The San Domenico Restaurant
Although Daniele Cernilli has often returned to the San Domenico restaurant in Imola, he will never forget that first time in 1983.
The first time I went to San Domenico in Imola, the great restaurant founded by Gian Luigi Morini, was practically a disaster. It was in 1983 and I, Elio Mariani, the owner of the restaurant Checchino dal 1887 in Rome, Andrea Gabbrielli, who today is a journalist but back then was one of the partners of the Cavour 313 wine bar in Rome, and Antonello Colonna, a young restauranteur in Labico south of Rome who today is very famous, decided to go to Vinitaly in Verona. Travelling by car in four we saved money compared to what a train would have cost and so we decided to stop at one of the most exclusive restaurants of the time, which was more or less on our way.
Imola, where San Domenico is still today, is about 30km from Bologna and to get to Verona from Rome you pass by Bologna. We reserved a table ahead of time and left Rome at seven in the morning in order to arrive at this temple of cuisine by one. The restaurant was created some ten years earlier by Gianni Morini, a bank director with a passion for food and beautiful women (he went so far as to selected the underwear of his lovely waitresses).
He hired the great chef Nino Bergese who was elderly but had worked for Italy’s royal House of Savoy and later opened his own buen retiro, La Santa in Genoa. Morini especially wanted to hire him so that he could be a mentor to Valentino Marcattili, who at just over 20 was already a rising star in Italian cuisine. Bergese agreed and embarked on the last gastronomic adventure of his career, before moving on to a better life. He left behind him an incredibly skilled protégé and a classic cuisine all within this wonderful restaurant created inside a restructured old Dominican convent, hence the name San Domenico.
Morini was a refined and creative man who had old world charm and served as the project’s art director. He was a great gentleman who always dressed in dark, pin-striped suits with a bow tie and he had a well-trimmed moustache and magnetic, almost grey eyes. At night he often went home on his bicycle wearing a bowler hat and to see him go by at three in the morning, especially in the fog, made quite an impression. He was also a great wine lover and put together a formidable wine cellarwhich still exists today and was the main reason why we went there.
I can only imagine the impression we four young clods made entering a place like that. Morini looked at us with surprise but also kindness, imagining perhaps that we had come to the wrong place. But no, this was exactly where we wanted to be. The first disaster came with the aperitif. Antonello Colonna, who had never seen a vintage Riedel Champagne glass, began to vigorously swirl the liquid in his very fragile glass until the cup came flying off its stem wetting all those around before it smashed into smithereens. This tragicomic episode was only the first of a series of mishaps to come that included not properly using a sauce spoon to not knowing that foie gras is served almost raw and asking that it be heated up only to learn that it would melt by doing this. But our biggest screw-up came when we chose our wines from a gargantuan wine list. At the end we received a bill that was actually not that bad at all but I, unknown to the others, offered to at least pay for the broken glass.
I have often returned to San Domenico and have always found the service to be extremely courteous and the food, while a little old fashioned, impeccable. This is a great restaurant with a French accent on the border of Romagna created by someone like Morini who invented haut cuisine in Italy.