Experiencing an Italian Two Star Michelin Restaurant
by Ruth Murdoch | April 2018 | Sicily, Italy
Why would someone dine at a fancy Two Star Michelin Restaurant when they can cook great food themselves?
Reaching deep into my purse and parting with hard earned cash just to fill ones stomach for an evening doesn’t sit well with my financial values. In fact this traveller has avoided such gastronomic pleasures.
That is, until today.
After a hearty recommendation from a wine expert in Marsala, we decided what better time to indulge in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant experience ourselves than when in Italy? After all, we only live once, right? Although we didn’t need another excuse, we also had a second, Alan’s birthday provided the perfect reason and soon we were booked and looking forward with keen anticipation.
One can only assume that in order to achieve such accolades of not one, but two, Michelin Stars there must have been hours and hours of hard work slaving over a hot stove only to have someone scoff the food within a matter of minutes. Then there would be the wait for praise or criticism by some apparent food critic that could change your reputation (one way or the other) after a single plateful or two of toiled delights.
It so happens that the Michelin stars are the most coveted food award that a restaurant can achieve. The reviewers are all one hundred percent anonymous and the stars are based only on the quality of food. The ambience, furnishings and the quality of the service are not supposed to make any difference. Although the exact judging criteria are nearly secret, in order to win two stars the chef will generally have to display unusual creativity, use unique and specially sourced top quality ingredients, and display exceptionally high consistency in their dishes.
Two Star Michelin Restaurants are supposedly inspected monthly and just one less-than-perfect dish can be enough to drop one or even two stars. Gordon Ramsay is said to have cried when his New York restaurant lost its stars due to inconsistency.
So is it really worthwhile?
Let me tell you about our first ever experience worldwide dining in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant, let alone an Italian one.
Ristorante la Madia can be found in the most insignificant streets of Licata, a smallish town located on the south coast of Sicily, at the mouth of the Salso River, about midway between Agrigento and Gela.
With just a small nameplate to identify its almost hidden location, we arrived at the frosted glass door of the entrance to Ristorante la Madia at 8.02pm for our 8pm reservation, only to find the door was locked!
What restaurant would lock its doors after the opening time? Were we even in the right place, on the right day, at the right time, or had they just forgotten to unlock the front door? It seems that our door knocking eventually landed on someone’s ears, and the door is opened by two impeccably uniformed maître d’s.
Welcoming smiles saw us entering the unassuming premises and we notice the door is locked again behind us. This felt like we are entering a private, somehow exclusive, establishment we have been granted temporary access for the evening. One maître d takes our jackets while the other confirmed our reservation. I cringed as Alan handed over his leather jacket to expose a very un-ironed shirt underneath (it’s not easy to get creases out when you live in a motorhome and you can’t justify the space or weight that an iron would require).
Having confirmed our reservation, we are led down a short hallway into a sparsely, but classically decorated room. Two walls have simple light brown timber panelling with a couple of quotes in Italian (of course). The other two walls are painted a dark grey, almost looking sad and dreary. I spied an old-fashioned record player with some vinyls (on top was Tracey Chapman) sitting on a ledge, which unfortunately just sits idle all evening.
Clearly, this place is about the food, not the music.
A curiously uninspiring single photo adorned the room. I ask myself, “who puts up a photo of a couple of bed sheets hanging on a washing line with a cat in the yard?” Even the cobblestones beneath the cat were obviously not staged as they were amassed with weeds growing in what little sand they could find. If this photo is intended to piqué ones curiosity then it achieved its goal. Perhaps it meant something to the chef?
That is the extent of the lavish décor of this Two Star Michelin Restaurant. Artistically pretentious this place was not and I just hope the food is of a higher standard than the ambience.
Menus are delivered, in Italian of course.
Our very basic understanding of Italian and even Google Translate cannot help us decipher what was being offered as the words just don’t seem to translate into anything sensible. With some assistance from the waiter, we settle on a menu heavily weighted towards seafood and look forward to enjoying the evening.
The most beautiful tall fine steamed wine glasses I have ever seen arrived on our table. Being tactile, I can’t help but touch and am instantly taken back into my childhood where I could hear Mum say ‘don’t touch, you’ll break it’. The delicate glass is fitting for the fine Chardonnay that soon follows.
I wondered if this is more for decoration than use, as I would expect the dish to be perfectly seasoned before leaving the kitchen.
The first dish to arrive is an unexpected treat from the chef. A kind of pre-starter to our seven courses, because in traditional Italian cooking, and especially in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant as we are learning, the chef must ensure the guests are well fed!
If this is any indication of the other food yet to come, then bring it on.
I’m looking forward to an evening filled with intrigue and discovery, and that’s exactly what unfolded.
Next to arrive is a variety of two breads – warm crusty wholemeal bread obviously fresh from the oven and breadsticks with the finest Sicilian olive oil. I had never before laid eyes on such green olive oil. The waiter pours his precious liquid gold into the small dish sitting patiently beside the bread.
This was no ordinary oil – it is the best money could buy and is treated with the utmost respect. It appears the waiter has earned the right to possess such an important ingredient in our presence with his fine wrist movements, slow gentle pouring, and slight twist at the end preventing spillage.
The outer scallop casing appears to be scallop rolled thinly and placed back into the shell to resemble the shape of a traditional scallop shell. Atop are fine slivers of orange zest that appeared to have been soaking in pure orange fragrance, as the flavours are intense, making this a welcomed original tang away from the usual lemon citrus one would expect to find with seafood.
Now I’m getting into the swing of this Two Star Michelin Restaurant food experience.
Towards the rear of the outer shell casing a delicious light pink sauce peaks through. Created from the orange scallop roe this dressing is silky smooth and delicately sits on ones tongue to enrich the flavours suitable only for the finest seafood. Inside the scallop casing rests poached prawns cooked within milliseconds of perfection and sliced lengthwise. Cooked for one second longer or shorter and the prawns would have been spoiled (or so it seemed). They are perfect.
Arranged and served upon finely sliced crispy fresh lettuce, the prawns nestle into a circle, hugging each other while the roe dressing intertwines to coat each element and brings together a skilfully balanced creation.
Just you wait…
Each dish is served on a silver platter by two professional waiters and beautifully presented before our expectant eyes.
I watch as a theatrical play appears to unfold before our eyes. The performers make us believe we are the most important people in their lives at that very moment and they live only to serve.
Ah, it means octopus in a rock.
Here the octopus is beautifully presented in a foam-like, slightly crunchy, aerated dark pink coloured outer casing which resembles the rocks from where it once may have lived.
Unfortunately for this poor octopus, it poked its head out to a waiting and willing fisherman and wound up on our table for our tasting pleasure.
Within the ‘rock’ and under the octopus is a fragrant and flavoursome sauce concocted from mussels, sea urchins and other oceanic delights. The octopus has obviously been marinating for some time, as it is perfectly tender.
What a shame to break open and eat this delicious dish as in doing so means destroying the masterful culinary art that has obviously taken hours of design, tasting, testing, and reengineering, to arrive at the final goal of perfection.
On one side is a picture of a Mamma and child and the other side holds the story that the chef wants to impart to his diners.
Un po’ tutti siamo cresiuti con la fettina.
La fettina era l’attenzione della mamma quando le sembravamo magri o ammala ti.
Era una fettina sottile e tenerisdima, quasi non masticabile, condita solo con un po d’olio e limone.
Un piatto semplice e nutrien te.
Questo piatto di Tonno Alalunga e un omaggio all’amore delle nostre mamme e alla memoria della nostra infanzia.
Per me, il suo simbolo piu forte e il seme del limone: la perfezione imperfetta del gesto domestici… Mai una mamma lo avrebbe tol to, mai una mamma lo avrebbe fat to mancare.
From little, we grew up with the slice.
The slice was the mother’s attention when we looked thin or sick.
It was a thin slice and tender, almost not chewable, seasoned only with a little oil and lemon.
A simple and nutritious dish.
This dish of Alalunga Tuna is a tribute to the love of our mothers
and to the memory of our childhood.
For me, its strongest symbol is the lemon seed:
the imperfect perfection of the domestic gesture…
Never a mother would have taken it away, never a mother would have missed it.
It was lightly seared on one side, drizzled with oil and the slightest hint of lemon, miniature chives and one perfectly placed lemon seed in the middle. (No this wasn’t a mistake, as both plates had the seed strategically placed in the centre of the tuna). Sprinkled lovingly with crystals of rock salt this addition provides a delightful crunch and adds more flavour to Mamma’s dish. Served lukewarm this is a simple but delicious dish and every bite melts in our mouths like it need not be chewed.
By this stage, we are really enjoying ourselves and the flavours of each dish seem to complement the one before.
We wait for the next masterpiece with a sense of anticipation and expectation, as we know we are in the presence of a culinary magician. What appears before us next does not disappoint.
I guess it is this sort of creativity that is expected in a Two Star Michelin Restaurant.
The al dente (harder than we’re used to at home) thin spaghetti is wrapped tightly around what appears to be a whole baby aubergine, stalk intact. This is topped with a special Italian tomato sauce, miniature basil leaves and finely grated ricotta (I think) cheese.
I open the parcel to reveal that the aubergine has been transformed into a buttery smooth puree that was wonderfully flavoured and perfectly seasoned. Multo saporito! – “very flavoursome” are the best Italian words I can come up with to describe this dish.
The waiter won’t or can’t allow us to have another Chardonnay. Again we didn’t know if this is lost in translation or they just didn’t want to sell another expensive bottle of Chardonnay. The waiter, however, has a half bottle of something he is willing to serve us, which for me, unfortunately, tastes just like a Sauvignon Blanc – the one white wine I actually detest.
Alan, bless him, takes one for the team and devours this all by himself. For me, it’s sparkling water from here on in.
Given that we still have a few dishes due, it is somewhat of a pity to be denied a decent tipple to accompany them – this is Italian food after all!
Moving right along…
The name of the menu we are enjoying is called “Illusion” and had been specially created by the chef so that each dish would be a surprise and would be somehow magical.
This was best demonstrated with the next delight.
I’m not a big barbeque flavour fan at all, in fact, I would run a mile from that smoky, burnt, charred ash flavour.
To my delight, the coals were nothing more than part of the illusion (thank goodness for good logic and a sense of humour). Lying before us was steak and potato, but not as ordinary as my label might suggest.
Served just above warm in temperature, this melt-in-your-mouth beef, which appears to have been cooked in sous vide style, lives up to the expectations I have now come to realise is all part and parcel of a two Michelin Star restaurant.
I could get used to this and become an expert in things food (or at least be the taster).
The detail on our plate is impeccable; from the finely sliced square of rock salt on the beef to the tiny specs of ash sitting below the oil and the jacket potato which needs no further flavours for enhancement.
The spud and beef are perfectly complemented.
Wisps of breath over the top of the charcoal and she lights up, (providing one doesn’t blow too hard and decorate the table with ash – Alan!). The glow adds to the theatrical intrigue of a dish simply labelled by the waiter as “BBQ steak”.
There is nothing simple about this divine dish.
Unsurprisingly, I’m getting full now.
Just two dishes to go… Pre dolche and dolche (before sweet and sweet).
Making room for the next scene, everything is cleared away from our table silently and without fuss by the waiter whose experience shows through his lack of intrusion into our space.
Now for the dessert…
But wait, before the dessert I must sample the Masala, especially as we had recently visited the township down the road and bought a bottle after an enjoyable Marsala tasting session. (Plus, there’s only so much sparkling water one can drink in an evening!) I just love the glass the Marsala is served in, another favourite! I grasp it with a full hand underneath and navigate it to my lips! Yum. Just as well my hands are no smaller, or the glass any larger.
This pre-dolce is, I assume, to cleanse the palate before the final act appears on our stage.
The final dish appears.
Tiramisu! My all-time favourite Italian dessert for me and for Alan, the Profiteroles. The Tiramisu, whilst incredibly creamy, was on the strong side for a non-coffee drinker. I know, I know, I’m in Italy and I don’t drink coffee! Perhaps that is what kept me awake all night.
We go to bed with full bellies, a smile on our faces and the memory of the best gustatory delights of our trip to Europe so far. I doubt we could find a better restaurant in all our travels.
If this is what a Two Star Michelin Restaurant is like, I’m in.
We just need to figure out how to make the budget stretch to enjoy more delights like those professionally served at Ristorante la Madia.
Pino Cuttaia, the creator of this fine theatrical experience greeted us with his presence, post scoffing. I love it when Chefs do this. It’s like there’s no place to hide and we can ask questions of him, compliment him, or pick his brains for the recipe. Just kidding, I doubt he’d give me his recipes in any case. With his limited English and our limited Italian, the smiles said it all.
I would rather visit one special restaurant a year than ten ordinary restaurants if this is the quality of food on offer. The entire evening was delightful and I’ll soon be looking for the next excuse, reason, or occasion to find another Two Star Michelin Restaurant…