Bankers in Paris once considered Italian cuisine as even more toxic than Italian debt.
The year was 1533 and Florence’s elite had arrived to celebrate the union of their wealthy local teenager Catherine de Medici and King Henry II of France. Along with portfolios of investment opportunities, Catherine and her financial advisers brought cooks, graduates of “Compagnia del Paiolo” or Brotherhood of the Big Pot, the first European culinary academy to graduate chefs schooled in the new art of power dining.
Historians say the Medici macaroni seemed nice enough. Then came the “cibreo,” Catherine’s favorite main-course stew of gizzards, testicles, offal and rooster coxcombs. According to Medici biographer Leonie Frieda, the young queen’s fondness for the brotherhood’s signature dish almost killed her and the guests on more than one occasion.
That legacy illustrates why it has been impossible to find a passable Italian restaurant in Paris for five centuries. It also helps explain the glum faces that greeted the “octopus cooked in crazy water” served at the Royal Monceau Raffles Hotel’s Il Carpaccio when the restaurant last year greeted its first visitors with the flourish of the Medici court.
Now, with business expense accounts falling victim to austerity and new Italian chef Roberto Rispoli in charge of Il Carpaccio’s aquarium kitchen, the only potential fatality is monetary: Dinner for two costs 400 euros ($538), including a 100 euro bottle of Sicily’s superb 2008 Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico selected from probably the most extensive -- and expensive -- Italian wine list in Paris.
The cephalopod mollusks boiled in weird water have been replaced with a 68 euro rainstorm of white truffles on risotto, a circular 28 euro goat-cheese lasagne gasping in Sicilian caponata sauce and a 48 euro Florentine fish soup that bubbles with the uneasy appearance of cibreo.
It’s once again time to question the existing order of Italian food in Paris and whether a 38 euro veal osso buco braised in red wine is more than the French reflection of Tuscan bone marrow. At the table are Renee Pappas, former Beach Boys’ director of personal appearances and senior executive at the rock-and-roll firm Geffen-Roberts Management in Los Angeles, and Charles Copetas, a 13-year-old graduate of the kiddie course at the Atelier des Chefs cooking school in Paris.
“Yuck,” says Copetas, sticking a spoon in the 18 euro tiramisu dessert. “It’s coated in bitter jelly.”
That’s not just any jelly, my son. This is “la gelee de cafe de Pierre Herme,” a French pastry-and-dessert chef who finds nothing odd about encrusting Italy’s signature sweet dish in quivering blobs of astringent gunk.
“This is aristocratic French cuisine with Italian ingredients,” Pappas says, slicing into Il Carpaccio’s 55 euro filet of sea bass stuffed with a confit of cepe mushrooms, onions and Tuscan panzanella sauce. “This is not Italian cooking.”
That brings us to the rouget, the small Mediterranean red mullet that Il Carpaccio plugs with olives and sultanas, and sells for 34 euros. As Italian author and gastronome Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa says about offering fancy French food to dignitaries hungering for real Italian food in his novel “The Leopard,” it’s best to “infringe the rules of haute cuisine” and serve up a “towering mound of macaroni.”
Nonetheless, Il Carpaccio has at least one thing that puts it squarely, if gently, in the tradition of Italian cuisine in Paris. The cooks are imported from Florence, though as Lampedusa points out in his 1958 book, “Rumors of the barbaric foreign usage of serving insipid liquid as first course had reached the major citizens of Donnafugata too insistently for them not to quiver with a slight residue of alarm at the start of a solemn dinner like this.”
Il Carpaccio’s “formidabile” mousse au chocolat is indeed formidable. More Italian souffle than a French foam, the 18 euro dessert is a contender for the European title Best in Chocolate. It leaves diners asking why the restaurant that the 2011 Pudlo Paris guide touts as the “Best Foreign Restaurant in the French Capital” dishes out tasteless round lasagne instead of zesty linguini in clam sauce.
Il Carpaccio, Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris, 37 Avenue Hoche, 75008 Paris. Information: http://www.leroyalmonceau.com +33-1-4299-8800.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.