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Experience at 4 Italian 2 stars

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Experience at 4 Italian 2 stars

JmVikmanis | Oct 17, 2003 10:19 AM

During a recent trip to Italy (Amalfi coast, Umbria, Tuscany and Liguria) we were able to eat at four restaurants currently rated 2 star by Michelin--Don Alfonso in the Amalfi area, Vissani near Orvieto, La Tenda Rossa not far from Florence and Arnolfo, closer to Siena. We found each quite different from the others though all four meet high standards and the reasons for their high ratings are readily apparent even if our personal experiences and impressions led us to significantly different conclusions when comparing them to each other. In preparing for our trip I consulted a 2001 Gambero Rosso magazine. That year all four were included in their top 16 rated restaurants in Italy and interestingly enough all four were identically scored at 90 points on the GB rating scale though there were variations in how each achieved their 90 points with Vissani rated highest for food but lower for wine, etc. In 2003 GB had dropped Arnolfo from the top 16 altogether and the other three had somewhat different overall ratings--Vissani 92, Don Alfonso 91 and La Tenda Rossa 90. Here is our experience with these culinary temples:

Don Alfonso in Sant Agata Due Golfo outside Positano--For a brief period Michelin awarded 3 stars to this place. The drive to it is almost better than the place itself. Due Golfo means two Gulfs and at a couple of points along the way you can see the myriad lights of both the Gulf of Salerno and the Gulf of Napoli. It is breathtaking, but not for the faint of heart. The drive from Positano takes a fair amount of time and is pretty hair raising. Though I had heard that the restaurant décor is a bit tired and rustic for a major restaurant, we found it quiet, restful and pretty. Colors are pastel pink and green (certainly not inspired, but pleasant) and each table has one tall candle to diffuse light down on the faces of diners. Nearly every table was filled and there were a couple of large groups when we dined there on a Wednesday evening.

I was very happy with the menu choices since goat is my favorite meat and this menu offered kid. It was well prepared and nicely presented though the liver presented with it could have been left off the plate for me. Several of our dishes were variations on a theme, peppers in one dish, tuna in various forms in another, and a variety of lemon treatments on the dessert plate. One of their cuter items was a dessert featuring a coffee cup fashioned of hardened chocolate with latte brulee in the cup and an edible chocolate spoon standing upright in it. Cute, maybe too cute, but certainly tasty. Service was pleasant and unstuffy though our waiter left the distinct impression that we should let him choose rather than make our own selections for dessert.

When we finished we were invited to step out of the restaurant and across the drive to a sitting room in the adjoining hotel to peruse books in the library and sample more wines with the hostess who also apparently cooks with her husband. Since our driver was waiting to return us to our hotel in Positano, we felt we ought to move along rather than avail ourselves of this hospitality but it was a nice addition to the service and the overall experience. This place doesn't bowl you over or leave you speechless by any means, but it does provide a pleasant experience with competently prepared and nicely served food. Go at night if you can to see the lights on the way. The meal for 4 with 4 Italian sparklings to start and two bottles of wine plus tip was 625 euros.

Vissani--We went to Vissani for lunch rather than dinner after visiting Orvieto, Knowing that we'd be doing some sightseeing beforehand and that we might have a little trouble finding the place we made our reservation for 2 p.m. Even so we were about 10 minutes late and arrived exhausted from our search for the place which has an address of Baschi but is really in Civitella del Lago and doesn't even have an easily recognizable sign causing us to drive by and need to return. After all we went through to get there (and perhaps because even though we'd confirmed and reconfirmed we were a bit late with an already late reservation) we were greeted with no warmth. The maitre d' was a young woman wearing a tan suit with vest and coat of tan and white large checks with tails. One member of our party thought it (or maybe just her) cute but I found it more than slightly affected especially for lunch service. Since she was also the non-smiling "welcomer" I was doubly put off by it all. Unless other diners had already come and departed--unlikely given that this is the kind of destination restaurant that one expects to take at least two hours or more for a meal--it appeared that only one other table had been/was occupied that day, by a single gentleman who read a magazine throughout his meal.

The place is beautiful, more like an elegant house with grand piano and sitting rooms filled with couches and modern art as were the dining rooms. Two windows provided views into activity going on in the immaculate and beautiful kitchens (where apparently a staff of 16 was working to provide the food for our table of 4 and the other diner). These windows fit into the art theme as they were framed in elaborate gold and wood frames.

Food was very good and beautifully presented. The breads alone were worth the frustrating search for the place. There was herb bread (actually little buns) and tomato bread and wheat/grain bread, but my favorite was a tiny potato roll in which you could taste and feel the chunks of potato and that tasted a lot like the Swedish lefse of my childhood. My starter, however, was crazy. Sometimes when I see something on a menu that sounds almost bizarre, I'm seized by an irresistible urge to try it to see what it can possibly be like. Thus did I come to order grape soup with herring covered in almonds with a side of barley broth. Sometimes this irresistible urge rewards me with amazing tastes that I would never think to put together. Sometimes it curses me by delivering food that is every bit as bizarre as it sounds. Thus it was this time. Flavors just plain discordant and unfortunately the herring taste, which was the most discordant of all, was the one that remained with me even after the meal. My pasta dish was, however, excellent. I had seen the trofie-like shapes being handmade through the artfully framed window. They were served lightly sauced and accompanied by baby shrimps encased in a green leafy handmade dish. Scallops were also skillfully prepared, nicely presented and topped with caviar. Dessert was the best tiramisu of my life.

The restaurant was beautifully decorated, the food (with that one notable exception for which I could assume responsibility for bad ordering--but it was, after all on the menu so I refuse to accept the blame entirely myself ) was mostly superb but the overall experience lacked soul. Cost was almost identical to that we paid for dinner at Don Alfonso and likewise included 4 appertifs and two bottles of wine.
La Tenda Rossa was another restaurant that we found difficult to find. We went for dinner and approached it from the south where we were staying near Monteriggioni rather than from Florence as I would expect most diners do. Perhaps this accounted for our problems in getting there but not our need to circle the block twice to find it within the town and then to find parking. (We wound up parking illegally on the street across from the place but were lucky enough not to be ticketed.) The town it is in, San Casiano in Val di Pesa, seemed charmless, although so did the actual town in which Don Alfonso resides--and for that matter, the lake which Vissani overlooks is man made and not particularly attractive either. What's with these people, putting these wonderful restaurants in anything but wonderful settings? Is it all designed to see how really serious you are about seeking out good food?

I had read that the décor is tired and ho-hum. Maybe they've redecorated since that review or maybe my tastes are tired and ho-hum. I found it pleasant, understatedly elegant, and modern in an almost classic manner. I also liked their use of art objects rather than flowers on the tables--something we'd seen before at Gualtierro Marchesi so it's hardly innovative, but it is a nice touch IMO. Service was pleasant and the maitre d' was patient in translating the menu for us. By the end of the meal, however, service began to drag and finally had become downright slow. Nearly every table was filled on the Saturday evening we were there.

We started with a chef's surprise of cauliflower soup with bacon and croutons. Good. I was very interested to see how an upscale place would prepare my selected starter--octopus with potatoes. This is a very common dish in coastal areas of Italy with tiny chunks of chopped up octopus and generally warm chunks of potatoes sharing a bath of vinegar and/or lemon and oil. I like octopus and I love anything with potatoes so I really enjoy this fairly ubiquitous but sort of peasant, certainly traditional dish but was anxious to see how it would be prepared in a two star restaurant. Oh my! I was amazed and I must admit, very put off. The potatoes were mashed and spread into a triangle on the plate and they were covered with itty, bitty whole baby octopuses (octopi?) with their tentacles up. My friend viewed this from my left and commented that it looked like a decorated Christmas tree. I, viewing it with the point of the triangle pointed toward me, looked, looked again , told my friend that a Christmas tree wasn't at all what it looked like from my vantage point and began to giggle uncontrollably. There facing me head on was a dish that I will forever call "Octopussy." Whether it was the food or the image, I have to say it didn't taste all that good and probably colored my overall impression of the restaurant. Actually it didn't taste nearly as good as all of those plain dishes of chopped octopus and warm potatoes in oil and lemon I've eaten at unstarred, even unlisted, seaside trattorias all over Italy. In fairness, my pasta dish, cavatelli with lamb and rosemary was very tasty though nothing special for presentation. Sometimes pasta is pasta is pasta and even a highly acclaimed restaurant only makes it look like pasta. (Would that they had done similarly with the octopus.) My fish was competently cooked and came with a sweet honey sauce which would have been more acceptable if it had also included the rosemary that the menu promised but the kitchen failed to deliver. We were too full to order desserts. Cost for four of us with two bottles of wine came to 405 euros, considerably less than meals at the other 3 restaurants but we also had considerably less expensive wines.

Arnolfo in Colle de Val d'Elsa near Monteriggioni and San Gimignano, now that was a restaurant with soul. The warmth that I found missing at Vissani was here in spades. The owner/maitre d' provided every service we could have asked for, translated the Italian menu into English for us, provided information about wines and the restaurant and the dishes we were eating, and just plain made the entire experience personal and fun. He was in fact utterly charming.

Having tried to find this restaurant without success on a previous trip and having had to give up in frustration on a dark and windy night (thereby not honoring our reservations, something I regard as an unpardonable sin even though I called to cancel as quickly as I could--but that's another story and a long one so I'll not burden you, gentle reader) we made our reservations this time for lunch so that the brightness of daylight might aid our search. We were successful and even had sufficient time to explore the upper town of Colle di Val d'Elsa, that had proved so frustrating previously and now seemed quite charming--and much more fun to walk about than any of the other towns these restaurants reside in (see carping above.) It was a Sunday and though we were the first table seated, the place filled up shortly thereafter. The décor while nowhere near as costly and elegant as Vissani provided its own unique setting with art deco touches and complimenting music from the 30s and 40s.

The food was not trendy but highly competent and wonderfully tasty. We were provided multiple tiny starters on a tray then a chef's surprise of tuna and eggplant terrine. We ordered menus here rather than from the carte as we had at the other three restaurants. In retrospect I wonder if menu dining doesn't generally provide a more well-rounded experience and a better opportunity to really sample the repertoire of the chef. What am I saying? Of course, it does and even as I write this I recognize that in fairness we should have ordered menus in all 4 establishments. Oh, well, what else are "next times" for?

At any rate here's what the menu provided: Rolled sole with fennel served lukewarm, spelt with scampi and dill at room temperature (I love food served room temperature. I think it brings out flavors and nuances you miss in hot food and it always gives me hope that I might serve something similar at a future dinner party because it's easier than trying to serve everything hot.) Shrimp and speck atop beans with more spelt and bean sauce--a little too similar to the previous dish but good as well. Ravioli stuffed with rascasse. Seafood and fish in basil broth featuring langostine, shrimp, mussels and red mullet. Very nice. Mini dessert of cactus flower jell in cream sauce with crispy cornflakes. A three piece major dessert plate of cinnamon ice cream, pastry with apple and fig and a pear in wine sauce--sounds like too much but it was nice. A final platter with multiple jells, cookies, etc. like most starred restaurants serve as a finale to their menu.

Both brother owners (the maitre d' and the younger chef) said good-bye and helped usher us out the door and a young waiter ran after our car in the rain to deliver the wine label that we had asked be removed from the bottle for our travel log but that had been forgotten as we left. This experience had it all. Excellent food, good anbiance, exceptional service and soul. Cost of the menu meal with two bottles of good wine and a generous tip was about 575 euros, more than La Tenda Rossa but a little less than the other two.

Comparisons and rankings.
I found it interesting to read on another food website the reactions of other diners including one whose experiences were apparently the exact opposite of mine as relates to Vissani and Arnolfo. I found the latter to have the soul the former lacked and also to have the best service of all 4 restaurants we visited. The other reporter found Vissani to have passionate soul and Arnolfo to have dismal service. Go figure.

The 2003 Michelin Red Guide rates all four with 2 stars. In 2001 they singled out Don Alfonso for 3 stars. I've already mentioned the variation in ratings provided by Gambero Rosso in 2001 and in 2003. In talking with my husband and our two traveling companions I even find variations among the four of us who ate in the same places at the same times. I tend to base my impressions and rankings on a mish mash of factors that I refer to as "overall experience." On that basis I rank them as follows starting with the highest--Arnolfo, Vissani, Don Alfonso and La Tenda Rossa. The feminine half of the couple who traveled with us provided ratings that were identical to mine. My husband, who tends to weight food most heavily or even exclusively, ranks them La Tenda Rossa, Don Alfonso, Vissani and Arnolfo--exactly the reverse of my ratings. The masculine half of our traveling companion couple has his mailbox overflowing and missed his chance to have his vote counted.

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