In 1994, twenty year old Massimiliano Alajmo took over the kitchen of the family-owned restaurant from his parents. Le Calandre already had gained a Michelin star in 1992 when Massimiliano's mother (Rita Chimetto) was cooking. He retained this, and under his leadership the restaurant gained its second star in 1996. In 2002 Massimiliano, at the age of 28, became the youngest chef ever to be awarded three Michelin stars, edging out previous incumbent Heinz Winkler from this exalted position (the UK food press frequently, and incorrectly, names Marco Pierre White as having achieved this honour). Prior to this Massimiliano had gained a diploma in hospitality, after which he worked in the kitchens of two legendary chefs: with Marc Veyrat at Auberge de l’Eridan, and in Les Prés d'Eugénie of Michel Guérard.
The restaurant itself is on a main road on the outskirts of the rather unassuming town of Rubano, which dates back to Roman times but seems to mostly consist of a succession of what are termed strip malls in America, at least as you approach it from the west. Le Calandre is easy to find as there is a vast mounted sign at the side of the road identifying the restaurant. The building underwent a major refurbishment in 2010, and there is now an attached bistro at the front of the building, which you can go through on the way to the dining room of La Calandre. The main dining area was set tonight with eight well-spaced tables, and although the lighting in the room was quite low, each table had a well-directed lamp providing a good light with which to read the menu, and indeed see the food properly. The room has a modern, stylish feel to it, and there are no tablecloths, though good quality linen napkins were provided.
As well as an a la carte menu there were several tasting menus, priced from €165 to €230. The wine list is presented on an iPad, and has over a thousand different wines to choose from. Example wines were Case Basse Brunello di Montalcino 1999 at €285 for a wine that you can find in a shop for €225, Antinori Solaia 1998 at €545 for a wine that costs €191 in the high street, and Vega Sicilia Unico 1990 at €400 for a wine that will set you back €342 to buy in a shop. At the prestige end of the list, Romanee Comti La Tache 2007 was €1,500 for a wine that actually retails at €1,638. We drank Jermann Capo Martino 2007, which was €88 for a wine that retails at €50.
As we read the menu we snacked on a gougere and a little cornetto of Parmesan, which were excellent, the gougere in particular remarkably light (9/10). A trio of further nibbles then appeared: black rice with lobster cream and a little raw fish, salt cod with tiny maize chips, and a miniature cheeseburger made with chickpeas rather than meat. These were extremely high quality, with the chickpea burger exceptionally good, the balance of mustard in this finely judged, the texture of the chickpeas superb (between 9/10 and 10/10 for the nibbles). Bread was sourdough and very good indeed, though not quite in the league of the amuse-bouches (8/10).
A final introductory dish was a spring vegetable dish of peas and fava beans with a pistachio cream, enhanced with a little meat stock, garnished with a very thin sliver of carte de musica crisp bread. The vegetables were remarkably good, of a level of quality that you only see in a few places in the world, such as in markets in the Mediterranean, or in Japan. if you are used to vegetables in England, even those served at Michelin-starred restaurants, then these will be a revelation. The pistachio cream was lovely and the stock just lifted the vegetables without distracting from their flavour; this was such a simple dish and yet also delightful (10/10). The first formal course of the meal was roasted langoustines with apple, fava bean cream and radiccio, and it was a stunner. The langoustines had superb flavour and were perfectly cooked, the cream of fava beans rich and reflecting the high quality of the beans, the apple giving just enough acidic balance to the dish (10/10).
A warm "cappuccino" of cuttlefish with cream of potato was also impressive, the potato flavour excellent, the cuttlefish also of very high quality, the creamy texture of the dish delightful (at least 9/10). This was followed by another extremely simple yet striking dish: a pair of crisp fried cannelloni rolls were filled with mozzarella, and served with a little tomato dipping sauce. This sounds so ordinary, but the flavour of the cheese was superb, the texture of the rolls crisp yet meltingly light, and above all there was the dipping sauce. I have only once had tomatoes with a comparable flavour (at Don Alfonso 1890 on the Amalfi Coast), and again if you are used to the tomatoes that we get in England then the sheer joy of tasting tomatoes of such depth of flavour is hard to describe (10/10).
This restaurant is famous for its risotto, and so I had high hopes of the next course. Saffron risotto appeared in a little white dish, the grains of rice glistening with the deep yellow/red colour of the saffron, a couple of little streaks of saffron on the side of the dish the only embellishment. The risotto has a pinch of liquorice powder added, but this was very subtle indeed and did not distract at all, any more than did the little hint of white onion which the risotto was made with. I have eaten some fine risotto in my life in top Italian restaurants, but none better than this. Every grain of carnaroli rice had perfect texture, having absorbed the dazzlingly rich, reduced chicken stock it had been cooked with. The saffron flavour was not too strong, avoiding the over-metallic taste that often accompanies saffron in clumsier kitchens than this. High quality Parmesan added a delightful richness, and there was just a touch of lemon to balance this, Here was a dish that was a real delight, a prince amongst risottos (10/10).
At this point our meals deviated; my wife ate a local Adriatic fish (described as syombro) related to sardine,which was served with a crispy bubble of rice foam and vinegar. This was another simple dish, yet the flavour of the fish was lovely, it was cooked perfectly, and the vinegar was in exactly the right amount to balance the inherent oiliness of the fish, with the texture of the rice crisp nicely complementing the fish (at least 9/10).
I had raw Fassone beef with egg cream and black truffle. Fassone beef from Piedmont is the finest Italian beef, here nicely complemented by the rich cream and the earthy note of the truffle (9/10). This was followed by suckling pig with a little coffee powder, mustard foam, spring greens and a sauce of the cooking juices. The pork had great depth of flavour, and was beautifully balanced by the superb mustard foam, which was ethereally light and yet had a real kick of mustard flavour. The sauce was also lovely, deep in colour and rich in flavour, and at this point a dark recess of my mind devoted itself to searching for even the tiniest flaw in the dish, so perfect was it. All I could think of was that the pork crackling was merely excellent, a slight step down in quality from the other, sublime, elements of the dish. I had eaten a very fine suckling pig dish just the day before at a three star restaurant, and yet this dish was even better (10/10).
My wife's main course was also impressive, scampi with carrot sauce and a salad of little leaves. Again this sounds like something you might get in a pub, but trust me, you would not get scampi like this. The langoustines were beautiful, their batter extremely light, the sauce with deep flavour of carrot but also enough vinegar to balance the richness of the scampi (10/10).
We passed on what looked like a fine cheese board, so moved straight to the dessert stage of the meal. A display block was brought to the centre of the table; this held fine skewers, at the end of each of which were little nibbles. A piece of orange was beautifully ripe, a sliver of apple was paired with a little cinnamon, ripe mango with a little mint, and marscapone with rose flavour (8/10). The main dessert was a take on tiramisu. Chocolate ice cream was served with coffee granita, a shot of espresso and marscapone cream. I have had plenty of fine tiramisu in my life, but this was the best I can recall: the depth of coffee, the richness of the chocolate and the balance of textures were utterly gorgeous (10/10).
Service was very good indeed, with flawless topping up of water and wine, and friendly, helpful staff. The only trivial quirk was that the sommelier appeared oddly nervous throughout the evening, as if he was waiting for some mildly bad news, though he was very competent when it came to discussing the wine. By contrast the rest of the waiting staff were relaxed and effortlessly competent. The bill was €458 for two, including a bottle of wine, pre-dinner drinks, some additional wine and mineral water at €5 a bottle, which works out at £185 a head. This was an absolute steal given the quality of the food. It was nice to see the head chef pop out of the kitchen occasionally to greet his customers, just as I recall that he did on my previous visit here.
When eating at a three star Michelin meal you hope that the food will be excellent, but I would like to try to put into context just how good this meal was. Even with really top three star restaurants it is normal for there to be some (relative) dips in the standard of dishes compared to the one or two real highlights. Here the meal started off on a very high note and never looked back, with dish after memorable dish of magnificent food. It is hard for me to say which dish I liked the most: the perfect langoustines, the sublime risotto, the fabulous suckling pig or the great dessert. Dishes were in many cases surprisingly simple, with just a few elements, but featuring stunning produce and were produced with faultless technique. This was a genuinely memorable meal, one of the best I have eaten. This is truly a restaurant at the pinnacle of culinary achievement.