Langosteria, and the making of a cult restaurant
It may surprise some to learn that the hottest restaurant in Paris right now is not a temple of French cuisine overseen by a Michelin-starred chef but an Italian seafood restaurant without a big-name chef in the kitchen, run by an Italian entrepreneur who used to sell hair products. In September, Langosteria opened at the new Cheval Blanc hotel on the Seine. The hotel owned by LVMH Chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault is home to three other restaurants, but Langosteria is the place to be. It’s almost impossible to get a table with hundreds joining the waiting list every day. “The success is incredible,” confirms Langosteria’s owner Enrico Buonocore, a salesman-turned-restaurateur who admits to being a little surprised by the response to his first restaurant outside Italy.
It was the Cheval Blanc management that approached Buonocore about opening in the hotel. Arnault and his son both knew Langosteria and had dined at the branch in Paraggi near Portofino. “Mr Arnault understood the power of my brand before me,” says Buonocore. The brand is Italian cuisine. But not the “joke” simulacrum of trattoria cooking known around the world, which Buonocore scoffs at. Signature dishes include Assassina-style baby squid, tuna carpaccio with smoked aubergine, candied tomatoes and basil, and king crab à la Catalan. Langosteria represents “new Italian style”, he says, from the food to the ambience and even the staffing model. Every dish is conceived by Enrico with his team of executive chefs drawn from fine-dining kitchens across Italy and beyond. In a country where restaurants have traditionally been family run, Buonocore prides himself on a corporate structure that means the restaurants can scale up without losing their heart or quality of service. He hopes to expand internationally, perhaps to London, New York or Los Angeles.
His latest venture is Langosteria Cucina, next door to the original Langosteria on Via Savona in Milan’s design district. That first (dinner-only) restaurant debuted in 2007 and was followed in 2012 by Langosteria Bistrot, which serves lunch and dinner on nearby via Privata Bobbio. The Langosteria Café launched in central Milan in 2016 and the beachside Langosteria Paraggi opened in 2017. Langosteria Cucina is a departure from the previous restaurants in that you can’t order à la carte. You are served a tasting menu, though Buonocore refuses to call it that because it sounds too much like Michelin-star dining, and the idea is to offer the best from any given day. Cucina is meant to recreate the vibe of dining in someone’s home. Dishes are largely to share and (dietary restrictions aside) you eat what the host serves. This includes dishes like salt-cod tripe with polenta, which Buonocore says no Langosteria regular would ever order (“tripe!”) but is so comfortingly delicious that it’s bound to win them round.
When Buonocore and I sat down for a pre-opening 10-course lunch in November, everything tasted fantastic. When he wasn’t suggesting minor adjustments to the chef, he was clapping or hooting his approval like a football fan. “Mamma mia!” was a frequent refrain. As a brand, Langosteria’s success is premised on its quality seafood. My meal ranged from deliciously slippery raw Mantis shrimp to vibrant oysters ceviche to seductive grilled tuna belly. Buonocore not only sources the best fish but makes sure no dish is ever boring. This means adding vegetables (the pairing of tuna belly with rapino broccoli was a revelation) and incorporating sauce (what Italians call “puccia”) to mop up with bread.
Alongside the food, the brand surely owes its success to Buonocore’s eye for detail. At every venue, the space between tables is kept to a minimum because he likes his waiters “to dance” around the customers (a tango, judging by his demonstration). It adds energy. The height of the tables is lower than elsewhere, because he believes it frames the guests better. In addition, his iPad allows him to remotely control every light in every venue. “When the restaurant in Paris was under construction,” he says, “I spent a lot of my time creating this vision with lighting. When we opened, all the people said the lighting in Langosteria was incredible.” It’s theatre. But it’s also about looking at your companion across the table and finding them beautiful. “After dinner at Langosteria, you want to make love,” he reasons. “It’s important.”
Ajesh Patalay travelled as a guest of Langosteria