I’ve missed many a plane, train and automobile in my day for reasons both significant and not. In matters both personal and work-related, I am a professional only at being late, a fact I was grimly reminded of last month when our train from Florence to Milan nearly scooted off into the sunset without us.
Thanks, of course, to me. I bought a pair of Italian-made sneakers on the way to the station. (Yes, I have a picture of them, and no, I’m not going to show you. We just met.) Because of my poor judgment — or because of my impeccable taste in footwear — we literally had to run to make a dinner reservation in Milan with my buddy from Genoa.
This man is approximately two and a half times my age, a father-figure, friend, and mentor in one. He’s also part of the reason that, though I’m not actually Italian, I’m awfully good at faking it.
He and I are a dangerous, demented duo. We sat down and got right to business. No menus — just the chef’s choice on our plates and champagne in our glasses.
The first thing we ate at Al Pont de Ferr was not a chestnut. It was a cool purée of one, wrapped in a thin frozen shell, wrapped in quotation marks. Next came a grapefruit bon-bon, then a foie gras-and-apple tart with cardamom. These snacks showed promise for the meal ahead.
The first proper course was a mosaic of land and sea in which raw amberjack, foie gras, beet, macadamia nut, orange and grapefruit made cubic cameos. The sensations ranged from toothsome (macadamia nut) to wholesome (beet), to… well, almost troublesome (foie gras). Fortunately I like trouble.
A dish entitled “Might seem like a risotto…”, didn’t, actually. Passion fruit seeds had more crunch than even the most al dente rice. Neither the thick pumpkin cream nor the sweet, popcorn-sized shrimp could mask that. But I didn’t mind.
Ravioli, too, was a bit of a fraud, with just translucent sheets of milk skin enclosing a nearly-liquid purée of camote, a Peruvian sweet potato. Oyster cream and sea beans brought a balancing brininess to this beautiful dish.
Different forms of pasta (the real kind) were mixed and scattered on our plates, perhaps by a housewife on a mean streak, using up the remaining bits from several boxes at the end of a long week and laughing maniacally as she laid them on an asparagus purée (eww, green stuff!!) with baby calamari (eww, tentacles!!). The kid in me wanted to rebel. But it wasn’t that dramatic, and it was actually quite good, each and every pasta shape cooked to the right point.
Somewhere around this time we traded our bubbles for a wild ribolla gialla from the mythical Josko Gravner. This is the kind of wine Italians might call a vino da meditazione — elusive, thought-provoking, challenging but alluring and eventually rewarding. A wine like a good woman, basically.
Gravner’s lady saw us beautifully through red mullet stuffed with broccolli, and wild hare ribs with a rosy red color and a sharp gaminess that cut like a thorn. Coffee gelato, an unlikely running mate, was the perfect bittersweet foil for the latter.
The waiter asked if we were still hungry, and once I muffled both my girlfriend and her mother, the answer was a unanimous yes. So the chef had us taste some Iberico pork with a seared exterior and a bloody (and bloody delicious) interior. Sea urchin and burrata were fun, if extraneous, flourishes.
My girlfriend’s mom, not wanting meat, got an onion — or, rather, a translucent red sugar shell, stretched to resemble one and stuffed with a sweet-and-sour onion compote and a creamy young goat cheese. It was strikingly beautiful to look at, and a perfect segue to dessert.
Sweets were probably, by this point, unnecessary. But despite the full stomachs of the females at the table and the predisposition against sweets of the gentleman to my left, the chef sent us four different desserts, of which I ate just three and a half.
The coconut one was called cous-cous on the menu but looked more like a Hostess Sno Ball, an igloo of coconut cream housing mango gelato and wearing coconut flakes like fur. Other tiny mounds of ice cream were presented in clam shells — a move from the el Bulli playbook. And then an apple dessert stole the spotlight with its sparkly sugar shell. Stuffed with apple foam, balanced on apple compote, and hanging with shortbread gelato, I’d say it was pretty brilliant, were I British. Being an American, I can only say it was freakin’ good, dude.
Molten chocolate cake sat in the kind of wide-rimmed coupe that is over-used at restaurants far more expensive and far more boring than this one. It was a pretty presentation of pretty ubiquitous dessert, but it was also one that we did not see the end of. Yet more chocolate was made into a tree, with pistachio pastry cream filling the trunk. Our server made the cotton-candy snow in its branches melt away, smiling a bit as he did so, smiling about spring.
So much food and wine meant that our energy, too, had melted away. But we couldn’t help but smile as it did so. The next day would see the four of us on three very different trajectories — back toward Genoa, Florence, and New York. Back toward work and school, and possibly even back toward a state of sobriety. Of where we will all next get together, I can’t be sure. But I’ll try to wear the right shoes.