Ristorante Dal Pescatore
Type of Cuisine: Updated Haute Italian (Classics of Mantuan cuisine, Lombardy)
Michelin Stars: 3
Event: Lunch on Thursday June 14th, 2012 12:00
Addr: Località Runate – 46013 Canneto sull’Oglio , Mantova
Service: 10/10 Mostly young, well behaved Gentlemen with great tact. I am French, so they spoke French to me, and listening to Italians talking in French, with an Italian accent, is always pure joy to me. It has its charm, a charm that lingers on my mind.
Overall food rating: 9/10 The Santinis have an amazing sense of taste as largely proven by the fabulous ravioli di faraona, the stunning tomato compote, great risotto, outstanding reduction to the braised beef shoulder, benchmark torta di amaretti. And at a time when everyone thinks that we’ve seen it all with a polenta, they manage to deliver one against which I will judge all other polentas. The only reason I give it a 9, as opposed to a 10, is because the overall impression I have of this meal is one of an overall excellent (9/10) classic 3 star Michelin meal rather than one of benchmark level (10/10). Regardless, this is exactly the type of classic 3 star Michelin I like most . As always, a subjective matter based on personal experiences, etc.
Overall dining experience: 10/10 I have rarely felt so happy in a restaurant, Michelin starred or not. It goes without saying that at this level of dining, every little detail counts and each one found all along this meal simply scored high on my appreciation scale: the plating, the beautiful and elegant country home decor, the countryside, the charming and down to earth wait staff met all along this meal , and the qualities I expect from a top dining destination just kept piling up while I was there.
Around two years ago when I decided to review restaurants (NOT really something that I like to do, reasons are explained here, and I do NOT systematically think about reviews wherever I go, or on whatever I eat, Lol!), I knew exactly what I wanted in my reviews: avoiding style at all costs and focusing on what I believe to matter most: assessing the (relative) value of the restaurant food that I am eating. Ironically, by ‘assessing the value of my restaurant meal”, I went one step further and removed …the price factor…. out of the equation. That is because on top of the already explained reasons that led me to review restaurants, I had one major quibble (with most opinions about restaurant reviews) that jumped to my attention: what if the $$$ was not taken into consideration?? Apparently, from most answers I have gathered throughout the years, most would have found their meals to be excellent had the price been lower! Interesting…So, oftently it is worthy of raves because it was affordable. Let’s take $$$ out of the picture then and focus on what I have in my plate. Make no mistake: I understand the notion of value for my bucks, but I am interested by one thing ONLY: the deliciousness of the food that I am eating way before its value gets lost in ‘value for money’ interpretation.
Restaurant reviewing is, of course, not limited to one or two aspects of a dining experience. And it does not have to be something special neither. I personally refuse the idea of restaurant reviewing on a professional level for a very simple reason: I don’t see why something as personal as this (talking about the food you eat) would be remunerative , unless you go way beyond the basic restaurant scripts and books of recipes as it is the case for few exceptional food journalists like Quebec’s Marie-Claude Lortie, Perico Légasse in France, John Mariani in the US . I know, it (reviewing restaurant as a job) is a pointer, a way to be better informed. But you have this in tons of opinions over the web, and those people are not renumerated. I know some will argue that a professional food critic will provide you with stylish write-ups and professionalism. BUT that is not what I want in a restaurant review: like it or not, I do not eat ‘style’ nor ‘a sense of professionalism’ nor ‘megalomania expressed through writings”. I eat food and I just want to know what is offered, how it is made, to what relative level of cooking is the kitchen reaching out to.
There is also the widely preached bogus belief that anonymous reviews may hide personal agendas. Even a saint can hide an agenda. We all know that. More importantly, a normal diner at a restaurant is anonymous, shall I remind this? And when you dine at a restaurant, guess what…you have opinions on what you have just paid for, with, as it should normally happen… your own hard earned money. Those opinions can be expressed in many ways: verbally, in writings, etc. So, I do not see any problem with comments from anonymous or well known sources. They both can either hide agendas or be honest. No one will ever have any control over this, anyways. Desperate harmful and insulting views with no constructive and no honest purpose —- which is the only thing that would make sense to fear from an anonymous review– should obviously NOT be encouraged and this applies to celeb faces hiding agendas of restaurant propaganda . Either way, there should be no excuse to intimidate freedom of speech. The debate over anonymous opinions is a debate full of nonsense, a creation of some of the industry’s watchdogs, a debate pertaining to ancient times when big Daddy, scared of the judgements of others, would command you to show your face before you can think and judge accordingly. But humanity has evolved and people paying for what they consume, with their own hard earned money, should never accept that the restaurant industry and some of their watchdogs take control over what we should have as opinions.
Who you are, as a restaurant reporter, makes absolutely no difference: this type of opinions (about restaurants) are subjective anyways, no matter how credible you might think you are, and consequently, knowing what you like or not, what you are hiding or not, is of utter irrelevance. We should do this (sharing our opinion) for the simple sake of sharing knowledge but certainly not as an exercise of potential serious influence on the choices of others. As far as I am concerned, my agenda is clear: it’s written here and as explained, I wanted to experience for myself the journey of an independent voice completely detached from the restaurant industry. I wanted to be able to rave –or not — about what I felt authentically deserving of its raves –or not –, to be able to freely convey what I really had in mind as opposed to be influenced by outside elements. Naturally, I can afford behaving this way (fully enjoying the role of a normal diner, being independent from the industry, mocking at style or etiquette) and abide by my own principles no matter who says what — only because I have no commercial interest in the restaurant business . I took time to write this because there is nowadays a universal debate around the subject (of anonymous restaurant reviews), a non-debate in my pertinacious view, thus my two little cents on this matter. This is my opinion, and I’ll proudly and obdurately drink to that, Rfaol!
Before I write about the current reviewed restaurant – Every gourmand’s dream is to find the best value restaurant at the very top level of world’s fine dining. Once every 5 years or so, I stumble upon one and lately, it is in Chicaco, Illinois. It is L2o, a restaurant that I have discovered back in the days of Chef Laurent Gras. It was back then already deserving its 3 stars. Then Chef Francis Brennan took control of the kitchen, and the solid 3 star Michelin performance kept rising to the top. Now, that Chef Brennan left, it was downgraded to a 1 star Michelin restaurant and I recently had a meal there, under its present 1 star Michelin assignment, and everyone at my table (they are regulars of world’s haute dining extravaganza) agreed: it is, between you and me, the current best value at the very top Michelin star dining level, and Chef Matthew Kirkley is, for now, the most underrated Chef in the world. You get a top 3 star Michelin dining at an official 1 star Michelin. Other great discovery, lately: La Table d’Aki (after more than 2 decades alongside Bernard Pacaud of 3 star Michelin L’Ambroisie, Chef Akihiro Horikoshi has opened his own little bistrot and is unleashing some of the secrets that made of Chef Pacaud one of the most respected icons of La France gourmande. A great way to sample the sense of classic culinaric savourishness of Chef Pacaud, brought to us by Aki, at very sweet $$$. Check that out: Table D’Aki, 49, rue Vaneau, 7th Arr, Paris. Phone: 01 45 44 43 48).
And now, our featuring restaurant review (Lunch on Thurs June 14th, 2012 at noon):
Dal Pescatore, its cuisine, its Chefs – Dal Pescatore is a restaurant of haute Italian cuisine balanced between innovation and tradition. The latter (balanced between innovation and tradition) being a description that is dear to them; on their web site they do insist on this, and it is also, based on my meal there, a realistic portray of their cooking style. Innovation here means that it brings an updated approach to a style of Italian Haute dining that remains classic (with a focus on its surrounding regional fares: for ie risottos, nearby Mantuan pasta dishes, other Italian classics especially from their local Lombardy region ), but it is by no means into futuristic culinary styles. They do also insist on the food being wholesome. It is among restaurant Magazine top 50 best tables of the world, a member of the prestigious ‘Les Grandes Tables du Monde” as well as earning three Michelin stars since 1996 (only seven Italian restaurants boast three stars). It is considered by Paul Bocuse, the pope of French gastronomy and many top culinary journalists such as Gilles Pudlowski and John Mariani as well as frequent patrons of the haute dining scene as the very best restaurant in the world. High profile chefs such as Anne-Sophie Pic had their lifetime’s best meal here. The soul of Dal Pescatore, Chef Nadia Santini (one of her sons, Giovanni, is nowadays an active Chef at this restaurant as well as their legendary Mama Bruna / I recommend that you read their story on their web site, it is an interesting read – it’s surely fun to observe how they evolved from a 1920s countryside tavern to the top of world’s Alta cucina, for ie, or how Nadia Santini went from studies in Political Sciences to the position of one of world’s most respected 3 star Michelin Chefs / It is also amazing to note that Chef Nadia Santini rejects the idea of a brigade in a kitchen; she is one of the very rare top Chefs around the globe who thinks that hierarchy is unnecessary in a kitchen and that everyone should work as equal members of one team) is frequently mentioned as one of the top 3 best female Chefs in the world alongside Pic (Maison Pic, France) and Elena Arzak (Arzak, Spain). Many grand Chefs have also trained and honed their culinary philosophy here: LA’s Sotto Chef Steve Samson , Celebrity Chef Todd English, Malibu’s Granita Restaurant Chef Jennifer Naylor, Chicago’s Spiaggia Chefs Sarah Grueneberg, Tony Mantuano and many more. Other high profile Chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Giorgio Locatelli and top British Chef Angela Hartnett have expressed great admiration for DP. It is always admirable to learn that such a Grand Chef like Nadia Santini (who, after numerous years of excelling at such top level, would be in the excusable position of saying ‘I have nothing to prove anymore’) is always in her kitchen in a world where ‘embryo’ cooks with a lot left to be proven are busy parading afar from where they are supposed to be found!
Decor – A mix of classic and contemporary elegance with emphasis on ‘ la gioia di vivere ‘ , the joy of life, as easily expressed by the possibility of indulging in one of Italians favourite custom ‘Mangia fuori’ on their veranda in summer, evidences of cozyness (fireplaces, the joyful color scheme of the 3 dining rooms, the wooden floor that gives the room a warm and intimate feel), the artworks on the wall. Pastel colored walls (in pure Northern Italian decorating style , the colors pay respect to various elements of the surrounding countryside: lakes, earth, etc), beautifully laid tables positioned for privacy. Think of the restaurant as a sophisticated country house with a peaceful view on a well kept garden.
Location – Dal Pescatore is located in the village of Runate, municipality of Canneto sull’Oglio, in the province of Mantova (region of Lombardia), North of Parma, East of Milan. Around 65 km from Verona Intl Airport, 115 kms from Milan Linate Airport, 150 kms from Milan Malpensa Airport. I’d suggest you include a dinner here within a tour of Lombardy’s main attractions (historical cities of Mantova, Modena, Cremona, Parma / the urban life of Milan / scenic places like lakes Maggiore, Como, Garda). Hire a car.
Produce– I have always admired Chefs who are really close to the land, to the point of growing most of their own food. I have always favored Chefs who are really close to their local produce and artisans. That is perhaps why I always had a soft spot for the work of Chef Alain Passard at L’Arpège, Chef Patrice Gelbart who used to work at ‘Aux Berges du Cérou’ or Chef Craig Shelton who was at the helm of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, New Jersey. I remember my excitement when, during a dinner at the Ryland Inn (Chef Shelton does not work there since years, now), Chef Shelton kept rushing between his garden and his kitchen making sure that optimal freshness was present on our plates. He had that strict ‘xxx minutes maximum delay’ ..5 or 7 mins if I remember properly (Chef Shelton was a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement on the East Coast in the US) …in between picking the ingredient, getting it cooked and served. Of course, Chef Shelton is an exceptionally skilled Chef and I would have never mentioned this had his food not been of stellar mention. Years later, here I am in Canneto sull’Oglio and the Santinis have that exact same philosophy at heart: they raise most of their vegetables on the premises.
The food report –
I started with a tomato compote of stunning marinda (from Sardinia, Italy) tomato flavor 10/10. It’s a great example of why Italian food is so well respected: startling simplicity and beautiful produce. Italians know how to make you rediscover the real flavor of an ingredient. I am not rating this with a 10 just for the produce alone: a touch of beautifully aged balsamic and inspired hands brought this tomato to palatable triumph.
Followed by Porcini, Fegato di Vitello (Veal liver), romarino (rosemary) – Flawless cooking technique as shown all along this meal. The mushroom packed with deep earthy flavors that complemented so well with the veal liver. No quibble here: cooking achieved beautifully and flavors as good as you can get from a nicely prepared veal liver. 8/10
Then, Tortelli di Zucca (Zucca, Amaretti, Mostarda, e Parmigiano Reggiano) – tortelli with pumpkin, amaretti biscuits, mostarda (a type of candied fruit and mustard chutney condiment and a speciality of Lombardia) and Parmesan – Star Chef Todd English has always praised Dal Pescatore for for being the place where he learned everything about pasta and the work of the dough. Pasta making is indeed pushed to high level of conception, here. It is artisanal pasta, hand made on the premises. Pasta can’t be fresher than this: they make it only when you order. One Pasta signature dish of Dal Pescatore is Tortelli di Zucca, and a Mantuan classic: made of pumpkin (Zucca), nutmeg, a bit of cinnamon, cloves, mostarda (A ‘glacé fruit’ preserved in a spicy syrup), Italian almond-flavored cookies (Amaretti) and the iconic cheese of this region: their Parmigiano-Reggiano. They are using, in Mantua, an ingredient that adds so much to pasta: pumpkin, as expected, does indeed add amazing texture and superb flavor. Its sweet, and yet savory nature teasing the palate. As a quick reference, if you had sampled Chef Todd Stein’s iconic “Caramelli dish” (pasta filled with butternut squash, sage, amaretti crumbs) when he was at the helm of Restaurant Cibo Matto in Chicago – that dish made it to America’s best pasta dishes of several top food magazines — then think of Tortelli di Zucca as its elder (not served the same way, and not fully identical, but the basic idea and also ingredients behind both dishes are similar) . Dal Pescatore’s version was flawless: the mostarda enhancing the pumpkin with lots of panache, the pasta itself is impeccably executed, its texture utterly refined, the taste is of course a bit less rich and rustic compared to the tortelli di zucca I tried at the other places in the region but this is understandable since this is fine dining and not rustic dining. Also, the Santinis focus a lot on good healthy food, therefore food that’s not overwhelmingly rich nor too rustic. What justifies, in my opinion, a 3 star Michelin meal is its depth of precision in balancing, better than many others, the flavors, textures and other cooking aspects (timing of the cooking, judicious choice of the ingredient combination, effective usage of heat, etc) that are involved on a dish, all things achieved brilliantly on this dish. PS: Try this recipe at home . Excellent. 9/10
Ravioli di Faraona – Guinea fowl ravioli was of benchmark 3 star Michelin material. The preparation of the pasta, its impeccable texture, the outstanding balance of flavors, the superb mouthfeel are just a fraction of the superlaives I could use to discribe the amazement of this dish. 10/10
Then Branzino con olio extravergine umbro, Prezzemolo, Acciughe e Capperi di Salina – Excellent seabass that retained its well known enjoyable mild flavor, its flesh was firm and immaculately white as any top quality fresh seabass has to, the cooking achieved to ideal moisture retention. 8.5/10
Followed by Risotto con pistilli di zafferano e aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena (sometimes it is ‘Risotto (Vialone Nano) con pistilli di Zafferano e Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale ) – Saffron risotto with traditional Balsamic vinegar from Modena – They grow their own saffron on the premises and this is thoughtful: it has nothing to do with the average saffron I am accustomed to, and that you find in most saffron risotti of the region. This saffron has a superior subtle aromatic freshness that, on its own, transforms their risotto into a unique one. But the kitchen goes beyond the full satisfaction of their spice, and as stands true to a good Il Bagatto, it brings another secret weapon to the center stage of the show: the ethereal aged authentic Modena balsamic vinegar with its mesmerizing long finish flavor. Vialone Nano, well known for absorbing liquid better than many other rices, is indeed the appropriate rice that needed to be used for this risotto dish. Of this dish, I’ll remember the great technique, the superb taste that can only come from a top quality stock, the proper heat regulation and excellent texture. 9/10
Cappello da Prete di Manzo al Barbera e Polenta Gialla di Storo – braised shoulder of beef slowly cooked in Barbera wine with polenta – Cappello del prete is a cut of beef ideal for braising (although, in my view, not quite at the level of what a meat like beef cheeks can deliver when it’s braised to its prime) . The meat was cooked to tender consistency for long hours in a rich Barbera wine based sauce. This dish, due to its comforting nature could have been predictably less memorable but it was not: the sauce was reduced as it should, the delicious juice-infused beefy meat kept an ideal tender consistency to it, the exemplary polenta (if you see a cook looking down on polenta…it is not a Chef, it is just a lesser cook who badly needs to get a taste of a polenta like this one so that he will forever understand how he was never made aware of the full potential that lies ahead of such a supposedly simple fare). The reduced sauce was remarkable, even for this level of dining. 9/10
Amaretti Torta – For years, I have made Amaretti torta many times (this as well as torta sabbiosa, zabaione and chiacchere are among my favourite Italian desserts/cakes), and I just like tasting it whenever it is baked by others, just to see how far they push it, therefore an appealing pick for me. This one had a good ratio of the basic ingredients necessary to make this cake (choco chips, amaretti cookies, etc). The amaretti base was impeccably made, the cake itself cooled down to room temp, had proper moist consistency and was packed with a depth of enticing chocolate, coffee and almond aromas. Easily, a benchmark amaretti torta 10/10
I was warned by some of my Italian foodie friends that on Italy’s best tables, I should not expect petits fours of the standard found on France’s best 3 star Michelin tables. They were wrong: the array of fabulous petits fours (various chocolate creations, mini fruit tart, etc) on display could have been served at a top 3 star Michelin table in France and I would see no difference. They were that great, and I had a huge smile when I sampled the solo cherry featuring among those petits fours: I urge anyone to find me a better cherry! 10/10
My short conclusion on this meal at Dal Pescatore – The strength of this meal I just had at DP lies in (1) how this cuisine is entirely symbiotic with its environment and (2) how most of the dishes are perfected: the pastas I had would set the bar for their artistry in colors, their flawless textures, their delectable stuffings. The risotto I have just tasted is also of that level of culinary mastery. I was quite surprised (in a good way) by this performance, even by the standards expected at this level of dining. Almost everything was copacetic all along this meal. The minimum at such standards of dining is food that’s refined and well done, for sure, but it was still remarkable to find items as eventful as some that I have just tasted. Many among world’s most talented Chefs have a spectacular culinaric sense, but few have an exceptional palate. Whoever has cooked the ravioli faraona, the tomato compote, the petits fours and the amaretti torta can be counted amongst the latter. I don’t know Dal Pescatore enoughly well so I can’t really tell which dish was cooked by Chef Nadia Santini, her son, or by Mama Bruna, etc — something I generally like to know since each person has a signature cooking touch and that aspect matters to me — but I could observe a common denominator in their cooking as a team: they favor harmonious flavours. I wanted a repast exempt from what I perceive as the UNECESSARY (the pipettes, the foams, the paintings on the plate, and tons of other gimmicks), a meal focusing on the pleasure of eating real food, enjoying the best local produce. You can eat very well at low cost in Italy (If you stumble upon a bad cook in Italy, my guess is that it is not a cook…it is an impersonator who just wants to make a quick buck…because here, it is not the ‘buzz’ that dictates who you are —some cooks in some cities will recognize themselves in the latest statement — it is oftently real talent! Hard working Real Chefs cooking for real….), but on this occasion, I wanted this simple and delicious cuisine expressed in its most refined version. That is exactly why I went to DP and that is also what I got.
From an aphorism of France’s 20th century best known writer, Curnonsky: “Good cooking is when things taste of what they are.”. Curnonsky would have been very happy with most dishes of this meal: wherever things looked simple, they were elevated with brio, but never through gimmicks and only with inspired emphasis on their very own nature. Simplicity, I’ll always reiterate, is nice only when it is in the hands of a gifted Chef.
In fine, for the food on this meal, I’ll underline the careful balance of flavors on all of the dishes, the importance of never roaming away from the comfort zone of a nice hearty classic dish (their meat, their pasta dishes) while adding the touch of superior inspiration and culinaric effort expected at this echelon .
PS: Wine – One of my favourite all time red wines accompanied this meal. It’s a 2008 Pergole Torte Sangiovese (memorable licorice aromas, perfectly balanced tannins). Talking about their wine list, it not only suits to all budgets and covers a big part of the globe (of course Italy and France, but also Australia, Lebanon, New Zeland, etc), but how thoughtful was that to classify it by type of wines (for ie, Franciorta – Trento classico e altri spumanti, Bianchi Italiani, Rossi Italiani, etc), then by vintage years. Here’s a sommelier who perfectly understands the importance of a logically well conceived wine list. Another great moment: a glass of giulio ferrari 2001, a must when it comes to bubbles.
PROS (of this meal at Dal Pescatore): In the days leading to my meal at DP, I have enjoyed Mantuan food at some serious trattorias of the region.I was also lucky enough to have sampled the food of two talented nonnas living in the region,too. So, my experience and expectations of my meal at DP was different, from, say, the standard food traveller who would have just visited DP with, i mind, some general knowledge of Italian food (as opposed to accurate information about Mantuan food and what should be expected from an interpretation of this specific cuisine). There are things that I am not fond of, such as the tad-less-runnier texture of the risotti that Classic Mantuan cuisine tend to favor, but that is just a matter of preference and should not be assessed as inferior to the sort of a bit-more-runnier textured risotti that can be found, for example, in the region of Veneto. It is just two different ways of taking the risotto. DP clearly offered a perfected interpretation of Mantuan Classics. I had a great time, here and this (great food, great wine, top service, nothing overworked but to the contrary brought up in a natural appealing way may it be in the behaviour of the staff, the presentation of the food, etc) is exactly what I do expect from a 3 star Michelin dining venture.
CONS (of this meal at Dal Pescatore): When a heart is happy, there’s nothing to pique at.
WHAT I THINK MONTHS LATER – Your judgement of a meal goes down to who you are. I am someone who believes that greatness is about doing the most with the least. So simplicity done this well is, to me, the definition of perfection. It’s a classic place, so if classic is not your thing, you have tons of tables for you: Noma, Thierry Marx, The Fat Duck, Alinea, etc. If you want noise, buzz, hype, trend, there are tons of popular bistrots and restaurants around the world that will fit the bill. On the other hand, if like me, you believe in great classic cooking, then DP is a benchmark table. For me, for my taste, with respect to what I value as real great cooking, Dal Pescatore is an example of what I would define as a “best restaurant in the world”.