Enoteca Pinchiorri: far from a credit crunch lunch

I wouldn’t say that it’s been a lifelong mission to come here, but it’s certainly been on the list ever since it won its third Michelin star in 2004. Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence is one of Italy’s most revered restaurants – most expensive, too, many will grumble. But don’t let that deter you. Just to get it out of the way though, yes, Enoteca Pinchiorri is hideously expensive - our bill for four came to 500 per head with wine. Get over it – or don’t go.

Ok, so we went a bit berserk on the wine list – which isn’t hard to do, the cheapest Italian wine I could find that I wanted to drink was 125 euros, but the 11 course tasting menu will hit you for 300 euros. If we had known, we would have stuck to five courses, at 200 euros. For a tasting menu the portions were huge and we only ate half of what we ordered.

Housed in a Renaissance palazzo a stone’s throw from Santa Croce, Enoteca Pinchiorri – or Enoteca Nazionale di Giorgio Pinchiorri & Co to give it its full name, pampers right from the start, with a flurry of suited and polished-booted greeters hurrying to meet you at the grand entrance. Then we were shown into what looked like granny’s drawing room, where we waited on stiff-backed chairs amongst sombre portraits and brightly-lit chandeliers – for just two minutes – before being ushered up to the empty pink dining room (well, it was 7.30pm) sans aperitif, or even a squizz at the menu for that matter. Rather odd.

It turns out there are five dining rooms, housed in different rooms throughout the palazzo, but only two were operating that night, revealed our waiter. Ours, with five tables, filled up throughout the evening, though we never did find out where the other dining room was, or whether it was busy. The recession is hitting luxury dining, too, clearly.

We were offered a complimentary glass of wine to welcome us. A Franciacorta bubbly, perhaps? Guess again. A glass of white from the Rhne, a Chave Hermitage – classy, but not Italian.

We peruse the extensive a la carte menu, and the two different tasting menus – one traditional, the other ‘innovazione’ and decide on a mix of the two tasting menus, which they graciously agree to do, opting for the Full Monty, 11 courses – hey, it’s our first visit, and we probably won’t be back for a long while.

The owners are Giorgio Pinchiorri and his French wife, Annie Folde, who is listed as the chef, alongside Italo Bassi and Riccardo Monco, and they’ve been here since 1972. Giorgio is, apparently, working that night, but he fails to make an appearance at any of the tables.

The sommelier hands us a weighty, leather-bound tome. We’ve asked for the Italian list – there’s another one for international wines. And we’re talking over 5000 bins in all, some 145,000 bottles (I’ll get to the cellar later) – value off the scale. But not before the sommelier tries to steer us to Burgundy. What’s with the big French wine push? We’re in Tuscany!

One of the cheapest, but still interesting, wines I could find is Peter Pliger’s 2007 Eisacktaler Kuenhof Riesling from the Alto Adige at 125 euros, so we opt for that. It pairs the juicy scampi tails perfectly, served simply with a slick of artichoke puree and a few blobs of fruity extra virgin olive oil. Italian cooking at its best - but ‘innovazione’? Hardly.

We also order a bottle of Silvio Jermann’s 2005 Capo Martino, a Malvasia Bianca blend from Friuli-Venezia at 175 euros a bottle (you can buy it for about 40 at home), which more than lives up to its reputation and stands up to the more powerful fish and vegetable dishes that come our way, even a course of distinctly un-Italian goose liver parfait, served with strawberry jelly and essence of liquorice.

We particularly loved the homage to burrata - the creamy mozzarella-style cheese from Puglia that is given centre stage, presented three different ways - in a hollowed out egg shell, where it’s mixed with a celeriac puree then set to resemble the white of an egg, the ‘yolk’ is more burrata flavoured with saffron; then a sliver of fresh cheese presented simply on a piece on wafer-thin toast; finally fried burrata, oozing when you cut into it.

Salt-free, rough textured Tuscan bread is brought to the table with a dozen different salts, from pink Himalayan to two from Hawaii, along with three different extra virgin olive oils, including one from Calabria and one from Tuscany.We used the bread to scoop up our next course of poached egg with Jamaican pepper, Parmesan cheese fondue, sliced pancetta and zucchini cream (fabulous).Then we return to ‘tradizione’ after those two courses of ‘innovazione’, with shrimps cooked with garlic then served simply on a dense, smooth, chick pea soup – re-confirming why classic Italian food rocks.

Ingredient of the moment - lard from Colonnata - forms a diaphanous blanket on a fillet of sea bass – its skin deep-fried and jutting out at an angle, the lot on a bed of pured leeks with a sliver of skinned tomato somewhere in between (the Riesling proves a great match for the fish).

Another hit is the agnoletti, filled with finely pureed polenta, which explodes on contact, the accompanying sauce an intense combination of sun-dried tomatoes, mustard seeds, cumin, fenugreek, shallots and powdered ginger (we asked).

We also enjoyed another powerful dish of spaghetti served with a rabbit and mussel sauce (yes, together) that came with a thick green pesto that you stirred in yourself.

Craving some red wine for the meat courses to follow, we went with the sommelier’s suggestion of 1997 Percarlo from San Giusto e Rentennano – a 100% Sangiovese made in the traditional style. “But not too full-bodied – it’s one of my all-time favourites”, the sommelier urges. And did we mention the cost? 450 euros. Yes, feel free to gulp.

Actually I found it too tight, and the flavours too intense for the dishes that followed and we abandoned it two-thirds of the way through - no wonder we each received a bottle of decent St Emilion (French, again?!) as a leaving gift. The sommelier was overjoyed with his booty.

By this stage, we’d pretty much had it. A shame because the pigeon dish, served with its leg, complete with claw pointing daintily upwards, was cooked to perfection, served with more artichokes, and heavenly dauphinois-style potatoes. The baby pork was outstanding too, meltingly tender, served with cabbage and pear.

And just as we thought that we couldn’t process one more morsel, along came an ingenious white chocolate granita scattered with passion fruit seeds, tiny purple flowers, and caramel chips, which picked us up – just in time for a wave a puddings, and a chocolate trolley, the likes of which we’d never seen.

The mouse maze – “The Labyrinth” - causes a collective dropping of jaws – particularly the dark chocolate ladder and white chocolate mouse scurrying off the plate, concealing a moist banana plum cake (the pastry chef worked at El Bulli). We’re given another Friuli on the house to pair with it – a moderately sweet 2005 Picolit from Rocca Bernarda. Then a slice of traditional Easter cake, Colomba, with coffee, which finishes us off.

We walk off what we can around the cellar before we depart. Enoteca Pinchiorri’s wine collection is legendary and has won countless awards. There are big names at every turn, including a whole wall of Sassicaia and Solaia, and head sommelier Antonio Rosalino’s personal favourite, Henri Jayer, with verticals galore. We spot Chateau d’Yquem 1896, Ptrus from 1926 and special cuve of Krug for a cool 4700 euros, making our wine spend that night seem a tad modest.

There are verticals of all the big Bordeaux and Burgundy, plus verticals of some New World cult classics, including Napa’s Screaming Eagle. The large format cellar keeps us quiet for a few moments more, before we let out an involuntary scream at the 1947 Cheval Blanc, at 25,000 euros a bottle.

Will we be back? If we win the lottery. Best bit? The black cabbage bread. We like our Italian best when it’s simple, it’s seems - and I can try to make that one at home.

Enoteca Nazionale di Giorgio Pinchiorri, Via Ghibellina, 87, 50122 Florence, Italy, tel: 055-242777.


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