An hour outside of Milan, Chef Ezio Santin has been holding court at his restaurant Antica Osteria del Ponte since 1976. Though he was a late comer to the kitchen – before becoming a chef at his own restaurant at age 39 he was a salesman of foods and wines – this hasn’t stopped him from rising to the highest ranks of the culinary arts to win two Michelin stars. Tokyo residents have been lucky enough to enjoy his personal take on Lombardian regional menus on the 36th floor of Marunoichi Building since 2002, where Antica Osteria has a broad and elegant dinning room as well as two small private rooms facing Chiba and the harbor with comfortable plush couches, a Murano chandelier and entertaining historical photographs.
A meal there starts unobtrusively, with a refreshing simplicity. The waiter pours a glass of Monsupello, a dry spumanti made of Pinot Nero – a red grape used for white sparkling wine — that is snappy on the upper palate. The amuse bouche is a single delicate rosemary cracker topped with a creamy ricotta cheese and black olive mix. This is quickly followed by another taste sensation — a single firm scallop dipped in olive oil and topped with sweet yellow and red peppers, onions, celery, capers and cucumber. A selection of bread is offered, from whole wheat bread with a crunchy crust to pale white, light ciabata to chewy nut breads.
The first appetizer is a fine “mosaic” of large plump pieces of octopus and rucola in a citrus vinaigrette, but the second one is nothing less than a revelation: Fluffy foie gras with a caramelized crust that is topped with parmesan cheese foam. This overflowing bowl is served with rye toast that you use to crack the surface and scoop up the mixture of the two rich concoctions, and the dish is reason enough to be sure that you order at least the second set course option, the “Menu Degustazione,” the first of the three sets that include it.
Two pastas are available to bridge you from the starters to the main: a tender farafelle lightly coated with tomato sauce and served with firm white fish in a seasoning of coriander and lemon peal; and a seafood lovers delight — ravioli stuffed with sea bream and green olives, accompanied by a generous sprinkling of shrimp and clams.
The selection of main dishes for the set courses includes grilled Mutsu (sea bass), guinea fowl breast, sauteed turbot with almond capers, and Japanese beef in a red wine and shallots sauce. We were served the beef, two hunks of rare filet that was enclosed in a thin layer of brown crust and yet still soft enough to cut with a butter knife. Presented with a Pinot Nero wine sauce and an assortment of organic vegetables from Ibaraki-ken, the dish will force you to rethink your commitment to Japanese style beef and sway you to the Italian side – not the first place you would typically think of when it comes to steak. We also tried the Mutsu, a generous slice of sea bass in a distinct and delightful sweet basil and yellow tomato sauce, a perfect counterpoint to the beef for when you are in the mood for fish.
By now we thought we couldn’t take anymore of the sensory overload … but then there was dessert. If Antica Osteria had outdone itself with all that came before, the kitchen wasn’t going to let up on this level of luxury so close to the final stretch. The dessert chef hit us with his Nuova Macedonia, perhaps the one clearly contemporary take on an Italian classic, the Macedonian fruit salad. At this point it all became a blur, but there was gelato made of an inspired mix of green tea and almond; and fresh berries; and a second dessert of chestnut mochi with jellies of green apple, matcha and white grape, all surrounded by parmesan sauce and yuzu cream.
It was enough to require a quick injection of espresso while we sprawled out over on the couches, where we were presented with a parting shot, one that would not be forgotten – Petit Fours. While the Nuova Macedonia was a refreshing wake-up, the four small cakes and bonbons offered a final burst of flavors and sweetness to revive you from a true feast: Italian chocolate cake sandwiching an apricot jam; a subtle green tea cake; a cheese cake of gorgonzola and fig jelly; and a matcha covered bonbon filled with liquid chocolate.
You could go to Antica Osteria for many reasons – a romantic date in the evening, lunch in the afternoon to impress a visiting colleague, a meal in one of the private rooms to close a business deal – but don’t fool yourself. Whatever excuse you use to get yourself there, the truth will be that you are going to eat. And with food like this, there is no reason to be ashamed of that.