Cristiano’s oil

Tomei’s variations on extra virgin olive oil become the corollary for a terrific dinner in Lucca

Close-up, the chef from Viareggio Cristiano Tomei.

Close-up, the chef from Viareggio Cristiano Tomei. A few months ago he moved his Imbuto to the Lu.C.C.A. - Lucca center of contemporary art, tel. +39.0583.491280, a centre which, until June 9th 2013, will host Antonio Ligabue’s exhibition “Instinct, genius and folly”, three words that are also suitable to describe the chef born in 1974

Visiting Cristiano Tomei in the new location of the Imbuto, inside the Lu.C.C.A. - Lucca center of contemporary art – while there’s a show on Antonio Ligabue, seems like a twist of fate. The title of the exhibition is in fact “Instinct, genius and folly”, and up until the end you’re not sure if this is referred to the tormented artist from Guastalla or to the “primeval chef” who recently moved from Viareggio into the Renaissance walls of Lucca.

Tomei, born in 1974, with a bandana rolled around the head to hold his long hair, is a volcano full of totally natural energy. In his kitchen there aren’t only machines: everything is hand-kneaded, hand-cut, hand-processed, starting from the sliced bread served during the meal, ready for the guest to shamelessly use it to finish the sauce, even if a visitor from the exhibition on the ground floor should arrive at that very moment, thus admiring what’s in the dishes too. It’s also a surprise for the guest, who “blindly” place their order, deciding only how much they want to spend, from 20 to 90 euros.

Sandwich with oil mayonnaise, raw fish with lemon zests, tomato and fried artichokes

Sandwich with oil mayonnaise, raw fish with lemon zests, tomato and fried artichokes

This Imbuto is a very strange place – but when you think about it, it’s strange especially being in Italy – where art is mixed with food without any self-importance, where you can find, once again, the pleasure of having fun at the table, where clients and chef follow their instinct, trusting one another, and vice versa. “To me, food must be pure enjoyment – says Cristiano – and understandable to everyone, no need for explanations. I had my “creative by all means” period too, but I moved on and I believe that today a restaurateur needs to be something else, and that food must be the result of real research, one made between the fields and the market, and not on catalogues”. So every day the chef goes around the pine forest, gathers pinecones and bark or he visits the fishermen, to see what they’ve brought back from the sea.

Not to mention the extra virgin olive oil, the main character in his cuisine (with no extremisms though, when butter and cream are necessary, he uses them too) which he chooses mostly among those produced in the Lucca area, adaptable and balanced thanks to this land that is half way between mountain and sea. From the starter to the dessert, here the extra virgin olive oil is often the main ingredient, calibrating its intensity. Like in the case of the sumptuous oil mayonnaise which accompanies the sandwich filled with raw fish and lemon zest, tomato and fried artichokes – a small masterpiece of flavour and freshness, served in a fast-food style container – and it’s also the base for the superb burnt cream made with Russian salad and prawns, where it manages not to tower over the crustaceans.

Fake risotto with vegetables with raw scampi and a caramel made with prawn heads

Fake risotto with vegetables with raw scampi and a caramel made with prawn heads

More space is given to the spicy-hot flavour of the extra virgin olive oil – but in the shape of an ice-cream that recalls the creaminess of risotto – in the Fake risotto with vegetables (a brunoise made with radicchio, chard, nepitella - lesser calamint -… depending on the season) with raw scampi and a caramel made with prawn heads, on which Cristiano, instead of using salt, sprinkles some dehydrated black cabbage. The same explosive softness can be found in the Ravioli filled with oil and parmesan, served with seared squids: the filling is a stable emulsion that melts in the mouth giving a familiar taste and the reassuring feeling of “a maternal hug”, in an unusual version.

The extra virgin olive oil is also the protagonist of the signature dish of the chef from Viareggio, the Garfagnana beef stracciata served on pine-bark. The bark is heated up in order to heighten the aroma, that is to say that of the wood and that of the oil with which the chef massages the raw meat, to which he adds some diced fat, toasted in a pan, and crispy potato chips. This is a dish worth “sniffing”, one you must eat with your hands, following the primeval, carnivorous instinct, reassembling, in your mind and in your mouth, the flavour of a lightly cooked steak.

Garfagnana beef stracciata served on pine-bark

Garfagnana beef stracciata served on pine-bark

Oil also appears in the dessert, as we said, for a top class finish, hanging in the balance between sweet and savoury, between appearance and reality: the (moderately) sweet extra virgin olive oil mousse with orange and hazelnut couscous is served with a small piece of apple cake that hides the sweetness of the onions. The open jaws of Ligabue’s tiger occupying the whole wall are the perfect background for a truly terrific dinner.

Frantoio Squadrilli

Themes and characteristics linked to extra virgin olive oil, told by Luciana Squadrilli


Luciana Squadrilli

a journalist born in Naples now living in Rome, she tries to make her three passions meet: eating, travelling and writing

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