Often some of the best meals you have when travelling are in places you just 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 establishment is Cal Pep in Barcelona, a restaurant that has inspired many chefs and restaurateurs, including Barrafina’s Sam and Eddie Hart. 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. 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.
The space is transformed by night, no longer the clinical coldness of a white-tilled fish market, but a warm, atmospherically lit restaurant with hanging boards to create the feeling of a lower ceiling and cosiness. Colour comes from the blue along the restaurant’s back wall, along with up-scaled flower planters used to create the boundaries within the area, and the multi-coloured metal folding tables and chairs. Don’t worry – the seating is actually very comfortable and it all works in the space, and though the tables are close, you never feel other diners are on top of you.
Arriving at BANCO 32, we weren’t expecting anything more than a 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 too, 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 about twenty-one dishes and three desserts, all priced at either €4, €4.50, or €5.
If you’re going for a pre dinner drink and a light bite – that is, for an aperativo, as is traditional before the events of the evening in Italy – then you need only order four dishes between 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, ordering more as needed. Thankfully this is easy at BANCO 32 as the waiters and waitresses are equipped with iPhones linked straight through to the kitchen. Time from order to table is also quick, helped along by the fact that the kitchen deals with the hot food and the raw food is prepared for all to see at the bar in the restaurant. Not only is this a clever way of cutting times and increasing turnover, it provides something of a show for those at the bar waiting for tables (and from 8pm on there are a lot of them) as the speed at which they work is incredible, and the product sent out faultless.
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. Many enjoy raw fish, but at times it can be hard to differentiate by taste from one dish to another, a side effect of the time and distance they travel from sea to table. This was not a problem here. 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, while the sea bass was perfectly firm. When it comes to raw tuna, any fan of Japanese food, especially sashimi, 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. The tuna and the bonito were so good that we ordered the former once more and the latter twice more (sans pesto) over the course of the evening. We also ordered – some time later to round off the meal – what they called “scampi” with passion fruit sauce (the English translation referred to “Norway Lobster”). In reality this was two langoustines, cut in half lengthways, 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 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 my surprise, the cuttlefish was superbly tender, which is not something one can usually say about it. The two differently dressed swordfish skewers were enjoyed by my fellow dinners, but were not to my taste. The standout cooked dish (which we ordered twice) was the sesame crusted mackerel and celeriac purée. The reality, though, is that, on a warm relaxing evening, the best lightly handled cooked fish for a light bite is fried, so multiple cones of whole fried calamari, prawns and anchovies were ordered and wolfed down.
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, so it can easily have a daily changing menu based on what’s good in the market and going cheap, buying only enough for one service. There’s thus 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 yet 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 enjoyable meals I’ve had in ages – 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. I love them, but 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 starts now.
BANCO 32 Via Ugo bassi 23 (Mercato delle Erbe) Entrance also from via San Gervasio 3/A, 40121 Bologna Phone: 051 269522 www.banco32.it