At 8pm one sunny evening I was standing deep in thought by a bus stop in the small town of Moneglia on the Ligurian coast of Italy, just north of the Cinque Terre National Park.
During the day I had received emails from readers in Brussels and Los Angeles, both notifying me of yet another version of “the world’s top 100 restaurants”. While I appreciate the enormous interest this approach generates, I do feel it ignores two aspects of restaurant-going that I find almost as exciting as the food: the sense of occasion – the reason a particular meal becomes so firmly lodged in one’s memory – and the element of surprise. Extraordinary meals often occur when least expected.
Suddenly a young woman stopped her car in front of us, rolled down the window and inquired whether we were the customers for La Ruota restaurant. Yes, we said, and at her invitation jumped in. Ten minutes and numerous hairpin bends later, she drew abruptly into the restaurant’s car park. As we walked into the restaurant itself, delighted to have been spared a steep climb on foot, we had not the slightest idea that we were walking past a great wine cellar full of French and Italian gems.
La Ruota’s interior is simple, with black-and-white photographs, red tablecloths and an old wooden model boat in the middle of the dining room. But its position is breathtaking. Rather like a restaurant in a ski resort, the dining room sits with large windows on two sides, overlooking the bell tower of Moneglia far below, its beach, the calm sea and the boats in the harbour. The vista only improves when the stars come out.
As our taxi driver went back to her waitressing role, a young man came forward to greet us; he was wearing a perfectly ironed blue shirt with collar carefully upturned beneath his yellow apron. We shook hands and, after ascertaining that his English was better than my Italian, we sat down and were promptly served a complimentary glass of a 2011 Sardinian Vermentino di Gallura.
All I knew about La Ruota at this stage was that it serves a set fish-only menu costing €56 per person. I had no idea that I was about to witness a performance in which just two people – the chef, proprietor and sommelier Edoardo Compiano, and our waitress/taxi driver – did everything including the washing-up. I subsequently learnt that Edoardo had been born in this room and that his father, who collected French wines, had opened the restaurant 43 years earlier.
Compiano began by reciting with great passion the seven dishes on our menu, and no sooner had he finished than our first course arrived: super-crisp, deep-fried aubergine, onions and seafood next to two small bowls of orange cubes of three different hues. He explained that frying is a widely used Ligurian cooking method, though I doubt whether many other batters taste as clean and fresh as this did.
With the next course, a bruschetta of goat’s cheese with thinly sliced tuna and salmon and a fried langoustine (and, in Italian fashion, no lemon, as the fish was so fresh), we tried a glass of Rossese 2011, the local red grape. This led to the delivery of the wine list and an abrupt silence at our table.
Several of Italy’s top wines, including vintages of the highly sought-after Sassicaia and Tignanello, were listed at very restrained mark-ups. We finally settled on a bottle of the 1994 Tignanello for €65, less than its retail price in the UK. Here it had the extra benefit of having been carefully stored for 18 years no more than 20m away.
The success of these first two courses, and the seafood panzanella that followed – a luscious combination of scampi, warm tuna, tomatoes, olives and crisp, torn toast – was logistically possible for a staff of two to deliver to the six tables because they were served on “sharing plates”. So too was the serving of crêpes as dessert, prepared in the kitchen before Compiano turned flambé chef in the dining room.
Before then, he had gone around the room with a whole dentex, a large Mediterranean fish known for its protruding teeth and here baked under salt and served with potatoes and more cubed orange. His final – and most dramatic – dish comprised sticks of celery standing on a plate, to which a dozen steamed shrimps were attached.
The only hiatus came just before this course, when Compiano produced a dish of taglierini with diced octopus and scampi. In Italy, the pasta-cooking process cannot be rushed, just as a memorable meal anywhere cannot be forced.
Via Perlemeglio 6, 16030 Moneglia, Italy +00 39 185 49565 (closed Wednesday); laruotamoneglia.it
25th anniversary competition
Congratulations to Henrietta Inman, who has won the competition to describe a memorable meal in 25 words or fewer: “I’m eleven, in Brasserie Lipp. Afraid to order steak tartare, pale chicken arrives; melancholy ensues ... until dessert – mille feuille perfection; et maintenant je suis pâtissière.”