How Italian Food Conquered Moscow
- By Ezekiel Pfeifer
- May. 25 2011 00:00
Igor Shurupov did not intend to make an Italian restaurant. The well-traveled Russian chef began his career in innovative kitchens like that of Ulei, one of the restaurants of the late 1990s that helped push Muscovites' gastronomic horizons beyond pork roulade and Caesar salad. So when he received the opportunity to open Accenti, he envisioned a menu that would fuse varied traditions — something like a meeting point between the wheat fields of Tuscany and the pungent docks of Bangkok.
"But with the name, people expected there to be more of an Italian focus," Shurupov recalled. "And that's what they wanted, too."
Gradually, sun-dried tomatoes and double-cream burrata edged most of the rice paper off Accenti's tables. And the restaurant's reward? A clientele so loyal that Accenti has survived for almost a decade, a miraculous feat in a city known for its fickle diners, who typically are eager to advance the revolving door. More kudos came at the end of 2010, when Moscow eaters recognized Shurupov's reluctant Italian cooking at Accenti as the best of 54 restaurants competing in the Moscow Gastronomic Festival.
In adopting Italian cuisine, Accenti joined a seemingly unstoppable movement in the city. When Russia opened up in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, the bon vivants of Moscow preferred French food. But since the early 2000s, Muscovites have become bewitched by the effulgent flavors south of the Alps. Italian cuisine's surge forward reached Lamborghini-like speeds in the mid-2000s, and, while having slowed in growth since, the food of Italy still dominates the city's dining scene. At the beginning of 2011, there were more than 400 Italian restaurants operating in Moscow, and their numbers were expanding still, according to industry magazine Restoran Technologies.
With Italian restaurants quickly reaching Starbucks-level saturation, chefs feel the need to concoct dishes that are eye-catching, even sublime.
The reasons for the trend are much disputed, but one explanation credits the charms engendered by that southern Italian sun. In the '90s, everywhere from the coves of Sardinia to the terraced vineyards of Piedmont began drawing curious Russian tourists — and, importantly, restaurateurs, said Alexander Lavrin, food writer and president of the Russian Association of Restaurant and Gastronomy Critics.
The tourists returned with a taste for Parmesan and truffles, and the restaurateurs brought back Italian chefs to satisfy their compatriots' new cravings. In 1997, Moscow's best-known restaurant magnate, Arkady Novikov, installed Milan native Antonio Baratto at the restaurant that launched the Novikov empire, Sirena. Now, almost a fifth of Novikov's 49 restaurants are Italian-centric, including the highly regarded Syr ("Cheese"), Peperoni and Cantinetta Antinori. Some Italian businesspeople moved to satisfy the demand as well, among them the influential Antonella Rebuzzi, a singer and one-time Italian parliamentarian who ran one of the first Italian-product purveyors in Russia, called Ital Market, and opened a number of successful restaurants.
In the early days, when the cuisine was still a novelty, it wasn't easy to deliver Muscovites all of Italy's culinary crown jewels. Long-time chef of Syr Mircko Zago recalled how in the early 2000s he wanted a cheese from his native Aosta in northwestern Italy, the famous fontina. A purveyor agreed to find it, but instead delivered a cheap imitation called fontella — the purveyor hadn't known the difference.
A decade later, Syr now carries over a dozen DOP — the Italian equivalent of "protected destination of origin" — cheeses, including the real fontina.
As for other ingredients central to the Italian larder, chefs are of mixed opinion. For instance, while chefs seem universally to esteem the blood-red and blush tomatoes of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan that are available locally, some, including Mauro Panebianco of Cantinetta Antinori, prefer salad greens from Tuscany.
"Berries are a big problem here," Panebianco said, "because market vendors will make them look incredibly beautiful. They stack raspberries up in these pyramids. But then you take a bite and it's like a rock. Only it's a golden rock — they're extremely expensive, too."
These sorts of misadventures have caused the Milan native to look toward more familiar groves at times. "If I want, say, a giant orange to make candies, I'll get it from Italy, because I know that what I'll get will be excellent."
Of course, not every Italian chef in Moscow wants softball-sized oranges from Sicily. But that's partly the point for Panebianco. With Italian restaurants quickly reaching Starbucks-level saturation, many chefs feel the need to concoct dishes that are eye-catching, even sublime. Zago of Syr is known for his whimsical creations, such as a Gorgonzola tasting menu (a Gorgonzola souffle, Gorgonzola cheesecake, and so on) and a variety of unlikely tartars, including one of scallops, melon, asparagus and Limoncello "caviar," the last ingredient made with a technique from molecular gastronomy. Chef Nicola Canuti of haute cuisine restaurant L'Albero displays a similarly playful imagination; past menus of his have featured icy gazpacho with tomato sorbet and foie gras with a sauce made from sangria.
"Ninety-five percent of what you get in Italy is traditional Italian cuisine — they don't try to wow people," Lavrin said. "In Moscow, it's the opposite. If it's a restaurant and not a chain pizzeria, all the chefs want to do something creative — partly out of necessity."
It may seem odd that all these southerners have trekked to Moscow to realize their savory dreams. But the conditions here — minus the glacial winters — are often more appealing to Italian chefs than those in their languid homeland. As Massimiliano Montiroli, chef and part-owner of restaurant Osteria Montiroli, explained, restaurants in Russia are not only among the best-paying in the world; they also allow for a more professional kitchen. In Italy, he said, a family restaurant often has as few as two or three cooks caroming around a kitchen the size of a closet. At Osteria Montiroli, on the other hand, there are close to 30 people who work in a space the size of a royal drawing room. The benefits of this are obvious — and substantial.
Ironically, by continuing to attract da Vincis of the plate, these heavenly conditions may eventually end up stalling the cuisine's ascent. As Lavrin notes, even though new Italian restaurants continue to open in Moscow, the market will inevitably become too sardine-can-like to keep growing.
For now, however, the jousting is producing good results.
"There's so much competition these days in the Italian restaurant sector that only the most interesting places survive," Lavrin said.