Star struck

Restaurant: Even Michelin recognises the merits of Dal Pescatore
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is a rare thrill to be astonished by a good meal, and I do not say that glibly, like a Great Bore of Today wittering on about sauce gazpacho being more in tune with today's cooking than cold soup.

I use the word "astonished" to describe an epiphany about good food. Many years ago, an Australian friend of mine (something of a guru, to be honest) told me how he had quietly wept over a small casserole containing three poached "000" Belon oysters in "an astonishing sauce" that he had eaten for lunch at the legendary Girardet near Lausanne. Whether he actually shed tears or not can be taken with a pinch of gros sel. Perhaps he was younger then, more starry-eyed and eager to be pleased - less tainted, too, by today's need to be astonished by such three-star establishments.

Why Dal Pescatore, in the Italian hamlet of Canneto Sull'Oglio (pop. 65), Mantua (00 39 376 723001), has three stars remains one of the many mysteries of the Michelin system as it is applied outside of France. When you eventually arrive there, all the expected folderol and veneer of equivalent French places dissolve into, well, just a restaurant, actually. The prices are not stellar, the wine list (wonderful) excites, the service is comme il faut, the joint is comfy. The chef is Nadia Santini, and her husband is called Antonio. He makes you feel at home but does not seem to try too hard, a trick that's more difficult than you think, and he's really, really good at it.

Signora Santini is fabulous. I have not encountered her like since first meeting Joyce Molyneux at the Carved Angel in Dartmouth in1979. Both are humble, charming and professional. And they share an unusual quality: their affection for their guests is as great as that for their respective cooking.

Emerging from the kitchen still looking immaculate, Signora Santini greeted us warmly, suggesting that we should try the local ham of the region. "I would like to serve you some to try. You must! I will also include, if you will permit, some of my home-made salami and a little piece of polenta that has been spread with a paste of melted pork fat, seasoned with garlic and parsley."

And so this extraordinary lunch began. There followed, in no particular order, extraordinary frogs from the river (a stone's throw, literally, from the rear of the restaurant), their plump legs cooked to a crust with fine herbs; pasta (tortelli) of such remarkable thinness that it could only just encapsulate a ricotta, Parmesan and pecorino filling without it spilling onto the plate; and fabulously fresh fillet of pike from the river, meticulously free of bone (a worrisome task) and cooked to such accuracy that its consistency was almost "jelled". A small stew of pigs' trotter was just that, but simply braised, resulting in a stickiness that gummed the lips together. And, in the middle of all this, a gift of a diminutive bowl of zuppa di fagioli was dispatched from the kitchen. Beans have rarely tasted quite so beany.

So we went on to consume cheese and several oustanding desserts, whose climax consisted of small squares of chocolate dipped in caramel: Crunch, ooh, ah! Crunch, ooh, ah! were the only sounds to be heard. Coffee, grappa, a second round of crunchies, a not unreasonable bill, and it was all over.

Signor Santini waved us off in the direction of Milano, a cigar in his hand, telling me how very good the preserved fruits in mustard syrup (mostarda) were at the food emporium Peck, and that I must also visit a particular salumeria, where I might find some culatello to rival the one we ate at the beginning of lunch. I wanted to tell him that his wife's home-made mostarda was the very best I had ever eaten, but then the embarrassment of having to accept yet more offerings might have overcome me completely... Oh, what a sentimental fool!

Thank you, Signor e Signora Santini, for an unforgettable lunch

This time next month, and only if you are very, very good, I will tell you about the greatest little hotel in the world

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