As Italian I have progressively developed a suspicious attitude towards the Michelin Italy red guide, with its inconsistency, at times inexplicable evaluation parameters and their striking undervaluation of Italy’s best. After all it is French (OK British now, even worse!). Yet, it was not without some sensation of awe that I made my way towards what very probably is Italy’s longest standing Michelin three star restaurants: dal Pescatore in Runate, a tiny location on the river Oglio, still in the Mantua province, but only just. Once a simple countryside trattoria serving fried fish and Lambrusco wine, it has evolved through the years, without compromising its character, to become one of the recognized centers of finest Italian cuisine and hospitality. Critics from all over the world have praised the work of Antonio and Nadia Santini, owners and respectively maitre and chef of this Relais and Chateaux restaurant. Still, occasionally, I would read less than enthusiastic opinions on dal Pescatore’s cuisine. Insignificant, brainy and heartless, old fashioned would be some of the criticisms, followed by lamentations at the little changes in the menu over the years and finishing with accusations of the food being French (as opposed to Italian), by now the stereotyped and often extremely superficial attack used to dismiss Italian fine dining establishments. A question was hanging in the air: would dal Pescatore be a treat, “the best restaurant in the world” as US critic John Mariani called it back in ’99, or THE disappointment of my relatively limited carreer as starred restaurant customer?
"The middle of nowhere" is a good definition of where Runate is: after a number of wrong turns, we arrived to this low and charming building. The interiors are warm and welcoming, and yet classic, as only a rich country residence can be. Sitting next to the fireplace was almost overkill. Sipping a flute of Annamaria Clementi Franciacorta sparkling wine from Ca del Bosco and munching a few perfect Parmigiano chips - inspired by the age old tradition old leaving parmesan crusts on the stove to soften and become a rustic savory snack - we started contemplating the menu, a little work of art in itself, adorned by a new artistic print each year. At this point I should confess something, at least to my dining companions: I had long made my choice and kindly bullied my table mates into following me ordering the menu della Campagna, the Land Menu, binding for the whole table. This Menu carries the most famous dishes of dal Pescatore, Mantuan cuisine classics that have made the history of this restaurant. Coming from a half Mantuan family myself I was, in a way, submitting the kitchen to a hard test: I have eaten some of these dishes at least twice a year since I could chew my own food, and know all too well the pitfalls of these dishes could encounter. I was also quite intrigued: would the food be reinterpreted or would it stick to the classic recipes?
Even before our menu’s dishes arrived to our table, the kitchen’s philosophy became quite clear. Our amuse, a small bowl of anolini in brodo, small braised meat stuffed pasta in a full-bodied chicken broth, was as classic as it gets. This is my favorite Christmas dish at home and all I can say, risking the wrath of my family, is that these Anolini were even better. From this point onward we switched from the sparkling to a seducing white wine from Friuli Venezia Giulia, Terre Alte 2001 by Livio Felluga picked after from the plentiful wine list. Our anitpasto might have caused the noses of a few foodie snobs to curl up. A "rustic" salumi platter with its Salame Mantovano, polenta con gas pistà (polenta with herbed lard), and Culatello di Zibello, not much different to what might be served in a simple trattoria and at first sight a dish unfit for a three starred place. I find the idea that salumi, no matter how great, are inevitably part of low/popular cuisine fallacious and prejudiced. If Italian cuisine depends as often claimed on its fine ingredients (something one could argue about) then too seldom food journalists, critics and food lovers recognize that the best of these gems land in the kitchens of a few lucky restaurants. A simple dry cured salame might be delicious, a perfect one should make you long for its taste forever after. In this case the Culatello expert at the table, Ore, could not find a single imperfection in the particular one served that evening, (though I have to admit the 40 months old one at Al Vedel tasted even better).
Our meal continued with a taste of three primi, the Italian carbohydrate-laden Atkins dietician’s nightmare first course, two from the menu and an extra one picked for its disputed reputation. Tortelli di zucca, tortelli filled with a mixture of pumpkin, Amaretti biscuts, Parmigiano and fruit in mustard flavoured syrup, are dal Pescatore’s signature dish. A real classic of Mantuan cuisine, this dish walks on the fine line balancing the mellow and sweet pumpkin, savory Parmigiano, nutty Amaretti and piquant fruit, a balance fully centered at dal Pescatore. The following risotto al pesce gatto ed erba cipollina, a perfectly cooked catfish and chive risotto, probably made with Vialone Nano rice and kept somewhat drier than the risotti “all’onda”served in Milan, pleasantly continued the terroir theme. Our brief step into the winter menu, the alternative to our land one, proved that Nadia Santini’s kitchen can indeed have some interesting creative impulses. The Tortelli di Burrata, Ricotta di pianura e Parmigiano di collina (tortelli filled with burrata, ricotta from the plains and Parmigiano from the hills) served with a little black truffle on a saffron sauce, a dish people either rave about or dismiss altogether as uninteresting, were the quintessence of creaminess in a stuffed pasta with the sauce creating just the necessary contrast to keep every bite of the dish seducing. Together with the Pumpkin tortelli, these were the highest point of the evening.
During the entirety of the dinner, and even afterwards, on our little tour of the restaurant’s cellar, the service was impeccable. I can’t recall who should be credited for saying that the best waiter is the one that is there when you need in and is inconspicuous when you don’t. Whoever it was, he would have enjoyed the service of dal Pescatore, which besides being exactly as described, also managed to be friendly and warm, and really made us feel at home. I was not surprised to learn, afterwards, that of dal Pescatore is considered to be one of the best front of the house teams in Italy by fellow restaurateurs.
As much as I was taken away by the primi, I was slightly disappointed by the the fish course, where I could indeed see a reason for the accusation of some dishes being somewhat too brainy. The Rombo con salsa verde Mantovana (turbot with Mantuan green sauce) was flawless yet failed to cause the same emotions the primi had awakened in me. I also found the use of turbot out of place in a land menu. A sweet water fish might have made more sense, but maybe the need to fulfill certain three stars parameters comes into play here. The Cappello del Prete di manzo al Barbera con Polenta (Barbera braised beef with polenta), paired with an impressive Montevetrano 2001 from Campania, brought things back on track: simple and heartwarming with its full bodied taste.
An intriguing cheese selection preceded the sweet end of the dinner, two great goat cheeses from caprereia occitana and an unusual yet delicious “white “ Gorgonzola above the nonetheless delicious rest. A large choice of mignardises preceded our desserts: I have to admit I’m a sucker for these little sweet bites, and these were quite nice. For my dessert I departed from traditional fare and after a taste of cassata (not the Sicilain sweet, rather the reinterpreted Northern version as semifreddo) offered by the kitchen I picked a nice passion fruit soufflé, which I would have definitely appreciated more had I not stuffed myself with the mignardises. All the desserts were paired with the beautiful Recioto I Capitelli by Anselmi from Veneto.
Dal Pescatore is , to me, a very special place. Looking back at the criticisms I mentioned at the start of my post, I notice how some are absolutely ridiculous. The Santini’s work is so innately Italian, actually Mantuan, that accusing their cuisine of being French is sheer blindness. Calling dal Pescatore insignificant is also beyond the pale: how could anyone seriously interested in modern Italian cuisine play down one of the building blocks on which that cuisine is built and a place which continues to be a reference point for many? There are only very few places in Italy which manage to bring Italian traditional cuisine to these high peaks. And yet it is quite simple to see why the cuisine can fail to tickle some people’s gastronomic tastes. There’s no flamboyant plating or preparations here, no chef’s ego bigger than his creations. What this three-starred restaurant is, after all, is nothing else than a country trattoria brought to perfection: perfect atmosphere, perfect service and perfectly executed dishes. If your concept of haute cuisine is one based mainly on creativity steer clear. Or better, give it a try with an open mind, you might be surprised. If instead you believe that tradition can have a place in haute cuisine, even in today’s frantic restaurant scene, and if you’re deeply charmed by the concept of trattoria then dal Pescatore might touch a special place in your heart and become a very fond memory, as it is for me.