The whole world, and for certain all of Copenhagen, is mesmerized by the prodigious success of New Nordic Cuisine these days. For good reason, the cuisine is fabulous, and combines the most hyped trends in cooking right now: Locavorism, foraging, sustainability, new cooking technologies and decidedly avantgarde plating. This is a movement more than just a local Nordic phenomenon, and is showing signs of being highly influential across the world.
The beauty of the concept is that it does not prescribe certain dishes or certain methodologies. The point is a dogmatic approach to the selection of raw materials – they must be strictly local and strictly seasonal (or transformed from seasonal produce) – coupled with absolute technical mastery and a desire to emulate nature. This is a frame of mind that can easily be transferred to the entire world, with widely varying results, of course, because it is so heavily dependent on local produce.
Copenhagen is bursting with creative culinary energy these days, with seemingly an ever-increasing number of new restaurants turning out one beautiful dish after the other. Noma, the original and possibly still the best of the bunch, has just won its fourth title in five years as the world’s best restaurant in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Awards. This is not by chance, far from it: Noma has led the way all along in this new world of sustainability and locavorism, and is still at the very forefront. But there are many more New Nordic restaurants in Copenhagen deserving of attention, among them Geranium, Amass, Relæ, Bror, Radio, Studio.
It is highly interesting that this explosion of creative force has taken place on what can be only called a rather weak historical culinary background. Denmark has never had one of the leading cuisines of the world before, and up until 10 years ago, the highest culinary aspiration of most Danes consisted in stodgy interpretations of French haute bourgeoisie cooking from the nineteenth century (that is still the case to a large – but diminishing – extent).
Danish cooks were known as technically excellent, but had little pride in their national cuisine, such as it was. That we should create what right now might be the world’s leading culinary edge was improbable. It could probably not have taken place without the new cooking technology and technique developed by the likes of Ferrán Adriá. However, it may be an important factor that we had little tradition of specific preparations or specific dishes with the excellent raw materials that we do have, indeed, we had little pride in the raw materials themselves. Perhaps not being saddled with a heavy tradition was exactly the enabler that made this large leap possible?
On that background, Italian cooking is an enormous contrast. In Italy, and in the Italian exodus around the world, firm traditions for excellent raw materials marry with endless fights over the exact method of cooking, with a millennial tradition of foraging and of eating everything local and with the stubborn local pride that exalts anything as the world’s best merely because it comes from the exact place you happen to be in (often called campanilismo in Italian, from the notion that if it is not from within sight of the local campanile – bell tower – then it is not worth seeking out) to create one of the best, most varied, yet most recognizable and sane cuisines of the world. So locavorism and foraging is ancient news in Italy. They are among the prime reasons for the greatness and excellence of Italian cuisine. But in the context of the increasingly global showcase that is top-end gastronomy, strongly based on innovation, technique and hype, that also means that Italian cuisine can seem introverted, reluctant to embrace modernity, and thus lacking in wow factor.
I love traditional Italian cuisine, with its sensitivity to excellent raw materials, its lightness of touch, yet great depth of flavour and deeply satisfying rhythm and progression. As such, I don’t think that this winning formula needs changing at all costs, and I could probably happily spend the rest of my life browsing the traditional and simple without feeling the need for revolutionizing it. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, as the saying goes. And indeed, when I have come across more experimental Italian interpretations, I have often been disappointed. The dishes can seem adolescently technical takes on classics, and can lack depth of flavour, a context, and are often rather dilute.
However, cuisines are not static phenomena. The Italian cuisine today has changed immensely from just a hundred years ago, and there is no doubt that it will continue to change. The new techniques that are being applied in top-end kitchens across the world will and must also influence the Italian cuisine. So, the issue becomes not one of saving tradition, because tradition is a constantly changing thing anyway, but of ensuring that the particular Italian style, that lightness of touch, that balance and rhythm, that depth of flavour, can be used as the creative force underlying a constantly renewing cuisine that – at one and the same time – challenges and quotes the classical tenets of Italian cooking. It is obvious that it can be done, for the new rules are not cuisine-based, they are more of a basis underlying an approach to cooking.
Cue Casa d’Antino and the new team in place in the kitchen there. First, though, a bit of history:
The Lolli family have been active in Danish wine and gastronomy circles for 4 decades, and always at a high level. Ettore Lolli, Abruzzese by birth, came to Denmark and started working as a Latin teacher. He must have missed proper Italian food and wine terribly, for he started several initiatives that are still going strong. Together with his wife Ellis, he started what is still one of the best Italian restaurants in Copenhagen, La Buca degli Artisti. He also started importing wine through his company Adriat Vinimport. Both initiatives have always been known for high quality and high integrity, a testament to Ettore and his family’s sense for both. His three sons have continued within the same vein, so these days we see Guido in charge of La Buca, Roberto in charge of Adriat, and the last son, Paolo, in charge of his own restaurant (Casa d’Antino), wine import business and wine shop (Enoteca). And all are performing at ever higher levels.
Paolo is a particular friend of mine. We have moved in the same wine circles in Copenhagen for more than two decades, and his knowledgeable, inquisitive and bright mindset has always been a pleasure to be around. Paolo is a co-author of the Politikens Bog om Italiensk Vin wine book that I also co-wrote, and is without doubt one of the leading authorities on Italian wine in Denmark. His wine competences spread far beyond Italian, though, and in particular embraces a deep love of Burgundy.
Some 15 years ago, Paolo opened the Casa d’Antino restaurant (http://www.casadantino.dk/) in central Copenhagen. For obvious reasons, the restaurant is Italian, and deeply wine-centric, with one of the very best wine lists in Denmark. Casa d’Antino shares space with the Enoteca wine shop, and most of the restaurant’s wines are also available for purchase in the shop. Wine service here is, as you might expect, second to none. The leaning of the wine list is classical, which is not to say that there is across-the-board rejection of natural wine (a misnomer if there ever was one), but certainly a liking for technically well-made wine with a lot of flavour and identity. Just my kind of thing, really.
Casa d’Antino started out with quite traditional Italian food, maintaining the traditional rhythm of antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti and dessert from day one. While the cooking has been excellent throughout, I have always had the sense that wine really was the greatest strength of the place. But now all that has changed. Since the arrival of, first, Mariano Greco, and, since, the Mor brothers Raffaele and Fabio, the cooking here has been of the very highest order, easily a match for the fantastic wine list.
Mariano is from the Tyrrhenian coast of Basilicata and deeply rooted in the culinary traditions of that lovely part of the world. The Mor brothers, on the other hand, are from Brescia, and equally deeply rooted in the foods from their corner of Italy. All three are technical wizards at the highest level, but with a firm eye on presenting flavour, texture and a progression that make sense, and that preserve the inimitable Italian style.
Right here, in the ferment that is the New Nordic Cuisine in one of the world’s gastronomic capitals right now, they are taking full advantage of the opportunity. They are incessantly visiting all the other restaurants in town, and they are clearly being inspired to come up with their own unique takes on a modernized, intelligent, technically proficient, happy and strongly Italian cuisine. They are right there in the fray, mixing with the community and even taking on some of the dogma and preconceived notions of the New Nordics (such as the knee-jerk rejection of GMOs).
Of course, Italian food and wine are high in my affection, but even discounting that, the cuisine right now at Casa d’Antino is among my favourites in town, to the extent of it being my favourite place to go for the complete package. As an illustration of what you might come across these days, let me retell my two latest experiences there, all within the last two weeks:
First, the missus and I spent a child-free evening there on Friday 25 April 2014. Paolo had agreed we could bring a bottle of our own for a bit of blind-tasting fun, and the rest of the wines would be served blind and by the glass by Paolo. I won’t bore you with how deeply poor I was at guessing the wines, so here is what we ate and drank:
BELLAVISTA Franciacorta Cuvée Brut (not served blind)
A classic by now, high-quality sparkling wine, with a soft mousse and a fairly soft body, reticent but good autolytic character and just enough steely acidity to sustain it.
Our first little snack arrived within short:
Reconstituted pork crackling, bell pepper cream, cruschi powder
This is an intelligent, playful take on normally heavy and fatty pork crackling. Dried, powdered pork crackling (without the fat) is stuck to a thin piece of what looks like filo pastry and then deep fried. It arrives at the table still fizzing and popping, with the crackling having inflated, and with a powder made from the famous South Italian dried bell peppers called cruschi on top. On the side a small dollop of sweet/savoury bell pepper cream. Pork crackling is universally delicious to mankind, of course, so this is not just a fun, crunchy bite or five, but also a fantastically mouthwatering way to start a meal. This is ennobled by the powdery, spicy, savoury and slightly smoky cruschi powder and then sweetened by the cream.
The accompanying wine:
VIGNETI MASSA Derthona Timorasso 2011
This is the second, minor, of Massa’s two timorassos. Lovely minerally aromas, as you expect from the variety, but here supplemented with fairly full yellow fruit and notes of Mediterranean herbs. Medium body, mature but good acidity, good length.
Seared langoustine, zucchino, zucchini cream
Another few mouthfuls to start us out. Langoustine is pan-fried in a very hot pan, then served alongside a small tower of very gently cooked zucchino, with a slightly herbal zucchini cream underneath. Magical harmony between the sweetness of the langoustines and the zucchini, a light and gentle, yet deeply flavourful combination. Mariano told us this was inspired by a similar dish served by Christian Puglisi at Relæ.
MASTROBERARDINO Fiano di Avellino More Maiorum 2003
This was the bottle we had brought ourselves. Somewhat deep golden colour presaged a wine with broad yellow fruit, strong minerals and just the slightest hint of age setting in. Broad, powerful and dry, but still with lovely fruit and acidity and a long aftertaste. Just slightly more mature in its outlook than the other bottles of this lovely wine we have had quite recently.
The first antipasto:
The perfect egg, parmesan cream, green asparagus and parmesan chip
On a bed of a thick parmesan cream came an egg that had been prepared at just the right temperature and for just the right time to start solidifying the white while the yolk remained completely liquid. On the side a bit of gently steamed green asparagus, the whole thing covered by a dome of parmesan chip that had to be smashed to get at the rest. Lovely play of very soft textures from the egg and cream, set against the gentle snap of the asparagus and the crunch of the parmesan chip. Equally lovely flavour balance, where the notoriously wine-difficult egg and asparagus balanced each other and were offset by the cream and the chip, rendering a gentle yet decisive whole that went extremely well with the wine. Great technique here, but not just for its own sake.
FEUDI DI SAN GREGORIO Fiano di Avellino Pietracalda 2004
Paolo’s obvious response to the More Maiorum. Somewhat younger in outlook, with lovely minerality and a cool-fruited, elegant demeanour. Good dry matter supported a firm body with good acidity, ending long, dry and slightly herbal.
The second antipasto:
Veal tartare, Jerusalem artichokes and ginger mayonnaise
The Jerusalem artichoke had been cooked, then mashed, and then dried and crisped up to form a bowl, in which came the handcut tartare of sweet veal, simply seasoned and served with a gentle ginger mayonnaise and lots of foraged herbs. Another gentle, beautifully balanced dish with a clear, sweet taste of the ingredients, offset by the gently green herbs, and with a lovely depth of flavour.
HOFSTÄTTER Alto Adige Pinot Nero Sant’Urbano 2010
A medium-bodied, slightly herbal take on pinot, with lovely dark berries, slight Oriental spice and good, ripe tannins. Dry, and with the acidity to complement the natural sweetness of the dish.
Our first primo piatto:
Paccheri with ragù napoletano
A Neapolitan classic, with sweet, slowcooked, slightly disintegrated cubes of veal in a thick, oniony, slightly tomatoey sauce. A gentle, mouthfilling experience, by the book, showing excellent technique and great balance. Pasta perfectly al dente.
BARTOLO MASCARELLO Langhe Nebbiolo 2011
An old favourite. This had the light-toned red fruit and medium body with acidity and tannins to complement the sweet meatiness of the dish and cleanse the palate. In lovely form this evening, the fruit being quite exuberant, and balanced by the earthiness and slight grumpiness of the tannins.
Our second primo piatto:
Asparagus risotto, parmesan crumble
This was made with Acquerello carnaroli rice, and contained perfectly crunchy bits of green and white asparagus in a creamy, saucy risotto with just the right resistance left in the rice grains. The parmesan had been fairly heavily baked to a golden crisp and then crumbled, and the roasted, umami-rich character of it provided the perfect counterpoint to the rich, moist rice and the gentle, green and white crunch of the asparagus. Despite the richness and sweetness, this came across as wonderfully fresh and green.
WEINGUT KNOLL Wachau Loibner Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Vinotheksabfüllung 2008
Paolo also serves non-Italian wine… This had lovely peach, sweet herb and white pepper aromas, with fairly full body, good dry matter and just enough acidity to balance its just slightly off-dry character. Wonderful length. Great match with the risotto.
Then the main course/secondo piatto:
Quail, mushrooms, artichokes and onion cream
Succulent roasted quail, still pink in the flesh, but obviously cooked all the way through, with pan-fried mushrooms, braised quarters of artichoke, gently pan-fried Jerusalem artichoke, a gentle, barely-sweet onion cream and pan juices finished with a bit of balsamic vinegar. Here again, the lightness and deftness of touch was highly convincing, and the notoriously difficult artichokes had been cooked in a manner that somehow rendered them less bitter and more wine-friendly.
PIEROPAN Valpolicella Superiore Ruberpan Vigna Garzon 2011
Paolo had actually brought its bigger brother, the Amarone (see below), first, but we quickly agreed that it was probably a little bit too big, so he whisked up glasses of this lovely wine. This is famous Soave-producer Pieropan’s foray into Valpolicella. Lovely nose of dark cherries, flowers, minerals and a hint of autumn leaves, with some weight, yet still elegant. Medium body, juicy, lively and highly drinkable, but with good weight of fruit, dry matter and some tannin to make it relevant with the dish. This is to some extent a reinterpretation of Valpolicella, and highly successful, I think, with none of the slightly oxidized, dried fruit character you get in most ripasso or similar wines. Great with the food.
Then, upon my insistence, the cheese:
Caciotta con tartufo, Testun vinacce nebbiolo da Barolo, Toma Piemontese (latte vaccino)
These were served with fruit compotes and honey.
PIEROPAN Amarone della Valpolicella Vigna Garzon 2010
Originally served with the quail, but quickly turned out to be slightly too powerful for that. A much better match for the cheese. A big, sweetly fruity, dark berry nose, yet maintains good freshness. However, to my taste somewhat marred by a fairly exuberant new-oak nose. Great body, with weight and much dry matter, yet retains good freshness, balance and elegance, and therefore strikes you as a medium-weight Amarone. Good length, but again slightly marred by oak. The oak, though, as well as the sweetness of the fruit, made for a very good match with the cheese and the compotes.
And finally, the dessert:
Variations of chocolate (rosemary ice cream, chocolate ganache with bergamot, white chocolate mousse)
This balanced a rich, not-very sweet-ganache full of the highest quality chocolate with the gently floweriness of the rosemary ice cream and the buttery white chocolate mousse. Most diners also get an almond paste underneath, but this was omitted due to allergy. Good depth of flavour, but again with that counterpoint of lightness, both in texture and flavour.
ERMACORA Colli Orientali di Friuli Picolit 2009
The gentleness and reticence of picolit is a very interesting phenomenon. Rather than bowl you over, it seems to draw you in, so as to better sense the fine aromas of raisins, minerals and flowers. Medium body, with a light sweetness that was balanced by good acidity and a slight hint of bitterness, which in its turn provided an excellent match with the slightly grainy dry matter of the excellent dark chocolate in the ganache. Long, minerally finish, with a hint of bitter herbs.
Just 8 days later we were back, this time with our daughter in tow. We had agreed to opt for slightly less food this time ’round, but otherwise the concept was the same:
We started with:
BELLAVISTA Franciacorta Cuvée Brut
See note above.
Then a quick nibble:
Reconstituted pork crackling, bell pepper cream, cruschi powder
See note above.
ANTONIO CAGGIANO Campania Falanghina 2011
This was quite rounded and full for a falanghina, with lovely aromas of peach and a slight hint of ripe citrus peel and minerals. The dry, minerally character went well with the cruschi seasoning, while the good acidity cut the sizzling crackling well.
CA’ DEI FRATI Lugana I Frati 2012
Lovely, very expressive nose of apple, peach and resinous herbs led me towards verdicchio, which ironically it almost is, but not from Jesi or Matelica. This is Ca’ dei Frati’s everyday bottling, and has not been given the fuill wood treatment. That was very welcome, as the medium body with good dry matter and excellent acidity provided a good counterpoint to the crackling.
Then the first antipasto:
The perfect egg, parmesan cream, green asparagus, parmesan chip
See note above.
DE MONTILLE Corton Charlemagne 2010
A broad, but somewhat reticent nose, with apple, huge minerality and hints of herbs and spices. Medium weight in the mouth, with intensity, great firmness, big and ripe acidity, very long and minerally. One for the ages, and right now not showing what it will become with another 10 or 20 years in bottle. Great nonetheless, and had just the firmness, dryness, aromatic complexity and weight to deal with the dish.
Then the primo piatto:
Chitarra spaghetti, cherry tomatoes, capers, olives, fresh oregano, ricotta salata
In essence a take on spaghetti alla puttanesca, I guess. Wonderfully Mediterranean flavours abounded here, with the sweetness and spiciness of first-class tomatoes mixing with the savouriness, saltiness and hint of bitterness from the capers (proper salted capers), tiny black olives and oregano. The ricotta salata added slight dried smokiness and a welcome salty/acidic tang to balance the sweetness of the tomatoes.
TENUTE DELLE TERRE NERE Etna Rosso Calderara Sottana 2011
Once in a rare while, new oak aromas can marry beautifully with a wine, elevating the whole and making it more complex. This was an example. Lovely, pinot noir-like red fruitiness intermixed with sweet hints of oak ageing, strong minerally character and hints of sweet meat and Oriental spices. Soft, fresh, medium full, and very long, with a tangy, saline feel and displaying lovely fruity juiciness and great balance. That slight tang was fantastic with the Mediterranean bitter/herbal elements of the dish, while the sweetness of the fruit complemented the sweet tomato flavours.
Then another antipasto (served in this order because I was the only one having it):
Baccalà alla vicentina, ransom pesto
A northern Italian classic of dried salt cod cooked with milk and butter. This can be rather stodgy and inelegant, even if having great depth of flavour, but not so here. A quenelle of gently cooked salt cod was lightly drizzled with a gentle, slightly garlicky ransom pesto and accompanied by a firm yet airy cloud of milk and butter, presumably made from the liquid in which the salt cod had been cooked. There was a lightness and elegance to the feel of this dish, but without compromising on the depth of flavour and rusticity of the salt cod. Again, highly technical, but in no way just for the sake of being technical; the point was to elevate a rustic dish without losing flavour and identity, and that was certainly accomplished.
VIGNETI MASSA Colli Tortonesi Barbera Bigolla 2004
Amazingly young for its age, with sweet dark cherry fruitiness, great juiciness, minerality and sapidity. What must have originally been a fairly marked note of new oak had melded seamlessly with the wine and provided sweet spice and just a hint of welcome tannin, which combined with the acidity to provide the perfect foil for the creamy yet rustic baccalà dish.
Then the main courses:
Quail, mushrooms, artichokes and onion cream (for me)/entrecôte with green salad (for the missus and the offspring)
For the quail, see the note above.
As you would expect by now, the everyday-sounding dish of entrecôte with green salad had been transformed and ennobled by the kitchen team. The beef had been cooked to perfection (perhaps sous vide?) and was evenly coloured throughout. The salad consisted of leafy greens, of course, but also various pickled or marinated vegetables, and the whole was extremely well balanced. Plating, too, was inventive, with pieces of the steak arranged around the plate and the salad draped between and around them.
LA SPINETTA Barbaresco Starderi 1997
I am not always a great fan of the very oaky style of La Spinetta, but age had worked wonders for this wine, and the oak had finally receded to a level that allowed insight into the sweet, dense fruit and complex notes of humus, leather, liquorice, tar and flowers that characterize nebbiolo from these parts. Big and quite round and soft, with sweet fruit, but enough acidity and tannin to work well with the food.
POGGIO DI SOTTO Brunello di Montalcino 1996 (this was the wine we had brought for the evening)
For tasting note see https://oleudsenwineblog.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/greatness-and-weak-mexican-beer-a-perfect-night-out/
Caciotta con tartufo, Testun vinacce nebbiolo da Barolo, Toma Piemontese (latte vaccino)
With fruit compotes and honey.
We continued with the red wines from the main courses.
Then the dessert:
Variations of chocolate (rosemary ice cream, chocolate ganache with bergamot, white chocolate mousse, almond paste)
See note above.
FLORIO Marsala Superiore Riserva Semisecco Ambra Donna Franca (affinato oltre 15 anni in rovere)
This was a lovely, concentrated wine with typical aromas of raisins, rancio, minerals, flowers, candied orange peel, mediterranean herbs, tobacco and chocolate, and a dense, dryish, concentrated palate with semi-sweet fruit and a savoury, slightly grainy and slightly saline character. It married perfectly with the tannins of the chocolate while providing the flowery and caramelly top notes to match the other components of the dish. Lovely.
As you may have gathered, we thoroughly enjoyed these meals. They provided a combination of great cooking technique, playful allusions to well-known dishes and sheer, unadultered eating pleasure. That you are in good hands (and good company!) with Paolo and his staff, and that prices are ridiculously reasonable considering the height of the eating experience here, are further pluses. Add to that a great wine list and knowledgeable wine service, and you have a great combination.
There is something significant happening here, and you get the sense that they have only just started. Could we be seeing the start of a new, unfussy but technically highly updated and proficient direction for Italian food? I certainly think so, and I think that Mariano Greco and the Mor brothers are ones to follow closely. We probably ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
So if in Copenhagen, make sure you make a beeline for this place.