In the same way that many fine-dining waiters wish to be wizards whose assistants, the busser staff, do all actual plate-clearing, many restaurateurs aspire to invent Perpetual Motion Machines. It's the ideal restaurant: a motor that runs itself, free of vindictive neighbors, staff orgies, mass poisonings, or any of the other baroque malfunctions that can trip up a business and consume the sanity of its management. Ironically, efforts to actually build Perpetual Motion Machine restaurants usually come at the expense of things like soul and hospitality and food quality. Whether we like it or not, these things won't run on inertia alone.
But I suspect there's another way to build a Perpetual Motion Machine. It's by being skilled and loving one's business and not, in fact, wishing to build a PMM as a means of absenting oneself from its daily workings.
Miniscule and modest, 11ème arrondissement Italian restaurant Caffè dei Cioppi would seem to exemplify this business model. Chef-owner Fabrizio Ferrara has for the past four years been garnering great reviews merely for offering actual serious Italian food to Parisians at fair prices, accompanied by well-chosen honest wines. The menu changes at the pace of a glacier; nothing is controversial; everything runs like a dream. The only thing more astonishing than the fact that no one else in Paris has replicated Ferrara's blueprint is that Ferrara himself has not replicated Ferrara's blueprint.
To my knowledge, there's been no expansion, no adjacent wine shop or wine bar, no delivery service, niente. There remains the restaurant's coveted fourteen or so seats, a few cooks, and Ferrara's wife Frederica running the dining room. I first visited the restaurant almost three years ago, and between that visit and one earlier this spring, the only changes I could discern were a few new entries on the wine list.
I've was happy to see that Luigi Giusti's unique Marche wines had remained. My friends and I shared a bottle of his sparkling Lacrima di Morro d'Alba, a lovely expression of the famously perfumey grape: keenly berryish, but dry as autumn leaves, like a Sangue di Giuda for adults.
(Lacrima di Morro d'Alba the grape is not to be confused with the Lacryma Cristia del Vesuvio appellation in Campania, whose reds are based on a Piedirosso / Sciascinoso blend that is, in my experience, markedly less interesting. Lacrima the grape is native to the Marche and is so named for the way its berries tend to split on the vine, causing 'tears' of juice to run down the grapes.)
Now joining practically the entire Giusti oeuvre on Caffè dei Cioppi's list was a crunchy high-Piemontese Nebbiolo-Uve Rara-Vespolina blend by Le Piane called "La Maggiorina."
Le Piane is the project of a fellow named Christoph Kunzli, who's been rehabilitating the once-neglected estate in the obscure Boca DOC since 1998. I was first introduced to the wine a few months back at nearby Italian cave-à-manger La Retrobottega, and I fell pretty much instantly in love. If there's one flavour I miss most in Paris dining besides spiciness, it's Nebbiolo, whose haunting, smoky nuances are utterly unique in the world of wine. "La Maggiorina" is Nebbiolo senza Barolo-envy - just singing crisp mountain fruit and taut side-palate acidity.
The menu hasn't changed much at all. Still masterful, unshowy Italian, short on attention-grabber components like fennel pollen or squid ink, long on satisfaction.
Caffè dei Cioppi is possibly the only restaurant in Paris where one would not be an idiot to order risotto, a simple but voluptuous dish that in French bistrots is routinely abused and debased and pressed into service as a cheap way to prevent vegetarians' dinner plates from floating off into the sky. Caffè dei Cioppi's contains sausage and tastes of saffron and patience.
Another mainstay of the Caffè, rightfully immovable from the menu, is the sbrisolona, a decadent spiced cookie served with whipped mascarpone. It's not pictured here properly because it tends to induce a sort of blissful trance state, during which I forgot to take a photo.
My friends that evening had gamely endured no less than a month of emails back and forth in attempts to locate an evening on the calendar when all of us were free that coincided with a free table at Caffè dei Cioppi.
Booking dinner is, quite frankly, an exasperating process, not least because Caffè dei Cioppi is open just four nights per week, with the other nights reserved for private events, and, presumably, the private life that its ownership prize above money and renown.
I have in the past faulted businesses for similar reasons - for offering a service too transparently and gallingly dependent upon the owner's convenience and / or possible vanity. (Cf. Mmmozza in the Marais, or Du Pain et Des Idées, a savvy marketing operation that occasionally moonlights, as if for kicks, as Paris' greatest bakery.) But grocery shops or bakeries - even the best or most specialty-oriented - are inseparably associated with their public service archetypes in a way that restaurants are not. Bread is a subsidised public service here; impeccably sauced al dente pasta is not. And so we come to the table with a different set of expectations.
It may strike us as absurd that booking a quality-conscious Italian meal in Paris is more difficult than arranging space tourism. But it's not Ferrara's fault. He is providing a sterling product for which there is, at present, no competition.
Caffè dei Cioppi
159 rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine
Tel: +33 1 43 46 10 14
As far as I know, the only other spot for good Italian cuisine in Paris:
La Retrobottega, 75011
A positive 2011 review of Caffè dei Cioppi at TableADécouvert.
An astonishingly mild 2011 review of Caffè dei Cioppi at GillesPudlowski. Seriously? This is a critic who found 10ème charmless pasta-shill Procopio Angelo "exotic."
Another strangly equable 2010 review of Caffè dei Cioppi at ParisNotebook.
A hearty 2009 endorsement of Caffè dei Cioppi at HungryForParis.
Same in French at by François Simon at Simon-Says.
LeFooding loves Caffè dei Cioppi, which must be frustrating, given that the editorial board has almost no way of differentiating their serious love for Caffè dei Cioppi from their routine loving endorsements of any ethnic food regardless of quality in Paris.
A nice piece on the Boca DOC at PleaseThePalate.