03 August 2011

bravo: la retro'bottega, 75011

Besides the confusing name* - which has inspired several early reviewers to harp on senselessly about an imaginary nostalgic quality to the service and cuisine - there is, in my view, absolutely nothing wrong with La Retro'Bottega, the lower-11ème cave-à-manger opened earlier this year by former Rino sommelier Pietro Russano and his business partner Salvatore Li Causi.

I don't mean this as a back-handed complement. I mean they got almost everything right.

As someone who has developed what amounts to a physical allergy to bad restaurateurism, I'm filled with gratitude that a place like La Retro'Bottega exists: a comfortable, soulful cave-à-manger with a refreshing, vegetable-driven menu and a masterful selection of well-priced French and Italian natural wines.** Had I euros enough, and time, I'd dine there every night.

Call it a sustainable gout-free dining ambition. I'm fine with seven-course menus and elephantine sweetbreads and heaps of foies gras, but with all the money in the world I wouldn't repeat those meals more than once a week. What La Retro'Bottega provides, and what the Paris dining scene otherwise notably lacks, is a tasteful non-ideological meal in which meat, cheese, salt, fat, and pleasure all retain their respective places, without being necessarily the main event of most dishes. (Except the excellent charcuterie plate.)

I suspect this dynamic is probably born of necessity: right now, Pietro does all the cooking in advance of service, although he doesn't hesitate to explain that he's not a chef and has no formal training. Regardless, the menu at La Retro'Bottega is a convincing argument for the relevance of wine experience in the kitchen.

A piquante, Sicilian-seeming salad of carottes mi-cuits (half-cooked) with fennel seed, onion, raisin, and pickled squash was the most inspired dish I've had all year.

It did what great dishes do: more than just provide gustatory enjoyment, they provoke a total re-evaluation of an ingedient - in this case, carrots, which suddenly seem bursting with heretofore under-represented crunchy-sweet potential.

A lovely plate of roasted golden aubergine atop cous cous with dried fruits and pecorino continued the southern theme.
A slightly oversalted bruschetta with ricotta de chèvre and mustard.

My visiting friend J and I accompanied this with glasses of SanPatrignano's 2009 IGT Bianco Rubicone Sauvignon "Vie," a wine that surprised me on a number of levels that night.

I'm familiar with the winery, having stocked their reds on some lists back in the states, usually as a concession to palates more modern than my own. (That the winery is part of a larger non-profit rehab facility went along way towards quelling my stylistic quibbles at the time. It's a great story, an easy sell to tables, and a good cause.) I'd been unaware they produced a Sauvignon Blanc, or even that any Sauvignon Blanc was grown in Emilia-Romagna.

Salvatore cited it as Italy's greatest Sauvignon Blanc. I'd dispute this - the Alto Adige's Gumphof and Friuli's Venica & Venica still win in my book - but the wine was indeed brilliant, and nowhere near as modern as I expected. It was also astonishingly vivid for a central Italian white from 2009.

The fruit was lush but not overabundant or malingering, the acid in fine calibration, with flavors running along a perfect mineral-orange zest axis. The "Vie" is certainly a lot cleaner than many of the wines I drink these days, but nothing was sacrificed for the sake of clarity. It's like one of those pristine modern rock-pop records that still manage to rock.

We had less luck with a characterless bottle of 2010 Tenuta Vicario Fiano di Avellino.

Italian white winemaking is quite literally all-over-the-map, but Fiano, the grape, is such an inherently engaging varietal that I'm convinced it takes actual maliciousness to make one this boring. It would be like casting Christopher Walken as a walk-on. I can only explain the wine's placement at La Retro'Bottega by referring to Pietro's explanation that he's in the process of sourcing more biodynamic Italian wines in time for the rentrée. Perhaps he wanted a good Fiano but had to settle for a Tenuta Vicarious experience...

In any case, in an otherwise wonderful meal it was an inexpensive blip, later effaced entirely by some unreasonably marvelous glasses of Chianti Classico Riserva we finished with. I'm generally loathe to praise or even order Chianti, because outside of a few well-known names the quality standard of the appellation is rotten and wrong-headed. But at the moment Pietro is pouring, clearly as a labor of love, a 2005 Chianti Classico Riserva by Regio di Miscianello, a small estate near Siena that I wasn't familiar with.

Apparently the farm dates back to 1300. It's a Chianti made in a very classic method, including a smidge of Canaiolo and Malvasia Rossa, seeing one year in oak cask and six months in bottle before release; the style is sweeping, long, magisterial, with that glorious red rasp of Sangiovese acid etched throughout. At 8€ / glass, it's not cheap, but it's precisely what Chianti should be, and I wholeheartedly urge the entire world to taste it as a reference point.

I left that evening just beaming with admiration for a place that, with what is clearly a shoestring budget*** and an overworked two-man team, could provide some of the most mouth-watering, eye-opening food and wine I've had all year. (Bravo, regazzi.)

* In Italian it refers to the back of the shop, the area reserved for stock and the private use of the shopowner. 

** The French stuff is 100% natural, from what I can tell. Pietro is working on sourcing more biodynamic wine from Italy, but the scene there is not quite as developed as it is in France, and only a fraction of it is presently imported in any quantities.

*** Salvatore memorably told us how one table on the terrace, the "Table of Desperation," got its name.

La Retro'Bottega
12, rue Saint-Bernard
75011 PARIS
Metro: Faidherbe-Chaligny
Tel: 01 74 64 17 39

Related Links:

Celebrating a friend's apartment purchase at Rino, 75012

A review of La Retro'Bottega @ GillesPudlowski
A kind of thrown-together piece on La Retro'Bottega, replete with blurred photos and dopey writing @ GQFrance
A goofy blurb on La Retro'Bottega @ FoodIntelligence

An article about the SanPatrignano project @ TheAtlantic
A piece on the SanPatrignano winery @ DoctorWine (There something unintentionally funny about the http address "doctorwine.it," given recent Brunello scandals, etc.)


  1. Sounds like a great place. The vegetable dishes sound extremely enticing.

  2. Our lunch in January was revolting but we had a couple of nice glasses of wine. Food-wise, though, it reminded us of a comment my brother-in-law makes about bad restaurant food, "if you made it yourself, you'd just about eat it". We wouldn't have eaten what we were served if we'd made it and it wasn't that cheap either, 10 euros for an unbelievably stodgy chickpea soup. Judging from how the owner put together our other dish (sprinkling no-longer fresh salad greens from a supermarket pre-washed bag), I wouldn't say the food is ever going to be very well-prepared.

  3. hi ben ! sounds like we had very different experiences. all the food i've had there has been pretty fantastic. but there are certainly a zillion random exigencies in the life of a solo restaurateur - as pietro is these days - and it's quite possible you visited on a very off day.

    my advice would be to give the place another chance...