Often some of the best meals you have when travelling are in places you stumble across one day. And, just occasionally when abroad, you end up eating somewhere that ignites your imagination and makes you ask why there is nothing like it in your home city. One such restaurant is Cal Pep in Barcelona, a restaurant that has inspired many chefs and restaurateurs, including Barrafina. For me both these things came to pass on my last Saturday in Bologna. When we visited the Mercato delle Erbe while on the Taste Bologna Tour of the markets and food stores of the city.
In the fishmonger side area you’ll find BANCO 32 a, yes I know it’s hardly a shock, fish restaurant. Operating once the fish market closes, BANCO 32 sets up serving a three-course lunch. But it’s the evening when it really comes alive, as I discovered when I returned that Saturday.
Arriving at BANCO 32, we weren’t expecting anything more than dinner of fish, and the freshest of fish at that, given its location. What we had was one of the most enjoyable meals, in all respects, that I’ve had this year. Not only does the space change at night, but so does the menu. Instead of a three-course menu, there is a daily changing menu of Aperativo dishes printed on a small slip of paper (they have an English version, so have no fear). This menu of small plates (tapas sized) is split into four sections – raw, cooked, cones of fried fish and dessert, totalling approximately 21 dishes and 3 desserts, all ranging in price at either €4, €4.50 or €5.
If you’re going for a pre dinner drink and a light bite i.e. for an aperativo, as is traditional before the events of the evening in Italy, then you need only order 4 dishes for two and an extra dish per additional person to share after that. But to just go for an aperativo would be to miss out almost completely on what BANCO 32 can provide. It would also mean that you have a stronger will than my dining companions and me when trying to pick what to eat.
At a loss as to what to order, or rather at what not to order, we decided to work our way through the menu. Time from order to table is also quick, as the kitchen deals with the hot food and the raw food is prepared for all to see at the bar. It provides something of a show for those at the bar waiting for tables (and from 8pm on there are a lot of them).
The oysters, bonito tartare with dried tomato pesto, sea bass tartare with marinated seaweed, amberjack carpaccio with ginger oil, and tuna carpaccio with soy vinaigrette, were ordered to start. Each one proved just how good raw fish can be and just how different. Each fish, fresh from the market that day, was clearly different and its natural flavours sang through, thanks to the light handling it had received.
The ginger oil, far from being powerful, enhanced the flavour of the amberjack. The sea bass was perfectly firm. When it comes to raw tuna, any fan of Japanese will tell you that a light soy dressing makes for the perfect accompaniment. The bonito, though, was the star, though not as served. It was great with the dried tomato pesto, but it was far better still with it removed. So good were the tuna and the bonito, that we ordered the former once more and the latter twice more (sans pesto) over the course of the evening.
We also ordered what they called ‘scampi’ (and the English translation referred to as ‘Norway Lobster’) with passion fruit sauce. In reality this was two langoustines cut lengthways in two, with the raw tail left intact and the sauce drizzled over, helping to cut through the richness of the meat. A superb dish I hope to see more often.
Cooked dishes ordered included the octopus and potatoes. A classic dish well made, though less interesting than other offerings and not the best version I’ve had. The cuttlefish, orange and caper salad was the largest dish and, to one’s surprise, the cuttlefish was superbly tender, which is not something one can usually say about it. The standout cooked dish was the sesame crusted mackerel and celeriac purée. On a warm relaxing evening, the best cooked fish for a light bite is fried, so multiple cones of whole fried calamari, prawns and anchovies were ordered.
The chocolate mousse came with hair thin strands of fiery chilli and was rich and succulent. The apple tart tatin was superb and. instead of a slice, a half apple cut out from a large tatin was served. That said, I ended my meal with another calamari cone and bonito tartare, as they were just so good.
The principle of the restaurant is clearly less is more flavour wise, with nothing on the menu involving more than three elements and raw dishes generally involving only two. This, plus the location, makes its food overheads cheap and thus it easy to have a daily changing menu as they can see what’s good in the market and going cheap, and buy only enough for one service. So there’s little waste, and waste is the killer of many a restaurant’s balance sheet.
BANCO 32 is well worth a visit and is clearly popular. The atmosphere is relaxing but electric with the helpful staff moving quickly and preventing people jumping the long queue at the bar for tables. The raw dishes and fried cones are the best offerings and faultless in all respects. Best of all, the four of us ordered 21 dishes and three bottles of wine and the bill came to less than €140. It was by far one of the most relaxing and enjoyable meals I’ve had in ages and I only wish it were on my doorstep so I could keep going. I’ve not had anything quite the same in London even though raw bars are all the rage these days. While I love eating at them, they have a tendency to overdo the ingredients or go too far down the route of ceviche and the flavour of the fish is lost. My hunt for a London version of Banco 32 starts now.
Via Ugo bassi 23 (Mercato delle Erbe)
Entrance also from via San Gervasio 3/A,
Phone: 051 269522