Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Ristorante Antico Pignolo
Calle Specchieri 451
San Marco, Venezia
Tel: (041) 522-8123
The meal took place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions.
Hidden in a little alley, just a few yards off Piazza San Marco, Antico Pignolo is, in my opinion, one of Italy’s better restaurants, serving the bounty of the Adriatic and the Veneto based on traditional Venetian recipes. It might be pricey, but its worth every penny spent!
Fresh fish and produce are selected each morning by the chef and the manager and they constitute the majority of the day’s offerings. But what makes this restaurant stand way above many other Venetian restaurants I have visited, is their wine cellar. Located on the top floor of the building (you can’t really have a cellar in Venice; any space below street level would flood) it has an amazing breadth and depth of the best Italian and French wines. The chilled house Prosecco - of which we polished off a full bottle - was creamy and refreshing; absolutely outstanding and certainly equal to the best Cartizze Prosecco I have tasted. Straw yellow in color, very slightly off-dry, with a small frizzante bead, it had a lovely bouquet; the elegant scent of wildflowers as well as hints of ripe apples, pears and peaches.
The restaurant is set in a 13th century building that used to house the workshop of a blacksmith for the ducal stables; later on, it became the bakery of a convent and then a spice merchant’s store selling to the Venetian aristocracy spices brought on the Silk Road. In 1930, the Antico Pignolo Ristorante occupied the premises and was, from its inception, designed to cater to an exclusive clientèle. The public areas are two large rooms and a lovely, umbrella-covered garden, where we had our marvelous dinner.
The evening started with the ubiquitous glass of Bellini, the signature Venetian cocktail made from white-peach pulp or peach nectar and Prosecco. We had been told that one of the restaurant's best desserts is a soufflé that we had to order at the beginning, so we did just that before anything else.
The antipasto was tidbits of the bounty of the Adriatic; crayfish grilled on a charcoal grill, pickled octopus salad, baby squid, tartar of tuna, scallops on the half-shell and other delightful morsels of sea life. We polished them all off in no time, washed down with the house Prosecco. Another rather unusual offering was strips of what I thought was deep-fried Parmesan cheese that was presented with the breadsticks; it turned out they were formed in the microwave, and different shapes of microwaved Parmesan are used in the restaurant in different ways. The dish we tasted next “Little Shrimp in a Parmesan Nest” used a formed Parmesan bowl to hold medium sized shrimp in a citrus sauce; a lovely signature creation.
The charming restaurant manager and host presented us with the catch of the day, eyes still brightly gleaming, to select for our main course. I decided on crayfish and fillet of sole to be simply charcoal grilled. Barbara selected baby squid, also for charcoal grilling. As far as I’m concerned, the best way to enjoy really fresh fish and seafood is charcoal grilled, with a simple lemon/olive oil dressing and fresh chopped parsley and coarse sea salt sprinkled on top.
But first, we had to have our primo piatto. Being in Northern Italy, the primo piatto was of course a risotto; a creamy dish dotted with succulent pieces of seafood. There is a raging controversy about seafood risotto in Venice: should the dish be made with Parmesan cheese or not? Paolo Morra, the general manager of the Centurion Palace where we were staying and who had recommended the Antico Pignolo, was of the opinion that an authentic Venetian seafood risotto should definitely not be made with Parmesan cheese. Fulvio Zanella, the Pignolo manager, begged to differ. The question remained unresolved as the risotto that was served to us was made with Parmesan cheese, since Fulvio was in charge of the restaurant. No matter... it was very, very good.
Our main courses came. The kitchen definitely knows how to prepare fish perfectly: moist, neither undercooked nor overcooked. Sweet flesh, slightly smoky and tangy from the charcoal and the lemon sauce. Grilled squid, sometimes becomes rubber-band chewy if the cook grills it for too long; this was not the case. Barbara’s baby-squid was very tender, smoky, and delicious. We continued with the house Prosecco, as it paired very well with all our dishes.
While we were waiting for our soufflé, Fulvio, who was informed by Paolo of my passion for good wine, took us upstairs to the cellar - three temperature-controlled rooms - to show me their wine collection. Over 900 bottles of Grand Cru and top shelf wines, Cognacs and Grappa. The breath and depth of the collection is awe-inspiring. Some of the best wines, including Château Mouton Rothschild, La Tâche, Romanée-Conti (including the 1999 vintage), Château d’ Yquem (including the exceptional 1989 and 1990 vintages), and from California Opus One, some exceptional Amarones... the best were present, some, ten- or twenty- year long verticals. I was frankly salivating.
But word came that our soufflé was ready, and down we went back to our table. Whoever said that “soufflé is just puffed eggs”, had not tasted the soufflé we had at Antico Pignolo. Slightly crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside with runny chocolate in the center and accompanied by a glass of extremely fragrant Moscato d’ Asti from Piemonte (Piedmont), this was one of the best soufflés we have ever had.
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