Caffé Toscanini

Lindengracht 75

1015 KD Amsterdam



The Food:


Buffalo mozzarella with seasonal vegetables

Octopus with chickpeas, sweet peppers, chickpea puree and friggitello

Sea urchin linguini

Gnocchi with mortadella and chicken

Forest fruit jam tart and pannacotta al caramello

The Wine:

2017 Antoniolo Gattinara Riserva   93

I could never understand the role of a music conductor. All musicians need to do is read the time signature. As the all-important third clarinetist in Westcliff High School for Boys’ orchestra, I don’t think I looked at our baton-wielding music teacher once. I just stared at the score, hoping to play the right notes in the right order. Our beleaguered maestro grew ever more irate as every single player, from piccolo to timpani, ignored his increasingly furious waving, face turning the color of beetroot, until finally, he exploded.

“Look at the baton!” he yelled. “What do you think I am waving it for?”

Well, I couldn’t answer that question because, frankly, I had no idea. He mopped his perspiring brow, tapped the lectern, and once more, we started mauling the 1812 Overture until Tchaikovsky could take no more, exhumed himself from the grave, marched into the school hall, and exhorted us to just stop. It usually took a few bars before our exasperated conductor was being ignored, and sections of the orchestra slipped into their unique tempo, from larghissimo to vivacissimo. It was mean of us, really. This schoolboy experience instilled disregard for the profession. I had more respect for bus conductors. But recently, that all changed. Watching the film Maestro on Netflix, I was transfixed by its central scene, the spinetingling re-enactment of Leonard Bernstein conducting the LSO at Ely Cathedral in 1973, a bravura performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. How ironic that it took an actor, namely Bradley Cooper, to finally make me appreciate the artistry of making funny faces and odd arm movements while gracefully swishing a wand.

The Toscanini façade

Perhaps it was fate that, a couple of days later in Amsterdam, I was being guided to a table at a restaurant named after another maestro, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. It was obviously “conductor week”. And if music is the food of love, then eat on because Toscanini was an absolute delight from the moment we stepped inside until we bade farewell. Caffé Toscanini, to give its slightly misleading full name because, by all appearances, it is not a café but rather an institution that has served Florentine cuisine since 1985. In 1999, it was bought by Leonardo Pacenti, South African-born with an Italian father and a delicatessen was added next door.

The Toscanini kitchen

Caffé Toscanini is a relatively large restaurant for Amsterdam; even so, it was packed to the rafters on a Friday night. Indeed, its popularity is such that reservations must be made weeks in advance. I had to pull a couple of strings to secure a table. Its popularity doesn’t stem from glittering awards or celebrity chefs. People just want to be here. I cannot think of a restaurant that exuded such an infectious, palpable, welcoming ambiance upon entering, as if two invisible arms reached out and gave me a hug. If Toscanini could bottle its atmosphere and sell it to other restaurants, it would make a fortune. Everyone seemed elated to be here: couples, families and small groups, hipsters to pensioners, hipster pensioners, gourmands to casual diners, all out to have a good time and eat handsomely. Seated at the rear next to the open kitchen, I was afforded a bird’s eye view as chefs busied themselves at worktops and stoves, all with smiles on faces, focused on their tasks, yet lending to the party atmosphere.

Pacenti himself came out and greeted us. Advising that we had already eaten earlier that day at Zoldering, he took out requests and organized a bespoke lighter dinner, mainly from that day’s specials.


We commenced with a plate of oysters that were fresh and tangy, benefitting from the mignonette that lent sharpness without overpowering the bivalve. Delicious.  

Buffalo mozzarella with seasonal vegetables

The first dish was a medley of vegetables and buffalo mozzarella that Pacenti advised to mash together, comprising deep-fried artichoke, aubergine, broccoli, carrot, pumpkin and chicory leaves. The vegetables were fresh and perfectly cooked, the sweetness and freshness of the mozzarella imparting a delicate sweetness and enhancing the umami sensation.  

Octopus with chickpeas, sweet peppers, chickpea puree and friggitello

Next, octopus with chickpeas and sweet peppers served with a chickpea purée and friggitello or sweet Italian peppers. This was a winning combination. The octopus was perfectly cooked and packed with flavor, the friggitello soft and sweet. The chickpea purée worked as a neutral canvas, though I wondered whether a different purée, something more citric, might have enhanced our eight-legged friend, especially as this dish was already adorned with fried chickpeas that had a lovely crunch.

Sea urchin linguini

We downsized main courses as pasta can fill you up and leave you waddling out of the restaurant. The sea urchin linguini is delicious. The homemade pasta had a perfect al dente consistency, perhaps a little hard for some, but just how I like it. The sea urchin was fine, though having eaten some incredible ‘uni’ in Japan, I was just looking for a bit more salinity and texture. The accompanying gnocchi dish with mortadella and chicken was an absolute treat, beautifully cooked and delicately seasoned.

Gnocchi with mortadella and chicken

To finish, I chose the forest fruit jam tart. This had an impressive depth of flavors that made a nice contrast with the pastry's sweetness; though I could have gobbled it down twice, the single slice was plenty. The pannacotta al caramello was sweet and decadent, perfect wobble, and perhaps I didn’t really need the caramel.

Forest fruit jam tart

One reason that I selected this restaurant is the wine list, which is outstanding. Exclusively focused on Italy, every region is comprehensively catered for, a mixture of marquee names and reams of smaller quality-driven growers. Frankly, it was almost too much trying to choose one, so I whipped out my phone and used an App called “Vinous”. You might have heard of it. It’s quite good. I selected the 2017 Gattinara Riserva from Antoniolo and had to resist gulping down the entire bottle before Primi. The aromatics are clean and delineated, with dark cherries mixed with wild heather and a very light marine influence. Reading Antonio’s note, he found the tannins quite strong. Perhaps they have begun to soften because they provided ample backbone, but I did not find them obtrusive and counterbalanced the intense flavors of our dishes. Red cherries, blueberry and freshly rolled tobacco furnished the finish that had real “bite”, sufficient sapidity to tempt you back for more. It was the first time that I had drunk a wine from this producer, and hopefully, it will not be the last.

Pannacotta al caramello

Toscanini should be high on the list for any Italian epicures or oenophiles. The lively atmosphere is worth the entry price alone. Speaking to Pacenti later, he explained how regulars tend to come on Friday night and how customers are exacting in their demands with respect to seasoning, consistency of pasta and so on. At Toscanini, this is no problem. It is all part of the service. Factor a wine list that is so chock full of gems that I considered putting in a request to swap Bordeaux for Italy (only joking). Then you understand why this restaurant has been part of Amsterdam’s dining scene for almost four decades.

Finally, I would like to sincerely apologize to my music teacher. It’s too late now. I ought to have paid attention, followed his lead and kept time instead of wandering off at my own speed like a toddler with a short attention span, eager to finish the 1812 before everyone else, unlike this restaurant, where I would have loved to have stayed longer.

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