Dining: Reaching for the Stars
Italian food may be loved by millions around the world, but that has failed to impress the editors of the Michelin guide to European restaurants. Only three of the country’s current establishments have earned Michelin’s highest rating of three stars, and not one is located in Rome. This lack of recognition could be related to geography; the guide, after all, is headquartered in France. But more likely it reflects a cultural bias. The formal atmosphere and elegant trappings characterizing the restaurants that earn three Michelin stars are generally not part of the Italian dining experience. In addition, many Italian recipes evolved from rural peasant inventions, and this cucina magra, or “poverty cuisine,” seldom pleases the palates of the Michelin guide reviewers, who favor the foie gras and other rich treats of haute cuisine. However, Vivendo, located in the St. Regis Grand hotel in Rome, and its executive chef, Daniele Sera, might alter those reviewers’ opinions of Italian food. Indeed, the 2005 edition of the Michelin guide to Italy’s restaurants (which was published after this issue went to press) could well include a star or two for Vivendo.
Originally from Sarzana, a village in the Cinque Terre region of northwestern Italy, the 37-year-old Sera learned his craft at the Grand Hotel in Florence and at the Palm Beach and Manhattan outposts of Bice. He believes that technique—which includes preparatory work and proficiency with a knife—is as important as selecting quality ingredients. This runs counter to the philosophy of his Italian colleagues, who hold that the most skilled chefs obtain the freshest ingredients and do as little as possible to them. Sera’s approach also contradicts the French view of cooking, which ranks technique higher than ingredients. Instead, he places equal emphasis on both, respecting the raw materials while relying on artful blade work and embracing demanding recipes.
Unlike many of his peers, Sera offers a menu that transcends regional borders. Italy is home to at least 20 distinctive cuisines, and most Italian chefs remain loyal to the bounty of their local turf; Florentine chefs do not prepare spaghetti Bolognese, although it originated in a town less than 50 miles away. Vivendo patrons enjoy selections that feature veal from Lombardy, cherry tomatoes from Campagna, and shellfish from Venice. Sera’s grasp of technique makes these novel juxtapositions succeed. His asparagus soup, which is served with quail eggs and corn flour finger biscuits, is based on a vegetable reduction that imbues the soup with its intense flavors. Sera’s crispy veal sweetbreads in a light cream of leeks are brilliant as well. The nuggets are seared and then coated in a reduced wine sauce that complements rather than overpowers them. The plate presentations showcase Sera’s superior knife work, particularly in the julienned sautéed eggplants with toasted pine nuts.
When the St. Regis hired Sera a year ago, its intention was not to capture the Michelin guide’s attention. Nevertheless, the chef would welcome the honor. “What surprises me is how much I would like a Michelin star,” says Sera. “It’s something missing from my career.”