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Thursday, March 29, 2007

A town fair

March 19th is dedicated to St. Joseph, and in Italy this day is celebrated as father’s day. A day for celebrations, and a good excuse to eat something good. In Trento the Agricultural fair doubles up as the Fiera di San Giuseppe (St. Joseph's Fair), an extra street market day, where no nooks or crannies capable of hosting a stall are left empty. You can find all sorts of goods, but here we want to give you just a little sample of, well you guessed it, the wide array of foods on offer.

To begin with, the weary shopper can try and regain some energy with some carne salada (a local type of cured meat).

But if it is boar salamis you are after, it is worth stopping here.

And how about cheese?

A nice stall with an impressive array of dried fruit of all sorts:

And after fruit, pudding, of course!


More torrone: though it is not Christmas, it looks like it is always a good time

And how about finishing it all off with a sample of Sicilian desserts?

Strolling away, we just have the time to bump into somebody who had one too many


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Ristorante Malga Panna

The day: 11th March 2007, Lunchtime.
The place: Via Costalunga, 56, Moena (TN), Italy (tel +39 0462 573489)
The venue: Ristorante Malga Panna
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Very extensive regional list, good separate list for others.

We went to this restaurant the day after our climb to Monte Stivo . It can hardly be beaten on the setting. Moena is a popular tourist spot in the Fassa Valley, sitting as it is surrounded by the grandiose Dolomites.

Malga Panna is higher than Moena along the slopes, offering a fantastic view on the town down below and the surrounding mountains.

Will the food match all this beauty? Let’s check it out.

We were welcome with efficiency and cordiality. The interior is a warm triumph of wood panelling, and comprises several different rooms of varying size. The tables are well spaced and spacious (especially compared to London standards!). Our own table was circular, like the wood bench that we found very comfortable, though we can see others might disagree.

A smiling waitress inquired, the empty glasses ready on the table, whether we were in for their bubbly (note, no choice offered), which we were… but ever-distrusting Woman sensed the questioning was a tad too explicit (Man is so na├»ve)… to cut it short, this turned out not to be the usual freebie, but came at €3 each. We are not THAT cheap bastards, but if this was not for free, then we would have welcome some other choices. And we don’t like being ‘subtly’ pressurized in this way (to be fair, Malga Panna are not alone in doing this, though they are the first we encounter in Trentino) . Anyway, it was Prosecco Valdobbiadene Le Colture: not a regional choice (it’s from the neighbouring region), but good.

While perusing our menus, the bread basket arrives: a gorgeous selection of grissini, two types of focaccia and rye rolls, as well as sesame and poppy seeds white rolls, accompanied by a butter, ricotta and chives spread. No bread plate, though!

There were two tasting menus, the three course ‘regional selection’ at 48€ and the six course ‘suggestions’ set menu at €65. Both include the cover charge, which otherwise comes at €3 per head; both also include amuse bouche at the beginning and petit fours at the end of the meal. Woman settled for the regional set menu, which proposed ceps tagliolini to begin with, while Man settled for smoked pumpkin tortelli with roasted rabbit, hazelnuts and crunchy Savoy cabbage.

In the meantime, the amuse bouche arrive:

A courgette soup with cheese sauce, accompanied by a salmon tartare on a ricotta bavaroise and sweet pepper sauce, and a sprinkle of caviar. A truly promising way to start: the pepper sauce had a delicious concentrated flavour very well matched to the salmon. And the courgette soup, just warm, delicately underlined by the velvety cheese sauce, was a delight too. Great, we are in right mood to start!

Here are the primi:

The tortelli were quite simply excellent: Woman, really looking for something to criticise, found the yolk in the pumpkin filling just a touch too bossy, but this is really just being difficult. The hazelnuts were crunchy and a nice counterpoint to the tender pieces of rabbit. A nice touch on both texture and flavour the crunchy Savoy cabbage leaves: that they managed to obtain such an effect simply by drying them really surprised us. Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable dish.

The same praise must be poured on the simple and beautiful ceps tagliolini. A classic, executed with top quality ceps, intensely flavoursome, and very well made (fresh) pasta. Man found the fine olive oil condiment a bit too much, but this is a very subjective criticism and probably a minority one. Overall, this was a perfect example of how stirring a simple dish can be when it is so well executed.

For mains we had the ‘pork made in three ways’ from the set menu and and venison in a pinot noir reduction (€25).

The three ways of the pork were: steamed loin (‘carre’) on Savoy cabbage, fillet wrapped in speck, and belly on asparagi. A majestic trio. Chef Paolo Donei’s light touch was palpable in the cooking of all three versions of the fortunate animal. Perfect balance of flavours and fantastic textures.

For the venison, we had ascertained beforehand that it had not been shot nearby Malga Panna (where deers are sometimes sighted). We provokingly suggested New Zealand (which distributes in Trentino), but the waiter assured us it wasn’t from so far. Rigorously fresh, it came from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and the waiter – while remaining vague on the exact provenance, and we were in too good a mood to argue- vouched for its quality. Indeed, he was right: the beautifully presented meat came in two large chunks of superb consistency, itself obviously the result of superb cooking as well as of quality. The taste was intense but ‘tamed’. The crunchy polenta cubes added a variety to the textures. The only perplexing note were the figs with Italian mustard, where the latter was for us hard to detect.

The dessert choices were ‘warm and cold composition of chocolate’ (which we ordered with the set menu) and ‘traditional apple pie with vanilla ice cream’ (€10).

How nice, pre-desserts arrive:

Yoghurt mousse with strawberry ragout and a thin crunchy white chocolate sheet. Delicious, no more to be said.

And here are the desserts:

The chocolate composition was comprised of a dark chocolate cone with white chocolate mousse, a warm mousse of dark chocolate (in the glass), a chocolate cake, a white chocolate and coffee ice cream, and another mousse. A thrilling assortment of chocolate flavours, a paradise for the chocolate lover, thoroughly pleasing on the palate.

The apple pie was a chef take on the tradition. Beautifully presented, the dish was enriched and embellished by an assortment of nuts (hazelnuts, pine-nuts, walnuts, almonds) and a variety of apple cuts and purees’. Very good.

The ensuing selection of petit fours was as good as generous:

In total we paid €135. This included water (0.75) at €3.50, and a Blauburgunder (Pinot noir) Mazzon produced by Gottardi (who, we were told by the waiter, only concentrates on Pinot noir), at €25.50. Excellent, very perfumed, and like many we have tried in this region, superior to the unfortunate choice we made in Beaune.

We had a splendid time at Malga Panna, for the setting, the service and the food. In the face of those who think that Italian regional cuisine is just hearty and simple and rich, this restaurant is the perfect exemplification of how it can be elevated and reinterpreted light-handedly, whilst leaving the flavours and the ‘heart’ unaltered. Not as adventurous as the three Michelin starred establishments in Trento (Due Spade, Scrigno and our favourite, Fior di Roccia), but not only is the Michelin star thoroughly deserved in our opinion: since a detour is certainly worthwhile, a second star would not be amiss either. Talking about two stars…It is always harsh to make comparisons, but we will. The San Domenico cuisine, which we tried recently, is an example of how the heartiness and opulence have not been sublimated in the same way. Those who look for bold innovations will be disappointed here. Those who look for tradition, pure, clear flavours and textures, perfect execution in cooking, will go away very happy indeed.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Apples in the Val di Non

Val di Non: a beautiful valley winding uphills towards the North, along the Noce river, struggling against the majestic Brenta Dolomites, making its way up from the Piana Rotaliana (home of Teroldego: more on this story later...) to the Passo Mendola. A beauty spot. For us, the way towards a restaurant (more on this story, too, later...). But above all, the kingdom of the apple.
Here apples are D.O.P. (Denominazione di origine protetta, protected area of denomination). They are and have been very serious business: wherever you look, if it is not a vineyeard, there is an orchard after another. And beautiful trees these are, contorted, suffering, powerfully beautiful:

But these shapes are not by chance:

As you see, these trees are just now beginning to spring back to life: so, should you not start wondering about where the apples you buy now in the supermarket come from


Saturday, March 17, 2007

San Domenico

The day: 24th February 2007, Dinner.
The place: Via Gaspare Sacchi, 1, Imola, Italy (tel +39 0542 29000)
The venue: Ristorante San Domenico
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Very extensive list, mostly Italian and European, starting from around €40. No list by the glass

It was with some trepidation that we approached this historical temple of Italian cuisine, still the holder of two Michelin stars. Some say that the temple is ancient: but we are not put off by this, we don't care about fashions and we like classical cusine. So we went with great expectations, though also in the knowledge that we could never meet our £100 (for two) rule. But luckily we were in tow of two benefactors, Megaman and Megawoman.

The interior is lush and elegant, subdivided in several rooms decorated in warm colours, creating an intimate atmosphere. The tables are well spaced and vast, in fact almost too vast, forcing Man to raise the tone of his voice to make it reach the mega-ears of Megaman, sitting at the other end of the rectangular table (we said vast, Via Condotti please take notice). We are afraid you’ll have to make do with this brief description, as the place was full (Saturday night), and we could not take a picture of the rooms without disturbing the other diners.

Instead, here is on the left some butter with the emblem.

The usual (in Italy, that is) free welcome drink is a glass of excellent bubbly Equipe 5 from Cantina di Soave, together with the menus. Here Woman gets irritated once again, no prices for the ladies: how retro. There are two tasting menus, at €120/€125, as well as a good a la carte list, with prices in the range €40 to €70.

The selection of breads, all made on the premises, is exceptional, both in range and quality.

The selection of complimentary amouse bouche was also striking:

The top picture shows a kind of fried dough with squacquerone cheese. In the lower picture, a combination of raw swordfish, salmon with rocket puree and a skewer of mushroom and aubergines with vanilla candied orange. Rich combination of flavours, very satisfying.

But it is not over! Another complimentary soup of clams and mussels with shellfish croquette.

For both Man and Woman this was the highlight of the presents from the kitchen (and they were all fantastically good). The light crispiness of the croquette (not your usual one, but made up of tiny bits of crustacean pastry) combined perfectly with the deep flavour of the fish broth.

An atmosphere of opulent elegance has been firmly established.

Up to now we had been dined and wined for free, with a bottomless glass of the bubbly to boot: we seriously considered thanking and running then .

But instead, here are our orders. Roasted lobster (to be precise, astice) with extra virgin olive oil must and sauteed broccoli sprouts (€50) was the choice of both Megaman and Megawoman to begin their dinner.

We did not try the astice, but they looked megahappy.

We settled more modestly for a riso mantecato (read risotto for it) with Arnad suet (lardo produced in the Val D'Aosta region) and ‘strigoli di fosso’ (a wild leaf vegetable) with caramelised roast meat sauce (€40); and egg in raviolo ‘San Domenico’ with malga butter, sweet parmesan cheese and black truffle (€40). A ‘malga’ is an Alpine hut where shepherds find shelter and prepare cheese and butter with the milk from the cows grazing in the Alpine pastures. This milk is of exceptional quality.

The rice was a bit too al dente to our taste, but still this did not prevent us from thoroughly enjoying the lushness of the fat and the rich meat sauce on the palate, well balanced by the vegetables.

The raviolo was quite literally a big single raviolo filled with egg yolk, then doused in the butter and showered with the parmesan and the truffles. The egg yolk was runny. How do they do that? If you don’t want to know look away now...

Answer: bring the egg yolk rapidly to a suitably low temperature, insert in the ravioli dough, close and boil until the pasta is cooked and the yolk is just still runny.

Apart from this technique which requires precision and equipment, but which any professional chef masters, here the focus is on the ingredients, all very top quality : the physical feel on the tongue was rich, luscious, decadent. Nonetheless, tastewise it was not the most balanced of dishes, as the fat note was too dominant overall, too strong even for the intense sharp and wonderful perfume of the black truffles. We wondered whether something better could not have been done with the ravioli than copiously cover them with cheese and butter, no matter how exalted the provenance of these condiments.

For mains, Megaman and Megawoman went both for Scampi (langoustines) del Quarnaro with pureed broccoli (clearly the chef likes broccoli with his crustaceans), deep fried baby squids and Modena balsamic vinegar. Megaprice too: €70 each. At this point we thought they would have been much better off by going for a set menu. But, being Mega, they don't even ponder such petty details. Here is a photo of the langoustines:

To be fair, megaportion too. We didn’t try the whole dish but we managed to steal one piece of langoustines, and it was one of the best Man ever tried. Woman enjoyed it too (note by Man: she's clearly learning British understatement).

Man ordered lamb chops ‘cooked two ways’, roasted with thyme and fried in bread crust, with cheese croquette and caramelised cauliflower ‘pudding’ (crema cotta). Woman went for roasted duck breast in Sangiovese sauce and black Taggiasche olives. Both came for a 'modest' €40. By the way, the Taggiasche olive lobby must be very powerful, we don’t seem to be able to go anywhere that does not have them on the menu.

The lamb came with an unadvertised single sliver of deep-fried potato and potato mash, useful to soak up the meat sauce. Again a generous portion, three large chops (two roasted and one deep fried) of succulent young lamb. And again the quality of the material was in evidence. Woman though that the ‘bread crust’ (a thin piece of dough) made that chop a bit too heavy as the crust soaked up the fat from the chop. Man appreciated the variety of textures, but he, too, found the overall dish on the heavy side (don’t forget the cheese), and a touch too complicated. Given the quality of the ingredients, they could have spoken better for themselves.

The duck, despite its nice gamey flavour, was less successful. The saltiness of the olives combined with the excess salt from the vegetables garnishing the dish was unpleasant. Still, very well-presented, as all other dishes. Here is another angle:

While perusing the long dessert list, the petit four are served.

A great variety, nice looking and nice tasting.

By now we were a little full and wondering whether we should actually have dessert. Megawoman had a selection of sorbets.

Megaman had vanilla ice-cream with balsamic vinegar (a request off-menu and accommodated without fuss), while Man requested (still off-menu) a variation of the same: vanilla ice-cream with cooked must (locally known as ‘saba’ or ‘mosto cotto’) . Woman chose from the menu a ‘pianoforte’ with Piedmont hazelnuts, pistachio ice cream and zabaione cream. The total price for these 4 desserts was €90. Here are our two:

All desserts came accompanied with a ‘cat tongue’ shaped like a fork. Great, inviting and humourous presentation which exudes all the enjoyment the pastry chef must experience in conceiving and preparing the dishes. Among all the countless good things, the pistachio ice-cream was the best the fussy Woman had had in ages.

Megaman was driving his megacar and therefore had to be content with a minidrink. The rest of table had a bottle of Donnafugata Mille e una Notte. With water, the drinks came to €59. The megacouple also had two coffees at €3 each. The total came to well above our budget per head: €555.

Let us make it clear: this is a place with outstanding cuisine, of great generosity, which is capable of reaching on occasion very high pinnacles. But would we encourage the foreign guest to make this one her choice to have a sample of the top of Italian cuisine? We are afraid not. This is a restaurant with very high prices that must be judged by very high standards, and on this basis there are too many details that make it fall short of the mark. The general impression conveyed by the dishes is of strong, bold rich flavours that could do with more lightness of touch, and show signs of over-elaboration not justified, in our humble opinion, by a creative base . We would have preferred a bit less opulence and a bit more restraint. The cooking, we thought, was not always faultless. The same can be said for the service, which while nicely cheerful, down to earth and unfussy - especially considering the clientele it caters for - gave a certain impression of tiredness and distraction: the manager was heard shouting over the phone from an adjacent room, and a waitress was stopped just in time from pouring the red wine in a glass containing another liquid. Finally, making you pay €5 to park is distinctly inelegant. No doubt many will enjoy partaking of this experience of grandeur again and again, and good for them. We wish all the best to this unique restaurant and we hope it will stay for centuries. For our taste, this was an interesting and rewarding experience that added yet another building block to our fine cuisine learning exploration. But not one we would want to repeat, even ignoring the budget.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Rifugio Marchetti, Monte Stivo (Rovereto, IT)

We discovered some really good, basic food. It's a bit away from the maddening crowd, though...
Quite a struggle up the mountain in the snow and the wind, but finally, after the ascent from 1200m to over 2000m altitude, we get in sight of our target, nicely protected from the elements just down on the Lake Garda side of Monte Stivo:
the interior could not be more welcoming:
on the menu... polenta with 'Mexican' (i.e. spicy) beans and cheese, or polenta with krauts (which in fact includes three types of pork). Well, let's go for polenta with spicy beans and cheese, and polenta with krauts (and three types of pork).
While waiting for them to arrive, we have time to appreciate the 'mise en place':
Then our meals arrive:

the cheese comes from a 'malga' down the hill, two generous slabs of hard "grana" like cheese, and comforting beans. The three types of pork were sausage, soft salami, and shank.
All quite delicious, the flavours really intense and pure . Great raw materials
(what a difference with the Sardo sausage last week!)
We washed it down with a half a litre jug of unspecified but very drinkable red and half a litre of water. All in all it came to €25: what a bargain, pity (or maybe not) that you have to work your socks off quite a bit to get there!

Well now, after this energetic lunch: a quick look at our detailed map, and we are ready for the next five miles

As it happens, we took the wrong way down and then we had to climb back up to Passo Bordala, where our car was parked. All in all, more than 1000m of ascent for the day: we decided that the next day we would treat ourselves well: more on this story later...


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