This article was also published in the Financial Times.
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 could only envy.
Despite the comfort of this hotel and the natural beauty of the surrounding Tuscan countryside (as shown in this image from their website), all of this 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 immediately. With dessert, a caramelised meringue filled with slices of fresh peach, dinner was 35 euros each plus another 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 of 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 me and, 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, although his family has been cooking fish here since 1964 when his grandmother first took to the stoves. The Zazzeri family principally earned its income then from fishing, and Luciano himself spent 20 years in charge of a fishing boat and the close family connections look set to continue. Luciano, who modestly confessed ‘I know the secrets of the fish’, still buys mainly from his uncle’s fishing boat based at Cecina Mare along the coast, with his own two sons being groomed to take over.
La Pineta is right on the beach and from outside 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 and paintings of fish and boats; and numerous wine books piled high. By our table was a large wooden ship’s wheel our waitress put to good use when she picked up my wife’s handbag and hung it up on one of its spokes.
Zazzeri is extremely dapper in white chef’s jacket and trousers, with a neatly trimmed grey beard, his hair elegantly slicked back. He seems absolutely at ease in his restaurant as he takes on different roles as the evening progresses.
He begins by welcoming his guests. Then there is the process of talking them through what has been freshly caught and may not be on the menu. Then there is the obvious pleasure he takes in showing his guests what the fishermen have struggled to land, which, on the night we were there, initially had him carrying a two-kilo sea bass by the gills and then pushing a trolley laden with two bass, a huge turbot, and an occhione, a deep-water fish. Finally, he returns to his guests with an order pad.
By the time Zazzeri came to talk to our table of four I had noticed that three of the brigade in the adjacent, spotless kitchen were Asian and my wife’s eye had been caught by the presence on the menu of an intriguing sounding dish of ‘panzanella with mackerel’. So 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.
The 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 with a great range that extends outside Italy to France and Germany.
At 11.30 pm, 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. Out of curiosity I poked my head round and saw that Zazzeri had taken on another role. He was now cashier.
But rather than just processing bills and credit cards this was the final occasion for this proud restaurateur to engage with his customers. Rather than the end of a meal it seemed to me to be the end of a religious service where Zazzeri ‘the pastor of La Pineta’ could bid goodbye to his happy flock.
Tenuta Gardini, Relais Sant’Elena, Via Campo di Sasso, 57020 Bibbona
La Pineta, Via dei Cavalleggeri Nord, 27 57020 Marina di Bibbona
tel +39 0586600016
Closed Monday, Tuesday lunch and October, when the chef goes shooting.