Bite - Gigi il Bullo
“This is not an Italian restaurant” isn’t just another clever reference to the great surrealist Magritte. In this case, scrawled across the menu, it is meant to shake off a number of clichés. For what is so often associated with “Italian” restaurants – found in every neighbourhood of every city across the world – are typical dishes like pizza and spaghetti bolognese.
That’s why when Italian expat Dario Puglia opened up shop in Antwerp’s restaurant-inundated Zuid neighbourhood one year ago, he made a conscious effort to stand out from the rest. You will not find ossobuco on the menu, but rather veal tongue, cooked at a low temperature for 36 hours and served with cauliflower, parmesan cheese and rhubarb. Likewise, don’t expect to see seafood risotto; prepare yourself instead for fresh sardines in sour white bottarga (fish eggs) and red chard.
Dario (pictured) gets most of his produce from farms across Flanders and imports the rest straight from producers in his homeland. The wine list reads like a road trip through Umbria and Tuscany, so we ask our server to kindly surprise us with two glasses of the best red to go with our meal. The reason for this is we have no idea what we’re about to eat. We’ve ordered from the “White Paper Menu”: four courses at €44, and exactly what those four courses might be is not mentioned.
From my comfortable seat on the pavement terrace, I have a direct view of the interior which is modern but with cosy accents like exposed brick, dim lighting and original mosaic tile floors. My dining companion and I sip from long-stemmed glasses of sparkling prosecco while eating black olives and focaccia and admiring the black-and-white photographs on the walls, one of which is a portrait of a Sardinian nonna. It seems our chef also has a knack for photography.
Dario’s wife is our highly attentive server for the evening. She brings a surprising aperitif of jellied gin and tonic. Afterwards we are presented with an even more surprising starter: chicken heart with beef tomatoes, garlic and parsley. It’s a first for me, but I open my mind along with my mouth to find that the flavours are right – mostly tangy tomato, and the heart is soft and palatable.
This is followed by wild pigeon fillet glazed with Sicilian acacia honey, roasted pumpkin and peppery purslane. We tuck in to discover the bird has been slow-cooked and presumably for a very long time, as the meat is rosy and juicy with an earthy flavour that pairs perfectly with the sweet pieces of pumpkin.
When the wine arrives, we find that its heady spiciness goes very well with the pigeon but proves a bit too heavy for the next course. Oxtail is the main ingredient for this dish, but the meat is barely detectable through an incredibly rich sauce of figs, gnocchi, dark chocolate and copious amounts of butter. The first few bites are insanely sweet and delicious. By the end, though, our senses have hit overdrive.Next up is saddle of hare, a long strip of back meat covered in a pile of “its favourite food”, so a whole carrot and heaps of leafy chickweed.
The dessert arrives just as we’re undoing the top button on our trousers (thankful that we haven’t ordered the six-course menu). The plate is covered in a beautiful combination of chalky ricotta cheese, thinly sliced peaches, cinnamon, saffron and roughly chopped almonds. The peaches have been steeped in strega, an Italian liqueur with a bold minty flavour. We settle the €120 bill over two very well-pulled espresso shots.
Throughout the meal it’s the personal service that impresses us the most, enhanced by a visit from Dario himself, donned in white and a sheriff ’s badge. There’s no question who’s in charge of that kitchen.