“Okay, you don’t like,” he says matter-of-factly and proceeds to down the glass of orange wine he’s just poured me in one massive gulp. How very Italian. He then, in his charming accent, declares: “but I do love you anyway,” and proceeds to bear hug me.
It is clear to me at this point that things have spiraled completely out of control in the most wonderful of ways. “Guy in the Caviar shirt,” he walks off proclaiming in reference to the pattern on my shirt, “I like him! Neve, I’m going to get you some more to drink!” – “Nooo,” squeals the beautiful lady sitting across from me.
Imagine the scene if you will… I’m meeting with my new “Partner in Dine” Neve, a major Copenhagen-based foodie, at Barabba, Copenhagen’s perhaps most unique Italian restaurant. Neve is a total girl-boss, a major foodie and one of life’s rare, perfect little coincidences. One of those people with whom you just instantly click on subjects like food, traveling and expressing yourself, and one of those people who are just starting a food blog of her own: “Come to Copenhagen,” she said one day, “I’ll show you some of my favorite haunts and things you’ve never seen before.”
And here we are, mere weeks later, at one of her favorite haunts, about to pen our first joint review – with delectable madness escalating around us – and I’m absolutely sure she’s about to show me things I’ve never seen before.
We have asked for the Attitude menu, or Attitudine, as they call it here – the largest of two tasting menus offered… And to the tune of Blondie, Billy Idol and other pop punk classics blaring from the speakers along pans banging in the steaming, hectic open kitchen beside us while plate after plate and glass after glass hits the table, by God, attitude is exactly what we’re getting from the hands of restaurant manager Ricardo and his crew of chefs and culinary magicians.
Attitudine – Dinner with attitude
If we are to take a few steps back for a minute from the hustle and bustle that is my new friend, the restaurant manager, and take things from the beginning, things didn’t exactly start out this over the top. Things, in fact, start out rather quietly and nicely with a selection of snacks showcasing familiar Italian flavor combinations in not quite so familiar appearances: Subtly sweet and brightly tasting lightly pickled cucumber with a lactic tang of dried yogurt, watermelon vacuum-marinated in Campari for a seriously bitter but surprisingly refreshing punch and, best of all, a bright green, herbal and floral basil sorbet served with tomatoes and olive oil.
Thus, subtly, slowly and beautifully begins the Attitudine menu that we have been coaxed by the kitchen into ordering. Attitudine offers a 12 serving trip through the best the kitchen has to offer at a mind-bogglingly reasonable DKK 600 (EUR 80) price tag. A smaller 7 course menu or a reasonable a la carte selection is also available. For us, though, go big or go home seems the only way, as we continue our way along the attitude menu.
Matteo: A master of bread
And this is exactly where things start to seriously take a descent into attitude and sheer madness in the shape of the very simplest thing on a restaurant menu, bread.
“Matteo is like some kind of magical bread wizard,” proclaims Neve ecstatically as in comes three perfect examples of bread sorcery: light, fluffy, slightly damp and perfectly crusted sourdough, crispy whole wheat flatbread with wild fennel and a perfect focaccia loaf featuring sweet dried tomatoes and tangy capers all served with nothing but a small bowl of the best olive oil to distract from the craftmanship.
With these three perfect, little displays, Matteo Bartolini shows that bread is by no means the simplest thing on the menu. Au contraire, it is perhaps the most complicated. The seemingly simple combination of water, yeast, salt and flour suddenly seems less simple when you understand that you also have to factor things like temperature and humidity of the surroundings into the equation along with air pressure and a host of other things. It’s a lot of fucking work and if you’re aiming to get really good at it, you’re going to make some of the life choices that Matteo makes – like coming in on your Sundays off to appreciate, study and test bread. Not all things in life come easily, but what this magical wizard of bread is doing is marvelous. Michelin-level marvelous. And it demands respect.
Italian/Asian fusion – Why not?
As bread gives way to more wine and more dishes, it dawns on me that there are certain things you do not realize until you visit the culinary juxtaposition that is Barabba. Such as the fact that Italian/Asian fusion is apparently a thing. Or at least on our version of the ever-changing and undogmatic tasting menu, it is.
A combinaton of Southern European and East Asian flavors is something we would have certainly never even considered. Not until a silky smooth and rich tartare of seared tuna belly hits the table – topped with a lightly cured, still creamy egg yolk, nested in a refreshing green tomato broth with julienne of raw, crisp daikon on top to break the richness. And still, at this place in time, it still seems so natural, so reasonable that you don’t really stop to think that something is off. Not even as tuna belly gives way to perfectly grilled, tender octopus served with bitter radicchio leaves and a serious punch of Kimchi, that wonderfully spicy Korean mix of fermented cabbage, vegetables and fiery chili. It once again seems so natural until your mind picks up on the supposedly conflicting elements and your brain implodes.
It’s all very Italian and then again it’s really not, but it’s certainly amusing, bemusing and wonderful, and it showcases quite well what the kitchen at this wonderful place wants to achieve and the way in which they want to achieve it. There’s an aura of playfulness and fuck-off attitude to Italian cooking, just as there is to the playlist and the informal and mildly bemusing service where food is served with an aura of respect, yet also usually with a tongue-in-cheek comment or a joke to match.
Barabba: The Bandit Crew
In case you were wondering, now is probably a good time to inform you: The term Barabba derives from the ancient Aramaic name for Barabbas, the prisoner whom Pontius Pilate chose to be freed while keeping Jesus a prisoner in events that eventually led to his crucifixion. The term has since taken on the meaning of outcast, bandit or naughty person in several languages around the world and is – according to charismatic rock star restaurant manager, Ricardo, a term that fits the place quite well… And observing the cacophony of noise from the kitchen, loud music, undogmatic rock ‘n’ roll servings and tongue-in-cheek service unfolding around us, you can but agree: These are indeed the bandits of the Copenhagen dining scene, but what a wonderful bunch of naughty bandit they are!
Commandeered, of course, by head bandit, Ricardo. A master of reading people, the buzzcut and heavily tattooed restaurant manager gives average paying diners the space and the time they need, while focusing his entire, loveable, louder than loud ADHD-fueled being on those who can take it. In our case, we have the pleasure of experiencing Ricardo constantly filling glasses (whether we want him to or not), checking up, asking questions, cracking jokes and being borderline over the top yet still very professional, dedicated and focused on service while sending ripples of laughter across our table. It’s the sort of jovial assault that the party have to be in the mood for, but if you are, it will probably be amongst the most memorable, alternative service experiences of your life. A bandit, indeed, but what a guy!
Housemade Pasta perfection
Here’s the thing about Barabba, though. Despite the lovable madness unfolding around us at the hands of the restaurant manager and his motley crew, despite the playful nature of the menu, it is still very much an Italian establishment at heart. And that means sticking to at least some traditions. At Barabba this means that however playful the content, the menu is still built up in true Italian fashion: Aperitivio, Antipasti, Primi, Pasta, Secondi, Dolce. Some things you apparently don’t mess with.
We had already tumbled our way through an aperitif, a starter, a first course and now – ahead of the main course – it was time for the pride and joy of any Italian kitchen: house made pasta! Fittingly so, this is exactly where things turned from fun and games to completely and utterly upscale Italian.
Our next serving features perfectly cooked, cold tagliolini pasta topped with little briny umami bombs of raw, red mazara prawns – a particular delicious species of prawns found only in the waters near South-west Sicily, known for their deep red color and exquisite taste. Served with emulsions of tomato and basil on the side, it easily presents the most attractive serving of the night and perhaps the most flavorful, too, with the perfectly cooked cold pasta acting as a neutral, smooth, textural backdrop to the intensely sweet, deeply seafoody and incredibly rare treat that is raw mazara prawns.
And then, an over the top spin on Italian simplicity. A three-ingredient masterpiece, a sheerly provocative and nearly vulgar display of power and attitude in the shape of spaghetti drenched in butter and topped with quite a generous amount of Caviar: rich, creamy, buttery, briny, oceany. So simple yet so refrined and an absolute decadent foodgasm to eat.
Finally, more spaghetti, served in a rich umami-laced sauce and topped with homemade goat’s milk ricotta. “Is this another Asian influence, I’m tasting,” I ventured… – “There’s hoisin in there, right,” Neve chimes in… “What,” says Ricardo as he walks by, “it’s courgette! We char courgettes and then reduce them to a jus… What’s wrong with you people?”
Not quite ready to share our diagnoses with the world, we will stick to admitting that the superb intensity created by reducing charred courgette apparently creates a bit of a flavor bomb akin in flavor to many natural flavor enhancers such as soy sauce or hoisin with a hint of a charred note on the back palate that leaves us absolutely divided in the first disagreement of our short, but sweet, professional career – she was a fan, he wasn’t quite – but the thought and the dish itself? Fantastic!
Barabba: When food becomes sin
What could possibly be done to top perfectly plated, perfectly presented, perfectly cooked pasta dishes as a main course? Well, how about a veritable carnival of sins? For our main course of the evening, we are treated to a bizarrely captivating display of grilled pigeon served rare, almost bloody, to enhance the game flavors, placed on a bed of sautéed cardonchelli mushrooms, brocollini and red berries surrounded by a blood-red sauce splattered in pools around the plate to finish the morbidly alluring visual.
Tearing into the pigeon requires some amount of force and a bit of chewing, but the reward is that of a deeply satisfying, fully overpowering sensation of game, smoke and fire from the grill, rich meat, a metallic touch of blood and a curious, subtle sweetness. A challenging and acquired taste for sure, trapped in a vulgar, thoughtful and provocatively wonderful presentation. It’s not a dish for everybody, but if you don’t push a few boundaries along the way, how can you continue to provoke and reinvent?
Speaking of provoking, compared to the visuals of our main course, our dessert looks rather innocent: Gelato served on an alcohol-laced biscuit, topped with a caramel sauce. What could really be more innocent and classic Italian? Well, as we should have guessed by now, at the house of sin that is Barabba, nothing is quite what it seems. The gelato, it turns out, is made from koji; Japanese rice fermented using a specific strain of mold. The biscuit base is soaked in sake and the sauce on top turns out to be not caramel but rather a sweetened pure of lentils. It’s nutty concept, nutty in flavor and, knowing the truth behind it, quite nutty in appearance as well…
And that’s about all the thought we could put into it before Ricardo is at it again! “Grappa for everybody,” he exclaims, as he appears at our table carrying a bottle of said famous Italian spirit distilled from left-over bits and pieces from the winemaking process and from there on things are honestly a bit of a blur as he proceeds with his 100 MPH attitude to forcefully pour grappa down our throats, feed us petit fours (mini lemon tarts and passion fruit jelly with habanero), crack jokes and make sure that nothing is missing from our table that has already seen an excess of food and drink.
Eventually, after some three hours, the whirlwind dies down about as abruptly as it hit us. The pace dies down, Ricardo fetches the bill and it is as if the world around us comes back to life as the all-consuming hedonistic and hectic three-hour bubble that was the Attitudine menu bursts and actually allows input from the outside world.
“That was great, but… I really don’t like grappa,” she says looking at me, still with a hint of an undignified look on her face as we get up to leave after paying the bill. – “Honey, nobody does,” I reassure her as we exit into the cool Copenhagen evening air and slowly begin to digest the madness that unfolded before our eyes.
Barabba: The price paradox
Digesting the Barabba experience into a few words, one might well describe the experience as unreasonably well-priced food full of attitude and twang. Food that is unconventional, undogmatic, uncontrollable… But crafted with nothing but love, dedication and a prototypical pinch of Italian temper.
Add to this already potent mix, a whole bunch of high-intensity passionate service with a good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll attitude from restaurant manager Ricardo and his crew plus a slur of reasonably priced artisan wines available by glass and bottle, and you’ve got yourself a bit of a price paradox on your hands. How can something this unique and tantalizing come at such a reasonable price? A full 12 serving tasting menu at this Bib Gourmand house of sins will set you back a mere 600 DKK (EUR 80) while the seven serving version or the a la carte options are even cheaper. And we’re talking everything from bread over pasta to ricotta cheese made in house from scratch, mind you. It’s unfathomable, and it’s amongst those things in life that are not for us foodies to understand, but for us to appreciate.
Barabba, in the eyes of these reviewers, provide one of the best contemporary Italian dining experiences in Copenhagen, and if not the best in their class, they do offer the perhaps most unique, fun, and unconventional contemporary Italian dining experience in Copenhagen.