Cracco happened to be the very first restaurant in Italy that I ever read about (at that time a joint venture with Peck and thus called, oh so cleverly, Cracco-Peck). Not all these reports were glowing -- far from it. Many complained about the price, others questioned the "Italian-ness" of the cuisine, but some, it seemed, loved it, calling it one of the best in Italy. On this second go-round in Italy, I decided to give it a shot. Here's what I thought. (Pictures, if you are at all interested, are here: http://www.alifewortheating.com/italy...).
Un buon abbinamento is Italian for “a good pairing”. It might refer to matching a shirt with the right slacks, coupling a glass of Sauternes with foie gras, or even allowing one slightly obsessive gourmet to share the table with another. The combination is complementary and sometimes magical. And it’s probably the best way I can sum up my dinner at Cracco with just three little words.
My striped dress shirt had French cuffs, a Windsor collar, and… Wait, what? You’re here to read about the food and the wine? I see. Then first I should tell you that we were lucky. Very lucky.
I discovered just a few days before our reservation that there is a chef’s table at Cracco, so I asked my friend to call and beg profusely see if it was available. The response wasn’t optimistic. People book that table way in advance, he was told. (New parents presumably have to choose right off — start a college fund for the baby, or send him to public school and book the chef’’s table at Cracco to celebrate his 18th birthday instead.) But hey, at least we tried.
Citibank gifted us with an annoying ATM conjunction junction malfunction at the airport, which meant we arrived at the restaurant out of breath, out of patience, and horribly late. But the maître d’ was unfazed. “You doubted me?”, Davide Osterero quipped with a self-assured smirk as he led us first through a heavy swinging door and then a smooth sliding glass entrance to our private kitchen annex. Controlled chaos gave way to calm silence. We had box seats for dinner and a show. I was in heaven.
They brought a box, or rather a treasure chest of white truffles to tempt us. There was even a truffle tasting menu available. But ordering à la carte was the only way to keep all the mouths at the table happy. We unleashed Luca Gardini, the young sommelier, to pair the wines as he saw fit. I don’t want to hyperbolize, but that was basically one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Gardini’s choices redefined abbinamento for me in a way no restaurant — save l'Astrance — had been able to before. And unlike that experience, he did it in a language I could understand (for the most part). People of his caliber should be sainted.
We sipped a flute or three of Giulio Ferrari 1999 Riserva del Fondatore while some pre-game snacks arrived. The olive ascolane (meat-stuffed, breaded, and deep-fried olives) and savory baci di dama (sandwich cookies) were my favorites. But the creamy fish croquettes, dehydrated vegetable chips and four types of bread plus long, thick grissini didn’t disappoint, either.
The Insalata russa caramellata was chef Carlo Cracco’s update of a classic antipasto. This mayonnaise-bound mélange of boiled potatoes, peas, carrots and other ingredients brings with it 150 years of tradition — which is to say that most Italian kids hate it and most Italian adults are terrible at preparing it. This version could be a social reformer. Two crunchy disks of caramelized sugar infused with a powder made of dried capers and Maldon salt add pizzazz to an otherwise almost too rich and creamy combination in the center. The flavors were familiar, but their delivery was unexpected and fun.
The Crema bruciata all’olio d’oliva e garusoli di mare will stay in my mind for quite some time. A starter as stunning as the Arpège egg, it actually might never leave. Cuttlefish, olive oil, and vanilla sounded more like an orphanage for abandoned ingredients than an intentional combination. But this creation of sous-chef Matteo Baronetto won praise — 18,000€ of praise to be exact — at an international chef’s conference in San Sebastian last November and now I can see why. He cooks cuttlefish in olive oil at 62°C for 2 hours, blending it all with salt, sugar and vanilla to obtain a thick pomade. This is later chilled, passed under a broiler to caramelize the top, and dotted with winkles and pea sprouts. I plunged my spoon in and it came up creamy and thick, with the bounce of a half-set custard. It whispered a faint sweetness and conjured up sentori di mare, inklings of the sea. Its versatility was as remarkable as the taste, and frankly it could’ve made an appearance at any stage of the meal with equal grace.
Luca Gardini came in with a book. He flipped through the pages with a gleeful expression reminiscent of my niece showing me where Elmo is in her Sesame Street books (”He’s riiiiiight… there!”). The pages were edible. The pages, actually, were made of fish. Various types of raw fish and shellfish were puréed, spread out into thin sheets, and slow-cooked at a low temperature until smooth and pliable. Cut in short, wide strips, this “Marinara” di pesce in foglie con verdure croccanti (40€) came tossed with crisp artichokes, sweet little dried tomatoes, and a vibrant green vinaigrette. Cracco took the classic seafood salad and played with the textures and presentation without playing with the taste. This game was fun, and a glass of Etienne Sauzet 2000 Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet Grand Cru made a fine match.
I have the kind of appetite generally observed in animals that are taken down with tranquilizer darts or seen behind the really tall fences at the zoo. So my companions anticipated a moment of calm before the storm, while I ate the seafood salad and they waited on the dishes they had actually ordered. But Chef Cracco, kind soul that he is, must have seen the looks of forlorn jealousy on their faces. He sent them each a Musetto di maiale fondente con scampi, an unctuous block of pork snout served with a single, beautiful prawn. Gardini followed in tune with some Heymann-Löwenstein 2006 Schieferterrassen to drink.
I knew Cracco was supposed to have a way with risotto, so I ordered one that has been on the menu in one form or another for years: Risotto con olio d’acciuga, limone e cacao (36€). Anchovy oil, lemon and chocolate certainly haven’t been in my mouth before at the same time. It sounded like the craving of a pregnant woman or someone who’s just puffed the magic dragon. But it piqued my curiosity, and if that implies that I was somehow pregnant or high, then so be it. The rice was cooked beautifully. Every grain was distinct, plump and saturated with flavor, but in a blink it melted away into a creamy sea of others just like it. The anchovy oil, lemon, and cacao were salty, sour, and bitter in every mouthful. There was minimal sweetness, which was nice, as I had feared a bit more. It was bracing and bold, making my taste buds stand at attention. But its texture was thick, delicate and sexy. It was somehow satisfying and challenging at once. The pairing here was the not-so-Italian-sounding Vodopivec 2005 Vitovska from Venezia Giulia.
My friend enjoyed his Ravioli di broccoletti cotti sul rosmarino e frutti di mare e semi di basilico (36€), for which Gardini’s sippable suggestion was Gyokuro green tea, Japan’s highest grade. I popped one of his ravioli in my mouth along with a plump mussel and razor clam. The shellfish were fresh and lovely, while the unmistakable woodiness of rosemary and the seductive sweetness of the basil seeds made a masterful pairing with the broccoli rabe. Meanwhile my brother had a Milanese classic: Risotto allo zafferano con midollo alla piastra (36€). The brother tested, sommelier approved beverage for him was a sweet passito from Campania, Cantina del Taburno 2003 Ruscolo. He finished it in record time, letting us share nothing but the view. I chose not to tell him that midollo means bone marrow.
Gardini is like a fire hydrant. Crack him open just a bit and he spews forth a fountain of information in rapid-fire Italian. From a barrage of words describing the aromas and flavors of our next beverage, one stuck out: banana. A beer that smells like… banana? Indeed, that was it. That was exactly it. And somehow the Aventinus wheat doppelbock made friends with the Spaghetti d’uovo, funghi e asparagi di mare. Okay, maybe not best friends — frankly I was as confused as I was enthused. But if nothing else, it kept my brain as engaged as my palate. This spaghetti was made entirely of egg yolks — look ma, no flour! — so it had an incredibly rich flavor and a pliable, slightly sticky consistency. Mushrooms and sea asparagus tugged the dish back and forth between land and sea. A technique and a flavor pairing that showed how Cracco is a wizard with eggs. In fact, he wrote a magic book on them.
The Cicala di mare con verze brasate al corallo (55€) was just frustrating. All shellfish ought to be as fresh and sweet as this Norway lobster. Would that it were so. It was the Savoy cabbage that had been puréed with the lobster coral to a smooth cream, but somehow the ultra-tender chunks of cicala seemed to dissolve on my tongue with even more ease. A few tantalizing little tendrils of radicchio di Treviso provided welcome bursts of bitterness. This was a simple dish (or at least it appeared to be), but precise cooking and prime ingredients made it an immensely satisfying one. Its alcoholic running mate — Domaine Ramonet 2006 Chassagne-Montrachet Premier Cru “Clos de la Boudriotte” — was also lovely.
Sea urchin is one of the first terms I learn in any language, so I was immediately drawn to the Rognone di vitello al forno con ricci di mare e spugnole (40€). This was my first experience with eating kidneys (and funny enough it was the first of three consecutive nights that I would have it) so I was unsure what to expect from the rognone, but the seductive sweetness of the Castello di Monsanto 1993 Vin Santo “La Chimera” must have been enough to put me at ease. A dish with considerable heft, the veal kidneys and sea urchin roe were paired with morels and sauced with an intense veal demi-glace. This loud cymbal crash signaled a slow decrescendo to a blissed-out state of surfeit.
Was it the Barolo taking over, or were my brother and my friend always so smiley? They sipped some Edoardo Sobrino 2004 Barolo “Vecchie Vigne di Montivigliero e Pisapola” and their exaggerated grins were downright silly. He already complained of being well beyond full (hell, so did I), but my brother obliterated the Fassone arrosto, anice stellato con patate croccanti (40€) like a champ. Given his undying love for steak and potatoes, I was not surprised. His only disappointment was the fries, which were less crispy than he would have liked. My friend practically polished the plate that had borne his wild hare: Filetto di lepre dorato e glassato con castagne, mele cotogne e salsa di melograno (44€). With those ingredients — chestnuts, quince and pomegranate sauce — I probably would have done the same.
Adjectives used as nouns are just one of the many lovable characteristics of the Italian language. Cremoso means “creamy”, and that’s exactly what the Cremoso all’arancia, carota e paprika was. I’m not sure if this copper-colored disk should be called a pre-dessert or a savory postscript. Like the olive oil crème brulée earlier, this could stunt double for a dish at any point in the meal. The orange, carrot and paprika combination had a flavor that was a more smooth and sweet than I had expected, tasting more of fruit than root.
The Diplomático Riserva Ron Extra Añejo tasted of, well, alcohol. That web link claims it smelled of white chocolate fudge, but I was far too inebriated by this point to either confirm or refute that. I didn’t do back flips over the Cioccolato fondente e avocado al peperoncino fresco (25€), though frankly acrobatics were out of the question — I wasn’t even sure I could walk. I’ve had chocolate cake with chili pepper before, but the inclusion of avocado was a new one for me. I had expected it to play a slightly salty role here, but instead it was only vaguely sweet. Little hillocks of shortbread crumbs were actually saltier, sweeter, and more buttery than the avocado.
I switched plates with my brother mid-way through, though he was reluctant to admit such a plan ever existed. So, yeah, I basically stole it. He’d ordered the Caco al forno, pesto d’arachidi e bignè caldo al nocino (25€), to my taste the better of the two desserts. Wedges of warm persimmon came laced with a peanut pesto and had the consistency of a thick custard on the tongue. There’s something utterly luxurious about this fruit when it is baked. The mini cream puff spiked with nocino, a walnut liqueur, was lovely and I would venture to guess that I could have eaten approximately 200 more of them. But if that would entail 200 more glasses of The Arran Malt Single Malt Scotch Whiskey, then I take that back.
My friend is my hero. He is known to drink champagne throughout entire meals, and here he was having caviar for dessert. But even better than the mere presence of the caviar was the fact that it worked remarkably well with his Crochette di cioccolato gianduia, chinotto e caviale (50€). Warm croquettes filled with pure liquid chocolate-hazelnut sexiness would have been more than fine on their own. But with the bittersweet chinotto underneath, little globules of caviar dispersed about, and a few well-placed grains of sea salt on top, these croquettes were otherworldly. In many restaurants, I would imagine that putting caviar in a dessert might have been more interesting than ingestible. At Cracco, it was done with finesse and fluidity. And it was enjoyed with some Capovilla 2001 Bierbrand Distillato di Birra Theresianer.
A somewhat shaky stroll to and from the bathroom suggested some caffeine was not a bad idea. Thank goodness they brought even more food while we downed an espresso — I was just famished at this point, as you can imagine. The Piccola pasticceria (a.k.a. petits fours) at some restaurants are a forced afterthought. A little box of coffee-flavored edible contact lenses made it clear that is not the case at Cracco. A thin little film of coffee gelée with a convex center even felt like the real thing on my fingertip. Maybe I need to get out more, but I thought this was an exceptionally fun presentation of a really simple idea. Dehydrated fruit chips – kiwi, orange, and apple among them — recalled the vegetable chips we had eaten a few hours before. Hazelnuts covered in bittersweet dark chocolate vied with powdered sugar-dusted almonds for the stomach space that all of us claimed but none of us really had anymore. Then I glanced down at the large tray of macarons, truffles, tuiles, jellies, and cookies and managed only a smile — laughing was too jarring for such a full stomach.
They essentially killed us with kindness all night, and I would gladly die such a happy death anytime. I couldn’t remember how many dishes I had actually ordered, but I definitely tasted about a dozen. I didn’t say much about the flavors of the wines on their own, because honestly I’m not sure I’m capable. But Luca Gardini’s choices — and the accompanying explanations — were enlightening, well thought out, and just plain enjoyable. Truth be told, Cracco is the first restaurant in Italy I ever read about. This was several years ago, before my love affair with this beautiful country began. So even if it wasn’t like I was returning home, it did feel like I had made a new one.