Pepe Nero had attracted my attention as one of 24 restaurants in all of Italy that had been awarded “best value for money” in the 2021 edition of the Gambero Rosso Ristoranti d’Italia guide. And as the only one of those 24 that fit more or less into our itinerary and offered a degustation menu with wine pairing. Pepe Nero is the restaurant of chef Mirko Giannoni in the town of Prato near Firenze (Florence) in Toscana (Tuscany). Prato is known as the hometown of cantuccini, also known as biscotti di Prato. It is listed in the Michelin guide, but has not been awarded a Michelin star. The restaurant is located just outside of the historic center of Prato, so there is little chance you will ‘stumble upon it’.
Next to à la carte there are degustation menus of five courses for 67 euros (with wine pairing for 30 euros) or seven courses for 80 euros (with wine pairing for 50 euros). You can pick any dishes you like from the à la carte menu for the degustation, but we preferred to leave that to the chef.
The amuse bouche were really nice with some creative flavor combinations such as parmigiano with lime, eggplant with smoked herring, and foie gras with almond. With this we enjoyed a glass of pinot nero metodo classico from Oltrepò Pavese, which was a good pairing.
First antipasto: foie gras, green apple, pistachio, tarragon, and red shrimp, paired with beer. Nice combination of flavors and textures. 8/10.
Second antipasto: scallop with coconut, tomato, and red onion. This was a fusion between Thai and Italian cooking and also had a bit of chili pepper. There was coconut milk in the soup and some slivers of raw coconut offered a crispy element. Compared to a Thai dish it was not as spicy or as salty or as acidic. The flavor of the scallop did not really come out in this dish, but it was nice. This was paired with a Franciacorta, a sparkling wine. 8/10
First primo: tortelli stuffed with ricotta from Calvana, a ‘jus’ of roasted tomato, mussels, and cuttlefish, paired very well with a white wine from the island of Ischia, made from Biancolella and Forastera grapes. This was delicious and an excellent pairing. 9/10
Second primo: spaghetti with smoked butter, katsuobushi, and candied lemon, paired excellently with a Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. Katsuobushi is dried, smoked, and then shaved bonito, a Japanese ingredient. Aside from the visual effect (when served on hot pasta it will ‘move’ in the vapor from the dish) it also adds flavor. The thick spaghetti was perfectly al dente and the sauce had great depth of flavor as well as balance. Together with the wine pairing this was fantastic. 10/10
Third primo: ‘buttons’ (ravioli) filled with guinea fowl, served with braised onion, figs, and a reduction of guinea fowl stock. This was paired very nicely with a Bourgeuil, a Cabernet Franc from the Loire region in France. 9/10
An additional dish that was not on the menu: salmon, cooked in such a way that it seemed like foie gras. Very nice.
Secondo: veal tongue with a teriyaki sauce, leek, and oyster krupuk, paired well with a Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Alto Adige.
We had mentioned to the sommelier that we thought it was strange to be in Tuscany and not get any Tuscan wines, and so she offered a glass of Carmignano as an alternative pairing. This is a ‘super Tuscan’ with 70% Sangiovese and 30% Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot). It was very fruity (blackberries) and silky, and I thought it worked even better with the dish because the Blauburgunder could barely handle the sugar in the Teriyaki. The tongue was very tender, because it had been cooked sous vide for 48 hours. The combination with the leek and oyster was very nice. 9/10
The pre-dessert was a cone (not quite a cannolo) with ricotta and candied lemon rind.
The dessert was two preparations of Sorrento lemon: as a ‘baba’ and as sorbet. Instead of a dessert wine served with this dessert, a Pineau de Charentes (grape juice mixed with grappa) was served afterwards.
Coffee came with a nice selection of friandises.
There are two things that stand out at Pepe Nero compared to other restaurants we’ve been to in Italy.
The first is the dishes, which are more creative and less traditional, with Asian/fusion elements. The dishes are all perfectly prepared and beautifully presented. The flavor combinations are out of the ordinary and some work better than others. You can’t really tell from the dishes that we are in Tuscany. I am surprised that Pepe Nero has not been awarded a Michelin star, because the level of the dishes certainly warrants that when compared to many restaurants that do have a star. Perhaps the Michelin inspectors are too conservative? Overall 9/10 for the food.
The second is the wine pairings. Sommelier Sara Sanesi does an excellent job of pairing wines with the dishes. All of the pairings were excellent, which rarely happens in Italy. Sara told us they taste the dishes with wines to find the best pairing, and that is how all restaurants should be doing it. Apart from good pairings, they were also all good wines. But just like with the food, you can’t tell from the wines that we are in Tuscany. On the other hand, good pairings are more important than using wines from the region. Overall 9.5/10 for the wine.
In conclusion I can say that I fully agree with the award by Gambero Rosso for excellent value for money. We will certainly return to Pepe Nero when we are in the area.