“When we opened Circo in 1996, our business plan was simple, Dad’s Hospitality, Mom’s Food, run by the sons.” The Maccioni Family
I was very excited by last Friday’s dinner date for a few reasons. Firstly, I love Italian cuisine, secondly I’m always keen to try out new places and lastly the Intercontinental Hotel here in Abu Dhabi holds a dear place in our hearts as it’s where we stayed as a family for the interview process to start this journey back in the summer of 2008. As soon as any of us walk through the revolving door, the distinctive smell triggers good memories and always makes us all feel nostalgic and grateful at the same time.
Located on the lower ground floor adjacent to the marina, is the relatively new and fabulous Circo restaurant. The other half and I were invited for dinner to sample their range of Tuscan fare. Circo, the Italian for Circus, opened at the tail end of last year with a reasonably quiet fanfare making its debut in Abu Dhabi as the first of its kind in the Middle East, part of the Maccioni family empire who have two other branches in New York and at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Founder Sirio Maccioni and his wife Egidiana opened the acclaimed celebrity hangout, Le Cirque French restaurant in the city that never sleeps over forty years ago and now have a total of ten restaurants around the world.
In keeping with the Italian traditional family values, the three Maccioni brothers Mario, Marco, and Mauro now run the restaurant empire with their parents and some of the dishes on Circo’s menu are inspired by the personal recipes and traditional Tuscan cooking of Maccioni matriarch Mamma Egidiana, handed down through the generations. In fact the Maccioni family, including eighty-two year old Grand Master Sirio made the journey to the Middle East to attend the opening party and see their Arabian dream realised.
The main entrance has all the grandeur of an old-style European circus tent, embellished with elephants which is a theme running throughout, a much-loved animal act from the circus of a bygone era. From the entrance, you enter an outdoor bar/patio area that is perfect at this time of year and again decorated with a gigantic metal elephant and carnival scene. Once into the main bar area you are struck by the imaginative and visual primary coloured big top styled decor, from the heavily patterned carpet to the furnishings, mirrors, striped bunting and funky lighting. More brightly painted elephants adorn the bar area as do juggling balls, clubs and studded red circus-themed trunks. A wall of monkey faces stares at you from across the room and a large circular painting of a ringmaster takes pride of place on another wall, you just don’t know where to look!
One thing is certain, this may appear to be a theme restaurant but you need to look past the garish colour scheme because there is absolutely no clowning about when it comes to the food and service, We were warmly greeted by the passionate and enthusiastic restaurant manager Gianluca Maglianella, who along with his staff ensured that our every possible need was swiftly taken care of, from the glass of pre-dinner cold Prosecco at the bar right to the after dinner aperitif, we could not have asked for a better experience at this upscale and sophisticated eatery. Tuscan Gianluca embodies Italian hospitality and is fanatical about the Circo brand, even travelling to New York to learn first-hand from the family and his priority is to ensure his guests have a good time from start to finish so they leave satisfied, will bring their friends and return again and again.
Ringmaster of the kitchen is Executive Chef Luca Banfi who directs his team of chefs from behind a glass fronted kitchen in full view of the diners. Banfi got the executive head chef position in an unusual way after battling with three other chefs for the honour in season three of the Food Network’s ‘Chef Wanted’ show in season three.
We choose a table located inside the main restaurant but near the outdoor seating area so we could enjoy the decor and ambiance inside, while still listening to the Italian singing duo performing outside. Act one was with an Italian bread basket, not too unusual you might think, but this bread was muffin like with olives and served with herb butter or Circo’s own brand extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar.
Next up was the Antipasti course, I choose an old favourite of mine, Mozzarella di Bufala alla Caprese, a beautifully presented dish of soft and stretchy fresh buffalo mozzarella, ripe heirloom tomatoes, tomato terrine, basil and Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, so tasty and fresh, delizioso. The other half tucked into Crudo di Tommo con Agrumi which translated is the pairing of salt cured red tuna crude, baby arugula, orange and ruby-red grapefruit, shaved fennel, baby radish with kumquat marmalade and candy striped beet, it left him almost speechless it was that good and the unusual flavour combinations performed so well together.
A fine example of how a classic Italian staple has been reinvented by Banfi is the bruschetta. As a family we are big fans of this popular Italian starter but when Gianluca appeared with the Circo version it took us to the next level of flavour. Home-made ciabatta bread with fresh marinated tomatoes, basil, garlic, extra virgin Olive oil, seasoning and sprinkled with cheese, so huge that we couldn’t finish it all (I wished I heeded Gianluca’s warning not to fill up on the bread) and so flavourful that I couldn’t resist getting it boxed to take home for the teenager to sample.
Relaxing a moment to take in our surroundings, we were then treated to the Second Piatti (main course) which was a succulent Carre D’Agnello al Forno, pecorino cheese and thyme crusted rack of lamb, eggplant and morel mushroom caponata with herb baked heirloom tomato and salsa verde for the carnivore and a rather light and a delightful Risotto for me with asparagus (made especially for me) and topped with goats cheese, perfezione! We sampled two red wines selected for us by Gianluca, a very pleasant and smooth Tuscan Chianti Superiore Banfi and a fragrant and fruity Dolcetto d’Alba Marchesi di Barolo. Circo also has its own label variety, a ruby-red, Sangiovese-based Chianti DOCG wine made by Italian company Castellare, available as part of its extensive wine and beverage menu.
The food was absolutely exquisite and words can’t express the amazing standard of Circo’s mouth-watering menu, with the freshest ingredients and dynamic flavour combinations, an added twist on traditional Tuscan cuisine. Chef Luca visited our table and chatted about his countrywide quest to source the best and freshest ingredients available. The other half loves his food and we eat out a fair bit so when he bolded stated that this ‘was the best Italian food I’ve had in Abu Dhabi‘, that’s high praise indeed especially as he has lived here nearly seven years!
A short interval and time for a Sgroppino the pre-dessert palate cleanser mix of lemon sorbet, Limoncello, Prosecco and a fresh raspberry, rather refreshing and delicious at the same time. Just when I was walking the tightrope between full to the brim and absolutely stuffed, Gianlucca appeared with the finale, Italian desserts. I was presented with a chocolate coved tiramisù with coffee and mascarpone served with mini meringues and fresh raspberries and the other half had a Zuccutto al Miele, a Tuscan frozen cake with raspberries, both fantastico.
The encore was a complimentary after dinner aperitif, a one-off tipple exclusive to Circo of Amaretto, Grappa and Limoncello combined with different citrus fruits, grapes and lemongrass that was presented in a quirky circular shaped Porthouse infuser bottle and drunk from shot sized glasses, Italian showmanship and hospitality at its best.
So roll up, roll up Abu Dhabians and book your place at the Greatest Italian in Town, Circo Ristorante. Guaranteed to thrill your taste buds with its gastronomic delights, wow you with its unique decor and considerable drinks selection combined with flawless service all while entertaining you with its Italian singing duo and ambiance. Grab your family, friends and visitors and catch the next performance at Abu Dhabi’s best kept secret, I don’t think you will be disappointed!
Opening Hours: Lunch: 12:00 – 16:00 Dinner: 19:00 – 23:30
Location: Lower Ground Floor, Intercontinental Hotel Abu Dhabi
Telephone: 02 666 6888
Book online here
Facebook: Circo Abu Dhabi
Current special offers at Circo
THE BUSINESS LUNCH A LA TOSCANA
Enjoy Chef Luca’s specially designed set menu from Sunday – Thursday from 12:30 – 16:00 for AED 103++ including a complimentary house beverage for the ladies!
Sit in the bar and patio area and enjoy canapés and two complimentary drinks per guest, from 18:00 – 20:00 for AED 86++. Valid for groups of minimum 20 persons (reservations must be made 24 hours in advance).
This is a sponsored post but the views are all my own based on our experience and what we ordered, ate and drank. Unless otherwise stated all photos © Jo Brett 2015. All rights reserved. Photos 5, 6, 8 and 15 used with kind permission of Circo Restaurant.