Moscow’s New Tuscan Tradition
There are more than 65 Italian restaurants in Moscow, of which Mario is the gold standard. But now restaurant guru Arkady Novikov has opened a new Tuscan challenger, called Cantinetta Antinori, which has been two years in the making. John Ortega got a jump on the crowds and reports that this authentic eatery was well worth the wait.
By John Ortega
When Moscow restaurant king Arkady Novikov calls to invite you to the opening of his latest creation, it’s an invitation you simply can’t refuse. So when he called to invite me to the May 15 soft opening of his new Italian eaterie, Cantinetta Antinori, I reserved a table for eight, got together a group of friends, and arrived promptly at 7 p.m. Suffice it to say, my dining companions and I were suitably impressed with what was to follow.
Novikov’s partner in this posh new place to see and be seen is Enrico Nappini, the director of MBG Wine Distributors, which is the exclusive importer of the Antinori family wine tradition that dates back to the 1100s. This is the fourth Cantinetta Antinori restaurant, the others being in Florence, Zurich and Vienna.
The Antinori empire of Tuscan and Umbrian wines can be traced back as far as 1180, to the Florentine vintner Rinuccio di Antinoro. Thirty years ago, his descendants established a wine bar in their 15th-century palazzo, and thus the Cantinetta Antinori tradition was born.
In Moscow, chef Marco Zampieri has been charged with carrying on this tradition. Zampieri has opened many top restaurants in Italy including the Hotel Relais Borgo San Felice near Siena. He has also worked as personal chef to design duo Dolce and Gabbana. He was joined on opening night by another chef from Novikov’s stable, Mircko Zago of Syr.
The proceedings were watched over by maitre d’ Domenico Anaclerio who really helps to give the restaurant its Italian soul, and a feeling of authenticity. He has been responsible for top restaurants in Amsterdam and Moscow, including Antonio, Cipolla De Oro, and Palazzo Ducale.
Novikov himself made his dramatic entrance early in the evening and spent the next three hours hugging and kissing the rich, famous and beautiful who had turned out for the occasion. Cantinetta Antinori is housed in a 2-story, 19th-century yellow building which sits on a quiet, shaded perulok behind the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Italian and Russian flags flutter from the facade. Coincidentally, the Italian embassy is located just 100 meters down the street. The restaurant, with its warm and inviting Tuscan country-style interior, actually took two years to build as a large portion of the materials and fixtures had to be custom-built, then imported from Italy. The restaurant’s three sumptuous floors include two spacious dining rooms - one on the ground floor which seats 65, and another upstairs which is slightly smaller - as well as a basement vinoteca, or wine cellar, where guests will be able to sample from some of the 10,000 bottles that are stored there, carefully chilled at 56 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius). The covered summer terrace is scheduled to open in June.
The food here is memorable, but it’s the wine that is really the centerpiece. The restaurant stocks only Antinori wines, with 60 varieties available: white, red, sparkling and dessert wines, including such well-known names as Tignanello, Brunello di Monticino and the elite Solaia. All are available for tasting by the glass, except for the precious Solaia, which due to its high price is available by the bottle only.
The Antinori family has been making wine for more than 26 generations, since Giovanni di Piero Antinori became a member of the Florentine Guild of Vintners in 1385. Today, the company makes wine in Italy, Chile and the United States. The Col Solare, made in Washington and California, was our favorite. Aged in French oak barrels for 22 months, then in the bottle for 10 months, it is a very structured, elegant wine that is a product of an experimental partnership between Antinori and Washington State’s Chateau St. Michelle. The 1999 vintage was 5,800 rubles, a mid-range wine on the list. Other heavyweights on our tasting list were the 1999 Brunello Di Monticino (4,200 rubles), the 1999 Solaia (7,800 rubles) and the 2000 Tignanello (5,800 rubles).
But man cannot live by grape alone, and so along with our four bottles of wine we nibbled from an endless stream of appetizers - it seemed the chefs wanted us to try each one of their many imported cheeses - as well as homemade pasta and desserts which are made on premises.
Memorable among the starters was bistecca Fiorentina, made with beef from the Chiana Valley in Tuscany. At 440 rubles per 100 grams you may have to be an oligarch to afford this one; a 1.8 kilogram portion for two will cost you 7,920 rubles, but it’s oh so delicious! Also impressive were the cheeses; they have many from which to choose, but the Pugliese La Burrata Mozzarella, at 1,200 rubles for 300 grams, was out of this world. This very soft cheese is imported from near Naples; its hard skin parts to reveal an delicate inside of rich milk and butter, and it’s served with an accent of tomato sauce. Other dishes worth consideration are the carpaccio of manzo with Parmigiano cheese at 500 rubles, the Italian-style zuppa de pecce (fish soup) at 1,200 rubles, and the pappardelle al ragu with rabbit and porcini mushrooms for 500 rubles. Also not to be overlooked is the antipasto bar, which is crowded with delectable imported meats and cheeses from Italy. For dessert try the la zuppa di cioccolato, at 900 rubles for two, which is a selection of five or six fresh fruits drenched in heavenly chocolate.
Well, I have to admit, we ate and drank like kings and the total for this gastronomic delight came to a mere 43,317 rubles for the table, which is about $200 a head. With rents so high in the center, this has become more or less the norm for a meal of this caliber in Moscow, but in my humble opinion it was worth every ruble.
Our reviewer has been back six times since filing this article and is sorry to report it is now impossible to get into dinner without reservations.