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As we arrive at Ristorante Ambasciata there is a receiving line of waiters in white jackets outside to greet us. It's an appropriate introduction to a restaurant that is, after all, called The Embassy. Located in the hamlet of Quistello, in a rambling, lavishly decorated old house, it also seems an incongruously grand gesture in this one-horse town, a 30-minute drive on back roads from Mantova, in the heart of Lombardy. But it's well worth the trip to this Michelin two-star to sample the exquisite dishes of chef Romano Tamani (above, with brother Francesco). A Paul Prudhomme-sized man of great warmth and charm, Tamani grew up and still lives in the house that is the restaurant. He learned to cook from his mother and aunts, and with his brother Francesco began Ambasciata as a pizzeria. Since the early '80s, with Francesco as maître d' and sommelier, he has been winning awards and recognition preparing the traditional cuisine of Lombardy, one of the few landlocked regions of Italy. The local fare is based on a variety of game and meat, freshwater fish and eel from the Po River, rice, polenta, and sweet-and-sour accents. The proximity of Emilia-Romagna means Parmigiano-Reggiano, balsamic vinegar, and lots of butter used in the cooking. Tamani brilliantly blends these ingredients in dishes like snails, a typical local specialty, that are delicately stewed and served on a bed of soft polenta with mushrooms and black truffles. Game birds are another Lombardian staple. The wild guinea fowl from Quistello is roasted to tender perfection and served with a spicy mostarda of grape, orange, apple, and pomegranate. For more adventurous diners there's the fagottino of colt, a slice of raw horsemeat bundled with fresh cheese. Don't miss Tamani's sensuous, melt-in-your-mouth filled pastas like the pumpkin-and-goose-liver red tortelli with a red wine sauce. When dessert rolls around, great trays of Lombardian cakes, cookies, and handmade chocolates arrive at the table, and they would more than suffice. But on both visits there I have surrendered to the seductive chocolate "salame," a dense mousse-like confection with a moscato- and marsala-infused zabaglione. It is heavenly. Tamani turns on the charm and chats with his customers until long past the end of the meal. This is one restaurant where the food is as memorable as the man behind the stove. $164. 33 Via M. di Belfiore; 39-0376-619-169; fax 39-0376-618-255.


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