Sasso Marconi, Bologna, 40037, Italy

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The restaurant Marconi, named after the locally born inventor of radio and Nobel prize winner, opened in 1983. It is 17km (11 miles) from Bologna, in a quiet spot just off a main road. The restaurant has modern decor and well-spaced tables, as well as some outside terrace seating. There is also a private dining room downstairs in amongst the wine cellar. The head chef since 2000 has been Aurora Mazzucchelli, the daughter of the chef that originally opened the restaurant. There was a five course menu at €75 or a longer one at €110, though there was also a full a la carte selection. The restaurant received a Michelin start in 2008, which it has retained ever since.

The wine list was very extensive, and as well as plenty of Barolo and wines from around Italy, there was an extensive selection from abroad, with for example several vintages of Chateau Musar from the Lebanon. The wine list featured labels such as La Stoppage Ageno Bianco 2013 at €40 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for €34, Tenuta di Valgiano 2007at €92 compared to its retail price of €54, and Marc Morey en Virondot Chassagne Montrachet 2009 at €122 for a wine that will set you back €113 in a shop.

For those with the means, there were grander offerings such as Chateau Palmer 1999 at €450 compared to its retail price of €346, and Regnard Chevalier Montrachet Grand Cru 2000 at €460 for a wine whose current market value is at least €638, if you could actually find it. As can be seen, the markup levels were very fair, with some bargains. A really pleasant surprise on the list was the discovery of several vintages of Clos Rougeard Le Bourg, a cult Cabernet Franc wine from The Loire that is now very hard to source in the UK, and whose price has gone through the roof. We drank the last bottle of their Le Bourg 2006 at a remarkably low €156, which compared to its current market price of €598. Other vintages were similarly mis-priced, with for example the Le Bourg 2004 at €180 compared to a shop price of €473, so this was a true bargain for a really great wine. 

As we sat down we were presented with a lump of raw bread dough, which was then whisked away to be cooked. In due course this emerged as a piping hot white loaf, made with a local grain, and was lovely. Later in the meal other breads appeared: good grissini, walnut bread, and plain sliced bread. These all had excellent texture (easily 16/20). The meal itself started with an array of canapés. Polpetta (meatball) had very good flavour, though a fried mussel was rather soggy. Crisp pasta filled with cod was nice, as was a mortadella beignet, the final canapés being delicate cod flavoured crisps, a fresh goat cheese and some fermented radishes (just about 15/20 average). 

Octopus came with mayonnaise of salted lemon and a sauce of milk cooked with fig leaves. The octopus itself was a touch overcooked but not badly chewy, the accompaniments pleasant and understated (13/20). My starter was a plate of tiny queen scallops cooked in hay, with a sauce of milk and chamomile. These were laughably bad, the scallops themselves the smallest I have ever seen and utterly lacking in flavour. Worse, they were grotesquely overcooked, so the result was a tiny chewy ball that, if I tasted it blind, I would never have identified as a scallop before I spat it out. This was one of the worst things I have ever been served in a restaurant, never mind a Michelin starred restaurant (4/20). I tried a couple of the scallops just to check the first one I tried was not some aberration, and then stopped. My mood was not improved by the waiter then suggesting that I perhaps didn’t know that queen scallops were small or that overcooking them to a chewy ball was indeed the finest possible way to prepare them. He suggested that this way of cooking was probably a local specialty that I wouldn’t appreciate. After the look I gave him he eventually gave up on the feeble sales pitch and, rather sheepishly, took the scallops away. At least they didn’t appear on the bill.

Spaghetti with fennel and aubergine was probably the dish of the meal, the spaghetti a bit thicker than one might expect but having excellent texture. The aubergine was good, the fennel having plenty of flavour and some little spiced breadcrumbs adding an extra texture (easily 15/20). Also pleasant was home made “local” pasta according to the menu but a Sicilian recipe according to the waiter, made without eggs. This came with pork, and this pasta also had nice texture, though the pork flavour was a touch subdued, and perhaps lacked a little seasoning. This was still enjoyable though, and a relief after the scallop fiasco (14/20).

Eel from the Venice lagoon was nicely cooked and had good flavour, served with a disc of smoked polenta, fried strips of leek and also a little sweet potato. The leek was excellent, crisp and contrasting nicely with the rich flavour of the eel. Polenta is hard to ever get excited about, though this rendition was perfectly reasonable (14/20). Turbot was not from an especially impressive specimen and actually had several bones, though it was cooked well enough, and the acidulated potatoes with it were fine (just about 14/20).

A pre-dessert was strawberry tapioca and peach sorbet, which was worryingly bad. The sorbet had no discernible flavour at all, essentially just coloured ice, while the tapioca texture was unappealing (7/20). The dessert menu options were generally unattractive to me - “cream ham and green peas” anyone? After that dreadful pre-dessert I thought it best to play things carefully. Being in Italy I thought that vanilla ice cream would be as safe a bet as possible, but I was wrong. What arrived was a peculiar, bright yellow affair with no telltale dots of vanilla. Tasting confirmed that there was no connection whatever between this ice cream and a vanilla pod. It was basically frozen custard that may have had a distant acquaintance with some artificial vanilla essence. I queried this with the waiter, who checked with the kitchen, and indeed they confirmed that not a single vanilla pod was harmed in the making of this ice cream. This is in Italy, in a Michelin starred restaurant: extraordinary. The vanilla ice cream from a passing van on the street in the UK tastes better than this (7/20). A pair of sorbets were also peculiar. Chocolate with ginger was actually fine, the texture quite good and the flavour featuring good quality chocolate and a pleasant touch of gentle spice from the ginger (14/20). Yet strawberry sorbet was bizarrely sharp, as if someone had simply forgotten to add any sugar at all, so all you could taste was acidity, a sorbet that was actively hostile (6/20). Petit fours were surprisingly competent: pleasant shortbread biscuits, a decent madeleine, some chocolate and an almond biscuit (13/20). Coffee was fine.

The bill came to €177 (£158) per person. If you ordered three courses and coffee and shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical cost per person might be about £100. Service was very good, our waiter patient and attentive. Overall this was a wildly erratic, curate’s egg of a meal. Some dishes, such as the spaghetti with fennel, were genuinely good and at least in the vicinity of Michelin star level. Others, such as the scallop dish and the pre-dessert, were utterly awful, the kind of food you would be embarrassed to serve at a student dinner party. It is hard to understand how the same kitchen could produce such wildly varying quality. What is for sure is that this is an unacceptably high price point for this sort of pendulum swinging inconsistency. When the bread in a meal is the best dish, as here, it is usually a sign that things have gone badly awry.

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