The certain winner for Most Charming 3-Star Ever, this gorgeous and quirky family enterprise occupies an elegant corner of the chalky, lightly rolling terrain between Milan and Venice in rural Runate, Italy. Fully three generations of the Santini family work under the same roof to create a touchingly authentic experience. The whole evening could broadly be described as breaking the fourth wall with style. In the five-and-a-half hours I spent there (which flew by, by the way), I felt that I got a real glimpse of the lives and passions of this large, welcoming family. In the words of the patriarch Alberto Santini, whose business card I keep in my wallet to this day to remind me of our magical experience: "our guests are our life's work." This place is about as good as it gets.
RUNATE, ITALY (BETWEEN MILAN & VENICE)
PRICE PAID: $410PP (INCL. WATER, WINE, CORKAGE, AND APERITIF, TAX; PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
One of the many high points of Dal Pescatore's building is their oddly welcoming, hilarious waiting room and lounge. The fireplace room is warm, and the rooms are decorated with a blizzard of nicknacks, books, memorabilia from famous guests, classic bottles of liquor; you name it. It's like visiting your crazy-stylish Italian grandparents' home in the countryside. The space somehow strikes a balance so that "charming" and "cozy" don't stray into "hoarder" territory.
At every moment throughout the evening, we were effusively greeted, spoken to, explained dishes and menu items, and welcomed in an almost pathologically warm household. Every member of the family was involved in making the evening feel comfortable; we met every single person working as they joyfully introduced themselves, and took every opportunity to share their experience with us. It is a truly special environment.
The menu is enormous and is, just like the family themselves, effusive and colorful. Inside are the restaurant's three tasting menu options:
- A 5-course Menu della Campagna, €150 (~$170); a rather basic introductory offering with a simple appetizer, tortelli pasta, beef with polenta main course, cheese, and dessert.
- A 7-course Menu d'Inverno, €180 ($202), a slightly richer and longer menu with Osetra Caviar appetizers, multiple pasta courses, sea bass, and a saddle of beef main course along with cheese and desert.
- A 10-course Menu del Pescatore, €250 ($280), which is the house's Grand Tasting Menu - basically the best of all of the above, and it's what we selected. We brought two gorgeous bottles of Chiani Classico from Villa Calcinaia to pair with the main courses, and asked the house to help with a few glasses in between.
As we relax in the library, we are offered a handful of small plates to start. First a Parmesan "tuile" (a fancy European word for cracker) which is thick and crunchy, with a fantastic pliable mouthfeel; salty and brilliant. The distinctive Parmesan salinity jumps on the palate with the ferocity of a snake bite. Great start. 10/10.
Next, a somewhat casually-presented plate of salmon, ginger, and aubergine (eggplant) biscuits. The ginger is candied, giving it a saccharine-sweet taste that contrasts nicely with both the smoky, rich savory flavors of the salmon and the creamy, vegetal notes of the aubergine bites. The biscuit foundations in these bites are doughy, earthy, and it nicely draws the bites together to have this common thread. 9/10. In what turns out to be a very pervasive trend, the plates are quite clearly Dal Pescatore's 😂
After a luxurious 20-30 minutes relaxing in the lobby with our snacks, we are offered a table set nicely apart from the other guests in the corner. If anything, it feels a touch empty for a Saturday night, but as we later learn that is in no way because of the quality of the restaurant.
As we got ourselves settled in to the table, we were brought a lovely tea cup with nut bread, salted butter on a pretty awesome spiral plate, and some breadsticks made with olive. 9/10.
The first dish was an absurdly delicious portion of cream of potato soup with artichoke and black truffle. Served in a bowl that reminded me of a comically huge Alice in Wonderland teacup, the soup has a perfectly rich texture accentuated by the black truffle in an epic way. This tastes like what mashed potatoes would taste like if they served mashed potatoes in heaven. I'm not kidding: I would fly back just for this dish. 10/10.
In Europe, there are protected origins for almost everything—wine, cheese, chicken... and even pork. They're basically regulated monopolies on the production of specific agricultural products, and the mark tends to imply higher quality than products without them. In Italy, the origins are sometimes called DOPs (DOCs, DOCGs, or IGTs are for wine), and this salumi is from a DOP called Culatello di Zibello. Aged 24 months in an open cellar near Parma, south of the Po River, where moss grows on it because humidity of that province (it's later cut away, of course). The village itself, Zibello, is famous for its thick rolling fog and sharp winters that are thought to enhance the salinity and flavor of their products.
The thinly sliced pork is unbelievably soft and delicate, while also rich and deeply flavorful. 9/10.
Next, a terrine of lobster with Royal Osetra Caviar, an especially prized variety whose nutty flavors tend to go extremely well with champagne, and extra virgin olive oil from Tuscany. The dish is artfully constructed into a small cube and bound up with leafy greens, which add a nice vegetal touch to the dish. The real standout here is the pairing of the super-fresh, sweet lobster with the rich, brioche-y caviar. 9/10.
A crunchy dish of pasta with fried shrimp, this was more comfort food than fine dining. The cream, made from the thin-skinned Gialet bean, has a very rich flavor and ties the dish together nicely. There is also some Muggine Bottarga, a type of roe made from thin-lipped grey mullet fish eggs, which adds some of that all-purpose richness/creaminess/salinity. 9/10.
Next up, a big-guns plate of goose foie gras with house sauce made from white wine and passion fruit. The sauce has that sharp tropical sugary sweetness that lines up with the liver's richness in perfect balance. The goose has been lightly grilled, which coaxes out some of the freshest flavors while not overwhelming the palate. This is done about as well as foie gras can be done. 10/10.
Next, another unbelievably delicious three-star take on homemade comfort food: pumpkin ravioli. The sweetness of the pumpkin pairs perfectly with savory-ness of Parmigiano Reggiano, which has been loaded on pretty heavy (not complaining). Amaretti biscuits with watermelon sauce provide a nice sweetness/acid balance. 9/10.
Yet more advanced comfort food. Risotto with goat cheese and saffron. This particular saffron comes from Abruzzo, which is famous for cultivating the Middle Eastern flower after a priest brought clippings almost 450 years ago. It found its way into many regional Italian dishes, including Risotto al Milanese (which this dish plays upon). There's also a touch of honey (also from Abruzzo- Zafferano). 9/10.
As the buildup to the main course, three small lollipops of frog's legs with herbs and radicchio. The frog's legs are that perfect resemblance of a chicken leg but sweeter, and the roughage goes nicely. 9/10.
The peak main course does not disappoint: venison with a sauce made from cabernet sauvignon and blueberries has a distinctly summer-y flavor profile. My only complaint is that it could use a little seasoning; compared to the pronounced salinity in prior dishes this one felt almost a touch unseasoned. 9/10.
Next, cheeses from the dairies in the nearby hills. Parmesan Reggiano, Gorgonzola, and Goat's cheese. A nice diversity of textures and incredibly rich 9/10.
A delightfully "raw"-looking plate of petit fours, looking like they were just pulled from the oven and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Neat effect! The raspberry cream and puff pastries stand out especially. 9/10.
Really nailing the homecooked elements to this meal; a plate of deep-fried dough with powdered sugar. Unbelievably delicious and satisfying; perhaps a TOUCH heavy of a finish. 8/10.
A delightfully-presented baked lemon pastry to be scooped out family-style. This was really over-the-top as far as desserts go; the citrus was bright and pronounced, and the rich oily dough was a delight. 9/10.
Did you know "Amaro" means "bitter" in Italian? I didn't, until I had a perfect post-dinner bev made for me by the head of service from their massive collection resting above the fireplace.
Around this time of the dinner, we were the last in the restaurant and were offered an extensive tour of the building from the family. Here is where they kept their library of Michelin guidebooks, along with hundreds of other memories. A truly perfect evening.