Friday, 23 March 2007

The best meal of my life

Those of you reading will start to get the impression that I only eat Italian food, which actually couldn't be farther from the truth. That said, I recently was asked about the best meal I've ever had, and I answered both immediately and unequivocally. Gambero Rosso, in the tiny Tuscan fishing town of San Vincenzo easily takes the prize. I ate there in June 2000 with one of my two best friends in the world - driving three hours from Florence in a torrential downpour just for lunch. The restaurant had been described as casual, so I showed up in jeans and a (damp) black t-shirt. After a couple of wrong turns, we ended up entering what clearly was not a casual restaurant. The incredibly sophisticated by tiny, multi-tiered dining room was guarded at the entrance by chef-owner Fulvio Pierangelini. Earlier photos I had seen had cast him as a warm, soft mensch-type. In person, he was tall, huge and foreboding - and not at all pleased at my casual garb. I apologized profusely in stilted Italian, and we were forgiven and seated. Thank god.

The lunch was prix fixe with the only option being two additional courses, bringing the lunch to eight courses which we happily accepted. As we munched the home baked crescent and multi-grain rolls with an exquisite salted butter, I perused the incredible wine list. Pierangelini has a separate 45,000+ bottle cellar across the street from his restaurant with remarkable allocations at even more remarkable prices. We began with a split of 1997 Gaja Gaya & Rey for $32.50 to accompany a warm octopus terrine with potato, followed by a fish mousse with a pungent pesto sauce. We then had a red snapper salad, also warm, with cous-cous and greens. Next was a chickpea puree with extraordinary olive oil and a generous portion of poached shrimp. This dish had been adopted in many Tuscan restaurants, but is credited to Pierangelini, who executes it in an incredibly memorable manner. As we paused to catch our breath, a beautiful plate of extremely delicate ravioli arrived. The pasta was a fascinating rolled checker board of egg and squid ink, filled with mixed seafood in a very light tomato sauce. At this point, the Gaja was long gone and we moved to a 1996 Argiano Solengo for an incredible $40 (granted this was pre-Euro, but still). We scarfed the sea bass with deep fried tiny baby artichokes and whipped potatoes, followed by squab breast seared with rosemary with spinach and garlic, and crispy squab leg and a fried dumpling of squab confit. Dessert was a chocolate terrine with zabaglione and whie custard, and then coffee with two different trays of petit-fours.

We marveled at each dish, and even now, almost seven years later, I can still taste them as I describe them. When we rose to leave, and nodded our approval and gratitude to Pierangelini, I realized the full extent of his generosity for letting me eat that meal despite my wholly inappropriate attire.

We sat on a bench outside, looking at the sea afterwards for an hour before we could muster the energy to get back in the car and drive the three hours home to Florence. I'd do it again tomorrow.

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