PARIS - Despite a universal love affair with Italian cuisine, the very gastronomic Paris remains a wasteland for authentic pastas, breads, risottos and traditional Italian grilled fare. Leave it to Alain Ducasse, Michelin's new six-star chef and lover of all things Mediterranean, to bail us out here.
As consultant to the newly anointed one-star Il Cortile (in the Hotel Castille on Rue Cambon), Ducasse has come up with a winning formula. With the French chef Nicholas Vernier at the stove, the two are mixing up some very delicious ''I'll come back for more'' Italian fare.
The good news is that they stay clear of those boring 10 greatest hits of Italian cuisine. Rather, the menu is based on inventive, fresh and seasonal fare. Every few months the menu changes and showcases a seasonal ingredient - artichokes, broccoli and scallops were some of the most recent.
My only regret is that the breads are so delicious you are likely to fill up on them, leaving room for little else. Seconds after you are seated in the tastefully decorated dining room, you are showered with a selection of hot-from-the-oven delights such as an oil-brushed rosemary flat bread, crisp and crunchy; nicely risen little squares of focaccia, and firm, fresh grissini wrapped in prosciutto.
first bites Each menu includes an antipasto platter, at least eight little bites that might include a deeply salty pissaladiere; paper-thin slices of raw fennel bathed in a tonnato sauce; sardines marinated with citrus and capers, or a Swiss chard tourte.
Pasta and rice selections might include an unusual risotto flavored with a trio of tomato flavors - slow-roasted, pan-fried and fresh-chopped; a ravioli filled with ricotta, sage and ham, or a classic fettuccine with pistou and aged Parmigiano Reggiano.
On one visit, the main course swordfish arrived perfectly, evenly cooked and so moist, with a glossy, stock-based sauce so shiny you could almost see your reflection, a sign of true professionalism. Here, vegetables are treated with equal respect as fish and meat, and the swordfish that day was paired with artichokes, potatoes, mushrooms, apple and onion, all tasting solely of themselves.
Equally triumphant is the evenly, perfectly grilled guinea hen, roasted on a spit and accompanied by full-flavored caillettes of guinea hen liver and gizzard and heart, wrapped in caul fat and pan-fried. The accompanying polenta was a model of its genre, steaming, flavorful, smooth and rich.
But on one evening, the open ravioli of artichokes and shrimp proved just too dry and without character; and the rabbit with gnocchi was less than astonishing, the rabbit being just a bit too tough to enjoy.
Service is impeccable, friendly and discreet and the wine list a joy. I adore the lightly chilled, easy-drinking Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a distinctive, highly flavored wine from the village north of Siena, priced at 140 francs ($23.50) a bottle.
In the summertime, Il Cortile has one of the city's loveliest outdoor gardens for open-air dining. But don't wait until temperatures soar to give the spot a try.
Il Cortile, (Hotel Castille), 37 Rue Cambon, Paris 1; tel: 01-44-58-45-67; fax: 01-40-15-97-64. Closed Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards. A la carte, 250 to 300 francs per person, including service but not wine.