Just a napkin or a symbol of rebels in the kitchen?
Punto is 100% Italian, but more like an up-and-coming Italian designer rather than Brioni. Brioni is classic in every way and you know what to expect.
Punto Officina del Gusto is a bit unexpected amidst the ancient walled city of Lucca, or the Roman wall outside the front door, which happens to be nearly 2000 years old. The atmosphere is fresh, modern. Despite being less than 2 years old, Punto has already received accolades from the Gambero Rosso guide book, high praise indeed.
If a traveler to Lucca was looking to find a version of Italian American cuisine in the heart of Lucca, keep walking. If you were looking to find a spot to come every year and have the same dish you had when you proposed to your spouse so that you can memorialize that bowl of pasta that was so delicious when you dined at Punto in 2015, forget about it, they've changed the menu 11 times since you've been gone.
This is a chef and staff that like change, experimentation and diversity but pay high respect to traditional methods, local ingredients and high quality execution.
An amuse from the kitchen is an arancini, with lemon zest spiked risotto inside. The arancini itself, could be the single best fried item I've had all year. The texture, crunch, flavor is why the People of Planet Earth love fried things. The visual contrast is also striking, the deep forest green covering the top of the perfectly brown arancini. The presentation of the "Arancini on a Stick" is not traditional Italian, it's Italian modern art, it's what one might expect in a molecular gastronomy styled restaurant. But frying a risotto ball is not molecular gastronomy, it's Italian 101.
First course, peeled artichoke, stem left on, slowly cooked then finished on the grill, but left whole, to impart greater flavors and textures, laid on top of cooked barely and finished with a chili salt. This was an unexpected and refreshing stance on the standard grilled artichoke, or maybe I'm thinking too much like an American who's been to the Hitching Post. The visual of the artichoke with its stem looked like a rose on the concrete plate, and this edible portion of the artichoke, is naturally the flower bud. It made me smile. It was art and food. Whole grain barley as "the ground" which the artichoke flower is grown in. The concrete plate signifying to me another earth symbol, yet another statement and symbol to the guest that dinner is more than just food on a white plate.
Most people know my love of pasta. I love that it can be simple or decadent and sometimes both. There are dishes that I'll always remember, but this particular pasta at Punto I will never forget. The fresh noodles, made with licorice, to give it a black color, could easily be confused for squid ink, as that's standard practice with many restaurants. A smoked butter and a bit of grated Parmigiano was the complete sum of parts. In a word, Wonderful. Other "Never Forget" pasta dishes include Linguini with ricci in Bari many years ago. Fusilli con Tonno with Maestro Lucci Fanni. Not just good, outstanding. The applications for smoked butter were a flutter in my mind. Scamorza would have been the typical thing to do. Boring. Pedestrian
Punto is not boring or pedestrian.
I started thinking more about the meal, its construction, with each course. I began to think more about elements and themes, more artistic than generalized culinary techniques; and yet these are one in the same. My rabbit dish, which tasted much more wild than caged, had texture, simplicity, contrast and uplifting nuance.
Texture: the rabbit itself was meaty, cut boldly without pretense, cooked just to temperature and not much more.
Simplicity: minimal ingredients, bascially three on this plate, skilled technique (a kidney was cut in half on the plate, showing attention to detail), nothing on the plate was superfluous
Contrast: the cabbage added pleasing bitterness to the wildness of the rabbit
Nuance: fresh herbs were there for sweetness, a foil to the cabbage, added a domesticated and familiar herbal lift to the rabbit.
The torte to finish was again an lesson in simplicity, contrast, texture, and nuance.
Texture: raw sugar was placed on top of the torte, so that every bite has a crunch. Yogurt foam instead of plain yogurt.
Contrast: Raw sugar to creamy yogurt foam. Slight bitterness of yogurt to sweetness of torte.
Simplicity: Look at it. So much flavor, texture, contrast in what amounts to three elements
Nuance: Interaction of ingredients and flavors what torte and yogurt foam are eaten together, rather than apart with just a hint of hazelnut, The fact that a yogurt cream was used instead of plain yogurt says Chef is thinking about texture; the cake is the heavy element, the yogurt is a light element when foamed, plus, anyone can place yogurt on a plate.
I've been to several restaurants during this trip to Italy, from Tipica to Michelin starred. Punto deserves my highest praise and respect so far on this trip. It's Italian, it's classic and modern, it's traditional and avant garde, it's thought provoking and comforting; full of symbols and facts. It's everything I look for in a restaurant, but like every symbol, one has to know where and what to look for, otherwise, it's just a napkin with a skull on it.