In a country with almost as many Michelin-starred restaurants as days of the year, I drifted from Milan to Rome with only one goal in mind: to stuff my gullet daily with as many stars as I could stomach.
While fine-dining my way along the 400-mile drive through Northern and Central Italy, that land of Dante, I gained fifteen pounds, spent 3,000 euros, and experienced a Divine Comedy-like journey from culinary Inferno to Paradiso.
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Cracco, Part 1
NUMBER OF MICHELIN STARS: 2 in 2017
To get to Heaven, one must first travel through Hell. And I, along with my wife (the Beatrice to my Dante), began in the Michelin version of Hell: Cracco.
Carlo Cracco is the Gordon Ramsey of Italy. He hosted MasterChef Italia from 2011 to 2016, and currently screams at contestants on, apropos of Dante, Hell’s Kitchen Italia. So, naturally, we assumed that his 2-Michelin-starred eponymous restaurant in the center of Milan would be an incredible feast.
It was eight o’clock at night when my wife and I entered the restaurant on the ground floor at the original location at number 4 Via Victor Hugo (as of February, Cracco can be found in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II). The host unlocked the door from the inside and locked it again after we stepped over the threshold. I don’t know why he did this. He took us in an elevator two floors down, two floors closer to hell, into a pristine, brightly-lit subterranean dining room. It was as quiet as a church. The other diners, and there weren’t many, didn’t speak, and when they did, they whispered. The waitstaff, who were many, also spoke softly.
They brought us the menu and we asked for the wine list. It was the biggest goddamn book I’d ever seen, fatter than a Gutenberg Bible that swallowed a first edition of War and Peace. We decided to order à la carte rather than the prix fixe and made sure to get two of the restaurant’s signature dishes: caramelized Russian salad and marinated egg spaghetti. But first, the wine. I know very little about wine. But as I perused the biggest goddamn book I’d ever seen, my stomach turned, my heart thumped, and I realized: we would not be getting out of here without spending a paycheck on booze. I asked the sommelier for a recommendation. He pointed to a Pecorino from I don’t know where that was produced I don’t know when. It was 350 euros. I looked at him and said, “Perhaps something else,” which I hoped was code for, “Come on, buddy, let’s be reasonable.” It did not translate. He pointed to something else – it cost 400 euros.
I’m usually not very shy about saying, “Perhaps something less, maybe a 100 euro bottle instead.” But, for some reason I sheepishly said, “The Pecorino will do.” I’ve thought a lot about this since– especially as I realized we’d be drinking something that cost the same amount as a nice pair of Italian loafers. Cracco is designed in much the same way as a cathedral. Not architecturally, but conceptually. It is a restaurant that wants you to be in awe. The silence, the pretense, the Bible-sized wine list – they don’t lend to comfort but instead create an altar at which to cast away humility and give thyself up to the cooking gods. If a priest sommelier tells you to say 350 hail Marys order 350 euro wine, by god, you will!
Either way, the wine arrived. And this is when we got very angry.
The sommalier opened the wine and smelled the cork. He set it down. He poured the wine into a glass. It was a healthy pour for a taste. It was probably 40 euros worth of wine. But then, to my shock, to my wife’s shock, the bastard sipped it himself. He sipped our 40 euros worth of wine! Now, I’ve seen this before at other restaurants to other diners, but never suffered it myself. I’ve read about it before, as well. But I always made two assumptions: 1. The sommelier would only taste if the diner found the wine objectionable; 2. The sommelier would request the sip. But, no! This fella, without even blushing, sipped it himself and told me it was fine. He then poured the wine and took the rest of his pour away – most likely, I thought, to enjoy later on, or to share among his family, probably while laughing at us rubes in the dining room.
We drank the wine. It was fine. Was it 350 euros fine? To me, no. To my wife, no. But, whatever. It was done. We might as well lighten up and enjoy the food.
We did not.
The signature dishes were tired. I’m sure they were once interesting, back when the trickery, hokum, and food voodoo (foodoo?) of molecular gastronomy were all anyone seemed to care about. But now, in the clear light of day, this food was all technique over flavor. The caramelized Russian salad – a Russian salad within the crust of caramelization–was unpleasantly sweet; the egg yolk pasta – a pasta made solely with egg yolk, without the benefit of flour–was unpleasantly bitter. These dishes didn’t produce astonishment at the cleverness of Carlo Cracco, but begged the question: why? Why did you do this? What was the point?
To add insult, the waiter poured the rest of our wine, but left just a touch in the bottle (perhaps a tenner’s worth) and then took it away, probably to toast our ineptitude and cowardice.
We paid the bill and left angry and unsatisfied. We bought a slice of pizza outside the Duomo and felt a bit better. And we began to wonder, will the rest of our Michelin experiences be so disappointing? So maddening? After all, this joint had two Michelin stars! The service was cold, the food disappointing.
Soon, we would find that Cracco was the exception, not the rule. And in the end, whatever gods of wine and cuisine exist (Bacchus, I’m assuming), are, in fact, just and noble gods: in its most recent guide, Michelin has unceremoniously stripped Cracco of a star.
Next, we were to climb out of the Inferno.
Osteria Francescana, Part 1
NUMBER OF MICHELIN STARS: 3
Though it’s natural to want to skip Purgatory and go right to Paradise, it’s a necessary step. And Purgatory is trying to get a reservation at Osteria Francescana. It’s one of the most famous restaurants in the world, considered by many to be the best on this—or any other—continent; it has 3 Michelin stars, only twelve tables, and it’s a real pain in the ass to get a reservation.
Here’s how it works: reservations open up online on the first of every month at 10 am CET for the month three months out (so, on February 1, you can book any date in May). You need to book at that time. So set your alarms. You will need to keep refreshing (it’s best to have more than one computer). You will get a screen that reads, “Oops! The reservation area is not accessible at the moment due to overcrowding. Please try again in a few minutes.” You will be very stressed. You are in Purgatory. It is, by nature, stressful.
Osteria Francescana, Continued
But we got those reservations! So, now, enter Paradise.
The doors opened at eight o’clock on the dot. Patrons were lined up outside the pearly gates, worried they’d be turned away. One by one they gave their names and were taken inside. It was dark and sleek, not quite what you’d assume Heaven to be, but comfortable.
Of the 12 tables in the various rooms, six were occupied by other Americans. At the table next to ours was a doctor who happened to practice at the same office as my own internist in Los Angeles. There were a lot of Angelenos in Heaven. This was not a restaurant for the people of Modena, but for those who had journeyed a very far distance–a pilgrimage crawl for grandiose grub.
And for that reason, we ordered the Tutto menu paired it with wine. There are a lot of things a couple can buy for 840 euros, but few would be as delicious.
Osteria Francescana, Continued Again
What came next was a progression of something so beautiful that it felt rude to actually eat it. If you’ve read anything about Francescana, then you’re aware of its greatest hits. We certainly were. We’d lusted after them–and then they materialized in front of us. One after another. These magical, fantastical, whimsical–and, yes, delectable–creations: “Autumn in New York”, “Camouflage Pigeon”, “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart”, each more lovely and sublime than I could imagine. But, “Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano” was, singularly, the most lovely. Quite literally parmesan cheese made in five different manners with five different textures, it was exquisite. This was the “David” of food. And, like “David,” one must experience it to truly understand its beauty. It was not made for words. It was just too good.
With each presentation of a dish, there was a strange silence that followed, but unlike the stifling atmosphere of Cracco, here it was genuine. Spiritual. And then, it happened: at the conclusion of the meal, Chef Massimo Bottura emerged, as though ready to take a bow, and roamed from table to table. Every American in that room looked ready to drop to their knees and prostrate themselves before him. This was an audience with the pope! We looked into the eyes of god that night.
But when it was over, and we were sent away from god, returned to earth, mere mortals, there was a sort of sickly horror. Not in our stomach–no! But in our minds. Like the comedown off a drug-induced high. Next came the depression. This had been the Everest of cuisine. We had been to the top of the world, now everything would sit in its shadow. What does one do after Paradise? There is no sequel to the Divine Comedy. Food would never be so good again.
NUMBER OF MICHELIN STARS: 1
We were fallen angels desperate to get back. After you’ve seen “David,” you need to see more beauty. And beauty is beauty. And good grub will always be good grub.
The Winter Garden reminded me of this. Set in a glowing Florentine hall in the belly of the St. Regis, with a surprisingly energetic pianist and a charmingly informative waitstaff and sommelier, the restaurant radiated a warmth of hospitality that instantly proved to be happy-making.
As tasting menus go, it was reasonably priced at 95 euros per person, and though each of the five courses was quite lovely, it was the poached lobster that so reminded us that heaven is always just another Michelin forkful away. It was a dish that we begged to have again, at any time of day. Throughout our time in Florence, we considered it for every meal, even breakfast.
And thus, we had risen! The depression had been lifted. We were ready to consume even more stars!
The One That Got Away: Enoteca Pinchiorri
NUMBER OF MICHELIN STARS: 3
But alas, we were now fat and poor. We woke up so full. We were mortal, after all. We didn’t want to eat any longer. We couldn’t. We imagined ancient Romans sitting in their vomitoriums and envied them. We longed for a vomitorium to call our own. We needed a night off. We needed to fast.
So, we canceled our reservations at Enoteca Pinchiorri. Looking back, I’m disgusted with us. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions in my life–but I regret almost none of them. But I do regret this one. It’s regarded as the best restaurant in Florence and has three Michelin stars. It’s one of those lessons–just push through things, push through hell to experience them while you can.
INSIDER TIPPush through hell.
La Pergola (3 Stars), Part 1
NUMBER OF MICHELIN STARS: 3
Heads hung low in shame, we fled south to Rome, insisting we keep the remainder of our reservations.
Up a winding road, a brief cab ride away from the center of the city, was the Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria Resort. The property itself gave no indication, no hint, not even a whisper that it was anywhere within the general vicinity of Rome, or even Italy. The ’60s-era exterior exuded Los Angeles brutalist modernism, the glittering lobby oozed Las Vegas extravagance, and the accent of the chef of this restaurant, La Pergola, curiously smacked of Berlin.
That chef was Heinz Beck. We met him briefly. Though not terribly tall, he seemed to carry himself with an intimidating intensity, though it was almost certainly a regal confidence. After all, La Pergola is the only restaurant in all of Rome to have three Michelin stars. He can be as intensely confident as he damn well pleases.
La Pergola, Continued
There’s a joke in there somewhere–a German chef beating out the Romans and becoming the only restaurateur in the whole of the Eternal City to have uno, due, tre Michelin stars–but this was no laughing matter. If food tells a story, this was not the sad comedy of Cracco, nor was it the magical realism of Francescana—this was an operatic saga. This was an epicurean epic.
Before us was the whole of the city, its lights so far away. We were in a room that was decadently ornate, yet restrained enough to avoid vulgarity. Trolleys steered from table to table piled high with cheeses. Wine materialized from a smiling sommelier.
And then the food: It began as though a curtain were slowly rising over the hum of the Rheingold Prelude, an amberjack tartar on watermelon, simple yet goose-pimple inducing. Marinated crustaceans with sweet pepper and jam of onion, scampo in spicy ‘nduja crust with aubergine puree, loin of lamb with wild fennel in cereal crust. And all the while, swirling around like dancers were wild cheese carts, wonderfully odoriferous wagons. We were voracious players in this opera of food.
La Pergola, Continued Again
But the magnum opus–this evening’s “Ride of the Valkyries”–was the Fagotelli, a dish so legendary that it should arrive in the arms of Brunhilde herself. This is Heinz Beck’s signature dish, one that even Michelle Obama has fallen for.
It is a type of ravioli filled with egg yolks, pecorino cheese, whipped cream, salt, and pepper. It arrived with a drizzle of Guanciale (pork cheeks) and veal stock. Its delicate preparation hides its secret: it will burst in the mouth, as though licking a landmine. That explosion stirred every taste bud on my tongue, all 10,000 of those voracious little buggers, awakening them, arousing them, casting them into a frenzied spell.
It was very good.
And then, 245 euros per person later, it was all over. A heavenly reprieve! We didn’t even realize that long and winding road out of Rome had spirited our return. Here was heaven! And Heinz Beck a surprising angel! But belly’s full, dinner concluded: we plummeted once again, tumbling, tumbling down. But this time the depression didn’t come. We were again fallen angels, yes, but this time, armed with the knowledge of how to get back to god—or at least his dining room.
Il Miracolo! La Terrazza
Our Michelin wander completed, we settled into our seats at an un-starred restaurant on our last night in Italy. Here our heroes’ journey would end: on the top floor of a Dorchester Hotel, the Hotel Eden. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful hotels in the city, with one of the most glorious of views. So, there we sat at La Terrazza, where Fellini used to conduct his interviews, sad and wanting to be in heaven. But could we get there with a 160 euro prix fixe gourmet menu that hadn’t the approval of a Michelin star?
Dinner was another in a long line of lovely eating: impeccably prepared, carefully executed, and, most importantly, exceptionally tasty. And, in a city that is known for its cacio e pepe, a city where everyone has their favorite joint to indulge, somehow La Terrazza was able to come up with a new spin on an old favorite: macaroni and cheese.
Enter now the cacio e pepe, literally surrounded by a fog, by a mist, by a smoke that filled the nostrils with the aroma of rose petals, as though we were in the middle of the Garden of (the Hotel) Eden before the fall of man. And then came the Romans: that impeccable spaghetti and Madagascan black pepper with a bouquet of floral effervescence. And though I said trickery, hokum, and food voodoo (foodoo) often feel so overplayed, here it was so slight and subtle but worked so well to reimagine a dish so old, and so damn good. Heaven bound, we ate damn well.
So, after this long and fattening journey, we at last learned a real lesson: Heaven could be found in a regular, run of the mill, non-Michelin-starred gourmet restaurant.
But, wait! Lo and behold! After our return, just as Cracco was knocked down by one, La Terrazza picked up its first, very well-deserved star. This is indeed a just and moral world that we eat in.
So, a revised lesson: Heaven exists on earth. It’s in Italy and it’s really expensive.