BEIRUT: La Pineta means “pine forest” in Italian, and it’s an odd name for the Michelin-starred restaurant in Marina di Bibanno. Though La Pineta is located in the tree-dense Tuscan region of northeastern Italy, the award-winning fare comes not by land, but by sea. La Pineta’s chef Luciano Zazzeri is on a 10-day visit to Beirut, where he has been offering locals a taste of Tuscany at The Phoencia and Vendome hotels, among others. He spoke to The Daily Star at the Phoencia, with his countryman and Caffe Mondo Chef Alessandro Morelli interpreting Zazzeri’s entangled English-Italian.
So what’s for dinner?
“Fish,” Zazzeri says plainly, as though he’s never considered a different answer to the question. And it’s quite possible he hasn’t. La Pineta has been a family-run restaurant for four generations. Before Zazzeri started cooking at La Pineta at age 38, he worked for 20 years on the supply end of the sea-to-table operation as one of the fishermen.
Afternoon sun streaming through the glass facade at Caffe Mondo, Zazzeri offers a recipe to fit the unseasonably warm weather this winter. It is a springtime dish he’ll be serving at Eau de Vie later on: a shrimp salad with prunes, celery, a runny quail egg and topped with a caper dressing.
That sweet and tangy salad is followed by Zazzeri’s choice fish – and one of his favorite ingredients, he adds – red mullet. “Queen of the sea,” he calls it. He contradicts the common food-pairing approach, often choosing to wash down his seafood with a glass of pinot noir instead of the usual white wine, he tells The Daily Star.
Zazzeri’s family built a destination eatery long before his arrival in the kitchen, but he’s made some key changes that have put it on the world culinary map. There was a tendency, he explains, to overcook the fish before he took the kitchen’s helm.
It’s not sushi, it’s not ceviche – he simply serves the freshest catches after barely introducing them to heat. From scallops to octopus, Zazzeri builds his plates around the frutti di mare by pairing and seasoning them with simple ingredients indigenous to Tuscany.
“Porcini mushrooms, tomatoes, olive oil, artichokes,” Zazzeri says. “This country[side] is like the promised land.”
He suggests that Lebanese cooks treat their fish recipes the same, with as few ingredients as possible. Take hammour, or grouper, for example, a staple white fish found throughout the Middle East. Panfry it in olive oil with salt and pepper and pair it with baked potatoes, Zazzeri says.
He also offers some advice to those dubious about cooking shrimp, though with his characteristic flair for near-mocking simplicity. Throw a few servings of shrimp – shells, heads and all – into boiling water for two minutes. Then immediately transfer them to a bowl of ice. Now easier to manage, shuck the shrimp, dip in a simple olive oil mayo and buon appetito.