I do like my restaurants to be civilised. But what does ‘civilised’ mean in this context? It has to do with tone, atmosphere, décor, the welcome and the service. When they are all right – that is, discreet and calmly efficient – there is harmony. And that is what I called civilised. And the Ristorante Antica Moka, on the outskirts of the ancient and attractive city of Modena, is undoubtedly civilised. True, the approach is a little off-putting, for the property is on a busy road a 15€ taxi ride from the centre of town. (The location comes from the fact that the establishment began life as a little coffee shop – hence the ‘moka’ of its name – before becoming a formal restaurant in the mid- 1980s.) But, once inside, all is elegance and quietness.
I was shown into a high-ceilinged room at the front of the building. Strategically positioned spotlights and the soft glow from the silver candlesticks on the tables created a welcoming atmosphere. The napery was cream, the crockery was white (bravo!) the glassware was by Riedel and by Schott Zwiesel, the staff uniform was black and the canned music was low and unobtrusive. This was a room I liked.
The Chef here is a lady, Anna Maria Barbiri. She is a cook of considerable talent, who bases her cuisine on what we might call ‘up-dated tradition’ and produces dishes which appeal to both the eye and the palate. The front of house is in the hands of her husband, Giuseppe, and her son, Sandro. The latter looked after me, and did so with considerable charm and efficiency.
Two set menus are offered, at 55€ and 75€. My four courses from the carte were 69€. I began with a robust and satisfying vegetable pie, with parmesan parfait and crispy bacon. Bacon can be a frightful bully and can take over any dish to which it is added, but here the balance was just right. Even better was the soft and delicious pasta: tagliatelle with traditional meat ragù – a version of a classic dish which was exactly as it should have been. Then came the highlight of the meal: pig cooked at low temperature with vegetables and (this being Modena, of course) balsamic vinegar. The meat was exceptionally tender, falling apart at the slightest touch, and combined with its companions on the plate to create a variety of captivating tastes and textures. This was a really splendid tribute to the value of pork. I ended with a rich and indulgent confection which has been keeping the customers here happy for nearly 30 years – pastry cream in almond wafer with strawberries.
The wine list is impressive for its size, its range and its good value. The 900 offerings include first-growth clarets like Lafite and the famous super-Tuscans, but there are lots of bottles in the 25€-40€ range, and the prices for the local reds start at just 16€. The following bottles caught my eye: Ca’del Bosco Anna Maria Clementi (one of my favourite sparkling wines – 95€), Planeta chardonnay (35€), 1998 Luce (80€), 1998 Ornellaia (250€),1999 Sassicaia (180€) and 2000 Solaia (150€). Sandro Barbiri recommended a brilliant local red from Parma, the 2010 Nabucco, made from barbera and merlot, which was richly elegant, with masses of ripe damsons and hints of leather and cinnamon – and all for 38€. Wonderful drinking.
And, indeed, the whole of my evening here was wonderful. If you are in or near Modena and you want to dine at truly civilized restaurant, make your way to the Ristorante Antica Moka.