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Jun 14, 2011 08:26 PM

How would you rate Gambero Rosso Guide Book?

In a recent thread one of our regular Italian board contributors hinted that some of the restaurants listed in the Gambero Rosso restaurant guide have deliberately changed their style in order to improve their ratings.

The thread was about a restaurant in Turin which I hadn't eaten at, but looking at their website, appeared somewhat technical, nuova cucina (nouvelle cuisine in French) as opposed to the more traditional and rustic style of trattorie and osterie beloved of "foodies" who travel to Italy (and of course traditional fine dining restaurants".

I used as a comparison a recent BBC "Master Chef" competition in which one of the finalists mashed up fresh peas and then squeezed the mash drop by drop into liquid nitrogen to reassemble the peas (the panel of distinguished diners were NOT impressed), which launched a passionate response about restaurants pushing the boundary in order to get a 3-fork (90 plus point) rating from Gambero Rosso. Reminds me of the movie "Mondodelvino" in which the consultant shows wineries how to get a 90+ rating from Robert Parker for their wines).

I am curious about different opinions on the subject . I hasten to add that we have an old copy of Gambero Rosso left by guests and we buy a new Slow Food Osterie Guide every 4-5 years or so, but don't live by them. They are useful sometimes if you are going to a new place, but we write almost exclusively about Piedmont which has been our home for 10 years and only for restaurants that we personally have been to.

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  1. I think in general they are pretty good, with a couple of caveats. I doubt a lot of restaurateurs are going to convert from garden vegs to liquid nitrogen for a couple of points, but word on the street has been that adapting a wine list to the GR scores can have an effect (totally unconfirmed). It is unlikely that anyplace really traditional will have a very high score, since they definitely reward creativity and a modern outlook. This is why you have to use the SlowFood guide, Osterie d'Italia, along with GR, since SF does reward tradition. For this reason, foreign visitors seeking authentic cooking may be happier with restaurants with GR scores in the upper 70s rather than 80s, which is roughly the cutoff point for foie gras & co. As always, corroboration is a good idea.

    1. They've changed their website for the umpteenth time. Looks like now they're gonna put the restaurants section behind a pay wall. I always used the online resoruce for reserach, but seems they're goin' the way of Zagat, which, come to think of it, is pretty much what it's worth.

      11 Replies
      1. re: ghiottone

        Sometimes when I read this blog, I am amazed by the number of information I get. And I am Roman and I know a lot about the restaurant business! I have never heard anybody suggesting that GR guide does not prize traditional restaurant: Agata and Romeo and Il Convivio, just to mention a couple, do propose traditional food. Da Felice, among the many, has been awarded among the best restaurants where to enjoy traditional food. But I guarantee you, there are plenty. As far as the wine list is concerned, a good restaurant is supposed to have a good wine list as well, but sometimes high scored restaurants don't have major wine lists.

        The restaurants often adviced here and unknown to me or my friends and the common thread is "traditional". There is nothing wrong with traditional, but Italian food is not only that (osterie, trattorie). There are a number of restaurants which represent the new Italian Food Trend that are worth a visit. In that sense the GR guide can help find some.

        1. re: cristinab

          Yes, GR is tuned into new trends. But these are often, rightly or wrongly, not what visitors want. Agata does not get a top score from GR and really traditional places (which Agata is not) rarely if ever break 80. Both Agata and Convivio have a sense of place (in a way that Il Pagliaccio, for example, doesn’t), but that doesn’t make them traditional, just a little more local-oriented than the truly cutting edge (which Troiani was twenty years ago). Of course GR doesnt ignore traditional places, but those are not what they're mainly interested in, but they often are what visitors want, since they haven't been eating the local food all their lives and want to try it on their trip. I cook local food every day and want something different when I go out, as a rule. I can find ideas in GR, but when I travel elsewhere in Italy I also consult SlowFood because I am interested in the traditional food of other localities.

          With the exception of a few high-end places, I would agree that most of the restaurants recommended on this board are indeed unknown to most Italians I know or, if I have dragged Italian friends or my husband to try them, they don't like them very much. Foreigners have different needs, but fortunately there are enough good places in Rome (not always with high GR scores) that maintain high standards and satisfy both visitors and locals.

          Il Pagliaccio
          Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 130, Roma 00186, IT

          1. re: mbfant

            Jen I so agree with you on the different needs of tourists vs italians. The downside of this dichotomy: a) Italians in foreign countries keep on proposing an Italian food that is not even remotely close the original, playing on the romatic side of "spaghetti & pizza"; b) foreigners who come here will try and finally find that style, mostly but not exclusively, in tourist traps.
            Now, even if these restaurants were to propose great food, they still might give a fake idea of what Italian cuisine is nowadays. Just as an example, in Rome there are plenty of musicians that come around your table and sing songs making you feel you went back in time...well, majority of those musicians are not italians and they don't even know the words! They are just playing on the idea the tourist has formed of an Italian dinner in Rome...Hope I made myself understood...not easy because my intention is not to beat up restaurants of any kind but just to save, within a couple of posts in a blog it'll be hard!, tourists from major rip-offs.
            Gambero Rosso I think assigned 78 to Agata, which is a very high score, but, just to mention another very well prized chef, Colonna has over 80....Troiani is a great chef but his cuisine, whose best and most recognized dish is the Amatriciana cannot certainly be classified as "contemporary".
            Actually, I am more inclined to think that GR guide is more prone to defend a conservative guide line than not others.

            1. re: cristinab

              78 for a restaurant of Agata's level is a "bastonata". I cannot imagine the universe in which Angelo Troiani is not contemporary just because he makes a good amatriciana. Agata makes a great carbonara, and Colonna makes fabulous cacio e pepe. As we say in New York, it's their shtick, but those dishes are not their main thing. When Troiani began, he was certainly cutting edge for Rome and even now he is creative and up to date. Roman clients are not looking for liquid nitrogen (at least nobody I know is), but there's a huge difference between the traditional places and the group that one way or another resembles Convivio. We're talking about Rome, after all. traditional is coda alla vaccinara on the bone and dripping sauce (Checchino), contemporary is taking the meat off the bone and shaping it into cubes (Colonna) or balls (di Giacinto) and giving it a cute name (both).

              1. re: mbfant

                Jen, I am not disagreeing with you "in toto". You don't need to defend Troiani with me as I think he's a great chef with a palate sensitivity that very few people (not only chefs) have. And I do agree that his cuisine is not traditional in the "checchino" way. What my point was and still is concerns the GR guide which was pictured as a guide promoting modern cuisine versus traditional one and, on that point, I disagree.
                Now, I wish it were that simple to distinguish traditional versus contemporary by the way you present food, but it's not only that (thankgod!!). It envolves many other factors which vary from the cooking style and techniques, the ingredients chosen and only (finally) the presentation.
                Major part of tourists, as you mentioned, look for traditional food. But Italian food, with Bottura leading the school, is not that anymore and my founded fear is that perpetrating Italian food as the traditional one (exclusively), would give a fake impression of what Italian food is today. Again, if we go and visit Japan and expect only California rolls, we'd be wrong. If we come to Italy and expect only "tagliatelle alla Bolognese", presuming that this is the Italian food that Italian eat listening to guitar players singing serenades, we'd be wrong.
                I wish that the New Italian Style, reflecting our contemporary cuisine, were known to Italians and foreigners and the association with pizza and pasta (only) lost its meaning. Only promoting the Bottura style, Italian cuisine can assume one day a leading position. I am convinced we do have the capacity and the prime ingredients to do so and maybe, after this northen european style, the Italian one can become the worldwide reference to chefs and restaurants all over the world.
                PS I might agree with you that 78 is a "bastonata" for Agata, but it is still an extremely important position for a restaurant that is still a reference after 20 years!

                1. re: cristinab

                  I'm not Jen, I'm Maureen. I think we really agree. I didn’t exactly mean that GR "promotes" modern more than traditional -- because they do appreciate good traditional food -- but that they give higher scores to the more creative upmarket places and that foreigners seeking the kind of food that Italians have always eaten at home would be happier in the 70s than in the 80s and 90s. I am very happy if a foreigner wants tagliatelle alla bolognese, because it shows some local knowledge, while anyone seeking "spaghetti bolognese" shows ignorance. (I definitely would have a problem with anybody who actually enjoys the street musicians.) The next step, which many visitors seem reluctant to take, is to get over their fear of "pretentiousness" and understand that crystal wine glasses and nice presentation and imaginative combinations of food are not incompatible with the country that gave the world the Sistine Chapel and the Ferrari car.

                  1. re: cristinab

                    hi christina thats maureen you are exchanging views with, not me.

                    The discussion of GR is very interesting. and I hope it contineues.

                    From the standpoint of a foreign visitor (those who post on this board at least) there is surely a range of culinary interests. A few are starhunters or relatively indifferent to learning about Italian foodways and just want a pleasant or impressive environment for a special occasion or visit,, but many of us posting on Chowhound would seek out a definitiely italian dining and to eat characteristic, well prepared with good ingredients regional food. That definitely excludes kitschy touristic destinations with musicians or tagliatelle bolognese (except maybe at Colline Emiliane) in Rome. In Japan it would exclude California rolls. Traditional food is what it is in rome, Japan or anywhere, after all and not what the tourists define it as! Speaking only for myself now, perhaps, this interest extends to creative variations on this within the tradition - but without a solid baseline on how the dishes are well prepared traditionally (M's coda example) I dont think thats going to be as interesting and fun. Its of course appropriate for Italian cooks to innovate within their national and regional palette of ingredients and techniques, as well as going beyond that, to foreign ingredients and the type of creative practices in the international cuisine .I am sure this is of great interest to locals particularly who may want to experience a wider range of cuisine including things they cannot cook at home. I would love to see a more extensive discussion of these restaurants here. But for those of us who are only occasional visitors and may have only a week say in Rome,it ought to be understandable that the traditions are a particular interest. Just as a first time visitor to Modena, say, might be more interested in a visit to Hosteria Giusti rather than Osteria Francescana.

                    Also coming from NY, LA, London,SanFrancisco, etc. where there are many many chefs practicing international style, ingredients based, "creative", "molecular", fusion and other cuisines, as well as a type of fresh cuisine that riffs off italian traditions, maybe the most common type, it should be uncerstandable that many of us arent looking for those things in Italy - want to come back to and experience the sources, the italian regional cuisines, including roman, in all their complexity.

                    1. re: jen kalb

                      Yes, exactly. Foreign visitors have different needs than locals do, and GR gives higher scores (very generally speaking) to places that are more interesting for locals, and they seem to withhold points from places that have had essentially the same menu for 50-100 years. I personally do not care what restaurant has the best carbonara in Rome. If I want it, I can buy the best fixings and make it myself, and it's no accident that GR's celebrated recognition of Roscioli's as the best in Rome was awarded to a carbonara that uses non-traditional gourmet ingredients.

                      I do, however, become impatient when I think foreigners are avoiding really interesting restaurants on grounds that they can get the same food in San Francisco (I doubt it) or, worse, that if it appears to have been prepared in the 21st century it is somehow not really Italian. And also when (budget permitting, of course) they miss out on Agata's carbonara or Angelo's amatriciana because they find the Riedel crystal suggestive of the dreaded "formality."

                      Let's not use "tagliatelle alla bolognese" as an example of tourist food. For one thing, the true name is tagliatelle al ragù, and for another, the tourist version uses spaghetti, though spagbol joints are simply not on the radar of this board. I can think of only two restaurants (Dal Bolognese being the other) in Rome that actually have tagliatelle al ragù on the menu.

                      Via dei Giubbonari 21/23, Rome, Lazio 00186, IT

                      1. re: mbfant

                        I cant believe anyone (me included) would reject recommendations coming from you of really good food whether or not it met some standard of cultural purity! It seems like there are a number or recent additions to the Rome restaurant scene and we'd all be hapy to hear more, in a continuation of your GR discussion above or elsewhere.

                        1. re: jen kalb

                          Jen and Maureen, sorry I mixed up names and posts....I find the discussion very interesting and wish it can maybe have a continuation somewhere else. I agree with both of you and happy to hear some other side. I have personally never encountered people who reject one restaurant or the other on the basis of their glasses, but encountered many others who did it for some other weird stuff! As a foodie and as a cook myself I am more prone to enjoy "modern food" as opposed to traditional (because as Maureen mentioned, if I wanted some good traditional dish "I can buy the best fixings and make it myself"!) so I keep an eye on restaurants whose proposal is something I have never had or that I can't prepare for whatever reason.

                          1. re: cristinab

                            Tim (Villa Sampaguida) mentioned that I thought “some of the restaurants in the Gambero Rosso have deliberately changed their style in order to improve their ratings.” Tim correctly captured my thoughts.

                            We’ve bought a copy of the Gambero Rosso every year for the past 20 years plus, since it first started to appear. My wife, in particular, has learned to read “between the lines” very well. If we go to a new restaurant in various regions of Italy, which we do a lot, she can get 97% or so correct, as to whether we’ll like the restaurant, although we got one totally wrong in Liguria just last week.

                            There is no doubt in our minds that the Gambero Rosso, for the highest scoring restaurants, 90 and above on total score, is favoring certain aspects of food. In general, I’d describe the type of restaurants the guide favors for its highest scores as those which shy away from traditional ingredient combinations and traditional techniques, those that serve crudo (which is so very un Italian) in particular, as well as caviar and foie gras. It rewards those using Asian influences meaning that in those restaurants you could be eating the food just about anywhere...London, New York, Milan, Tokyo. Again, this is a broad generality, not specific to each and every case.

                            For the sake of argument, let’s use the total score, even though that is heavily influenced by bonus points, points for the cantina, and points for the servizio, all of which can distort the total number. Ideally, we’d only look at the cucina rating, but the two are close enough that the total rating will suffice for what I’m about to postulate.

                            If you look at the Gambero Rosso magazine, you will see recipes that are meant to create “new dishes” and if you look at the guides you will see many of those dishes in the restaurants that get the highest scores. Once the restaurants know the trick, many will play the card, even if most of the recipes don’t make sense. The guide also, to a certain extent, wants to promote Italian food as being on the cutting edge of the food world and that means forsaking “boring” traditional food. This plays right into the hands of ambitious chefs without extensive experience. Many of them travel for the first time and look at Gagnaire in Paris or Keller in New York or Grant Achatz in Chicago, marvel at the accolades and riches that go with their restaurants, and come back to Italy to try to emulate them. These chefs, for the most part, are lacking in extensive experience, and have given little thought to what they are doing. However, it is novel for a while, will bring in higher scores and hopefully enable them to run a very lucrative business.

                            We’ve been to a number of them strictly out of curiosity and the results are for the most part pitiful. The last one we went to was Alajmo’s second restaurant, La Montecchia outside of Padova. I wrote it up( It was only half bad and combined nuova cucina with some traditional dishes, but clearly the food left a great deal to be desired.

                            One comment on wine scores. You have to realize that most Italian chefs of a certain level have little or no knowledge of wine. It is being sold to them; they are not selecting the wine. Where might they also get some ideas of which wines to buy? Well perhaps from picking the “Tre Bicchieri in Vini d’Italia published by Gambero Rosso. Furthermore, there is no doubt in my mind that extra points are given some “cutting edge” restaurants for their wine lists, so that the restaurants can be vaulted into the select 90 point “top restaurants” in the guide. Here is an example. Ristorante Bovio in La Morra has arguably the best wine list in Italy (and reasonably priced I might add). The restaurant itself is based on traditional dishes and the cooking is good, enjoyable, but not great (in Piemonte that honor goes to Antica Corona Reale in Cervere; Il Cascinalenuovo in Isola d’Asti; Il Centro in Priocca). Overall score is 82 including a cantina score of 17. On a 1 to 10 score, I’d give Bovio a 10 for wine. Now look at Madonnina in Senigallia, one of the stars of the Gambero Rosso with a score of 90 and a 17 for the cantina. Cutting edge cuisine… we’ve been there. Don’t go, unless you want green bread. The owner doesn’t know a lot about wine. However, he knew enough to buy certain wines, including lots of “names.” On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give Madonnina a 6. However, as I said, it gets the same score as Bovio and that Gambero Rosso score of 17, allows the restaurant the 90 overall score. That’s how things work with the Gambero Rosso.

                            Of course, scores of a numerical nature should be looked at with skepticism. It’s very similar to Robert Parker’s scores on wine in The Wine Advocate. Wow, a 90 or 95 Parker score… must be good. No, not necessarily. You have to look beyond the score. In the case of the Gambero Rosso you have to read the entry, put it in perspective (ideally over a number of years) and then make a decision as to whether that restaurant fits with your taste. In our particular case, we know the bias of the guide and that is why with very few exceptions, except for the sake of curiosity, we steer clear of 90s.

                            Via Alba, 17, La Morra (Cuneo), Piedmont 12064, IT

                            La Montecchia
                            via Montecchia 12, Selvazzano Dentro, Padova, Veneto 35030, IT

                            Il Centro
                            Via Umberto I,8, Priocca, Piemonte 12040, IT

                            Il Cascinalenuovo
                            Corso Alba,15, Asti, Piemonte 14100, IT