Lorenzo, our waiter in the restaurant of Tenuta Gardini’s Relais Sant’Elena, a 16-bedroom hotel outside Bibbona, an hour’s drive south of Pisa, was about to work a service that other waiters around the world might envy. Despite the comfort of this hotel and the beauty of the surrounding countryside, lit by the rays of the setting sun, we were his only customers. And because this is Tuscany, where the culinary emphasis is on the best seasonal ingredients simply cooked, all Lorenzo had to do was recite that night’s three dishes.
“There’s agnolotti, pasta stuffed with chicken and broad beans topped with pecorino. Then a bistecca with roast vegetables and shavings of black truffles. You like truffles, don’t you?” We nodded. With dessert, a caramelised meringue filled with slices of fresh peach, dinner was €35 each, plus €45 for a bottle of Guidalberto 2010 (little brother to the famous Sassicaia made only a few kilometres away).
Over lunch the next day Lorenzo’s colleague Laetizia talked enthusiastically about her particular method for cooking pappa al pomodoro, the Tuscan soup of sautéed bread, tomatoes and basil. But she smiled even more engagingly when we told her that for dinner that night we would be heading to La Pineta, on the seafront at Marina di Bibbona.
The conjunction of La Pineta and the numerous winemakers around the nearby hilltop town of Bolgheri has put this once rather neglected area of Tuscany on the gastronomic map. It did not disappoint. In fact, I witnessed something at the end of this meal I have never seen anywhere else.
La Pineta’s fish maestro today is Luciano Zazzeri, whose family has been cooking fish here since 1964, when his grandmother first took to the stoves. Then the family’s income was principally from fishing, and Zazzeri himself spent 20 years in charge of a fishing boat. The family connections look set to continue. Zazzeri – who modestly confessed “I know the secrets of the fish” – still buys mainly from his uncle’s boat based at Cecina Mare along the coast (which his own two sons are being groomed to take over).
La Pineta is on the beach and looks like little more than a fishing shack. But once inside, there is no doubting the seriousness of the approach. Crisp white linen; two fine wine glasses per setting; walls covered in pictures of fish and boats; and wine books piled high. By our table was a large wooden ship’s wheel, which our waitress put to good use when she hung my wife’s handbag from one of the handles.
Zazzeri is dapper in white chef’s jacket and trousers, with a neat grey beard and hair slicked back. He seems at ease in his restaurant and in his different roles as the evening progresses. After welcoming his guests, there is the process of talking them through what has been freshly caught and may not be on the menu, and the pleasure of showing what the fishermen have landed. On the night we were there, he was carrying a 2kg sea bass by the gills and then pushing a trolley laden with two bass, a huge turbot, and an occhione, a deepwater fish. Finally, he returned with an order pad.
We began with a plate of raw fish, the tuna and prawns of exceptional freshness. Then came a deconstructed version of panzanella, principally bread, tomatoes and cucumber pressed in a round mould, alongside a piece of mackerel sashimi. With this was served a small dish of tiny orange calamari, simply warmed through and served in their intense juices.
An Asian influence manifested itself again in a dish of cold capellini, ultra-thin pasta with tomatoes, seafood and mullet roe, served before the main course that had been the subject of considerable debate. In the end we settled on the occhione, now baked under salt.
Unlike many restaurants in Tuscany, La Pineta takes its desserts very seriously, while the wine list Zazzeri has amassed over the years is massive, ranging beyond Italy to France and Germany.
At 11.30pm, as I went to take a last look at the kitchen, I noticed something extraordinary. By the front door there was a polite queue, at one time 11 strong. It turned out that Zazzeri had taken on another role: he was now cashier, a proud restaurateur taking a final moment to engage with his customers. Rather than the end of a meal it seemed to me to be the end of a religious service, when Zazzeri, “the pastor of La Pineta”, could bid goodbye to his happy flock.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Relais Sant’Elena, Via Campo di Sasso, 57020 Bibbona; www.relaissantelena.it
Via dei Cavalleggeri Nord 27, 57020 Marina di Bibbona; +39 0586 600016; firstname.lastname@example.org
Closed Monday, Tuesday lunch, and October, when the chef goes shooting
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