was truly magnificent. Not that it was somehow dramatically altered from its basic version: it was still a perfect example of the most significant tradition. The combination of subtle elements placed upon a relatively rustic background, handled with equal skill and originality, produced the effect of quiet conviction, elevating this simple dish to a higher dimension of haute cuisine. With saffron and subtly sweet and bitter licorice, life seemed to have been breathed into the traditional risotto all over again.

Interestingly, risotto is accorded such inexplicable reverence in Venice and its environs that even the slightest interest in its preparation will provoke the most animated enthusiasm in nearly every eatery. I remember how Claúdio, a waiter at Fiaschetteria Toscana, who’s been with the restaurant almost since its inception in 1954(?), took great pleasure in describing the risotto with clams (risotto di bruscandoli) we ordered: how it was cooked with fish stock made from native gobies from the Lagoon, how much he despised those who added butter and cheese to seafood risotto, which should be flavored only with olive oil, and of course the importance of the quality of the rice (they use Acquerello carnaroli organic rice aged for three years). (By the way, if visiting Venice in the Spring, it is worthwhile to stop by Fiaschetteria Toscana for very good deep-fried molecche [tiny soft-shell crabs native of the Lagoon], excellent baby artichokes (castraure alla veneta) braised in olive oil, white wine and garlic, and their delightful signature tiramisu, made by Mariuccia Busatto, the wife of the owner Albino Busatto.)

There was the same passion about risotto at Le Calandre. Raffaele took us to the kitchen to watch the whole process of making risotto from scratch. “Rice is important. Every region uses its own grain, and Massi (a nickname Raffaele uses for his brother) chooses rice every year. This year, he’s cooking with Fiocca Marlo carnaroli.” “What makes every grain distinct in good risotto,” he continues, “is the process of initial toasting of dry rice in a saucepan until it swells and starts making little crackling noises.” The next step is adding dry white wine, which is absorbed instantaneously, and then home-made light chicken stock (kept alongside the risotto pan just below the simmering point on a separate burner) a little at a time to prevent the rice from being stewed. The consistency for which each chef strives in his risotto is called all’onda, which perfectly describes the dense, yet floating mass with individual grains tender, but still maintaining a slight bite in the center. Indian saffron, which Alajmo gets, ironically, from Spain, and which he thinks is the second best after the Spanish one, turns the rice a yellowish color, infusing it with a spectacular aroma. Parmesan cheese, butter and a sprinkle of licorice powder complete the dish. “It’s all about good grain and cooking technique,” said Raffaele. Could it be about anything else?

Edited by lxt (log)
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Robert, thank you for your kind words.

I wish I would’ve been able to share my thoughts with you on all the restaurants you mentioned in your post, but I’m grateful for your diligence :smile: in setting the route for my future gastronomic adventures.

You mentioned in your post that Le Calandre has its own store, which I regret we didn’t visit. To quote you, “Massimiliano Alajmo is everywhere you look” indeed, not only in regard to organizing his kitchen, the front of the house, designing his own, sometimes eccentric tableware (a large amphora-like wine glass comes to mind), but he also produces his own olive oil, which, along with Cormòns (Friuli) ham, can be found in the store, and to which I took a great liking. Actually, Alajmo offers two types of extra virgin olive oils in the restaurant: from rossa olives, a light oil he uses for cooking and from oro olives, a stronger oil he serves with bread. It is the light olive oil that I found interesting; its gentle flavor infused with tomato aroma was a treat. A similar oil, flavor-wise, was served at La Pergola, but Alajmo’s version was more pleasing.

It’s interesting that you mentioned breakfast. In France, staying at a hotel owned by the chef has a tremendous advantage, that is, breakfast. In fact, if anyone ever doubted that breakfast can have a conceptual autonomy and be looked upon as a serious meal, staying at Troisgros and Clos des Cimes (I thought the breakfast at the latter was better than our dinner the day before) may prove otherwise. I’m sorry to hear Alajmo paid such little respect to the first meal of the day, though I wonder whether it is cultural, that is, because breakfast is not considered to be a serious meal in Italy.

Edited by lxt (log)
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Thanks for a fantastic report lxt. Some quick comments, questions:

1.I think even those who disagree on other things (such as you and I with respect to El Bulli. I wrote a long and quite negative report), seem to agree that Enoteca Pinchiorri is one place to skip. I still have not heard any positive remark about its cuisine from somebody I trust.

2. I have recently written a report on La Pergola and I may have liked it more than you. I would like to understand more what you mean by 2 of the phrases: "attempting to blow life into still dishes by adorning them with contemporary technical twists, instead of modernizing tradition itself" and "inconsistently coherent cuisine". I am also curious as to how you found out about the year the dishes were created. It is not on the menu.

3. I have eaten at Le Calandre 3 times and last one was the least satisfactory. I like the squab(is not squab a baby pegeon?) but the first 2 times the preparation was more interesting and all pieces were cooked to perfection. Yours and Robert's comments suggest that my last experience was not an aberration and perhaps Le Calandre was better when it had 2 stars and before the expansion project.

4. I am very curious about your Switzerland notes. Some of my favorite places are located there: Pont de Brent, Rochat and Chateauvieux. The last one delivered us 3 superb meals but the last one was not on par--perhaps reflecting the influence of MG on a chef whose talent and looks prove otherwise. Rochat has always been a standard bearer, other than for a brief period after the tragic death of Madame Rochat in a ski accident. Rabaey is a great chef in the modernized tradition type of the way. His preparations for two, be it squab or lamb shoulder or pork are always 3 star+. The only problem is that service was suffering after the departure of their maitre d' Julius. I hope they recovered the lost ground.

Your further reports are eagerly awaited! By the way your caviar story and hubby kicking under the table is the most amusing story of the year so far!

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Thanks for a fantastic report lxt.  Some quick comments, questions:

I think even those who disagree on other things (such as you and I with respect to El Bulli. I wrote a long and quite negative report), seem to agree that Enoteca Pinchiorri is one place to skip. I still have not heard any positive remark about its cuisine from somebody I trust.

Vedat,

for what it's worth, here are some positive comments about Pinchiorri. I have been twice to Pinchiorri and liked it a lot both times (the last one about 3-4 years ago, though). Incidentally, as you say, I have yet to find something positive said about it in a English-speaking forum and yet they seem to have a very international clientele and are one of the few high-end Italian restaurants that seem to have no problems in getting reservations (yes, it is in Florence, but still...).

Anyway, I always found high prices, high quality service and very good food. I don't think that it matters very much that Annie Feolde no longer cooks, for some time they had Franck Cerutti heading the kitchen and he doesn't seem to be doing too badly at Louis XV. Also, I find the cuisine much more "italian" than people are willing to give it credit for.

In the end I understand I am in a minority here and certainly accept that if some many discerning people have found it lacking then at the very least the place is volatile in its ability to deliver. Nevertheless, I still think it can deliver a very high quality experience.

I am very curious about your Switzerland notes.  Some of my favorite places are located there: Pont de Brent, Rochat and Chateauvieux. The last one delivered us 3 superb meals but the last one was not on par--perhaps reflecting the influence of MG on a chef whose talent and looks prove otherwise. Rochat has always been a standard bearer, other than for a brief period after the tragic death of Madame Rochat in a ski accident. Rabaey is a great chef in the modernized tradition type of the way. His preparations for two, be it squab or lamb shoulder or pork are always 3 star+. The only problem is that service was suffering after the departure of their maitre d' Julius. I hope they recovered the lost ground.

I certainly agree on Rochat and have never been at Chateauvieux but my one experience at Rabey was a nightmare. We went in the middle of summer and the restaurant was literally assaulted by flies. I remember us spending the whole time trying to get flies away from the food with barely an acknowledgement of the problem by the staff. I finally asked them to move us from our table and was told that it wouldn't have mattered because there were flies everywhere anyway.

The food certainly wasn't bad but I remember not being blown away. I also remember choosing the surprise tasting menu and being served three different terrine dish one after the other including their amuse bouche. Now, if the menu has already two terrines, why give me more?

Anyway, I am sure that the flies problem would have made the meal a nightmare even with the best cuisine in the world but it's a place that I certainly won't be able to persuade my wife to go to again.

I remember the maitre'd spoke some Italian and was from somewhere in Eastern Europe, would that have been the one you're referring to?

Francesco

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Vedat, I’m glad you found my story entertaining. David (my “hubby”), generally takes the position of a patient observer during our meals, coming to the rescue at the last moment when necessary. The only time he insisted that I should temper my resentment with a modicum of reserve and manners, or in primitive terms, stop making faces, was at Veyrat, without realizing, however (since apparently he, like you, also “ha more tolerance for acidity”), that those facial expressions were not intentional but rather natural muscle spasms upon ingesting an exceedingly acidic, bright-green lemongrass sauce on top of magnificent sea bass that was floating in cloyingly sweet melted white chocolate. I, personally, found Veyrat’s cuisine not just unappealing but rather revolting, and I’m sad to see Michelin encouraging the madness of the chef in a clown’s attire. Ironically, driving away from Annecy toward Roanne, I turned on the radio and a passionate voice pierced our ears with Leoncavallo’s heartrending “Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infranto!…” only in French.

Vedat, somehow I had no doubt you’d take me up on those exact words regarding La Pergola, but first let me cover several other points before undertaking the more labor-intensive task of defending my position.

1. a) I see. I read your fine report on El Bulli with great interest. The approach I apply to categorizing and assessing a cuisine should’ve predisposed me toward disliking El Bulli as you did, yet I did not, and only upon reading your report did I understand why. In other words, I noticed that our reactions to the same dishes were identical, but that it was our general conclusions that differed. If I’m able to present a contrary viewpoint, the purpose of which will not be to persuade you otherwise, but, on a larger scale, to defend Adria’s avant-garde developments as being other than coercively and mesmerizingly superficial, if I can justify that Adria’s cuisine is not a mere ensemble of teasingly fused dynamics of “high-art” production and mass-culture consumption or that his approach to some ingredients (or rather their lack) can be considered other than flamboyantly vulgar, I’ll be satisfied. I’ll try to get to it soon.

b) In light of Francesco’s post regarding Pinchiorri, let me add a couple of thoughts. To say that the cuisine at Pinchiorri is dull, drab and seems unable to attain harmonious combinations would not be fully accurate. There is enough delicacy and even grace; however, it lacks spark and rarely has a continuous, sharp or incisive effect from the conceptual perspective. There is no depth, and the cuisine suffers from a lack of individuality that could position it at the level of high rank. The ingredients in both their utilization and quality are no more than acceptable, as illustrated by the ubiquitous caviar, which was much soggier on the plate than from the can – an indication that the caviar, easily affected by heat, was stewed on the hot plate for a while instead of being added at the last moment – or mediocre spiny lobster from Sardinia, trout from Emilia-Romagna and very ordinary, flavor-flat, slightly oversalted, 90-day-old agneau biberon du limousine, apparently agneau de bergerie, which I consider much inferior to both agneau de lait and agneau d'herbe.

Desserts, on the other hand, prepared by chef Broggi, were stronger than at Le Calandre, and I’m grateful to Pinchiorri for introducing me to a three-week-old Stracchino Stagionato, a rare version of young Stracchino cheese.

I think that Pinchiorri is often accused of a lack of authenticity, not because it doesn’t attempt to apply Italian themes, but because the flavors of Italy in the dishes are generally subdued in the background, unlike at Le Calandre, where the first bite of the amuse (a tart filled with tomato sauce topped with Parmesan mousse and a basil leaf) was explosive, transporting you right to Italy in one breath.

Let’s take the fogattini stuffed with sheep’s-milk ricotta, rabbit, fried zucchini and candied black olives (highlighting the dish wonderfully) we had at Pinchiorri – the best dish of our meal. Indeed, though the dish was complex, all its elements held together very well. Still, there was a strong feeling that I’d had this dish somewhere before, and it wasn’t in Italy. In other words, the main problem with Pinchiorri is not that it doesn’t strive to express its cuisine through Italian authenticity per se; it is that it fails to build its own esthetic originality with a convincing individual style. Had I lived in Florence, I might have been a frequent guest at the restaurant. A destination place, however, it is not.

2. The years when the dishes were created are not on the La Pergola menu. You’re absolutely correct. I specifically asked Beck about the years the zucchini flower and veal were created because the incredible strength, the clarity of taste and compositional harmony in these dishes were so much stronger than in the rest of our meal – they were extravagant, yet more classic, without the extraneous contemporary stretches that contaminated other courses – that, for some reason, it made me believe that they had to come from a different period of Beck’s creative life. When Beck said that both dishes originated in 2001, it was so much in tune with my conclusions that it really didn’t come as a surprise. He seems to care about every dish he’s ever created, recounting the years of all the dishes we had that night (most of which dated from 2004-2005), yet I thought that his latest creations were lacking. I’ll try to get into the details of our meal in a subsequent post.

3. Indeed, I was comparing the squab (baby pigeon) we had at Le Calandre with the adult pigeon at Pont de Brent. Squab is more common in restaurants, since the young flesh (generally a baby pigeon 25–30 days old) is not only more tender (because it hasn’t started flying yet at this age) but also lacks a strong, wild and on occasion almost rotten flavor of an adult specimen. The most peculiar thing, however, was that the squab at Le Calandre was tiny, yet the flavors were those of an adult, whereas the three-month-old pigeon at Pont de Brent had a pleasant, mild flavor with only a touch of gaminess. Rabaey said he always uses a three-months-old pigeon, which he gets locally. I’m not sure whether the breed of pigeon plays as much role in its taste and texture as with beef (Charolais vs. Abrac, for instance) in comparison to feeding practices. Raffaele at Le Calandre compared their squabs to those in France, stating that in France they are always hung to soften the flesh. However, I wondered whether he really meant adult pigeons instead of squabs, since I haven’t heard of squabs being submitted to this treatment anywhere.

4. We were supposed to visit Domaine de Châteauvieux on our day of arrival in Geneva, which required my driving across the French border to Annecy late at night after dinner. I don’t enjoy driving at night and at the last moment we changed our plans, replacing Châteauvieux with Clos des Sens where we had a very good meal (in a style somewhat similar to L'Arnsbourg’s ). Personally, I can’t comprehend why this restaurant was not awarded a second star. Chateauvieux is on my next-to-visit list.

Pont de Brent gave us an uneven experience and not due to the flies (I sympathize with Francesco, however). Rabaey is unsurpassed at meat dishes, especially, as you perceptively noted, with courses for two. He doesn’t render meat dishes heavy (there is no traditional rigidity); instead, they have the characteristic power of minimalism, tempered with grace and skillful technical execution. Aside from the aforementioned wonderful pigeon, another dish that won a place as one of the best dishes of our trip was foie gras in duck pot-au-feu.

I wrote some time ago an ode to Senderens’ Foie Gras in Savoy Cabbage, an etalon of contemporary minimalism. Rabaey created a thematic parallel, but extended it to encompass compositional variations on “all-about-duck,” establishing a balance by obvious contrasts, all in the direction of the main theme. A beautiful piece of poached foie gras (my favorite foie gras rendition) in a duck broth – the foie gras was silky, yet firm enough not to disintegrate in the broth, enriched by Savoy cabbage and carrots – shreds of duck meat, when separated, providing body to the clear, intense, almost sweet liquid, and an excellent duck ravioli were so wonderfully incorporated in one ensemble that each bite brought a tremendous satisfaction. The quality and preparation of the foie gras at Pont de Brent were much better than the whole foie gras we had at Bras (“Pan-fried foie gras is too clichéd,” as Mark, our Maître d’ noted) and second best after Senderens’.

Julien(?) indeed left the restaurant about two(?) years ago and worked for some time in a Russian/Ukranian restaurant in Montreux until it went out of business. Mark, the current Maître d’, did a wonderful job during our meal, undertaking also the role of translator upon our meeting the chef, though, I suspect, he filtered information Rabaey might have found unpleasant. That is, I don’t believe Mark translated my gentle remark that Rabaey seemed not to be as passionate about fish as he was about meat, a gross understatement on my part, since all fish courses, both in quality and execution, could not even be said to be fairly adequate; they were just poor.

The meal at Rochat was our last on the trip, the candle of our enthusiasm already almost burnt out. Not being thrilled with the architectural ethos of the décor (somewhat reminiscent of a Mexican restaurant) and annoyed at the Maître d’ who insisted that we have a tasting menu, I sincerely didn’t expect any fireworks, but we were in for a surprise. It was one of the best meals of our trip, perhaps not necessarily with regard to the individual dishes, aside from the fantastic signature Oeufs en surprise a la italienne with white truffles that we ordered separately, but to the meal flow and overall flavor balance.

Speaking of ordering practices at a restaurant, my meal at Rochat could make a strong case that tasting menus deserve a more serious standing in today’s cuisines, and are not necessarily a reflection of chefs’ mercantile intentions to turn meals into a production-line enterprise or their submission to supermarket-era routinization. Before you object, hear me out.

I generally devote time and effort to building my meals in advance, by doing thorough research, investigating individual dishes, chefs’ strength and weaknesses, their styles and historical development (choosing dishes from the past along with the more contemporary creations as we did at Can Fabes and Can Roca), which results in our building à la carte meals, consisting of two appetizers and two main courses of fish and meat to each of us. There are several advantages in ordering à la carte:

1. It is the only opportunity to explore the best quality ingredients, especially fish, since a chef will never butcher a 4 kg. Monkfish (like the one we had at Bras on our second night) to serve small portion plates. The weight of the fish plays such a tremendous role in both its texture and flavor that two samples of different weight may not taste alike, the example being omble chavalier, a lake fish, flavor-wise a cross between salmon and trout, which acquires more of a salmon flavor with weight (a beautiful specimen [though farmed] we had at Veyrat) and not much differing from a trout when small (a wild version we had at a local Bistro le Petit in Annecy).

2. Having a connotation of reductive paring down, a tasting menu, at the same time, requires an ordering system that would implement logic of “one thing after another” with the need for aesthetic decisions. I found that most chefs lack vision in building progressive tasting menus, turning them into irrationalist sets of dispersed courses. There are generally no connecting lines between the dishes; there is no story.

The advantages of selecting a tasting menu, however, are that among multiple courses, the chances of finding a pleasing dish increases, whereas, if ordered poorly, the meal even at the most revered restaurants may not be successful.

There are four situations when I generally consider ordering a tasting menu:

1. If most of the dishes from the carte are present on the tasting menu, which was the case at Bras (with only eel among fish courses standing on its own on our first night). I sometimes make some adjustments to the specific dishes, like replacing a tasting portion of foie gras with the whole lobe as we did at Bras.

2. If the tasting menu consists of mostly signature dishes, and I’m at the restaurant for the first time.

3. If I feel that the chef’s talent is best expressed through the flow of small courses, in which case a different evaluation standard is applied.

4. If I find myself at an unfamiliar restaurant, unfortified with research and the Maître d’ makes a persuasive case.

What I noticed, however, is that chefs, including old-timers, have started treating tasting menus with more respect. It used to be that the tasting menu would not come to the full price of a three-course à la carte, with chefs choosing cheaper ingredients for the tasting (a typical example would still be Clos des Sens on our recent trip), and that a look around would confirm that native diners mostly disregarded tasting offerings. It seems that nowadays chefs have started using not so much inferior ingredients in tastings, as ingredients more suitable for small portions (perch at Bras). Surely, there is always a danger that a tasting meal will turn into a robotic streamlining, yet one look around will confirm, that tasting menus have won the vote of French diners, especially among young population (observed, for example, at Troisgros, Bras, Veyrat, L'Arnsbourg, even Buerehiesel, with L'Astrance not even offering à la carte dining any longer). It is quite possible that tasting menus are actually the prospect of future cuisines and not necessarily due to convenience for their purveyors.

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Lana, we have had a tasting menu discussion going on in the French section, but as the world's greatest detractor of them, I always welcome new insights to read. Tasting menus are becomingthe " future prospects of cuisine" because of the economy of scale they offer. There is no other reason I can think of. I still believe that my "no-win" rationale best describes what's wrong with them. The reason that the locals don't take them is because they view their local restaurants differently than we do. They often want to stop by for a couple of courses and leave. We've all seen it when a few people enter the restaurant at 2:30 or 9:45 and spend a maxiumum of 90 minutes before leaving. The fact is that there are increasing less people like you who are developing their gastronomic sechel primarily because "innovations" like tasting menus are depriving them of the opportunity.

My tasting menu thought for today is that you can never hit the culinary jackpot such as is possible with a three-four course, full-size portion meal. To repeat myself, two of the four meals I have at el Bulli were as memorable as the ones I had when great restaurants in France offered fixed menus, which were really nothing but chefs choosing a meal for you of full-portion dishes. Otherwise you ordered a la carte from 32-40 choices.

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. . . .

What I noticed, however, is that chefs, including old-timers, have started treating tasting menus with more respect.  It used to be that the tasting menu would not come to the full price of a three-course à la carte, with chefs choosing cheaper ingredients for the tasting (a typical example would still be Clos des Sens on our recent trip), and that a look around would confirm that native diners mostly disregarded tasting offerings.  . . .

Sorry to focus on such a small and less important aspect of your post, but it seems to me that there are tasting menus, which are generally as expensive and often more expensive meals than ordering a la carte, and there are prix fixe menus, which are less expensive than ordering from the carte. I don't think of those prix fixe menus, which often allow one to have four courses for less than three courses from the carte as either menus degustations or tasting menus.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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From WorldTable - Dinner at le Calandre:

"Because ordering a la carte meant larger courses and fewer dishes to taste, we were set on having one of the tasting menus. The Menu Degustasione, I grandi classici delle "Calandre" (at 150 €) seemed to be the ideal choice for a first visit to Calandre, and the maître d' confirmed our decision by noting it was his recommendation for first time guests, but when the meal was over, we wondered if a menu with Massimiliano Alajmo's latest dishes wouldn't have been more impressive. I don't mean to imply we were disappointed. In fact, dinner left us wanting very much to return and try more of his food."

I also noted that this may have been the finest meal of our trip, but that it was not a strong three star meal in our opinion. In citing it as the finest meal, I'm reminded of a camp I attended as a child. Everyone managed to win some awards over the summer. If it wasn't in sports, it might have been as most will to taste new foods. Remarkably, that was one of my distinctions and not one my parents found credible as I was a picky eater. In terms of our trip, Dal Pescatore would be the finest restaurant in terms of setting and service as well as flawless food, if not particularly exciting food. Il Rigoletto might earn the best meal title.

At any rate, there's a photo record of the courses we had, more text and some non-food related comments about the town and neighboring Padua at the above reference link.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Bux, I just read your review of Le Calandre. We seemed to have some of the same dishes. I’m glad you took pictures, which made me relive our meal, since we left our camera at the hotel by accident.

I wouldn’t probably consider Cannellone an interesting dish if not for the olive oil Alajmo used in the tomato purée and as a splash on the plate – extracted from rossa olives, the oil is produced by the Alajmo family. Even the taste of fresh tomatoes in the purée couldn’t disguise the tomato flavor of a different nuance coming from the oil, delicate and flavorful. I believe Alajmo sells this oil in his store. We actually wanted to buy it, but by that time, the store was closed and Raffaele suggested taking an open bottle, which, considering our traveling, we didn’t feel comfortable carrying.

My recollection of La carne battuta is mainly of a very strong taste of anise. Alajmo uses Piedmont beef, the pink color of which is beautifully reflected in your picture. Considering its low fat content, the raw version of the meat would’ve been very pleasant, if not for the overwhelming taste of anise. I’m not against finger food when appropriate (like the cannellone dish), but wet and almost slimy consistency of the puréed meat was hardly pleasant to a touch – quite an eccentric and unnecessary presentation, though I wonder whether there is some history behind it.

I thought the desserts were weak. David’s reaction was: “If he [Alajmo] has a pastry chef, he should fire him. If he doesn’t, he should hire one.” I found the “do-it-yourself” approach to be unnecessary as you did, resorting to “do-it-for-me” by my daughter, who enjoyed the whole process of making chocolate laboratory experiments much more. The chocolate that Alajmo uses is also of his own production (70% cacao from Ecuador), and I found it not great.

I actually don’t think that Alajmo introduces finger games and other entertaining aspects into his meal due to his awed capitulation to the avant-garde and its extraneous surprises. Perhaps Veyrat, with whom he apprenticed, played some role, but I believe Massimiliano’s approach comes from a genuine desire to make the dining experience fun. As serious as the cooking is, there is really no sense of tension in the kitchen, but rather the lively atmosphere of joy. Pictures of Raffaele and Massimiliano making silly faces, hung in the bathroom, add some element of comfort just as if visiting their home. Yet, the whole scenario of frivolity just didn’t work for us. Perhaps we’re getting old :).

It struck me that the sommelier was a very young woman (whose name escaped me). She said that it is indeed very rare for a woman in Italy to undertake this profession and that the work is very demanding, keeping her there from 9 a.m. till 1 a.m. She studied at the Sorrento Cooking School for three years to become a sommelier.

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I seem to recall that the assistant to the sommelier was also a woman, but maybe she was just a waiter who also attended to pouring the wines.

I think the whole idea of making dinner a more interactive experience is part of the avant garde movement. I question however, if one can really make eating any more interactive than it naturally is. One of the reasons we go to a restaurant is to have someone else interact with the food for a while to our advantage. The introduction of additional ways to interact with the food should increase our pleasure, understanding or interest in the food. I didn't mind eating the raw beef with my hands, but, if anything, just having dirty hands lessened the appeal of the food in my mouth. Context is everything. In an very nice setting such as this with fine glass ware, I'd get greater enjoyment bringing the food to my lips on the tips of some silver tines, bamboo chopsticks or a pearl spoon, but I am willing to consider that touching my food, or playing with my food in my hands maybe a tabu I need to overcome. Having made that consideration, I'm tending to reject it. The bark tray added nothing either. I think the dish would have been more successful on a white plate with elegant implements of some sort, but the flavor carried it off for me. Thus I wouldn't say the anise was overwhelming, even if you found it the dominant flavor.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Vedat, getting back to La Pergola…

I would like to understand more what you mean by 2 of the phrases: "attempting to blow life into still dishes by adorning them with contemporary technical twists, instead of modernizing tradition itself" and "inconsistently coherent cuisine".

Perhaps “carpaccio of red beet and tuna with wasabi” – a millefeuille of fish fumé/wasabi gelatin and raw tuna, with marinated beet cubes on the side, and a piece of sticky-rice roll (stuffed with rectangular pieces of raw tuna and slightly acidic asparagus) clothed in a thin deep-fried layer – would be a good example of what I had in mind, incorporating both a contemporary flavoring of gelatin and an incoherent attempt at modern fusion cuisine.

What meant to be a delicate dish invoking Asian motifs on the Italian ground turned into a juxtaposition of diluted and incompatible elements of different cultures. It was as if Beck didn’t want to either “betray” Italian traditions or adjust Aisian cuisine to Western esthetics. None of the components in the dish had enough flavor to offset, contrast or complement one another, and the merger of cultures was accomplished by merely placing ingredients from different cuisines on the same plate.

The gelatin, thick and hard, was tasteless, having neither fish fumé nor wasabi clearly pronounced, with a somewhat artificial aftertaste, typical of overutilization of the gelling agent – an unnecessary addition, further thinning the flavor of already plain raw tuna. The rice in the roll was sticky to the point of getting glued to the teeth and gums, and the neutral crisp outer layer, more of an Italian taste than like Japanese tempura, didn’t seem to bring out the same lively notes as would a more customary seaweed wrapper, for instance.

This dish actually made me think of “Madama Betterfly” by Puccini. The opera was composed in the days when Asian and other exotic art fascinated Europe, and it was given an “authentic” Oriental presentation: not only were the sets and costumes careful replicas of Japanese originals, but the singers were taught gestures and motions genuinely Japanese. However, what made the opera work was that the music was absolutely and irrevocably Italian, sophisticatedly Western, and the antipodes got along well precisely because only the subject and the setting were Japanese. Puccini was less successful when, in order to create local color, he borrowed alien musical material: the collision of the “Star Spangled Banner” with Japanese tunes was a bit obvious, with the music always remaining nothing but foreign incrustations.

This seemed to be Beck’s problem in this particular dish. Had he remained true to his Italian ideals, perhaps modifying the cuisine itself to place it inside an exotic shell, similar to Alajmo’s transforming rustic tomato bread soup into a modern incarnation as a tomato-parmesan tart, he may have succeeded. Instead, he seemed to juxtapose Asian and Italian cuisines, turning the dish (created in 2005) into a laboratory experiment. Interestingly, the same argument could be made about some of Gagnaire’s creations. Both chefs’ styles also seem to be similar in rendering a dish in the form of multiple small courses, each representing a different play on the same ingredient.

I wonder whether your meal was better because you chose from the carte. I had no time to do extensive research on La Pergola before our trip and decided to go with the tasting, which also had his signature zucchini flower I wanted to try. I wonder whether Beck includes more experimental dishes into the tasting menu, perhaps because it is more often ordered by tourists, so that he can satisfy foreign demand for exotic flavors, while he keeps his carte “pure.” Your report, however, gives me the motivation to return.

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