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Monday, December 3, 2007

Costa Salici

The day: 9th November 2007, Dinner.
The place: Via Costa dei Salici, Cavalese, Trento (IT)
The venue: Ristorante Costa Salici
The food: Modern take on regional cuisine
Airport: Verona, Brescia (BA, Ryanair)
The drinks: Mostly from Trentino-Alto Adige, some other Italians, some token French. Good list of distilled spirits and dessert wines

Living in London trains you for fairly long trips to do anything: shopping, visiting your friends, trying a restaurant. One does not think much of spending 50 minutes to reach a destination. By applying the same principle when in small centres (winning over the psychological resistance of ‘travelling far out’), one can expand considerably the range of culinary experiences. So one cold November night, the very last of our short Autumn trip to Italy, we drive out and up to Cavalese, in the beautiful Val di Cembra in the Trento province. Our target is a family restaurant which is making its name among lovers of good food. The Tait family have run this place since 1982, with Chef Maurizio running the kitchen.

The interior is ‘Stube’ style, divided into several areas, a little reminiscent of Malga Panna, with warm and extensive wood panelling and some comfortable round large tables with benches – that’s where we were seating that night, in a quiet and intimate corner. Little did we know that the quiet and intimacy would soon go…

The list proposes some set menus (notably a five course Autumn menu at €36 and a three course Trentino menu at €24) as well as a la carte dishes. We go a la carte.

What a nice bread basket arrives.

An enticing selections of breads and grissini, with crispy ultra thin slices of cumin bread, focaccia, sesame bread, poppy seeds rolls and some kind of rolled tomato pizza. While we contemplate it, a large party of males only sits across us. We immediately realise from their loud voices and reddish faces that it’s the end of our tranquillity….

A present from the kitchen:

It’s a pair of cones made out of trentigrana cheese, filled with a mousse of goat cheese. It was delicious, each cone crispy and slightly acidic, the mousse sweet and soft, a nice contrast of both flavours and textures.

For first courses we had:

- Fettuccine with porcini (ceps) mushrooms and crispy speck (€9).

- Chestnut soup with speck ‘raviolini’ (€7).

The Fettuccine one was a good dish, although not one to scream for. The pasta itself was OK and cooked well but slightly less elastic than we would have liked, the mushrooms were good (and in very, very generous quantity), but lacked some intensity of flavour, the speck was a welcome addition but made the dish a little salty. Most of all, the dish was too greasy, lacking lightness.

The chestnut soup, on the contrary, elicited mumbles of pleasure from both of us. It was smooth and creamy and rightly dense and joyfully sweet but balanced by the saltiness of the speck. Comparing this to Walter Miori’s one at the beginning of the week, it was more substantial, but that was an amuse-bouche and this a first course: interesting anyway to see these two different but equally appropriate interpretations. Some truffle oil on top was delicious, too. But, wait a minute! Shouldn’t there be raviolini in this soup? Where are the raviolini???? After we enquire, it turns out that the kitchen has forgotten them!!!

The staff offer to bring us a sample, an offer that we hypocritically and feebly pretend to try to turn down. So here they arrive after a while:

Well, they said raviolini and here they are, though disconnected from the soup where they belonged they look a little naked and defenceless. But they are exceptional, now the pasta made perfectly and the filling a match.

In the meanwhile the large male group, fuelled by alcohol is becoming ever rowdier. In a jolly way, true, but with a language that might offend, in turn, believers in God, prudish people, women and in general anybody of a sensitive nature. Being ourselves mellowed down by a Pinot Noir, we just smile benignly (well, actually, Woman looks distinctly less benign than Man…).

Our choice of secondi, which arrived as we were finishing the raviolini (tsk, tsk) was:

- Rabbit cooked at low temperature with grostl of vegetables and Teroldego wine reduction (€14)

- Deer fillets ‘lardellati’, small fruit sauce and potato tortini (€18.50).

The rabbit was good, but the dish was not a completely successful one. The poor nicely presented and nicely cooked, delicate rabbit was rather overwhelmed by the wrapping and the condiment, the aggression increased by the Teroldego reduction. Too salty and too fat, this dish, a bit like the fettuccine, lacked lightness of touch. The veggies though were very good, and the potato ‘hasbrowns’ were tempting although they increased the grease level even farther.

Far more successful was the deer. The meat itself was flavoursome, succulent. And it withstood the potent condiment much better than the rabbit, forming a rich and pleasant ensemble. And the veggies (red cabbage) here, too, were a fine accompaniment, although the ‘hashbrowns’ were becoming a little repetitive, as was the use of speck or ham in the preparation.

Over the shouts of the male party nearby, we order desserts:

- Cheese ice-cream (€7)

- Strudel (€6)

The strudel was good, not exceptional but good. No intensity of flavour or surprise to write home about, and the advertised ‘Sambuco ice-cream was missing and replaced by cinnamon cream - but at least it was made correctly.

Now for the cheese ice-cream: truly remarkable. The mostarda in the pears was not too strong (were the pears half candied, we wondered), but perfectly suited to the match - the white and black chocolate flakes adding the pleasant final touch.

Last but not least, we were treated to some rather impressive petit four, with the liquorice filled chocolates being particularly remarkable.

Being our last night we had a slightly more expensive than usual Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir) Praepositus from Abbazia di Novacella Riserva 2004 at €34 (well, thinking in pounds it’s still just over £20, this wine would probably cost over £60 in the UK). It was really worth the while, perfumed and silky and with an almost Burgundian hint of gaminess. With a 0.75 litre water, and cover charge (a little antiquated this, but no service charge, remember) the total came to €102, much below our £100 threshold even adding a tip.

Driving back in the dark night, we felt happy to have concluded our trip to Trento with this drive out. True, the cuisine, although elevated far beyond its regional foundation, was still sometimes a little ‘unreconstructed traditional’, heavy and not thoroughly harmonious and varied, and some further progress and refinement is conceivable. As we recounted, the kitchen still needs to be organised to high professional standards, if it does not want to leave the really demanding customer and critic baffled and possibly annoyed. But, having said that, the overall impression was of a deeply rich, satisfactory sensory experience, enhanced by the warmly rustic setting and the kindest of service staff; an experience which reached heights of absolute excellence more than once – in fact the trajectory grana cones-chestnut soup-deer-cheese ice-cream was outstanding (except for the kitchen mess up with the missing raviolini). There is definitely talent there, and great potential. We highly recommend that you pay the Tait family a visit if you have an outing around Trento (and yes, that means you too, lazy Trentinians, who do not patronise the wonderful restaurants of your region enough!).

PS (May 2009): See an update here


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