There are two Spanish, two French, two Chinese, two Thai and 26 Italian restaurants in San Miguel de Allende. So Don Day thinks you’d be crazy to ever choose to open another Italian restaurant in San Miguel? Crazy or very, very sure of yourself.
OK, make that 27 Italian restaurants in San Miguel de Allende. Someone did just open another one. And I don’t think these people are crazy. I think these people are very smart.
The newest Italian restaurant in town is based on a proven formula. It’s a copy of a very, very similar restaurant that was opened a couple of years ago in Mexico City. That restaurant is now one of the hottest tickets in the capital and is packed even on weeknights.
The new San Miguel restaurant is called Cent’Anni and not only does it use the same name and follow the formula of its sister restaurant, it follows the centuries old formula of a classic Italian trattoria.
What has impressed Don Day most so far about Cent’Anni is the way it’s run like a corporation and definitely not like a mom and pop operation. Some of the partners come from a parent organization called PROFITS Hospitality Business Solutions and that sure sounds like a company that knows what they’re doing.
To be really good at the restaurant business you’ve got to think short term. You’ve got to believe that, within a month or so of opening, you’ll be making enough not to just pay the operating expenses but to start to recover some of the initial investment. That certainly seems to be Cent’Anni‘s very professional way of thinking.
Interestingly, the building that Cent’Anni occupies in San Miguel was previously occupied by another restaurant that seemed to follow a proven formula. It was called Piola and it’s one of the world’s fastest-growing food franchises already with ten locations in Mexico. Piola opened last year with a similar menu and the same kind of fanfare that Cent’Anni is receiving but within four or five months it was gone. Which seemed very strange after spending millions of pesos on prepping the premises. The news Don Day got from Piola was that they were coming back to San Miguel “in a new location” but many months have now gone by without seeing hide nor hair nor that thin crust pizza that Don Day liked so well.
The building that Piola occupied and Cent’Anni now occupies gives it two big legs up over those other 26 Italian restaurants in San Miguel. The location (and location is even more important for restaurant real estate than it is for residential real estate), on Canal between Zacateros and Hernandez Macias, is about as prime as it gets. The redesign of the restaurant is fresh, bright and modern compared to the somewhat tired, red tablecloth and candle look of some of the been around awhile Italian restaurants in town.
The interior of Cent’Anni, by Mauricio Sanchez-Torres who is part of Talco, a collective of contemporary urban architects based in La Paz, uses a white basket weave motif in the high-ceilinged central portion of the restaurant. In the much more cozy side rooms, kitschy timepieces from the last century accentuate the restaurant’s name.
Cent’Anni means 100 years old in Italian and it’s a phrase that’s often used as a toast to honor the previous 100 years or the next 100 years. So will Cent’Anni live up to its name and last 100 years? Don Day doesn’t think that any restaurant will ever live again for 100 years. Unless it seriously reinvents itself a few times. But Cent’Anni is definitely here to stay for awhile.
The first time Don Day went to Cent’Anni it was with 14 other guys. Now if you want to test the efficiency of a restaurant there isn’t a much bigger curveball you can throw at it. I also asked the restaurant if we could share a lot of items so that we could experience a lot of tastes. Don Day has had some restaurants turn him down flat when he makes that request. Cent’Anni said “of course”.
We started with a dish that’s disappeared from most menus. Something that Harry called “the best single thing I’ve eaten this year in San Miguel”. And something that Don Day loved as well. It was steamed artichoke in a four cheese sauce. I’m not sure why artichokes have been so forgotten. Because they’re certainly worthy of a revival.
The sauce was a wow. And no wonder. Gorgonzola, gruyere, gouda and parmesan. Four of the world’s best cheeses. All together and all at once. Carciofi Ai Quattro Formaggi went instantly to the 60 Scrumptious Things To Eat in San Miguel list that Don Day publishes a couple of times a year. The flesh was a little skimpy on the artichokes but Don Day can imagine what the dish will be like when artichokes are more in season and they’re nice and chubby.
Next up were two different carpaccios. Beef and salmon.
The choice of cut for the beef carpaccio was an unusual one and Don Day chose to be offally polite and not even tell the guys what it was until we were finished. When grass-fed beef heart is aged, it becomes a wonderful cut to serve raw and pair with arugula and parmesan as Cent’Anni did.
There was something special about the salmon carpaccio as well. It’s very difficult to find fresh salmon in any San Miguel restaurant. So it was a great surprise to find it in Cent’Anni. It was fresh and it was full of flavor.
“So far, I’m very impressed”, said Gary.
We were now getting into the real soul of an Italian trattoria. It was pasta time. The menu has most of the choices you would expect. Penne Alla Arrabbiata, Spaghetti Alla Carbonara, Fusilli Ai Quattro Formaggi, Linguine Nero (with shrimp and squid ink), Spaghetti Alla Bolognese and Fettucine Al Pesto are all included.
We sampled the Spaghetti Primavera which came with olive oil, garlic, asparagus, zucchini, eggplant and prosciutto. It was fresh and light and the vegetables worked wonderfully together. We tried the Lasagna with its bolognese sauce, tomato and ricotta and it was as traditional as lasagna could be, proving there are some dishes you just shouldn’t mess with. Cent’Anni uses dried semolina for most of their pasta dishes but the fettuccine and ravioli are fresh and prepared in house.
Now Don Day really likes gnocchi but Don Day rarely orders gnocchi. Because too often Don Day has had gnocchi that seems like it would be much better at getting a fishing line to sink than to get it to float. Cent’Anni‘s gnocchi was about as fluffy as gnocchi can be and was accompanied by a simple but effective rose sauce. Don Day thought the next time Don Day’s Wife steals my pillow in the middle of the night, this is where I want to lay my head.
OK. It was time. Prime time. Pizza time. Don Day loves pizza. Don Day schedules pizza for once a week, every week of his life. And the pizza that Don Day tries to schedule most in his life is wood-fired thin crust pizza.
When Don Day arrived back in San Miguel this winter and there was no wood-fired thin crust pizza to be found anywhere in town there was one very sad puppy in San Miguel. Until Don Day went to the roof of Cent’Anni and saw it. That dome shaped mound of brick and clay with a warm glow coming from a semi-circular hole. Yes, there was a wood oven in San Miguel de Allende again. You talk about a kid in a candy store. You should see a senior in a pizza kitchen.
Like the pastas, the pizzas at Cent’Anni are very traditional with their toppings.
There’s, of course, the Margherita, the thin crust pizza topped with only tomato, mozzarella and basil that is the gold standard of Neopolitan style pizzas and, in official pizza competitions, often the only one allowed to compete. Plus there are ten or so other combinations with toppings like mushrooms, arugula, pepperoni, onions, Italian sausage, gorgonzola, caramelized onions and prosciutto.
At that first lunch, the one with the 14 other guys, we started with an unusual choice but it was a choice that Gustavo Aguilar, Cent’Anni‘s manager heartily recommended. Patate y Rosmarino, with just potatoes and rosemary puts a starch on a starch which some people, including Don Day’s Wife, would say is “just not done”. Don Day was very happy it was done. The thin sliced potatoes had wonderfully crusty edges. I’m not sure exactly what else to say other than to say this pizza worked.
The second pizza we sampled was Cent’Anni‘s feature pie, appropriately called Cent’Anni. It includes goat cheese, caramelized onions, sundried tomatoes and pepperoni. The topping is what you’d expect more on a traditional, thicker crust pizza but Don Day would like it through thick and thin.
Now Don Day has shared his thoughts and theories on what he calls “thin crust pizzas” versus what he calls “pizzas with thin crusts” but if you want to you check out what’s been said before, check here: http://dondayinsma.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/heres-the-skinny-on-thin-crusts-at-pizza-pig/
The verdict on the thin crust pizzas at Cent’Anni? The best in town. And, even if there was some competition, they’d definitely hold their own.
There was still a finale to the guys’ lunch. Dessert. And the restaurant decided to showcase two Italian classics, tiramisu and pannacotta. It was a fitting completion to a feast that didn’t just showcase but showed off a classic but still innovative menu. Don Day likes the way the restaurant doesn’t stray too far off course trying to reinvent proven pasta and pizza combinations. Don Day likes the fact that the word fusion would never be spoken in Cent’Anni.
Before we left, we went up to see another part of the restaurant. The terrace. It’s only open from late afternoon except for Saturday and Sunday but, even if you’re only there for a midweek lunch, try to sneak a peek. And then plan to come back after dark. When the domes of Belles Artes and El Templo de Immaculada Concepcion de las Monjas are lit, the view rivals that of the rooftop at The Rosewood.
So is Cent’Anni now the best Italian restaurant in San Miguel? No, I wouldn’t say that. But I would say it has the potential to be. First, though, they may have to work on a few problems.
Each meal at Cent’Anni begins with complimentary squares of bread squares that use whole wheat flour and are done in the wood-fired oven. Don Day would describe the bread as somewhere between ciabatta and focaccia. The squares are accompanied by a pomodoro with chunky tomatoes. The parts though are better than the whole.
As it’s almost impossible to balance the tomatoes on the bread without also bouncing a few chunks on your lap. Don Day would prefer it if the tomato was baked on the crust similar to a bruschetta, even if it meant paying for it.
A quote taken directly from Cent’Anni is “El vino es una pieza importante de nuestro lugar.” And Cent’Anni definitely puts a little more emphasis on wine than most of its competition. It’s a short but creative list but, already, there are a few too many out-of-stock items and, as Don Day hates having to select a wine a second time, particularly when it requires going up the price ladder, the restaurant needs a way to keep the list much more current.
And then there’s the service. The staff, many of which were brought up from Mexico City, seem very experienced, very sophisticated, very knowledgeable, very hardworking but, so far, there isn’t that flow, that well-oiled machine that turns average service into good service. Sometimes it almost seems like there are too many people. There are definitely too many people asking, “Is everything all right?” It seems that the servers’ roles aren’t well defined. You’re not sure who to ask or who you’ve already asked for something. And sitting for almost half an hour before you even see a menu, while there are four or five people in view who seem to be trying to look busy just isn’t acceptable.
Don Day’s Wife described the service at Cent’Anni much better than Don Day when she said, “They’re like a colony of ants scurrying around in search of their anthill.”
So will Don Day be back to Cent’Anni. He already has been. And he will be again this week. And as long as there’s thin crust pizza there, he probably will be every week until he heads back to Canada.
There’s an excellent balance between classy and casual at Cent’Anni. It’s a place you can plan a special event at or it’s a place you could just stop in for a bite. At an average of 140 pesos for a pasta and the same for a pizza, you can have a reasonably inexpensive meal. Or you add some appetizers, a main and a bottle of wine and quickly turn it into a 1400 peso meal. The nice part is the choice of yours. And there aren’t too many places as nice as the roof of Cent’Anni to make that decision
Don Day will leave you with one thought. Happiness isn’t a warm puppy on your lap. It’s a warm pizza box. Now if only there was some way we could talk Cent’Anni into delivery.
Cent’Anni is located at Canal 34 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open every day from 1:00 pm to 2:00 am, except Sunday when it closes at 11:00 pm. The terrace opens at 4:00 pm, Monday to Friday, and at 1;00 pm on Saturday and Sunday.