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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Leoni brothers at Ristorante Il Sole (Bologna, IT)

The day: 28th December 2007, Lunchtime.
The place: Via Lame, 67, Trebbo di Reno (BO), Italy (tel +39 051 700102)
The venue: Ristorante Il Sole (aka Antica Locanda il Sole)
Closest airport: Bologna (BA from London Gatwick)
The food: Fine Italian Dining, with strong regional influence
The drinks: Good list, many regional but also other choices, all prices but very reasonable markups

We had been in this Michelin starred establishment, just 8 kilometres in the fertile plain around Bologna, before several times, this being an old time favourite with Megaman and Megawoman, but never with a camera handy. So here we go to pay a solo (well, in the sense of duo, of course) visit with all the necessary equipment.

The restaurant is run by two brother chef patrons Marcello and Gianluca Leoni, justifying the nice menu cover, as Leoni is the Italian for “lions”

The interior, divided in several relatively small rooms (almost empty during our visit), with huge, well-separated tables and comfortable chairs, exudes relaxed, cheerful elegance and care for detail. It feels like the living room of a (wealthy) friend: since we have no wealthy friends we come here instead. There is also a pleasant outside space in the Summer.

This is that type of environment in which you almost sense you can look forward to a good experience…

The menu (ah -should we bother to remind you?- alas, here too as often in Italy, the sexist practice of not showing prices on ladies’ menus is still going strong) offers a good selection. Starters go from the €25 of the black truffle sea bass wrapped in cabbage with pumpkin tortelli to the €35 of astice and foie gras salad with lentils. To follow, there are soups (e.g. Savoy cabbage soup with gallinella chunks, at €25) and pasta dishes (all priced between €25 and €28), many of them going for a “sea/mountain” combination, e.g. ravioli filled with amatriciana sauce (tomato, guanciale (pig cheek) and pecorino) with astice in light pecorino sauce. Mains go from the €25 of pigeon with Tropea onions flan and Chinese pepper peach mash, to the €30 of most other dishes, including Astice with artichokes and lemon in a burrata sauce.

The set menus are good value for money, especially in the light of the a la carte: a nine course set menu at €95 (for the whole table), and a five course set menu (only for two people, and we assume also for multiples thereof) at €60. This being, for reasons we’ll spare you, the only serious meal of the Christmas-New Year period for us, we decide to fill up with the five course menu. We detail the dishes as we go along.

In the meantime, as you would expect, the bread arrives:

Plain grissini, thyme grissini, chilli grissini, and rosemary focaccia. Uhm, just grissini you wonder? Well, we are in Italy, just you wait…

The bread comes in full glory just handy for the first course:

- CulatelloMaialarte

Culatello, as you know, is a particularly fine cured ham produced in this region. “Maialarte”, which translates into something like “porkart”, is not some fancy name for the presentation, rather the name of the producer, who apparently holds strong views, and thinks that the meat should be fat enough that curing does not dry it up, rather than having to rely on the operation of marinading in wine as tradionally done, which would interfere with the ‘true’ taste. And we can assure you it was simply so good we felt no desire for any flavour addition: well done!

Before our next course, in comes bread number 2: two trays both looking like this

where you can recognize a tomato flatbread, an olive roll, a walnut roll and a bit more of rosemary focaccia. Just in time to accompany our

- Fresh herbs rabbit loin with chestnut flan and vanilla:

It came with thin and crisp polenta shavings (for want of a better word), and the white sauce you see around it is a burrata cheese (if you don’t know it, imagine a cream filled mozzarella) sauce. Quite stunning, the rabbit perfectly moist (we later learned it had been simply grilled on chrome plates), accompanied by the delicate, sweet chestnut flan, with the burrata sauce balancing and moistening the dish by lending it its nice acidity. Very well, we are really starting to relax. And talking about relaxing, we have to tell you a wine story later…just keep reading.

What is next? Well, the menu stated

- from our tradition: tortellini, tagliatelle, lasagne…”.

When ordering, Marcello Leoni (who pleasantly entertains guests while his brother Gianluca slaves in the kitchen) told us that unfortunately tortellini were not ready yet, so would we care for passatelli in a parmesan soup. Of course we could not say no, and we thought this was it for tradition (this is a 5 course menu, right?):

They came with a black truffle shaving, its perfume sprinting first to the nose. But then, the parmesan took over, and this luscious rich soup wrapped in sweet-acidic velvet the passatelli. Rather wonderful, and not at all as heavy as you may think, with the dash of olive oil elevating the whole. One for the glutton, we agree (our friend-who-knows-what-he-is-talking-about would call it “goloso”), but good nonetheless. A kind of Bolognese version of canederlotti with Puzzone di Moena, the ever-popular traditional combination from Trentino (an example of which we had here), this cheese and carbohydrate acidic combination. Hearty, perfect winter food, but at the same time light and balanced. Ah, but wait, we are not done yet with tradition! Here come the traditional tagliatelle with ragu (‘alla bolognese’, of course, but here they do not need to specify it):

Please, care to note that this is nothing of the sort that goes by the name “bolognaise” in Anglophone countries: this is the real thing, and tomato is present only in very concentrated form, to stain the dish. The pasta here is “tirata a mano”, that is rolled out by hand, and its bite is plain fantastic. The sauce is rich, but the hand is delicate (the more remarkable as the cuisine in this part of the world is rather generous with saturated fats (like here).

Finally, the third bit of tradition, lasagne al ragu:

Thankgod portions are not huge (but still generous), as this is turning into a massive seven course menu. The quality is yet again excellent, a traditional lasagne with all the trimmings, including béchamel sauce, it merits a closeup inspection of its dribbling innards:

Of the three traditional dishes, this was the heaviest, unlike the previous two a little too much, at least for our taste.

Next, we move to the main dish, though at this point this distinction is rather pointless:

- partridge with black cabbage and pan brioche in a Jerusalem artichokes sauce:

This must be the best partridge we have had this year: amazingly, simply grilled on the above mentioned chrome plates. The breast, in fat chunks, was just exactly cooked through with the faintest of pinkiness left, and still moist (this being meat that dries easily we even thought it had been partly steamed or cooked sous-vide, but no: just chrome plate grilling and a great hand); while the rest of the meat had been reduced to small cubes and cooked in a very sweet tomato sauce, sweeter than the pan brioche (to which Man would have preferred a slice of polenta, and so would Woman, perhaps our experiences in Trentino are becoming a little addictive...). Both the Jerusalem artichokes and the black cabbage had their flavour springing out distinctly and fully concentrated. Overall very impressive, though perhaps again a touch too fat to our taste.

While taking stock of all the above, a nice gift from the kitchen, a

- Sicilian cassata ice cream.

As we have explained elsewhere, Sicilian cassata is definitely not ice cream, rather a very sweet ricotta cream with candied peels and other fruit, in a sponge pastry case, the whole covered in sugar paste. Here what came through potently from the original was the very marked taste of ewe ricotta Very smooth, very striking. But now for the ‘real’ dessert, a

- Mont blanc with marron glace and cocoa sauce:

This was a stunner: on the left, your standard montblanc, this time with marron glace' rather than chestnut puree, which was anyhow sitting a little bit behind it (quite gorgeous). A lot of whipped cream, a lot of marron glacees, a good sprinkling of crushed meringue. On the right, a superb chestnut icecream, very very smooth, sitting on a dab of chestnut paste. Still in keeping with tradition, very well made: moving, really.

But this is not all, and heroically we plough on with the final effort, petit fours:

Left to right, we have a chocolate filled with chestnut puree, a chocolate truffle with crème patissiere, a liquorice panna cotta, an almond (?) wafer, and some other biscuit we cannot name. You can guess yourself they were all good.

The bill needs a bit of explanation. As we said above, the food part came at €120. On top of that, we pick a €4 bottle of water from the water menu (confession: Woman picked the cheapest one, if you want to splash, go for a bottle of Evian limited edition 2007 at €15, must do miracles at that price), two coffees and a bottle of Barbera at around €40. However: we start off with our ‘Barbera’, which is rather good…in fact very good…in fact too good…

indeed it is a Barolo, and a fine one too! (yes, you are right – Man, who had ordered it should have noticed right away when shown the bottle, but has no eye for the detail, though he was quite amazed by the complexity of this supposed Barbera when tasting it…). Well, while mulling the matter half a glass down, Mr. Leoni comes back noting the mistake (rather excusable, with 13,000 bottles to choose from) and offering to change the bottle. But, we are quite in love already with our Barolo by now: no, no, let’s carry on! Ah, blessed ignorance… and blessed Mr Leoni, too. Our excellent 2001 Barolo Cerequio by Roberto Voerzio was on the list for €180, reduced to €120 (in the US it retails at an average $218, in the UK for more than £150 from a wine merchant). As in previous conversation it had emerged that the average markup is around 50%, we guess we got it at cost, which seemed to us a very fair compromise, having been offered and having declined the opportunity to get away with half a glass of this nectar at zero cost. Of course, as you know by now, we would not have ordered that category of wine, but there you go. In short, then, while we had initially carefully worked towards not overshooting our £100 rule by too much, we failed miserably, totalling up €240 (i.e. around £160) – you’ll notice that not only did we get the wine at a bargain price, but also water and coffee thrown in. Quite a treat.

Beside Marcello Leoni, a nice foreign waitress (though her pronunciation of the dishes’ names offers ample scope for improvement) helped in the front room, which had only one other table with (three) customers beside us unfortunately not an unusual sight in starred restaurants at lunch in Italy.

What a lunch! We were impressed by the cuisine. It bears some of the marks of the regional tradition, which is skewed towards heaviness, but just a little so: comparing for example with the two-starred San Domenico the dishes are lighter and neater here. The gentle creativity rooted in tradition, the balance, the generosity, the technical soundness and especially the truly outstanding patisserie department will make any lover of Italian food happy at Il Sole. We understand the two 'lion' chefs have plans for a move, and we will watch them carefully: for the moment, continue in this way!



Anonymous said...

This review and your other Man-Woman restaurant reviews are terrific! The photos really make the reader feel he/she is seated right there in the dining room, especially the dish-by-dish close-ups. And I find the descriptive text allows me to almost taste many of the dishes.

It really is very well done. I was originally simply looking for specific info on Emilian restaurants but I've been drawn to the others as well.


Man-Woman said...

well, you are really making us blush now - but you made our day! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hello, it's Mr. Complimentary from above again.

I thought I would send you two (Man-Woman) this story, in case you are ever in...Genoa.

It is June 1996. I walk out of the front entrance of Genova Centrale railway station, at lunchtime more or less. I am hunting for the legendary 'true' focaccia that manages to comprehensively elude so many trendy restaurants, but have no real idea where to search.

There is a sort of roundabouty area outside the station. I feel drawn in a one-o'clockish direction towards a street that leads slightly downhill (this is relevant, trust me). Looking at a map now I think this may well have been the Via Balbi. I get to this street and on the left hand side of it (pretty much at the very top or near it) there is a place that does focaccia.

In I go, and you can picture the scene - a wiry-armed old man splashes some fresh olive oil on something that had recently come out of the oven, and off I go with a flattish wedge of this in a napkin, with trademark hollows.

A few yards later I take a bite and it is absolutely transcendental. There were no olives as it happens, just rosemary, (smallish) coarse seasalt and a no doubt specially suited Ligurian oil. It was crispy and yet succulent, and somehow non-greasy without seeming dry.

I have made bread myself for a good few years now (using my own leaven), so you can be pretty sure my praise is not unduly high. And if I can remember this much from 12 years ago...

The snag is, I don't have the name or address. I can tell you that the door was on the left of the shop as you went in, with the display units then on your right - or at least that's how it was then.

Not fine-dining? Well it may have cost only about due mila in old money and been a streetfood takeaway, but I have never tasted any bread in a restaurant that came anywhere close.

A bit of a treasure hunt I'm afraid, but one that could be done quite economically if you were to find yourselves in that neck of the woods...

Man-Woman said...

Thanks - actually Man was born in Genoa, so we may well find ourselves in that neck of the wood at some point!

Anonymous said...

On the basis of your review I think I am just going to go ahead and book this restaurant for our upcoming trip to Bologna.
I just wondered if you had any other recommendations for us, in Bologna.
Thanks in advance.

Man-Woman said...

We haven't been there for a while, but we trust the Leoni brothers are still going srong!

The only other place in Bologna we've been at and that we would recommend is Cesarina

right in the middle of town, but we know that for many Bolognese friends this is anathema as it is quite touristy (we had the advantage of knowing the owner, which helped a lot...).

We've heard good reports about Trattoria Meloncello, but we've never been there.

Happy eating!

Man and Woman

Anonymous said...

To cut a long story short this restaurant is now closed. So we didn't get to experience it :(.
We tried Bitone instead and it was excellent.

Man-Woman said...

We are not maintaining the blog in these months, but the good news is that the Leoni brothers will soon open a new restaurant in Bologna!

(we have been to Bitone a few times and we also liked it, good raw materials).

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