“We have an afternoon free, why don’t we check out Florence?”, I told my friends on our recent visit to Chianti and Tuscany. They had both been there not long before our trip but for me, it was a 20 year old visit I did as a student so I was excited to revisit it even if just for a couple of hours. And then it downed on me, surely Florence must have some fine dining restaurants? Bingo, Enoteca Pinchiorri, a 3 Michelin star Grande Damme and one that has been in business since the 80s, stood out as the highest ranking. And so a booking was made. Surprisingly, two weeks before the date, tables were still available. I would later find out why. The bill was definitively not for the faint of heart at 400 euro per person minimum, unless you don’t drink wine, which would be sacrilege in a restaurant that labels itself as an an “enoteca” and which has, possibly, the most expensive wine collection in the world.
Needless to say, this was a memorable meal, but was that so because of the food? Read on to find out if my evening at Enoteca Pinchiorri stood the test of unexperienced taste buts.
Booking and arrival
We booked on the phone, a couple of weeks ahead of our visit, and were told that there was only one seating, at 7,30pm, which seemed rather strange in a country where nobody eats when it is still daylight. We were also asked to re-call to reconfirm on the day. So far, rather imposing and strange. So we arrived at 7,30pm to a rather confused welcome. The staff seemed rather unclear about what we should do and we were eventually asked to sit down on a sofa and wait.
Enoteca Pinchiorri used to be in an old rather grand palace that has been converted into a Relais and Chateaux 5* Hotel. The entrance is romantic, aligned with Florence’s artistic and erudite past, but the sofa we were told to sit on felt “on the way” to somewhere. A few people looked at us and it all felt as if they did not know what to do with us and something was wrong. “Maybe I should be wearing a tie?”, wondered my friend, or maybe we should be more dressed us? I asked myself looking down at my relatively casual trousers and shoes. Eventually, without much attention or the service level that one should expect at such places, we were directed through corridors, narrow stairs and up to a balcony style small room with four tables. We were indeed the first ones, and it seemed that we had been placed in the only room for foreigners, as everyone downstairs looked local whereas our room eventually filled with three party-dress Chinese girls, a Chinese young couple dressed in tracksuit pants and a selfie stick, and another older couple.
The food menu and the water and wine lists
As soon as the menu arrived I realised that the restaurant had decided to maintain the archaic tradition of giving women menus without prices so both me and Marisa had no idea what the prices were and only Edwin had them. He found it amusing, I found it insulting. Not a good start. There and then the restaurant lost a lot of points. In the 21st century, there are still restaurants that continue with this silly social tradition that is as old fashion as it is obsolete. I wondered if they thought that Edwin was having a great night out with two women and hence he was supposed to pay? Or if Marisa and I did not look like we could afford dinner. Better not to think too much about it. On to the menu.
The menu choices included an a la carte selection and three menus, one Spring degustation, one degustation of the a la carte menu plus an optional selection of 3 add-on dishes to “transform the menu into a unique experience”. Given the prices of the starters ranged between 50 euro for the humble poached eggs to 90 euro for the prawns, taking the degustation menu was a no brainer. We were already breaking the bank so we decided to add the three optional dishes to “transform” our experience. I was rather intrigued as to what those three dishes would do.
The food menu was simple and easy, the difficulty came with the wine and the water. There was a menu for each. That is right, an entire menu devoted to waters from all over the world being charged at minimum 20 euro the bottle, some of them were regular supermarket waters in their countries, like Solan de Cabras or Vichy Catalan in Spain, which retail at usual water prices, but were there charged at between 20 and 25 euros the bottle. Not bad for a branding trick. But the wine list posed more question marks and issues. Who asks you to decide what water would go best with the food? I am not even sure water tastes of anything other than just water, generally speaking that is.
The wine list was significantly more impressive. There were practically no wines below the 100 euro mark, something quite amazing considering that the restaurant is believed to have over 4,000 different wine labels, but it seemed that all of them were of the higher end of the price range. The wine list was truly mesmerising, looking more like an oversized Bible than a wine list. It had pages and pages of wines from every Italian and French estate and year, perfectly catalogued and classified. I could not even begin to imagine what the cellar looked like. Its value could be in the range of 100 million euro and is rumoured to be the largest in the world.
Aside from the bottles, Enoteca Pinchiorri also offers wine pairing options with unlimited amounts of wine charged at minimum 200 euro per person and running up to thousands of euros. Some of their wine pairing options were charged at over 3,000 euro per person. These prices included the whole bottle in most cases, so they were a bargain when compared to the bottle prices, and the only way the restaurant could offer wine glasses of bottles which would otherwise never be offered by the glass. Surprisingly, and rather disappointingly, their wine pairing options did not include Chianti Classico wines but rather Super-Tuscan wines and, in many cases, more than half of the list was made of French wines. In Florence. I found this to be strange in a restaurant in Tuscany that specialises in wine, but it could be the French influence of the chef, Annie Feolde, whose philosophy is to “(…) always remember the culture of the place in which we find ourselves, because that’s our identity. But we must also try to improve, change, and keep in step with the times.” Perhaps in the improvement is where French wines come into play? I was a bit confused at the lack of Chianti Classico wines on the wine pairings list.
To aid in the decision on the food, water and wine we ordered three Negroni, we were on a mission to decide the content of a long evening extravaganza.
As we tried to process the large menus and the ridiculous water list, a lady came to get our order, but we were still undecided, so we requested more time. She did not introduce herself and seemed a bit annoyed at our indecisiveness. No explanations went into the menu, no care for the local produce they so proudly talk about on their website and no recommendations were given to guide our decision, so we simply decided we would take the 8-course menu, enhanced with the optional dishes, and would then ask for the Sommelier’s recommendation on a wine pairing option, among the more affordable 200-300 euro a head choices.
As per the water, when I asked for a recommendation from the (water?) Sommelier, I was asked for another decision, “What do you feel like, madam?”. It was a hard question, I had never thought about what water tasted like and did certainly not have a preference, so all I could come up with, “Still, please”. I quickly added, “and Italian”. And so this is how we ended up with a fine bottle of Italian water at 20 euro the litre. It was the aberration in the water prices that gave me the most brutal of hangovers I have experienced in a long time.
The Sommelier came next. We had decided to leave the wine decision up to his recommendation and so, when he arrived, we simply asked for a wine pairing that would feature the most amount of local wines, and least amount of French wines, that was it. The Sommelier still suggested a choice of 5 wines most of which were French with two Italian, only one Chianti Classico, that was the most Italian wine we were allowed to have. Another rather strange situation considering the focus on supporting local produce and the chef’s philosophy, it felt a bit hypocrite to put such emphasis on French wines.
After all those decisions we sure were thirsty so the Negroni disappeared straightaway and soon came the amouse-bouche.
The degustation menu
Our degustation menu, transformed, had 8 dishes.
First dish: Slices of yellowfin tuna marinated in olive oil, coffee powder and fried shallot “Granfarro” with rosemary and mussels Marinara style. This was a rather delicate, mildly spiced up, very fresh tuna. It was nicely presented and it was soft and tender but I have had plenty of great yellow fin tuna in some other very low key places and, although the condiments were local, the main element of the dish was not something which naturally grows in Tuscany or Italy.
Second dish: John Dory in squid ink crust, spinach sprouts, Bearnaise sauce with lemon and chamomile jelly. This was a more inventive and original dish and one which was well balanced and interesting but I did feel that the fish needed a bit more sauce as the thick crust had dried it out a bit. There wasn’t a lot of flavour on the spinach or the jelly but it was a pleasant combination.
Third dish: Poached egg, asparagus tips and crispy bacon and 2 year old Parmiggiano Regiano foam. The dish was flavourful and nicely presented and it was a rather pleasant one. But then again, there we were at a 3 Michelin star restaurant eating a breakfast item which I could well have ordered in a hipster cafe in Singapore. It felt a bit strange and underwhelming to be served such simple composition. But it was indeed good.
Fourth dish: Ravioli stuffed with rabbit “A la cacciatora”, chicory sauce, Raveggiolo cheese and roasted barley. It seemed that the dishes were getting better as the menu progressed, or we were more and more drunk and unable to understand or remember anything anymore. There was a lot of wine we had to go through! Either way, this was a nice dish, the combination of textures of the barley and the pasta worked well but then again, we were being served something that I could make at home, so I was unimpressed.
Fifth dish: Roasted Mora Romagnola baby pork with a spiced carrot and sweet-and-sour shallots. The restaurant prides itself on the pork which they source from a local free range farm which feeds them acorns and other wild fruits and roots and this was indeed a tasty, tender pork. But once more, this was a dish that I could have made myself too, the techniques and the combinations were nothing out of this world, they were quite plain and common in any Mediterranean kitchen.
Sixth dish: Roasted veal loin with fresh pepper grains; salsify, Jerusalem artichoke, radish and chicory sprouts, flavoured with tarragon butter. Again, quite tasty and the meat was surely full of earthy flavours but nothing more than a great meat dish well executed, no surprises, no “Oh, mmm, wow, ahhh”, just a nice dish I am sure we could have had at other great Italian restaurants for a fraction.
First dessert: Caramelised chocolate with strawberries and whipped cream. I was excited about this one, because I love all three ingredients and, well, it did not disappoint. It was also one of the few innovative and creative dishes we were served with the white chocolate served in a hard spherical shell. It was indeed delicious.
Second dessert: Crispy biscuit filled with goat cheese. This was clever, a good combination of savoury and sweet and a great happy ending. It made me feel like there was a bit more invention and innovation than on all the other previous dishes.
Just when we thought we were done, then came the petit furs and a huge selection of chocolates to choose from, all beautifully placed on a chocolate cart French restaurants would use to display a cheese selection.
So, as you probably could guess, Enoteca Pinchiorri was unimpressive, to me. It is not that it was bad in any way, the dishes were flawless, but above all, food is a matter of taste, and I found some of the dishes a bit bland and most of them,underwhelming and unsurprising, something that I would expect of a restaurant that has been wowing crowds of foodies for over two decades. The triple water-food-wine menu gimmick was indeed new and gave us something to talk about, but it was certainly the most memorable part of the dinner and not something I haven’t seen elsewhere.
The wine pairings
You thought I would forget about the wines? No chance, although by the third glass, with multiple refills, I hardly remember anymore if I liked them or not as our glasses were almost always full and we spent 4 hours having dinner, that is a lot of time to drink, not necessarily to appreciate wine, as I am a light weight. So it is fair to assume that we drank the 5 bottles of wine among the three of us. Not a mean feat and no doubt the reason for my Biblical hangover the morning after.
Enoteca Pinchiorri sure has an impressive wine list but with prices in the hundreds and thousands of euro this was not a benefit most of us will ever enjoy. The owner, Pinchiorri, was one of the first people to start offering wines by the glass in the Florence of the 70s. Many thought he was crazy, but people started to flock in and he finally decided to turn his passion into a fine-dining and innovative restaurant of which Florence had none at the time. He is a wine collector so the cellar houses his personal collection, accumulated through the last few decades, including a few of the first ever released bottles of some of the well known Super Tuscan wines like Sassicaia.
As per our wine pairing choice, I found the wines recommended by the Sommelier to be very fine. One of the bottles was a especially produced red wine just for the restaurant that was contained in a hand carved glass bottle, paired with matching wine glasses.
We had the following glasses of wine on top of the restaurant’s “house wine”. Pinot Noire Pommard Premier Cru Cote de Beaune, Burgundy. Podere Poggio Scalette’ Richiari’ Alta Valle della Greve IGT. A chardonnay from the Chianti Classico area. Petrolo Galatrona Merlot from Tuscany.
There were a few things that I found missing or that were particularly disappointing. The servers kept changing and we were helped by several different people throughout. Most of them did not speak English good enough to hold a conversation, let alone explain anything beyond the mere description of the dish which made any personal discussion or in-depth experience difficult. The wine talk was even more minimal and the Sommelier did not seem too interested in sharing his knowledge. I had the feeling he thought we were “below his capacity” or just not worthy. It seemed that he did misjudge us on this one as we had come to Tuscany for the wines and were already on our 5th day of wine tours. I grew up in a winery and Marisa could beat anyone at wine tastings, and we were both wine certified. Some other reviews mentioned that the owners came out to greet them and that the Sommelier took them to the cellar, that was not the case for us and we felt rather left out, as if we were in the room of the foreigners who have bottomless wallets but no appreciation for good food or wine, the flash “noveau rich” selfie-stick-touting type. Sadly their assessment could not have been further from the truth.
The other questionable element was the price. Enoteca Pinchiorri rates poorly in the scale of value for money. At almost 500 euro per head, this was a very pricey meal that would be equal to the cost of an entire week full of wonderful meals in Tuscany. Perhaps even longer.
Enoteca Pinchiorri sure has a strong reputation built over several years, not least for having the most expensive and larger wine collection in the world, but to my humble and rather simple taste buds, some of the other meals we had at Italian’s houses were far more memorable and delicious. They also cost a fraction of the price. The food was good, it was surely perfectly executed, but I lacked the personal touch and, most importantly, the “wow effect”. Perhaps they do not aim to wow but just to serve excellent, flawlessly executed meals, but that was just not worthy of the 3 star definition from the Michelin Guide: “Exceptional cuisine, worthy of a special journey”. Tuscany and all the simple but delicious meals we had during the trip were worthy of a visit, but Enoteca Pinchiorri was just a talking point and an experience I would not repeat.