Cracco 2008

I discovered Carlo Cracco’s cuisine in the second half of the nineties when he worked at the Le Clivie di Piobesi, in Alba. That having been said, I confess I never went to the Cracco-Peck restaurant, though I have had the pleasure of eating in Cracco three times in the last year. Since he terminated his business venture with Peck in late spring of 2007, Carlo confesses to be experiencing a new professional era in which he has much less pressure on him, allowing the chef to dedicate himself completely to cuisine–a lively creative state that is further bolstered by his young team. I don’t know what Cracco-Peck was like, but the current Cracco restaurant is truly an establishment of international rank. The entrance and the dining room highlight the beauty of the locale, the lighting, the wide spaces, making you almost forget that you’re underground. The international setting of the downtown area of a big city like Milan is breathed in, tasted, tangible. The service is perfect, comprised of a young team motivated by Cracco’s “grand project” as well as the professional model of hospitality on the floor: maître d’ Davide Ostorero. Elegant, affable, attentive, exuding the class of a chef de salon, Ostorero succeeds with all his clients regardless of their background. Everyone feels comfortable in this formal local, from the couple celebrating their anniversary to the director in a business dinner. The entire dining room is under his strict control, the team sees the cues in his eyes as he guides them with nothing more than a look, all at maximum velocity, with precision and no margin of error. Throughout all this, the client is none the wiser. Perfection on every level, whether it is dressing a salad for a young woman on a diet or rationing out foie gras at the table. It isn’t for nothing that he received the Maître d’ of the year in the 2008 edition of the L’Espresso guide. Like the good Piedmont boy that I am, I cannot avoid pointing out that Davide is head of a small community of professionals from Turin (to be more exact they are from Giaveno, a city in the Turin province) who, between the dining room and the kitchen, contribute to the grandeur of this establishment. The young sommelier Luca Gardini (27 years old) manages an important list with labels from all over the world in which four of the great terroirs are most highly represented: Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Piedmont and Tuscany (on top of the sheer quantity of labels, one must point out the number of vintages on hand from fine vineyards as well as the presence of different sizes and a considerable list of wines by the glass). Luca is wildly passionate about his work, translating to a knowledge almost without parallel in a man of his age. I often think what he will be like with another ten years of experience under his belt, ten more years of tastings, tours of vineyards and cellars, etc. And these are just the sensations that took place prior to the meal.
I always followed Carlo during the Cracco-Peck years, either in the gastronomic press or at the LMG congress in San Sebastian, but I never thought his cuisine would seduce me so much into trying it. Together with his right-hand man, Matteo Baronetto (also from Giaveno), he has developed a complex, unpredictable, intellectual, polyhedric and versatile cuisine: Piedmont, Milan, the Mediterranean, Italy, the world. He knows, loves and respects history and tradition, and in this he sometimes takes inspiration from more classical roots, but he also knows how to break the rules with new, nonconformist creations. All his work has a unique common denominator: quality of raw product and its taste.
The crispy caramel stuffed with Russian salad is excellent (photo 1). It is served like a snack, placed on its end on top of a pedestal. It is eaten by hand like a cookie–marvelously technical. The caramel, which encloses the heavier Russian salad, is very thin and fragile yet does not break while eating: an engineering miracle! But what about the taste? A pleasant game of textures but more than anything an impeccable execution on the Russian salad. A dish that breaks all the rules is the oyster with fig and dehydrated capers (photo 2). The mollusk is almost confit in clarified butter, hiding a fig within its clutches. Completing the dish is a sage leaf boiled in milk, wrapped in milk curd and capers. One must absolutely try this playful game between sweet, savory, creamy and fatty (the oyster with butter), with lightness as its motto: a masterpiece!
The potato puree with lightly whipped cream and caviar (photo 3) is cultured and very French, but also introduces a groundbreaking element: pea sprouts, which lend a green note and an acidic hint of chlorophyll to this smooth, involving composition. A palatial dish in the countryside. The marinated egg yolk over parmesan fondue and parmesan toasts is emblematic (photo 4); a colossal dish that is only available from the summer menu. The marinated yolk is supported by a transparent parmesan fondue, similar to a dense parmesan-flavored water. It is accompanied on both sides by fried egg white and toasts/wafers of parmesan and bread. A SQUANDERING OF TECHNIQUE, BUT ONE THAT ISN’T NOTICED: THE NATURAL, SPONTANEOUS QUALITY OF THIS DISH STANDS OUT. Along with all this, there is a great capacity for synthesis, preparation without losing the values or properties of a dish and its ingredients, yet all the while incorporating others: delicacy, lightness, new forms of expression in new contexts. How can you eat summer fondue for lunch and manage to go back to work in the afternoon without a heavy stomach? The egg isn’t dissolved or dispersed in the fondue, but rather it is presented in the middle of the composition: everything is ordered, clean, in a way that the flavors do not mix, maintaining their identity as well as the identity of the traditional recipe itself. The same can be said for all the recipes that call for egg yolk pasta (the yolk, once marinated and flattened, becomes a sheet of pasta ready to be prepared into various different things, egg yolk linguine, for example) or, on a different note, in the risotto alla milanese with saffron and marrow. The photo can be seen on page 75 in Cracco (ed. Giunti), the first book with photos by Bob Noto and, to my understanding, his best work. I particularly liked the small “revolution” he has incited in the field of gastronomic photography: the background (the dish, tablecloth, surroundings) disappears, leaving only the food to be seen, photographed from above, the zenithal perspective. Each photo is a page. To the left is the recipe, to the right the photo, full-page (zooming in you can see the most minute details, from the grains of salt or other spices to the type and quality of the preparation). I am pleased that he did this work with Cracco’s dishes. Getting back to the risotto, and in this case the marrow, which is normally “dispersed” in the rice, here it is converted into the central point of the dish. A classic, perfect saffron risotto with a slice of seared marrow in the center, losing part of its fat along the way. There is a clear will to study, analyze and improve on tradition by simplifying it, synthesizing the preparation of the dish without betraying the original taste, but diminishing the caloric intake and easing its digestion. A demonstration of culture, intelligence and valiance in reinterpreting and studying ancient, historical formulas in what amounts to an oftentimes conservative (with regard to the public and food critics) environment.
The Benedetto Cavalieri spaghetti with sea urchin ragù and coffee is excellent. Magnificent spaghetti, restorative and al dente, dressed with a flavorful sea urchin ragù accentuated by a slight hint of coffee. The marine flavor is imposing, almost powerful, but then again the sea produces powerful sensations. Wow! The hint of coffee arrives late, only just insinuated: fantastic, Mediterranean… this is Italy! I will close the short selection of dishes I tried this September (2008) with a preparation comprised of only two ingredients: celery cream with marrow slice (photo 5). The cream is made from celery juice with a remarkably pure flavor, added to with a few raw threads of the same vegetable and a slice of marrow that, as my friend Fabrizio Giai said, makes the vegetable “buttery” in its creamy context. Yet again, an economic approach in terms of means and ingredients but one with incredible results in flavor and concept.
In fact there were so many dishes and sensations that I have experienced this year on Via Victor Hugo that I can honestly say I discovered (though rather late) a great restaurant and one that I believe has still to receive the recognition it deserves in Italy for its true worth.
The quality of service in the dining room, the ambience, the determination and professionalism to serve at such a high level (an average of forty sets both for lunch and dinner), but above all the quality of the cuisine itself, its contemporary character, the new techniques brought forth by Carlo (his studies of eggs, the egg yolk pasta technique, the cooked salad technique–see the section under “great dishes” in this website–his studies of the fish “papers”) combine to make him much more than a classic.
I think Cracco is, today, one of the finest restaurants in the world.