Michelin-Starred Takeout: TentaziOni during COVID

Well, it finally happened. After 4 years spent living just 100 meters from TentaziOni, I finally decided I couldn’t survive another day without eating there. I had heard just about every one of my Italian friends praise the restaurant’s menu with a kind of passion they normally reserve for denouncing “pâte à la carbonara à la française.” The restaurant had even received a Michelin star in 2020 and its wine list was chosen as the best in the world by Gambero Rosso in 2021. Faced with considerable success, the place does not seem to have “snobbed up” in any way, remaining a friendly and accessible neighborhood spot through and through. And despite all this, I’m still only writing about it now… Perhaps it was alway a bit too close to be a destination.

In a pint-sized kitchen Sardinian chef Giovanni Pireddu and his wife Johanna carefully assemble lovely dishes using premium ingredients. They cook for a dining room of only five or six tables as part of what I can only imagine is a soothingly intimate, genuinely Italian experience. And some day, hopefully soon, I will be at one of those tables, interrogating the sommelier about what importer they work with and personally thanking the chef for the meal. But for now, as the pandemic continues to rage and the vaccine roll-out stalls in typical French fashion, this is not possible. For now, I’ll have to make due with the adaptation to the current climate, which in TentaziOni’s case is a take-out lunch menu offered from Thursday to Saturday.

I have to say that, although I only stepped foot in the restaurant for long enough to collect my order (and interrogate the young man who handed it to me about what Italian wine importer they work with), I did take more care than usual with making sure this dining experience would be just so. I showered, for example, and washed my hair (which after this year is akin to putting on a ball gown). I cleared off the dining table and set my French grandmother-in-law’s Italian-ish vase full of my Swedish-Hungarian aunt’s flowers in the center, not just for the ‘Gram but also to set the mood in which I would proceed to stew happily for the duration of the meal. So while I have yet to try the full TentaziOni treatment, I feel like I got at least a step closer.

The process could’nt be easier. Visit their site and choose among their dishes with 24 hours of notice, at least. The menu changes completely each week, no doubt driven by seasonal availability, and is published on their Instagram page every Wednesday. My visit, unfortunately, fell on a week where the menu was slightly less my style than in weeks before and after. For instance, I’d love to have tried the braised lamb shank with confit artichokes of the week before or the veal sweetbread with truffle and Jerusalem artichoke the week before that. Nevertheless, my own (really not that) humble 3-course lunch was just enough to get a feel for the place, the attention to detail in everything they do. The food came in biodegradble takeout containers and a little note with advice on how to heat various dishes. I also asked for a bottle of DOCG Roero Arneis by Matteo Correggia, which came already chilled. It was actually quite a nice break to set everything up as I wanted, and go at my own pace from one dish to the next.

First came the Œufs mayonnaise, topped with the very first asparagus of the season and a little bundle of Osciètre caviar by the local Aquitaine-based Sturia. Chilled briefly in my fridge, these luscious little hors d’œuvres looked and tasted of spring. The eggs were cooked to perfection, the bouncy and plump whites cradling creamy, moist yolks. Smeared over the top was a ethereal house-emulsified mayonnaise, the feint scent of very good olive oil blending with a touch of mustard and maybe citrus. The quartered shards of firstling asparagus were so delicate and tender, crisp at the head, succulent and smooth along the stalk. (The Hungarian word “zsenge” comes to mind, onomatopoetic for actually biting into one.) And the juicy little gray beads of caviar over the top added a waft of briny seaspray to each bite, infusing its way into the creamy mayo and yolk. A reminder that the beach is still out there, ready to welcome us again in the months to come.

In choosing the main dish of this meal, I was hesitating between the maccheroncini with octopus bolognese and the personally more appealing veal meatballs cooked with vin jaune. It is one of my life’s great tragedies to have a kind of intolerance for most pasta, so while I appreciate the artistry and savoir-faire behind a well-made noodle, I am genuinely unable to enjoy it as much as most people. When I see it on the menu I tend to ignore it unless there is an ulterior reason to order it. I also have to admit that after watching, rewatching and watching a third time “My Octopus Teacher” during confinement and witnessing this 8-legged genius of a creature wrap itself around the heart of a man, I have some trouble with the thought of eating octopus. But the Martelli brand of pasta used by TentaziOni promises to be one of the best, an old-school family business making pasta with “only the best Italian durum wheat semolina.” Plus my very vocal Italian friend pretty much refused to accept me ordering anything else, so I went with their Maccheroncini Martelli alla bolognese de poulpes, reheated for a few minutes with water in a saucer, according to the printed instructions.

The maccheroncini held a welcoming texture, springy and delicate with a bit of a bite. Clinging to their smooth surface and trapped in their tubes was a sauce of crumbly bolognese, finely chopped and very tender bits of octopus mixed with sweet tomato, which took on the marine funk of the latter. A nice surprise and clever change-up from a classic recipe, which I enjoyed as much as I can enjoy pasta.

As I rummaged through the bag I also came across a very clearly fresh-baked foccaccia bread with the perfect amount of chew to it. It was dressed in very fragrant olive oil with two plump, caramelized cherry tomatoes baked into it, which burst when bitten into like the loose cherries in a summertime clafoutis and brought a precious moment of joy to my life.

For dessert, the Choux croquant à la noisette du piémont, an absolute killer. The choux dough was beautifully browned, pleasantly porous and light as a feather. Between two halves was a very generous portion of thick, ultra-rich hazelnut buttercream pipetted around a crunchy kind of sablé shortbread which tasted of nutella. I loved the snap and gritty, crunchy, crystalline texture of this cookie against the indulgent, cool cream, stuffed insinde the caramelized, fresh pastry.

And to enjoy with a sobering espesso at the end, a kind of coconut macaroon, crunchy and crumbly on the exterior, moist and juicy on the inside. A perfect little thing dusted with powedered sugar to fall apart against the heat of the coffee.

For wine, I went with the 2018 vintage of an Arneis from DOCG Roero by Matteo Correggia, because I’ve been getting into Piedmont whites lately and I haven’t been able to find a wine of this variety anywhere in Bordeaux. It was perfect on an (uncharacteristically) warm and sunny February afternoon. In the glass, a delicate straw yellow color. As it warmed up to the right temperature, it revealed intensely racy aromas of unripe pear, apricot, lemon juice and zest, along with delicate floral touches and vegetal, “green” aromas. A wine packed tight with energy, ready to burst, which it did, in the glass. An excellent pairing to the first course, though I would’ve maybe preferred a light-bodied red with the pasta. Delicious nonetheless. I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear how much I love the TentaziOni wine list. No doubt I’ll be back there for the Paolo Bea “Arboreus,” a bottle of Radikon or some Italian classic to help me study the Italian chapter of the WSETIII.

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