Campania, like most of Southern Italy, might be worldwide known for its traditional dishes, pizza and spaghetti al pomodoro were born here after all, but fine dining, excluding the starred Don Alfonso, seemed for years to be a hard to find commodity. In recent times there has been signs of change, with a few young chefs and restaurants quoted on national press in different occasions, which reached a climax with last year’s Gambero Rosso tre forchette award, and one of the highest notes for the kitchen, to a young chef from Campania, Gennaro Esposito, and his restaurant Torre del Saracino in Seiano, on the Sorrento peninsula. In contrast the response from other guides was far less enthusiastic. Opinions from foodies were likely split. I don’t really give that much importance to guide notes, and even less to foodies I hardly know, but the contrast in judgement intrigued me, especially since in most cases renowned restaurant appear at the top in all the guides if with minor differences. I had also read that this is Alain Ducasse favourite place when he’s in Italy and if Monsieur Ducasse thinks so there must be a good reason. I had to wait about one year before I had the chance to travel back to Italy AND get a reservation but finally on a warm late September night me, my wife and my maybe–I’ll-drop-out-from-college-and-become-a-cook brother made our way to Seiano.
The restaurant itself is inside a simple one-storey building: the first third is taken up by the kitchen, while the rest by the dining room. Both overlook the gulf of Naples through large windows and there’s also a terrace, used in the summer months, with an even nicer view. The dining room itself is very simple, almost a bit bare. The ambience lacking somehow what one might expect at these levels.
As soon as we arrived we were greeted by the friendly and very capable maitre and shown to our table, elegant but simple, as the tableware. We took a little time to decide what to order, the carte being very tempting, but being this the first time here, we decided to go for the 75 Euros 5-course menu. Both menu and carte are extremely fish-centred, there’s only two meat dishes to choose from for the hardcore carnivores, but if you’re here it would be a shame to miss the fantastic local products. After some talk with the sommelier, we decide to order a very pleasant white wine from Campania, a Fiano d’Avellino colli di Lapio, as our first wine for the evening.
Immediately afterwards a basket of very nice still warm bread rolls arrived, to be replaced with a new one every time most of the delicious rolls had disappeared. Being as bread-fixated as I am I can’t avoid a little description of the breads. Everything was very well made, the olive-oil grissini, mini baguettes and co., but the real winners where the mini flavoured rolls: plump dried tomatoes, boiled and sautéed greens, herbs, pinoli and raisins… we each tried to have a taste of every single one, all great.
The rhythm at which service took place throughout the evening was quite quick, maybe even a tad too much so, therefore, after a very shot wait we dug into our amuse, a very simple dish of acqua di pomodoro e filetto di triglia, tomato water and red mullet filet, the tomato water as a soup, surrounding the filet elevated on a few green beans cooked al dente. The classic tomato-red mullet combination showed the great quality of all the ingredients, and the tomato acidity served perfectly to refresh the palate and open the stomach for the rest of the meal.
Our first course, zuppa di zucchini con uovo affogato e gamberoni, zucchini soup with poached egg and shrimp tail, was one of the high points of the meal. The dish was a simple reinterpretation of a traditional pairing, zucchini and egg, highlighted by the use of the shrimps. The execution showed the ability of chef Gennaro Esposito, the perfectly poached egg resting on almost raw shrimp tails, sweet and plump, crowned the zucchini soup made of the smallest zucchini I’ve ever seen and their tender leaves. No flavour explosion here, rather a mellow, comforting taste, which still managed to be seducing in its discrete way.
The next appetizer, maybe because of the almost perfect dish preceding it, was instead quite a disappointment, though the only one of the evening. Cozze ripiene con purea di melanzane e ricotta, Mussels stuffed with ricotta and aubergine puree, served inside a comfit cherry tomato with just a thin stroke of pesto as sauce, are one of Esposito’s classic. I found the problem with this dish to be the same one other similar dishes balancing strong and mellow flavours have: these sort of flavour pairings are like rope-walking suspended above the void. One step too much in one or the other direction and you end up with either a bland dish or one where the strong flavours dominate. The latter was the case here: the comfit tomato, the most delicious one I’ve had nonetheless, absolutely overpowered the rest. To make matters worst one of the dishes served was oversalted
The pasta course, Ravioli di Patate con salsa di Frutti di Mare, Potato dough Ravioli, with an Aubergine and Tomato stuffing, served with a Mussel and Clam sauce, managed to quickly improve our mood again. The dish was maybe not breathtaking but pleasant and enjoyable as only pasta dishes can be, while showing great technique: nice dough, light and with a clear potato flavour, pleasant stuffing and great sauce, the mussels and clams (huge for the standards of Italian vongole) tender and properly salty, the sea iodine aroma all there. I hate it when mussels taste washed out and loose their proper sea taste, they’re not meat for Pete’s sake! We also changed wine with this course and went for the quite famous Vintage Tunina (2001 vintage), a white from Friuli by Vinajoli Jermann, an opulent and impressive white.
The main course was the other dish, after the zucchini soup, that made me want to go in the kitchen and hug the huge, teddy bear lookalike Gennaro Esposito, who was just at the moment peeking from the kitchen door, a smile on his face. Nasello in tre cotture, Nasello, a Mediterranean relative of haddock, cooked three ways had all the things I love in a dish: perfect temperatures, clean flavours, a great respect for the ingredients and a certain bravery. Two squares of filet, one cooked sous-vide the other just sautéed, lay on the dish next to the fried head of the cod and a minimal garnish, a broccoli floret and the tiniest tomato bruschetta. The sautéed filet was perfect but almost disappeared from our memories once we tasted the sous-vide filet, plump, moist and velvety, and the head, fried to perfection in one of the most delicious batters I’ve ever had, gently flavoured with pulverized orange peel. The head left us slightly perplexed at the start but soon we were eating the delicious cheeks, tongue and the little flesh left attached which usually gets lost during filleting. The decision to serve a cut as the head, waste actually, and make a heart-moving dish out of it convinced me that the chef really deserved the clamour surrounding his name.
Before the dessert course we were served a small selection of local cheeses, caciocavallo silano, pecorino di Moliterno and a blue goat cheese I forgot the name of, with a little pink grapefruit marmalade and some chestnut honey. The cheeses were all of high quality, especially the pecorino, but to be honest I’m a sucker for cheese trolleys with huge choice and was a tad disappointed. But, that’s just me and my cheese-mania.
I was a bit doubtful and slightly prejudiced about the desserts of Torre del Saracino, made by Esposito’s wife Vittoria. I had read about them and seen photos before and was never particularly impressed. It just goes to show how nothing can substitute taste, since the desserts were simple, sure, but made so well the it almost made me sorry I couldn’t eat more. The only problem with them was the portion size. They would have been quite big on their own, but after another five courses they were almost huge. My white plum tart, of which I’d love to have the crust recipe, served with delicious custard was quite big, but the baba’ my wife ordered instead, coming with pastry cream and wild strawberries, could have served four. After this we hardly managed a taste of the little pastries coming with coffee.
Esposito’s cooking is a simple one carried out with great knowledge of the craft; there’s no Pollock-like sauce drizzles; no towering food constructions or wird shaped plates; and no adventurous creations of molecular gastronomy. His dishes try to remain as true as possible to the ingredients he selects by himself, something which he’s very good at, and they almost follow an ethic of understatement. His flavours are clearly Italian but his preparations recalled at times of a certain Japanese influence, especially his Nasello dish. I guess all these reasons also answer why the opinions on this cook are split so much: his cooking just can’t strike everyone’s chords. Those looking for flamboyance should better look elsewhere. There certainly is room for improvement, both in the cooking and in the restaurant itself but Esposito is someone who we’ll probably still hear about in years to come. I’ll certainly be going back, those swordfish ravioli with colatura d’alci and the pesce bandiera parmigiana sounded just too delicious to miss.