La Pergola and Vissani
In a past post I had inquired whether Da Vittorio and Le
Calandre were the two best restaurants in Italy
Since then, I returned to le Calandre and Da Vittorio. My meal in the former was the least satisfactory of the three dinners I have had there, but Massimiliano is certainly a gifted chef and even the least good of the three meals had its high points and should still merit 17. My dinner at Da Vittorio, on the other hand, following the unfortunate demise of the gallant and generous Signor Cerea, was still quite good, but not on par with the past two performances. It is possible that this is a temporary situation as the restaurant has also moved to a larger location with a new kitchen (unfortunately the large room has an uncanny resemblance to characterless hotel dining rooms serving safe continental cuisine). Clearly it takes time to adapt.
The two major Italian guides (L’Espresso and Gambero Rosso) rank two Michelin two star restaurants as the highest in the country: Gambero Rosso and Vissani. I had eaten in the former, and the performance was the lower end of the two star category. I have always been curious of the latter.
I was also curious as to whether La Pergola would repeat the same performance as last year.
Now I have the answers. At this point I consider La Pergola to be the only Italian restaurant that truly deserves the three star rating in Michelin (although I have never dined at Enoteca Pinchiorri). Vissani, on the other hand, has some qualities, but its performance hardly justifies its current two star rating.
Overall, it is clear that dishes are very well thought out
and ingredients carefully selected at La Pergola. The service, under the
direction of Umberto Giraudo, formerly
from Louis XV, is the best I have seen in Italy
And his combinations do work. Take the appetizers: “Scampi carpaccio on lime gelee with papaya, caviar and Tequila ice crush” and “Fritto of zucchini flower with shellfish consommé and caviar”. The former is as good as the similar dish I had tried last time, but the addition of Tequila granite with a dash of salt and bitter citrus notes elevates the squeaky fresh scampi (langoustine) to a higher plane. The fatty richness provided with good non-pasteurized Iranian Oscietra complements the symphony of flavors. Similarly, a good dollop of the same caviar works harmoniously with the shellfish consommé (which is intense but not over reduced), and the soft boiled egg the delicate zucchini flower are coated with the lightest imaginable coating that makes me wonder how many hours Beck must have spent to reach this level of perfection. Timing and temperature of the deep frying is also perfect in the sense that the ingredients are very crisp outside and juicy inside. Mikael Johnson, who has mastered this technique, would have approved of this dish!
Compared to these entrees, the recommended “zolfini bean soup with wild pig (cinghiale), leek tart, and sliced asparagus and beet” at VISSANI was simply an amalgam of ingredients which were neither in juxtaposition, nor in accord with each other. The dish was not bad, but it was “awkward” and a questionable suggestion to commence a meal. It was simply quite heavy and robust, although the quality of pureed zolfini beans was memorable.
We have continued our meal with two pasta dishes in both
restaurants. At Pergola, one pasta was new (“artichoke and mint ravioli with
mezzancole and bottarga”) and one was a repeat of an old favorite
(“fagottelli”). I have reviewed
fagottelli before, which is a reconstitution of the classic carbonara. All I
can say is that no matter how many times I dine at La Pergola in the future, I
intend to always order this dish. The ravioli, on the other hand, is also
special. Clarity is always a focus in Beck’s cuisine, and there is no question
about the integrity of artichoke, which, even in its disguised puree form,
reveals its Roman origins (what French call “artichaut epineux,” the narrow and
small artichoke which is now in season). Grey mullet roe and fresh Sardinian
prawns, which had not developed the iodized taste, were in perfect harmony with
the artichoke flavor. One can not easily improve the harmony of flavors in this
dish, although it is possible to make this even more stunning by substituting
the incomparably sweet San Remo
The two pasta dishes were much more complicated at Vissani,
but only one of the two was successful. That is, “the ravioli made from farro
and stuffed with foie gras and sweet onion and topped with sea urchin ice cream
in a sea urchin sauce flavored with marjoram” sounded like a curious
proposition, but it turned out to be one
of the most memorable pasta dishes of our latest Italy
Unfortunately the other pasta was the worst course of the meal at Vissani. A lasagna was served with “gamberi rossi”, veal jus, truffle infusion, crunchy rape on top, and blueberry jus, served alongside the dish in a bowl. Had I ordered that dish because I was craving for “gamberi rossi”? Probably. If so, over cooked ravioli, finely shredded gamberi from which all taste seemed to have evaporated, and an overpowering veal stock which reminded me supermarket quality canned stocks, ended up masking the remaining flavors of shellfish. While I was having this dish, signor Luca Vissani (the son) was telling me that he found the use of black truffles too excessive and the flavors too strong at L’Ambroisie. I can see that we have different tastes. Personally I did not detect any hint of truffle on this dish, and my final recollection was that of muddled and confused flavors, haphazardly put together.
For the fish course, we had filet of sea bass (spigola) in a shellfish-saffron consommé with asparagus at La Pergola. It was topped by a “tea” sorbet sitting on a crispy wafer made of lemon and served with the fried head of shrimp, cubed lemon jelly and asparagus on a skewer. In Vissani, on the other hand, we had langouste (aragosta) served with a puree of fava beans, turnips, prunes, lobster, and Norcia black truffle sauce and zucchini.
I was disappointed with the quality of aragosta and the
preparation at Vissani. I don’t always understand why langouste (aragosta) is
twice as expensive as lobster (astice), but I am always excited with aragosta.
The one at Vissani did not taste as sweet as the ones I am accustomed to having
in Corsica/ Sardegna, Iles des Porquerolles, or Brittany
The bass was top quality at La Pergola, as memorable as the salt crusted “spigola” we had had 10 months earlier. This time Beck presented the bass in a more complex format containing sweet-grassy-salty-citrus flavors. I admire the chef’s boldness in combining these flavors. Serving the salty/crunchy/warm deep fried head and the shell intact was also an interesting juxtaposition to the soft/cold sorbet. But somehow I found this dish to be quite challenging to fully enjoy. That is, by the time one can understand its logic and discovers the true sequence of the bites, it may have been too late to derive maximum satisfaction from this dish. One has to take very small bites from the shell, as it tastes very aggressive. Any big bite (as I have done and averted my partner not to do) imparts a bitter and lingering flavor on your palate which then cannot fully assess the outstanding quality of the spigola. After the dinner I tried to explain this concern to Mr. Beck. Would it be possible to sharpen the focus of the dish and minimize the risk without losing its complexity and marriage of flavors? It was very heartening to see how carefully Beck listens to and appreciates constructive criticism. Clearly he does not intend to rest on his laurels.
We finished with a meat course in both places. Two of the
most interesting courses in Vissani (pig and duck) were only available for
parties of four. So we have opted for lamb shoulder long cooked in heavy pot
with various vegetables and its own jus. I gathered that the lamb was raised
locally, and it was about 15 kg,. so it must have been about six months old. I
don’t think they slaughter young lamb in Umbria
The venison with a hazelnut crust served with root vegetables and a chestnut consommé at La Pergola was extremely good, one of the very best main courses I had in this trip. The venison was tender and flavorful, certainly not oxidized from over ageing, and had good punch to it so that one becomes aware that one is eating game.
We had a very good cheese course at La Pergola, but could
not trust the turnover at Vissani to order one. (There was only one other table
occupied, and apparently they were food journalists.) The reggiano at La
Pergola is very special, and they serve it with a good selection of vinegars
The desserts are on par and very good in both restaurants.
The seven deadly sins at La Pergola should satisfy both the fruit and
coffee-chocolate lovers. There seems to be a reliance on seasonal fruits in
varying textures and intelligently spiced. To my surprise the desserts prepared
by Paola Vissani are also very very good at Vissani. I especially found the
orange flavored sabayon (“zabaione”) tartlet with hazelnut coulis and a cornet
filled with orange cream to be at the level of three star desserts in France
It is also worth noting the quality of the bread courses in Vissani.
I found the sommelier to be very attentive to my desires at La Pergola. He remained within the financial parameters at which I hinted, but recommended wines I had not known before. The Furore Fiorduva 2003-Cuomo is very interesting in that it first reminds one of a good Fiano di Avellino, but the finish is more minerally and with a dash of iodine. This wine goes well with Beck’s food. The Sicilian Passopisciano 2002-Franchetti (Nerello Mascalese grapes) was also intriguing. When I swirled and smelled the wine I was afraid that it may have been in the international style but it was not. That is, the bold and voluptuous flavors seemed honest and not overextracted. Certainly the overall acid-tannin structure was balanced, and throughout the meal the wine did not lose its early appeal. It was a good match with game too.
A cornucopia of dessert wines was consumed with the seven deadly sins at La Pergola.
I have a couple of final remarks. I never noticed the
servers at La Pergola. My glass never stayed empty, but was not filled
excessively either. The performance there is a great ballet starting with the
offer of Champagne
The staff at Vissani, on the other hand, also displayed the
great hospitality often observed in Italy
Vissani: 14.5/20 (VM)
La Pergola: 18/20 (VM)
April 25, 2006