I ticked off another destination on my bucket list and, in retrospect, am finding it hard to determine which vacation I loved more: the South African Safari http://singita.com/ or a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands.

" On the way to Tilcara and Humahuaca, the landscape is unreal, the color tones of the earth, and the huge mountains, are all overwhelming"

Rafting in the Rio Paquare, Costa Rica was an exhilirating, heart thumping experience

Aperitif on the beach at sunset, in Grand Cayman, is priceless

"Positano, like Capri is more of a way of life than a tourist destination.  La Marina Grande is the small main beach."

These two teenagers fighting were so amazingly close you could hear their tusks clanking

Rigoletto

By: Robert Buxbaum

posted 13 January 2006
updated 1 February 2006

It's often said that the three most important things in the success of a restaurant are location, location and location. That's likely to be true, but I, and a good many like minded people I know, are willing to go pretty far out of our way for a great meal. What I like, is a room in which to spend the night after a great dinner, eliminating worry about how tired I may be, or how much alcohol I may consume. I require little more than a room, preferably within walking distance, with not much more than a comfortable bed and up to date plumbing facilities en suite. For an overnight stay, I don't need the view offered by the rooms at Michel Bras, nor the luxury of les Prés d'Eugénie. I'd rather spend my money on a better bottle of wine anyway. Our room at the Hotel Nabila, fit the bill with the added charm of the park like setting shared with Il Rigoletto, and the warm personal hospitatlity of the management and employees.

We saw little of the town of Reggiolo as it was already dusk when we arrived, having dawdled at a food fair, in the main square in Mantova. We stayed longer than we had planned again at the hotel in the morning over a cup of cappuccino, while talking about food, restaurants and chefs in Italy, France, Spain and the U.S. with Fulvia D'Amato, our hostess and wife of the chef. The conversation was one of those experiences far more rewarding than most sightseeing and museum visits. Besides she makes an excellent cappuccino.

Our conversation continued in the lobby of the hotel where we were joined by the sommelier until we realized we might be late for lunch at our next stop. We were quickly packed up in our rental car with a surprise package of D.O.P. extra virgin olive oils from Umbria and Garda. The first, from Frantoi Oleari Umbri was recommended for meats and vegetables, while the latter from Azienda Agricola Tre Colline was suggested for fish.

Dinner at Il Rigoletto, gave evidence that while the restaurant might fall short of a Michelin three star rating, it offered a very strong two star experience. Our dinner was certainly a contender for our most successful meal, and possibly our most enjoyable meal of the trip. It reinforced our opinion that two star restaurants often provide the best experiences as well as the best values. For the record, Gambero Rosso awarded two forks to the restaurant.

I hadn't been in Italy in a long while, but the food seemed contemporary, but very personal and very Italian to me. I was reminded of the way I felt about Abraham Garcia's Viridiana in Madrid, which I suppose may only be helpful to those who know that restaurant. Garcia's creativity has been long reigning, but apart from the mainstream of creative chefs. Overall, there was the sense that Il Rigoletto was far more traditional than La Calandre, but that belies the real creativity of Gianni D'Amato's cooking. The sense of tradition came perhaps, from the use of vernacular ingredients or techniques, or perhaps simply becase there's little or no relationship with those techniques associated with molecular gastronomy. Gianni's cooking should be accessible to an extremely wide range of diners, but conservatism runs deep in Italian gastronomy and the matronly women, in suits of a traditional cut, at a table near us seemed genuinely perplexed at their food. At a much larger table where the women were more fashionably dressed, diners seemed more at home with the food. A conversation with Fulvia D'Amato in the morning, revealed that Gianni is pretty much self taught, at least to the extent that he's developed his mature style on his own, seemingly without notable external influence. The D'Amatos are well traveled and familiar with the work of other European chefs, but Gianni's cuisine seems deeply rooted in his own experience, rather than wildly experimental or derivitive of any culinary movement.

The decor of the restaurant was traditional and the ambience may be described as country formal. We saw no evidence of a dress code. Service was very good, but a bit relaxed in the way that many diners might find preferable. The sommelier had lived and worked in NY, in a job only tangentially related to the restaurant world, but his English was excellent and he was on hand with explanations and information we needed. The rest of the staff was not necessarily fluent in English. As a result, there may have been a few unanswered questions, but nothing we might not have suffered in France or Spain at a restaurant of this caliber.

There was also not quite the depth in staff, or service, found at La Calandre. There were a few lags in service most noticeably at the end of the meal. At one point after the last savory course was served, along with the lag in service, I found the room a bit stifling and decided to take a breath of fresh air. When I came back inside, I stopped at the desk in the lobby where I saw a number of guide books including the Circuito gastronomic Audi Edizione 2005/2006, a nicely illustrated 350 page guide to restaurants in Italy. If the photos are any indication, we've barely scratched the surface of gastronomy in Italy on this trip. There are no ratings, but apparently, inclusion in the guide is a recommendation. La Signora D'Amato caught me perusing a copy and told me to feel free to take one.

I'm convinced we made a mistake in choosing a cheese course over pastry on a Menu Degustazione that offered one or the other. I suspect we were misled by the excellence of the cheese course at La Calandre. Here the cheeses were preselected without consultation and the course proved not very intersting. [1 Feb 2006 note: As evidenced by the new photograph headlining this page, there's a new attention being given to cheese at Il Rigoletto. I recommend bringing an appetite for cheese and dessert if the selction of cheese is anywhere near as good as the photograph promises. I'd love to take credit for the change, but the news arrived too soon after we alerted the D'Amatos to our page for that to be true.] We both chose the tasting menu over the Menu del Territorio because it featured pigeon, a favorite food of ours. Besides, we had eaten pork, the meat on the other menu, the previous night. Squid is another favorite of ours, and the stuffed squid with black potato cream turned out to be the maina favorite course of the trip, although I doubt there were any real disappointments on either menu.

A photo essay of our meal follows.

Bread had been on my mind since the display we saw at the fair in Montova. Il Rigoletto didn't let me down with its offering or its olive oil.
Dinner began with a Rigoletto Aperitivo —a glass of Champagne Grande Cuvée Krug along with a small bowl of white beans with pieces of mullet and squid; codfish puree and a shot of potato soup with herring and bacon.
Crescendo di Tonno A quenelle of raw tuna filled with tomato, topped with pignoli; tomato soup with tuna, shrimp and squid and cooked tuna topped with raw tuna, capers and tuna sauce continued the trendier starters
Panzanella A molded bread salad mixed with tomatoes and herbs, garnished with an oyster and sitting in a pumpkin sauce made with stout beer struck me as highly original and not excessively international.
Calamaretti farciti con cipolle Borettane su crema di patate al nero di seppia, uovo in camicia e tartufo Baby squid stuffed with onions, served over creamed mashed potatoes with squid ink, a poached egg and truffles proved to be an incredibly hearty delicious show stopper. It was an unexpected combination of old fashioned ingredients and flavors that worked in the mouth although it lacked the eye appeal of the dishes that preceeded it. It was none the less tasty for that lack. It was all the more interesting that the truffles came from the restaurant's own property although this is not an area known for truffles.
Passatina di fagioli risina con cappelletti di molluschi Bux opted for a plate of seafood stuffed pasta in a puree of white beans.
Tortello di coniglio con il suo rognoncino salsa di mele granny smith Esilda chose a raviolo stuffed with rabbit and its liver, topped with chopped green olives served in a granny smith apple sauce.
Piccione con salsa di vino rosso, e mele We both went with pigeon as our main course. Dinner concluded with our cheese course followed by Piccola pasticceria—petits fours—crème brulee with grape, gelee of asti wine, zuppa inglese, and more, but the hour was late, and we were too tired to photograph or take notes.