Dal Pescatore is the only kitchen Santini has ever worked in, making her ascension to the pinnacle of the restaurant game all the more extraordinary
Chatty, warm and utterly unassuming, it's hard to think of a person further removed from the caricature of the top flight chef than Nadia Santini. Dal Pescatore's regular presence on the list and status as one of the very best restaurants in Italy is partly down to Santini's sublime regional cooking but her easy, welcoming presence can be felt in the dining room too and has contributed immeasurably to this family-run success.
Born in San Pietro Mussolino in the Veneto region, Santini was an extremely bright student, studying food chemistry and latterly political science with sociology at the prestigious University of Milan, where she met future husband Antonio Santini. The couple married in 1974, soon returning to Antonio's parents' simple osteria alongside the river Oglio in Mantova, Lombardy, just south of Verona.
Under the careful tutelage of Teresa and Bruna, Antonio's grandmother and mother respectively, Santini learnt to cook traditional Mantuan cuisine: delicate handmade pasta dishes and home-cured meats and fish. Just like the magic that takes place in its wine cellar - a national treasure in its own right - Dal Pescatore's brilliance can largely be attributed to slow paced change. Over the next 20 years, Santini would develop her skills and gradually put her mark on the cuisine.
In 1996 she became the first female chef in Italy to earn three Michelin stars, a rating the restaurant has retained every year since. Dal Pescatore remains a family affair with Bruna - now 84 - still in the kitchen every day and Antonio deftly overseeing the dining room. The children have also followed their parents into the business. Eldest son Giovanni works is at his mother's side in the kitchen and second son Alberto works out front with his father and Giovanni's wife.
The fact that Dal Pescatore is the only kitchen Santini has ever worked in makes her ascension to the pinnacle of the restaurant game all the more extraordinary. Despite her background in food science, the cooking is not remotely high-tech - those that come expecting spherifications and espumas will be disappointed for Santini remains a stickler for tradition.
It's all rooted in what's good to eat but regular trips to top-end restaurants in France - Santini and her husband have a great contacts book as befits their industry status - have in some cases helped turn rustic dishes into works of art. Tortelli comes stuffed to bursting with a mixture of pumpkin, amaretto, Parmesan and mostarda while turbot arrives partnered with a respectably minimalistic garnish of parsley, anchovies and capers suspended in a delicate olive oil sauce. “The cuisine is refined but not changed,” she explains. “Dal Pescatore is an expression of the evolution of the food on our table and the surrounding environment.”
So not quite like nonna used to make, but still rooted in its locality. Largely thanks to Santini, the soul and quality of the food at this idyllic restaurant looks likely to be preserved for the next few generations at least.