Ligurian waters are stingy, but the sea here is saltier, and the seafood more flavorful. Paolo seeks out the smallest, most tender calamaretti(baby squid), sears them, and then rhymes their sweetness with a purée of zucchini and leeks. Pristine raw shrimp garnish his tartare of tuna just off the boat. The restaurant even has a separate menu of raw frutti di mare, a visionary document in a country still suspicious of sushi.
Paolo's vivid Mediterranean flavors somehow clash with his rococo snuffbox of a restaurant—five tables downstairs, four on the second floor. He himself, with his Gen-X goatee, looks like a crew member for one of the Franco-Italian yacht owners cushioned in Marie Antoinette chairs among pastoral murals. Is his stoccafisso too cool for this blue-blazered crowd?
Emilia-Romagna Goes Iconoclastic
Massimo Batturo refuses to join high-profile restaurant groups, chase ratings in guides like L'Espresso or Gambero Rosso, or pine for a Michelin star. And you won't find any flowers or crystal at his dark, atmospheric old osteria in the center of Modena, just a scattering of contemporary art (Batturo is a renowned collector) and mismatched plates that he bought in America. All this probably explains why Batturo's inventive, articulate, technically brilliant cooking has escaped the attention of the conservative Italian food press. In New York or London, he'd be the toast of the town.
More than a decade ago, Alain Ducasse happened upon Batturo's first restaurant, just outside Modena. The celebrity chef was so taken by Batturo's balsamic vinegar menu that he whisked him awayto hisLouis XV in Monte Carlo. For months the young Batturo sautéed and reduced, soaking up the rigor and reverence of a grand Gallic kitchen. ("In France chefs are gods; in Italy, niente," he laments.) Ducasse released him into the wild with a piece of advice: Never copy my style—develop your own.
Batturo has obliged by creating focused minimalist plates at Osteria Francescana that draw on the cream-rich traditions of Emilia-Romagna while trading excess for innovation. His "deconstruction of Parmesan" is an ensemble of three textures, all derived from the king of Italian cheeses: a smoky, satiny mousse; a thin crisp; and a cream sauce that is edible gold. (It doesn't hurt that the parmigiano is a rare specimen from a tiny producer.) Two startlingly different vinegars—syrupy, aged balsamico and light raspberry—are juxtaposed in a dish of pancetta-wrapped pork. One is a sauce for the meat; the other flavors the onion chutney.
Why is the simple-looking langoustine risotto so wildly, improbably intense?Hours of alchemy—reducing, straining, puréeing the crustacean into the rice—raise it to another dimension. Boned baby chicken is cooked in copper over a high flame, then flash-grilled, for meltingly tender meat and shattering skin. Even a standard poached pear is transformed, with a dusting of fresh peppercorns, a ruby glaze of Lambrusco, and lemongrass ice cream.
And yes, Batturo makes divine ur-Modenese tortellini, his grandmother's recipe. Sorry, Alain, she was the one who really taught him to cook.
Industrial Chic in Rural Umbria
Italians design smart shoes, slick furniture, pretty cool cars. But none of these adjectives apply to the look of contemporary Italian restaurants. Unbelievably, the people who created the Ferrari eat in places that evoke a 1982 Buick LeSabre.
That's why Il Postale, in the handsome Umbrian town of Città di Castello, feels like such a discovery. An old gas pump used as a menu stand and a huge poster of the country's first Pullman bus hint at the restaurant's past incarnations—first as a coach station, then as a post-office garage. The industrial space stretches out under a beamed pitched roofwith a trelliswork of overhead wires and lamps; diners sit on racy chrome-and-leather chairs. For a provincial Italian town, this is a restaurant out of the 22nd century.
Setting up shop two years ago in such nonconformist quarters was a gamble for Marco and Barbara Bistarelli—he's in the kitchen, she does the rest. They knew the food had to be better than good. It's better still. ¾uiet intelligence shines through the menu, from the haute-homey truffled ricotta mold with a lentil sauce to the lavender mousse. The pastas are so irresistible you have to restrain yourself from ordering more. Potato gnocchi—the lightest I've ever had—are dabbed with clams and chanterelles, a lovely play of water and woods. A tangle of stringozzi is shot through with the musky taste of Umbrian truffles.
Main courses uphold this standard of carefully orchestrated simplicity: roast squab comes marinated in coriander and cloves and accompanied by raviolo svestito—"undressed raviolo"—an ethereal custard of eggs, ricotta, and greens. Stylish, inviting, molto moderno.Italian restaurant décor should borrow a few adjectives from Bistarelli's cooking.
Alpine Grass and Other Delicacies
In the Piedmont, where cuisine is cult, Flipot is the high temple of cheese and wine. Chef Walter Eynard, who looks as if he stepped out of a medieval Lombard painting, belongs to the Waldenses, an ancient Protestant sect headquartered here at the foot of the Alps in the eerily provincial town of Torre Pellice.
Flipot's subdued dining room—imagine a stone cellar crossed with an orangery—attracts well-born Turinesewho nibble on dainties like terrine of eggplant and basil, or zucchini flowers stuffed with a salmon mousse. Me?Irecommend the vernacular stuff: mountain lamb roasted in hay, a casserole of snails presented in a tiny cast-iron pot. Nothing, however, can top the list of 80 Barolos, or the astonishing ethnographic display of rare mountain cheeses: peppered tomino with the texture of marshmallows and the flavor of goat; sairas bundled in Alpine grasses; sweet ricotta-like giunca. End with a lavender mousse in a divine puddle of warm chocolate sauce, plus some almond biscotti to dip into a flowery-nosed Forteto della Luja. Flipot's guest rooms are unselfconsciously familial and woody, though you can hear the rumble from the road that charges up to the mountains—leading exactly nowhere.