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It doesn't take much to get me to tell you that whenever I go to Italy I'm disappointed with the food. I always thought it was a function of the cooking being too simple for my taste. But a few years back, I was in the Piemonte on a truffle eating weekend and my friend Dwight Merrimen made the following observation. He said that the problem with dining in Italy was that lunch and dinner were basically the same meal. He went on to add that some restaurants try to make the food fancier at dinner and that often "screws it up even worse". His observation, although seemingly obvious, was a mild thunderbolt for me. Now that someone had said it, of course that was true. In France, it is easy to have lunch in a bistro or brasserie serving simple braises or grills, and then experience cutting edge culinary theory and technique for dinner at a multi-star Michelin rated restaurant. But in Italy, often what passed for a grand dining experience was merely a fancier version of what you had at the tratorria for lunch with the major difference being the level of refinement and the cost of the meal. Pouring salt on the wound was that in many cases the cucina at the tratorria was more enjoyable than the cucina at a grand restaurant.
It took all of one day for Dwight's theory to be proven out. On our first full day in the region, we had lunch at Tratorria dela Posta in Treiso and dinner Da Guido in Castiogle d'Asti, one of the regions most famous, if not its most famous restaurant. The menus at each of the restaurants were virtually identical, and the difference came down to the cucina at Da Guido being more refined. Unfortunately, this "improvement" made the food less enjoyable. Our rustic lunch which featured a crudo di vitello with shaved white truffles (a dish I will never forget) was highly enjoyable. But our dinner was outright uneventful. In fact I'd go as far as saying it was boring. So from this point on, I tried to avoid planning gastronomic trips that included Italy. The one time I did change my mind about it I went to Milan for a few days but my meal at Aimo e Nadia was pretty dismal.
It was against this backdrop that I booked a table for lunch at Le Calandre. I had heard that chef Massimo Alajmo was not your typical Italian chef. In fact one review I had read described him as one of the only chefs in Italy who could cook with the top chefs in France. Ever the optimist, there I was taking a 12:15 train from Venice to Padua, and then a ten minute taxi ride to Rubeo where the restaurant is located. We arrived around 1:00 and found a building that housed a small hotel, a casual restaurant, and a pasticerria. La Calandre is situated at the back of this small enterprise operated by the brothers Alajmo.
The restaurant seemed on the large and spacious side considering that there were only nine tables in the room. The decor is modern and it reminded me of being at Guy Savoy except the room was bright because of the windows that allow natural sunlight into the room. We organized our own tasting menu and started with a country egg with black truffle puree. A bit rustic compared to other egg and truffle dishes that chefs are serving but a nice start to the meal. Then gamberri rossi (red shrimp) served with warm ricotta, olive oil and cocoa from Venezuela. Ah, this is the kind of modern Italian cooking I was looking for. More subtle than it sounds, the taste was soothing and the mixture of the olive oil and chocolate powder was delicious. I can imagine Pierre Herme concoting something like this and it is something I would definitely like to try again. Then what we thought was the best dish of the meal and one of the best of our trip. Stockfish in a langoustine emulsion served with crackers made from Piemontese red rice which were sandwiched around a thin layer of Mantecato rice prepared sushi style. The stockfish, whipped with olive oil until nearly smooth, was the perfect example of how a talented chef can upgrade home cooking into something unique. You took some on your fork, dunked it into the emulsion, then smeared it on the rice crackers and ate it like an open faced sandwich. Just glorious with amazing complexity and anchored by the deeply flavor of langoustine emulsion. Unique and different, but also completely Italian. Bravo for this dish, and bravo for this direction in Italian cuisine.
Warm potato soup with sepia in its ink was thick and warm. It reminded me of a slighly grainy vichyssoise. Very good although I thought it could have been a bit more highly flavored. I know the restaurant features the dish on their website so they must consider it a signature dish. It turned out to be a mistake to serve the potato soup after the more strongly flavored stockfish was one of the few errors that the restaurant made. Either the front of the house or the kitchen should have noticed that we were having a milder dish after a more strongly flavored one and they should have switched the order. Then a boullion of chicken and beef broth with truffle ice cream and truffles. Again very nice but the same problem as the potato soup. The flavor was subtle compared to the potato soup. In addition, the dish seemed more interesting before they instructed you to stir the ice cream into the broth. If I had to do this menu over I would have these three dishes in reverse order.
Is it unusual to have two risottos at one meal? I guess most people would think so. But it so happens that Le Calandre has two risottos that are muched talked about. Considering that I don't get to Rubeo that often, how could I leave one of those risottos behind? Well I couldn't and what is an extra risotto to those of us who are committed to the fine dining experience. The first risotto, flavored with saffron and licorice, with a bit of red pepper added, was absolutely delicious. A perfect example of a modern risotto and I wish more chefs would step out of the usual mold and try to make them in this style. Then the risotto with dried Italian capers and espresso. This risotto didn't do it for me, possibly because I'm not a huge fan of capers. I found the dish bitter and for some reason the strong flavors didn't really evoke the spirit of risotto. We finished the savory part of our meal with pigeon topped with pureed pigeon liver, served with a tranche of herbed polenta. A very nice dish but not as ambitious as some of the other courses and more like what I am used to seeing in other fine dining establishments in Italy.
We drank 2003 Raveneau Chablis Valmur which they were selling by the glass for 20 euros (almost reason enough alone to eat at the restaurant) and a bottle of 1967 Borgogno Barolo Riserva which was super and really opened up into something special after about 90 minutes. We had a very nice cheese course and a fitting dessert of chestnut ice cream with rum ices. Finally a photo of Massimo Alajmi.
So not only an excellent meal, it was good enough for Italy to redeem itself from the series of ordinary meals I had that were masquerading as fine dining experiences (actually it was my second one in two days as I ate really well at Da Vitorrio in Bergamo a few nights earlier). Le Calandre is a restaurant that is definitely deserving of its three star status. Not on par with the elite restaurants like Gagnaire and Bras, but very much the equal of the restaurant in the next category down. I'm looking forward to going back. In fact I have already made tentative plans to go back in spring 2007. A-