L'Enoteca Pinchiorri, Florence, Italy

In the heart of one of Italy's great cities, L'Enoteca Pinchiorri is perhaps the ultimate special-occasion restaurant, that rare combination of cuisine, service and style that transforms the taking of nourishment into an event. Go with people whose company you enjoy, eat lightly the day you will dine there and bring plenty of lire; this is not a place for anyone short on time, appetite or money.

Housed in a vintage building on an ancient Florentine side street, the restaurant's decor is traditional and spare, with high ceilings and cream-colored walls. One's eye is immediately drawn to an impressive array of silver service pieces polished to brilliance, including duck presses, carving stands and oversized Champagne buckets. An immense painting of a nude woman, seated on a bed, watches over half the restaurant. Judging by her silhouette, though, she appears not to have been a frequent patron. As you take your chair, the waiter may present, unsolicited, a bottle of crisp Italian white wine for your approval, a civilized gesture that makes prolonged deliberation over the menu far less onerous.

There are three ways to order your meal at L'Enoteca Pinchiorri: choose items à la carte or opt for one of two degustation (tasting) menus. The Tuscan tasting menu features eight or nine regional specialties, while the menu del giorno, or menu of the day (also called the creative menu), is built around the best seasonal foodstuffs. Nearly all patrons order one of the two tasting menus, according to a waiter, and it is easy to see why: even at 150,000 lire (about $89), the special menus are more interesting and offer better value than the à la carte offerings.

L'Enoteca Pinchiorri recently received its third star from the Michelin Guide, and the accolade is well deserved. Last fall, the Tuscan menu included a fish course of three finger-sized fillets of triglia, or red mullet, the crispy skin melted in the mouth, strewn with deep-fried basil leaves and fragrant morsels of tomato. One offering from the menu del giorno was shrimp served on wide pasta noodles made with chestnut flour; the rich, nutty flavor of the pasta was superb. Another selection was duck foie gras sautéed with caramelized apples; in a feat of timing, both the foie gras and the apples were sautéed crispy on the outside and meltingly liquid on the inside. Fork-tender venison was one main course, paired with a Tuscan castagnaccio, a thin, savory cake made with chestnut flour, containing pine nuts and sultanas.

My sole criticism regards the chef's heavy hand with salt. I love salt myself, but found its flavor overdone in virtually every course. Even the foie gras arrived topped with a visible (and unnecessary) grind of the stuff.

How to match wines to such a succession of delights? Giorgio Pinchiorri, famed for his 60,000-bottle wine cellar, has anticipated your consternation and offers several hand-picked wine selections, permitting a couple or a single diner to enjoy appropriate wines with each course. One wine menu features a toasty, mature Meursault Charmes '83 from Guy Roulot, a choice of Chambertin Clos de Beze '87, Griotte-Chambertin '87 or Bonnes Mares '85, a choice of Barbaresco Bricco Asili '88, Flaccianello della Pieve '88 or Barolo Boschis '85, and for dessert, Coteaux du Layon '90 or Moscato Passito '89, for 80,000 lire per person (about $46). In a display of astonishing largesse, the wines are poured liberally throughout the meal, and new bottles are opened freely with no apparent glance at the bottom line.

If you are sated by the succession of courses and decline the three desserts, a silver salver of petits fours, including marble-sized, feather-light cream puffs dipped in caramel, sesame-seed butter cookies and miniature biscotti, will appear magically on your table. Somehow I made room for several of the tiny treats.

L'Enoteca Pinchiorri does not permit cigar smoking in the dining room, and, after sitting several hours through eight or nine courses, you probably will be glad about this policy. Stretch your legs and repair to a small, private bar room toward the rear of the restaurant, where your cigar will be welcomed. There, you may select a cigar from the humidor and a digestif from the restaurant's collection, which includes rare grappas, eaux-de-vie, Cognacs, Armagnacs and single malt Scotches (many bottled for the restaurant). Loosen your belt and fill several oversized, cut-glass ashtrays in peace with your favorite cigar.

-- Jean T. Barrett is a Los Angeles-based writer on wine, spirits, food and travel.

L'Enoteca Pinchiorri
Via Ghibellina, 87
(39) 55-242777
Lunch: à la carte, $65 to $85, without wine; prix fixe, $47, without wine
Dinner: à la carte, $85 to $105, without wine; prix fixe, $100, without wine