I've been to Combal.Zero a good handful of times now, and though it doesn't get as much attention outside of Italy as it warrants, it has become probably my favorite restaurant in the country. The following story will walk you through a few of those meals, with a funny story unfolding along the way. All the pictures, if you'd like to check them out, are here: http://pocketfork.com/italy/combal-zero/. Hope you enjoy!
Conventional medicine tells us appendicitis cannot be directly caused, that it just happens. I’m here to tell you that Davide Scabin gave my brother appendicitis, and that — sorry, bro — I still have to thank him for the meals that did it. (The surgeon and our insurance provider send the chef their warmest regards as well.)
This story begins like most of our tales from traveling together — my brother Andre was poised to kill me at any moment. Still jetlagged and suffering a food hangover from the day before (and the day before that), he was being dragged to the third in a series of dinners so excessive I feel dirty just thinking about them.
I was not the only one to thank blame for this gluttonous streak, however. I had an accomplice — one who combines the rambunctiousness of a child, the wisdom of a great-grandfather, and the appetite of an entire family. We’re not actually related, but he is our Uncle G.
“Don’t worry,” Uncle G assured us when we sat down around 9pm — a worrisome omen if I’ve ever heard one. Without elaborating he scurried away to talk with chef Scabin, who, we were told, had promised us “a few very light courses… ten of them.” Naturally this tally did not include desserts, and I’ve always maintained that you can’t not have dessert. Thus began a slow downward spiral that would culminate in a trip to the operating room… but I’m jumping ahead in the story.
“Let’s have just two tonight,” suggested Uncle G with a smile so warm you can’t say no to it. Being prudent in light of the prior nights’ bad decisions, he meant just two bottles of wine. Being imprudent, he was talking only about red wine. He and I both knew that white and dessert wines would bookend the reds, but the rest of our conversation took place in Italian so that Andre was none the wiser.
As wine began to ease into our bellies, so did the food. A thin slice of raw Fassone veal came splattered with a creamy anchovy sauce and toasted hazelnuts. Nowhere but in Piemonte does veal taste so delicate and yet so flavorful at once. A few minutes later, tomato seeds — the fruit’s soul that is often banished to waste bin purgatory — and lemon oil provided the pleasantly acidic backdrop for single creamy oyster. Then roasted Carmagnola peppers were blended into a luscious soup with a tower of exquisitely sweet shrimp in the middle.
Rabbit was prepared in a way that rendered its flesh like that of cooked tuna, and served with a hard-boiled egg-and-mustard condiment typical of Asti. Black cod — a fish too-often marred by miso in America’s fusion restaurants — came pan-roasted, stacked on roasted bok choy and various chicories bathed in a bright yellow tomato sauce. Gossamer layers of pasta enveloped burrata and basil, while tomato and an unexpected spark of lime zest tempered the richness of the filling.
Triple frying — a technique I’d only seen applied to British chips and Korean fried chicken — was the treatment Scabin chose for a branch of rosemary that provided the garnish, and the intoxicating woodsy aroma, for a velvety chickpea soup. Its crispy shards graced every spoonful of what was probably my favorite dish of the meal. Later a fat chunk of veal fillet was breaded “Torinese-style” (with grissini) while two cuts of exceptionally tender lamb waded about in a sauce redolent of mushroom and black truffle.
But let me not skip over the bonus round between those meat courses — eggplant “tataki” with a proprietary blend of three tomatoes Scabin had tweaked countless times before finding the right mix of flavors and textures. And speaking of flavors and textures, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a more true representation of those contained in an eggplant. For that alone, the chef should be applauded. Getting the most out of a single ingredient is no small feat.
Near the end of the meal, just when our guard was down, Scabin hit us with a loud riff (one which he would later illustrate theatrically for us on the air guitar). Kidneys with cucumber and an extremely potent gin sauce sent Uncle G into a state of rapture, but for Andre and I the dish was a little bit, well, challenging. It was a slap in the face, a shock, a cold shower just when we’d gotten warm and comfortable. A few desserts — including a lovely number involving pears and Pimm’s No. 1 — were scarcely able to bring us back to equilibrium.
From there, dinner morphed into something else altogether. Scabin invited us back to the staff break room after we’d finished our coffees and chocolates around 1am. A certain number of gins were then poured, as were a few tonics, possibly at the same time. A crazy old bottle of Barolo was uncorked and emptied. Around 4 or 5am, Scabin figured we’d have regained our appetites, so culatello and an unbelievable salame from Lazio were hand-sliced and laid out before us. A mammoth wheel of cheese was broken down before our eyes, Scabin methodically cutting and dividing it such that four distinct cheeses — each with a completely different taste, consistency, and pungency — emerged where only one had been before. A box of colorful confections that Uncle G brought from Genova was opened and obliterated. Salt was the subject of conversation for about an hour; tomatoes, for two. My brother, as you can imagine, was bored to death enthralled.
Before I know it, we’re in the car with Davide — with whom we are definitely on a first-name basis at this point — at 9 o’clock in the morning. He’s driving us back to our hotel in Torino, half an hour away. Never have I seen traffic regulations so thoroughly ignored nor with such nonchalance. I think I’m terrified, but I’m too tired to think.
Much to my brother’s chagrin, the chef keeps insisting we “make a party.” He seems not to mind the fact that there is not a single person in Torino awake on this frigid Saturday morning with whom such a party might be “made.” Davide is older than Andre and I combined, but he makes us feel old, lazy, even uncool. We crave sleep, and back at the hotel, we indulge in it all day.
That night, we are back at Combal.Zero. Davide has personally invited us this time. The dining room is completely full when we arrive, but we are led right through it into the kitchen. A smallish metal desk flanked on either side by tall shelves full of booze has been set for us. Tonight we’re having the “.Zero” tasting menu, here at this impromptu chef’s table.
Of fourteen courses, every single one of them is executed with remarkable finesse. The Check Salad (so-called because one can “check off” a whole spectrum of tastes – – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami – as they eat their way across the plate) comes with a small perfume bottle full of a salt solution with which we are to season the salad. Being a mature adult, my first instinct is to spray my brother in the face, reliving a particularly nasty fight he and I had several years ago involving a bottle of Windex and lots of yelling. Ah, memories.
We have several types of shellfish (lobster and scallop and oyster, oh my!), some fish, some meat, some do-it-yourself ravioli — you know, some stuff.
Desserts are a lot of fun, especially the Hot Chocolate in the Wind. We dab some mint-flavored cocoa butter on our lips before sipping a bubbly hot glass of insanely rich chocolate. Every time we inhale and a chilly tingle passes over our lips, we understand perfectly where this dessert got its name. Clever.
Several courses have made us smile, but the final one, Cyber-Eliocampari, makes us laugh. A small bag of mini M&M’s anchors a helium-filled balloon to our table. Inside the bag are concentric liquid-filled spheres of plastic. One has campari on the inside; the other, soda. We put them in our mouths and bite into a cocktail explosion. Then we eat the candy, suck the helium out of the balloons, and spew nonsense at one another until our squeaky voices run out.
Just like the night before, we end up hanging out with Scabin well into the wee hours. Just like the night before, when we expect a check, there is none.
To this day, I don’t really know why Davide treated us to those two wonderful meals, but I’m extremely grateful that he did. Maybe he knew that he had me at hello, that after the first meal I’d have to come back again and again (which I since have). Subsequent visits have included dishes both new and familiar, and it is in that duality that I have come to better understand Scabin’s cuisine.
One newer creation is the Matrioska di Tropea, named for the Russian dolls that fit one inside the other. A Calabrian onion is disassembled layer by layer, filled with crème fraîche, licorice, onion seeds, and caviar, and painstakingly reassembled. The onion itself is cooked without salt. Drops of an oil infused with grilled peppers, squash and eggplant add a smoky depth, while the other garnishes bring acidity, salt, and sweetness into the picture. On the plate, it is just a wedge of onion. In your mouth, it is a dynamic dish that changes at every instant.
Scabin’s Langa-roll is a simultaneous nod to Piemonte and Japan. An Italian interpretation of maki sushi, here thinly sliced Fassone veal wraps around thinly sliced foie gras and a bundle of fried vegetable artichoke, onion, and potato sticks. A reduced stockfish-and-mushroom broth served off to the side acts as the soy sauce. The contrast between crunchy and creamy, earthy and meaty makes this an immensely enjoyable dish. In a perfect world, I might just have 40 or 50 of these and call it a meal.
Lastly I’ll mention LXL (“elle pour elle”). The first “L” is for lingua, or tongue, cooked in a spiced broth; the second is for Laura (Ravaioli, a well-known TV chef in Italy to whom Scabin dedicated the dish). On top of the tongue — which is unbelievably tender and delicious on its own — sit medallions of raw scallop. Underneath is a thick coconut cream. It is an aromatic, nuanced dish that reflects an almost — dare I say — feminine sensuality.
These are not the dishes of a brash risk-taker whose food is weird for the sake of being weird. Yet most of the English-language reviews of Combal.Zero, of which there are very few in existence, tell ghost stories of such a chef. The real Scabin is not so. His is a deliberate, purposeful cuisine. He is a tireless researcher, and one of the world’s biggest proponents of what he calls Food Design. In fact, he has taught a class on the subject at the Polytechnic University of Torino. His curriculum explores how chefs can combine elements that touch every aspect of human existence — art, emotion, music, pop culture, ergonomics, functionality and so on — and curate them as they bring a dish from conceptualization to the plate. He clearly enjoys this game, and he wants dearly for you to enjoy it as well. In this sense, maybe he is a culinary provocateur. But he’s also an immensely likable dude, and I’m proud to call him both a friend and a mentor.
The day after our second dinner at Combal.Zero, Andre and I are on a train toward Courmayeur, a beautiful mountain town in the Valle d’Aosta. Our plan, for once, doesn’t revolve around food — we’re going to take pictures of snowy Mont Blanc, or Monte Bianco as they call it on this side of the border. My brother has been quietly grimacing for much of the ride, clutching his midsection. He suffers intermittent fits of nausea and appears quite dehydrated, but I figure he’s just hungover. Get yourself together, I tell him. We’ve all had stomach aches before. His face, though, is awfully pale. We get off the train, and I can tell we won’t be climbing any mountains today. He looks like a walking ghost. Frantically, I search my memory annals for the Italian term for emergency room — pronto soccorso — and we head to the nearest one. The rest, as they say, is history — his story, and a pretty good one if you ask me.