Tuesday, 22 July 2008

excitment and disappointment

as a foodie, i consider the excitement that comes before going to a well-known good restaurant as one of the best small pleasures of life. when you have been to a place a couple of times, brought your friends there, familiarized with the menu and the owner, each new visit is a reassuring but fresh experience. new dishes are sampled, new flavours explored, but old memories of culinary satisfaction are usually confirmed. this is the cause of a sort of silent trepidation that i feel before each return, especially when i have not been to a certain place for a long time due to my restless moving around the world.

this time, i had been savouring the pleasure of going to the bucun du preve for a couple of days. the restaurant opened only a few years ago, hidden in one of the small alleys that cross the centre of the small seaside town of noli, on the italian riviera ligure. i have been coming to this town on holiday since i was a few months old, as my grandparents have a house here, but until the bucun du preve (literally, the priest's bite) opened, i had not set foot in any of the many restaurants around town, which all look like they opened in 1955 and forgot to update the menu or the furniture ever since. the first three times i went there, i felt like my favourite seaside resort had finally entered the 21st century, finally offering a friendly atmosphere and excellent food along with the crowded beaches and the quaint medieval town centre. the owner and cook was an almost caricatural example of local attitude, big, loud, chatty and rude, defending his food with passion and pride. Justly.
this time, i carefully manouvred my grandmother into saving her energies and allow me to take her out for dinner on my last night in town and i immediately started waiting for this event with pure, if hidden, excitement. as i was reading a novel on the beach, i was actually thinking of what the menu would offer and if i should take the trofie al pesto, which i had been longing for a while, or go for the seafood dishes. i was imagining the jokes the rowdy owner would make at my lobster-coloured skin and picturing the rustic atmosphere of the vaulted dining hall.

you can therefore imagine the disappointment when i walked into this old familiar restaurant to find it...slightly changed. at first, i couldn't pinpoint it. but my grandma noticed the new bright lighting, the absence of the wood oven in a corner, the white paint covering the brick walls. the infamous owner was nowhere to be seen and we therefore had to realise that a new management was in place. the menu was the first visible difference...a few local traditional dishes, a lot of fish as expected, but also a tray of tuscanian hams and meats. nothing catchy, nothing terribly original and, most importantly for me, no trofie (a local kind of fresh pasta). i was already quite disillusioned, but decided to hold my judgment until i actually tried the food. unfortunately, it didn't make much difference. my linguine al pesto with green beans and potatoes were truly unimaginative, as if someone had told the cook what ingredients he should use but forgot to explain how. even the pesto sauce, the great traditional pride of liguria, was not much better than the imitations found in other italian regions, always too generous in garlic and poor in parmesan. the stuffed calamari were better but presented as a microwaved ready-meal. redemption only came with the dessert, excellent stuffed peaches which competed with equally attractive fruit tarts on display.

the price was honest, if not cheap, but nothing could compensate for the great disappointment i experienced in finding out what a poor replacement they had found for what was an innovative and excellent restaurant in a culinary desert on the ligurian riviera. i only wish the lovely new owners had opened their own patisserie rather than add another boring and plain-looking eatery to my few options for a dinner out in my beloved noli.