Since it was so accolated, I thought I would recount my meal there. And just returning from a couple of weeks visiting restaurants in Italy, I’ve been thinking a lot about Italian dining. Even more so than usual.
Dinner as part of a Gruppo Ristoranti Italiani gastronomic trip in 2011, there were about three dozen of us, the only diners in what seemed to have been a typically shuttered day for the restaurant. With such a large group, it was a set menu. Six courses. All terrific. Delicious, beautifully presented, creative, ambitious and often unusual, all with evidently superb ingredients, the plates were served with perfect pacing and skill. This was even more impressive to me given the size of the group. A similar-sized meal at the similarly praised Del Posto in Manhattan the next year, which was good, but paled in comparison to this one at Uliassi.
It all began with the table set with an array of breads that I described at the time as “fancy” and were easily the tastiest of the trip, which included some top restaurants. Excellent restaurants will have excellent breads. That analog might be more true in Italy where the cheap trattoria or osteria likely have cheap, and maybe stale I found, bread as part of its coperto, cover charge. White wine, the region’s pride, Verdicchio, provided the necessary complement.
The first dish was triglie, the flavorful red mullet, that was lightly breadcrumb-encrusted, pan-fried, and served on a bed of parsley-centric sauce. It was wonderful, nicely crisp with slightly zesty taste, a great combination of contrasting textures. The second was roasted red shrimp – featuring the Italian favorite gambero rosso – oddly served with mashed potatoes, also bits of fresh black truffles, pieces of hazelnuts and colored black with squid ink in aspic. Served in a wide-lipped white bowl that further highlighted the predominance of the black-colored food, it looked rather foreboding. Delicious, though. The shrimp were cooked with anchovies that provided a subtle bite to an eccentrically composed, but very tasty dish that I ate very quickly.
Then came the smoked spaghetti with small clams and roasted peeled cherry tomatoes, a fun take on the Neapolitan classic spaghetti alle vongole. The smokiness came from eel broth. The commercial dried pasta was cooked for eight minutes I learned later, not al dente, but perfect with the dish. The taste was thankfully not overly smoky, just flavorful. The fourth preparation was sauteed spigola – sea bass that seems to be the same thing as branzino, though this was wild-caught – in a somewhat rich and just slightly earthy pigeon-based sauce, featuring mushrooms and evident rosemary. Fantastic. Like most diners and also chefs, I wouldn’t have thought to pair a saltwater fish filet, or any fish, with the sauce based on a smallish bird, though it was certainly inspired.
The savory courses had ended and the first of the desserts was a yogurt ice cream with arugula and passion fruit featuring pink peppercorns, with the ice cream was covered in a tasty sugar-based coating. I found it elaborate, predictably chef-y, and excellent, even with the leafy greens. The finale was an espresso crème brulee with bombolini, a donut-like sandwich, and chocolate pop rock. The crème brulee was terrific, the doughnuts good, and the pop rocks tasted like pop rocks. It was only item that did not impress. Of course, I haven’t been impressed with pop rocks since my days in single digits.
I think that we were all ecstatic following the menu, as good as it was. Lunch earlier in the day was at a place with a single Michelin star. We got to tour the amazingly spacious and spotless kitchen afterwards. I got to ask chef and proprietor Mauro Uliassi about the brand of pasta he used in the smoked spaghetti dish. It was a small brand from Gragnano, which is celebrated for its pasta, which he generously gave me a box. That pasta didn’t make into something involving smoked spaghetti but it was an additional reminder of a what became a long-memorable meal.