This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
If you like good food – by which I mean incomparably luxurious food and not just the nice souvlaki from the van near your flat – then three-Michelin-star restaurants are the holy grail. These are the places designed to provide the best meal of your life. They specialise in visionary cuisine, service that makes you feel like a duke and small yet incredible details you wouldn’t find anywhere else (I’m thinking of La Pergola in Rome, where regular customers are given personalised napkins with their initials embroidered).
For the last six decades, 79-year-old Italian writer Maurizio Campiverdi has toured almost every three-Michelin-star restaurant in the world, and his new book, Tre Stelle Michelin (“Three Michelin Stars”), is an eye-opening tour of the elite dining world. The book – the latest iteration of a series he has been publishing since the 1980s – is like an encyclopaedia, containing anecdotes, factsheets, reflections and trivia about these near mythological eateries, from when they first appeared in 1933, up until today.
“I wanted to summarise 60 years of gastronomic travel,” says Campiverdi.
Campiverdi (who sometimes calls himself Maurice Von Greenfields) is an eccentric man: pleasantly snobbish, passionate about eating and capable of dropping comments like, “If I happen to be in Modena and I make a call to Massimo Bottura, he will give me a table.”
His passion for Michelin-starred restaurants started when he was only 12-years-old. “That was when my father took me for the first time to La Pyramide in Vienne, near Lyon,” he says. But, as he shows in the book, the history of Michelin star ratings goes back even further.
The Michelin Guide was created in France in 1889 by the Michelin brothers, two rubber factory owners famous for their tyres. Their idea was to make a handbook for the very few car owners in France at the time. Cars had been recently introduced to the mass market, and the Michelin brothers’ guide gave new owners a reason to get out on the roads and wear out their tyres. It rated places for refreshment and accommodation, with stars awarded to restaurants and red houses awarded to hotels.
“When I first started this hobby,” Campiverdi says, “there were only 23 three-starred restaurants. Today, there are many more. But these days, I am rarely amazed by a dish. Almost everything has been seen now. However, I recently ate a risotto by Enrico Bartolini at Mudec that moved me.”
The Michelin Guide is famous for its mysterious anonymity. The inspectors are unknown, even to each other, and the criteria they use to judge is secretive. But some things are constant. The guide retains a preference for French restaurants and French-style cuisine, and there are differences in the criteria applied to establishments in the west and the east. In Europe, you would never see a family cafe or pizza joint receive a Michelin star rating, but in much of Asia, considerable recognition is given to street food.
“Sometimes, Michelin's behaviour cannot be explained. Even after 60 years, certain things remain obscure to me,” Campiverdi says. "In my opinion, there should be more two-star and less three-star restaurants. I’m afraid not all of them are worth it."
In Tre Stelle Michelin, he claims that a huge rise in price over recent years has led to a certain loss of charm for many of the Michelin-rated restaurants. Quite simply, most of us cannot afford to drop 400 euros on dinner, no matter how much it “moves” us.
"I don't like how this new role of 'celebrity chefs' clogs reservation systems, not allowing mere mortals to eat there,” says Campiverdi. His book gives credit to the recent creation of a Michelin “green star”, which rewards restaurants that make sustainable cuisine, and seems to show the organisation’s desire to stay relevant.
Despite all the elegance, Campiverdi says that he has been witness to a number of memorable faux pas over the years. In the late 1960s, after a meal at Michel Guérard’s pioneering nouvelle cuisine restaurant, the chef came out and offered Campiverdi’s table four glasses of calvados brandy, each aged 40, 60, 80 and 100 years respectively. “The next morning, we discovered they’d charged us for them!” roars Campiverdi. Liqueurs, he tells me, are meant to be offered at the end of a meal, “no charge.” They were offered a refund, but this wasn’t enough for him.
“That's not the way you pay for an insult,” he says. “So, we told him we were going to take a bottle each from the cellar. I came home with a cognac from 1907, loved by King Edward VII."
Across 700 pages, Tre Stelle Michelin moves from ecstatic gastronomy to charming rants about how apples are the future of food. In each chapter, I found myself wanting to follow Campiverdi to his next adventure. “I’ve still got three left to visit in Europe,” he tells me. “As soon as we can travel again, I will go to Enoteca Pinchiorri [a historic restaurant in Florence].”
By the end of our chat, I can’t help but hope that one day, perhaps when I’m 79 years old, I will be able to pick up the phone and say, "Hey, Massimo, I’m in Modena, can you keep me a table?”