In Italy, Michelin-Star Food Worth a Wrong Turn

His restaurant may be hard to find, but a student of the author's favorite Italian chef will reward intrepid navigators


Faith Willinger

I have written before that Massimiliano Alajmo is my favorite chef in Italy. His curiosity and enthusiasm infuse everyone in his kitchen at Le Calandre. I pay attention to chefs who have worked with him and moved on. So when I met Enrico Bartolini at a conference in Spain, and learned about his Calandre cred, I began to make plans.

Enrico's restaurant, Le Robinie, is in the Oltrepò Pavese region of Northern Italy. My friend Catherine lives nearby—another excuse for a visit. A group of food lovers would meet us for dinner, and they'd stay nearby at a place that Enrico recommended: the Tenuta Scarpa Colombi Country Inn.

The Colombi family calls its guesthouse a "country inn," but its 300-year-old Palazzo Scarpa-Colombi is palatial: beautifully restored, with frescoed ceilings and marble fireplace. With excellent hospitality, six rooms, and bargain prices, it's the perfect place to stay while visiting the area, and only 10 kilometers from Le Robinie. But I can almost promise you'll get lost.

Le Robinie defies navigation systems. It's at the end of a road that's more like a driveway but defiantly worth the effort. The décor is Italian contemporary meets chalet—wood walls, floors, ceilings, and beams. The elegantly set tables are spaced far apart and set with Philippe Starck ghost chairs. A huge painting of a bull hangs on the wall at the end of the room. There's a bar in the entranceway flanked by a Berkel slicer—a sign that salumi are taken seriously.

Enrico uses lots of new-wave technology: slow, sous-vide cooking; siphons and gels; and international ingredients like ginger, Maldon salt, and French mustard. I see Massimiliano Alajmo's influence in many of the ingredients—like meat from superstar butcher Franco Cazzamali—flavor combinations, and contrasting textures. Enrico transforms Massimiliano's beet and gorgonzola pasta into risotto with beet gelato and gorgonzola sauce.

Highlights of my meal were fantastic home-made bread selection, soft cooked egg with white truffle and ethereal mashed potatoes, saffron risotto with micro-squidlets and squid ink, crisp suckling pig, veal cheeks, and a superior cheese selection. Enrico served one of the best desserts I've ever had (and I don't love dessert), combining candied sour cherries, tiny meringue dots, blueberry sorbet, and custard with a caramelized sugar topping. The dish is a contrast of warm and cold, smooth and crunchy, served in an adorable mini copper saucepan.

After dinner, Enrico whispered that he'd be getting a Michelin star in the 2010 guide. Well deserved, I'd say.