If it’s good enough for Stanley Tucci, then it’s certainly good enough for me! Following Tucci’s Searching for Italy stops in Piemonte, my dad declared that we’d have to revisit Caffè Al Bicerin and make a stop in Vercelli after seeing the crazy risotti crafted by the Costardi Brothers at Ristorante Christian e Manuel.
On my many jaunts to Milan, I often watch the town of Vercelli whizz by me, but it turns out that sometimes it’s worth it to visit these little towns along the way. One of the oldest cities in Piemonte, Vercelli is thought to be founded around 600 BC. But that’s not all that makes the town so unique. Vercelli is actually known as Europe’s rice capital.
Part of the Slow Food Presidia, riso vercellese is white gold. Rice paddy fields flooded with water stretch as far as the eye can see, thanks to favorable conditions like sandy soils and lingering fog and humidity. With a high content of starch resistance, this rice is able to absorb seasoning and give a super creamy texture to risotto in traditional dishes like panissa vercellese made with red wine, ‘nduja, lard and beans.
The main varieties of rice grown in Vercelli are Carnaroli (used in 25 different risotti on the Costardi Brothers’ menu), along with Arborio, Maratelli, Baldo, Venere, Cerere, and Sant’Andrea.
Since the Costardi Brothers took over the kitchen at Hotel Cinzia, Ristorante Christian e Manuel has received praise from just about every media outlet in Italy and abroad. Famous for their risotti, often served in Campbell’s soup tins, each dish brims with creativity. Think: risotti infused with saffron, cod and licorice or peppers, anchovies and marjoram—definitely some very fun renditions to say the least. They even have a risotto that mimics the flavours of a pizza!
With a dedication to their roots and a passion for innovation the brothers earned themselves a Michelin Star in 2009, which has been maintained since just last year.
Interestingly, in 2016, they were even a part of UniSG’s Le Tavole Accademiche, a program where chefs are invited to collaborate on student menus—I mean, gastronomes-in-training need to know what good food tastes like in order to better understand it!
Anyways, the restaurant works in one of two ways: à la carte or tasting menu. That means that it’s very much doable (and affordable) to dine at the restaurant should you just want a taste of what the Costardi Brothers are serving.
Hard to pass up a tasting menu, we decided that this was the best way to get a true feel of the fare. Of course, we also had custom wine pairings—might as well go all out!
Diners can choose between several types of tasting menus that include a risotto tasting, or they can opt for a 3 ingredient, 6 ingredient or 9 ingredient tasting menu. This is where it gets interesting. You can decide the fate of your meal by choosing which key ingredients you’d like to be the stars of the menu. We opted for scallops, rice and the jolly (a dish of the chef's choice). Here’s what we tried:
To whet the appetite, first we were served a welcome glass of Prosecco to enjoy before the arrival of our first dish, the amuse bouche, which was a velvety potato purée with whipped cod and a dusting of nutmeg powder. A rich and hearty few bites, this wrapped me into a warm hug and definitely did excite the taste buds for what was still to come.
La nostra idea di pesce crudo
Gorgeously plated, this dish consisted of a raw scallop served in its shell under a bed of toasted bread crumbs and accompanied by a dairy cream and sliced veal topping. Prepared like katsuobushi, the veal was dried and smoked, which gave it so many layers of umami flavour. As for wine, a beautiful dry Riesling from Alsace cleansed the palate, playing into the freshness and salinity of land and sea.
Costardi’s Taglio Sartoriale Rice
As seen on TV, we were thrilled when we saw the soup cans arrive from beyond the kitchen doors. Inside each container is a risotto made with Carnaroli rice combined with aged Grana Padano for a luxuriously salty and cheesy dish—but there’s more. The risotto also features a drizzle of beer reduction and a sprinkle of ground arabica coffee beans. It’s crazy to think about all of the different flavour profiles that somehow worked surprisingly cohesively—who would’ve thought?! This dish was served with a berry-forward Barbera d’Asti to withstand the bold dish.
Assembled tableside, we watched as Chef Christian plated his shrimp bisque infused carnaroli rice with a pearly beurre blanc, a drizzle of ghee and dusting of bay leaf powder. To finish the dish, a single smoky, red Sicilian prawn—yes, it was as heavenly as it sounds. The smells were floral, earthy, savoury and made me want to dig in immediately. A stunning dish, I’ve been thinking about this dish for days! Paired with an insanely delicious local orange wine, this is definitely the dish to order if you dine à la carte.
After the decadent meal, we couldn’t resist but sample a little dessert. But before that, another amuse bouche to prep us for our sweet dish. A melt-in-your-mouth panna cotta covered in grape must was rich yet balanced and truly tasty—it was almost as good as Boccondivino.
A representation of a paddy field during the winter, this dolce was made by the hands of the youngest Costardi brother, Manuel who specializes in sweets. A deconstructed dessert, it had a combination of steamed chestnuts and chocolate mousse to represent the earth, along with puffed rice to represent Vercelli’s pride and joy. But the most peculiar thing about this dish was that it was served with dollops of yogurt that had been frozen tableside using nitrous oxide to pay homage to the area’s foggy fields. Literal artwork, this dessert has great variety of texture and richness.
Overall, the experience was incredible. The food was absolutely amazing. You can’t begin to imagine how the brothers have reinvented risotto. They’ve transformed the traditional into something unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. As for the experience, I loved playing cards as a means of ordering—it draws you in and inspires you to want to play the game again one day. Service was also incredible and I loved that some dishes were plated right before our eyes. Definitely give this place a try!