“I don’t know if this is my first girlfriend or my second,” says Chef Francesco Lenzi, giggling towards a four-and-a-half year-old prosciutto. It is marbled with gorgeous, silky veins of fat. “But this is my sweet baby.”
The prosciutto is not just his “sweet baby” – technically, it is also his family’s. While Chef Francesco is known in Bangkok food circles for his work in other highly-regarded eateries, his family is similarly food-obsessed.
The prosciutto comes from his uncle’s traditional Tuscan norcineria (in Italian, ham butcher shop). It is the sole source of the restaurant’s cured meats. Their pigs are free range, their feed seasonal, their rearing and processing strictly traditional. The norcineria has earned the country’s pre-eminent slow food certificate – Prosciutto Bazzone Slow Food Presidio – as a result.
“We received a star from Gambero Rosso [one of Italy’s most respected food and wine publications] too”, says Chef Francesco, nodding proudly at the ham.
It’s no wonder the cured meats frequently take centre stage in his dishes. The Tuscan chef – “He looks like a younger Paul Rudd,” remarked a diner – speaks animatedly about continuing Italian tradition and process in his Bangkok restaurant.
Lenzi Tuscan Kitchen is based out of a fully renovated and retro-fitted two-level home near Bangkok’s embassy area. It’s a small stroll from Soi Ruam Rudee and slightly out of sight. Uppercase letters spell out Lenzi in front of a red, white and black façade. The result is a cosy and unobtrusive style.
Inside, the eatery has the familiar feel of a soulful Italian venue: soft red and black leather upholstery, dark woods and artwork that verge on film noir. Traditional crisp napkins and place settings line the tables.
An open kitchen, centred on an electric oven and wood-fired oven, is contained only by an enormous glass window – the entire cooking space is visible from more than half of the restaurants.
Today, there are at least 10 people in the kitchen. This seemed at first overzealous – but soon the lunch crowd poured in – a heavily Thai-majority mix, with some Italian heard here and there.
“I want my customers to see what we are cooking. There are no secrets and nothing to hide. It gives trust – that’s the point,” says Lenzi. He has personally overseen nearly every aspect of the three-year-old restaurant, from the kitchen to the logo.
After the cured meats and cheese platter, we are offered a sneak taste of the restaurant’s tasting menu, which was launched a year ago. Seven courses (not including Lenzi’s signature meat-and-cheese platter) find their crescendo in flavour at mid-point with some of the most gorgeous ravioli I’ve tasted.
We start with a new dish: a tris of langoustine, red prawn and pink prawn tartar imported from Italy. It’s light and intriguing to discover subtle differences in each stripe of crustacean – one is rich with a slight buttery taste, another is sweet. Each is delicately topped with a sprinkling of a complementary condiment – caviared balsamic vinegar, for instance, was our favourite. It’s also where we began to notice that, while Lenzi is clearly a lover of tradition, he also enjoys playing around with more modern combinations, technologies and flavours.
Orto in Fiore – a simple vegan course, also a novel offering – came next. It’s a visual colour feast, thanks to his selection of beetroot, carrots, cauliflower, and a smattering of other vegetables. It’s also where Lenzi allows the ingredients to shine by paring away adornment – a grilled carrot is earthy and sweet, a roast cherry tomato provides a refreshing tang atop a creamy bed of mashed potatoes.
We head into richer territory with Lenzi’s marinated beef carpaccio on a bed of arugula, parmesan and dried eggplant powder. He has added burratina to dish, giving it a small facelift. Given how burrata has finally penetrated many of Bangkok’s Italian menus, it’s a smart, crowd-pleasing move. The beef carpaccio is relatively mild, relying more on its fragrance and fat content to give the dish a satisfying richness.
The next course was to be the spaghetti capesante e caviale – but the caviar is delayed. Our group opts to move instead to the restaurant’s signature Spaghetti Lenzi instead, knowing this is not possibly a misstep. The pasta arrives, cooked al dente, tossed with succulent prawn and luscious pork pieces. The best part is surely the generous topping of gorgeous Biroldo, which had previously stolen hearts when it appeared on our platter. The strong, primal taste of the meat has hints of cinnamon and cloves, and its thin, dark brown slices fairly melted into our pasta, giving it a unique creaminess.
The star of the show arrived as the ravioli rapieni di foie gras in salsa di tartufo. It’s a no-holds-barred presentation of the tasting menu’s richest and creamiest textures, which spotlight beautifully umami ingredients and scents. Lenzi shaves generous portions of parmesan onto homemade French foie gras ravioli already topped with a truffle emulsion. It’s incredibly satisfying. A smear of strawberry reduction gives a lovely acidic contrast and lightness.
The next course, pan-seared Iberian pluma pork, is anti-climactic and yet absolutely necessary. The dark cubes of seared pork could be mistaken for beef. With the mashed potatoes and stewed shallots, it gives a heft to the meal.
Dessert is Piedmont-style panna cotta, served with passionfruit, and it’s precisely what it hopes to be: clean and creamy, vanilla-scented, with lively cut fruits on the side. Another option is the caramelised cinnamon pear-and-dark-chocolate gelato dessert, for those who prefer something heavier. They are quiet resolutions to the drama and climax we had just witnessed.
Chef Lenzi, as an aside, reveals his university degree is in cinema, and by this point, we are not surprised. “I have a vision of life,” he says. “I play with my ingredients, and they have to be the freshest.
“Something possesses you, when it comes to food. You can wear a ring, and have a feeling about a ring. But food – it gets inside of you. That’s why food is beautiful. That’s why it brings people together.”
For today’s three-hour lunchtime performance, the restaurant is nearly full, and the kitchen is in need of its director. Lenzi does a quick visual sweep of his patrons. Apparently satisfied with what he sees, he excuses himself and returns to the fray – readying his team for the evening show.