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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Castel Pergine

The day: 23 April 2009, Dinner.

The place: Via al Castello 10, I-38057 Pergine Valsugana (Trento)

The venue: Ristorante Castel Pergine

The food: pretentious regional

Airport: Verona, Brescia (BA, Ryanair)

The drinks: Mostly local.

Castel Pergine sits on a hill overlooking the Valsugana – the views are simply stunning, with the Brenta dolomites eying you from afar.

But, alas, this view, which we could also enjoy from our table, and the physical environment within the restaurant, will be the only good thing about our visit…

The restaurant itself is housed inside the beautiful castle, and it will take you some time to guess the right door – but eventually you will find yourself in a bar, leading to the main dining room. The interior is elegant but not stuffy, it’s nicely understated and soberly grand, with a wooden ceiling and white ‘rough’ walls. Just a pity that even on a mild Spring evening it was on the coldish side.

The tables are comfortable but absurdly long, so that Man and Woman look at each other from a great distance…

The menu is short but interesting: besides three different set menus of four courses each (on our visit these were the “Menu of the day and the season”, the “Menu trentino” and the “Spring Menu”, all priced at €34, or €45 if including accompanying wines) one can choose among dishes of the day (including e.g. a 70s relic, fresh pasta with lemon, cream and brandy sauce at €9), or the much more interesting barley and cicerchie soup with hop bread crouton at a mere €5 – the cicerchia is an old legume very similar to chickpea.

We opt for the Spring menu.

The bread, in the meanwhile, arrives, giving no forewarning of what the meal will be like…

Not bad, and good variety: white sesame, mixed sesame, sunflower, pumpkin…and served with two good butters, flavoured with cerfoglio (chervil) and aglio orsino (wild garlic), respectively. Interesting ideas. A pity that there is no plate for the bread.

And here’s the starter:

- Poached organic egg from Val dei Mocheni on ‘flowery green’ with local dandelion (tarassaco) and lardons with apple balsamic vinegar

When courses have such complicated names it is often a bad omen…This dish was disconcerting, so salty it was almost inedible. Some lardons were indeed so hard as to be positively inedible. The greens are difficult to eat (they are curly and firm, so that it is impossible to get them in your mouth without a curl fighting to enter your nostrils!) and very bitter. Once the watery egg is broken, the lot truly is an unsavoury mess.

Let’s hope for the better with the first course:

- Orzotto (=barley-otto) mantecato with bruscandoli (=hop shoots), cream of parsley roots and crayfish.

We propose an alternative name for this dish: orzotto drowned in excessive liquid, well overcooked and unpleasantly cheesy, with rubbery crayfish. We also note that one dish contained seven crayfish, the other four (same dimension). Now, if this is not a sign of complete carelessness in the kitchen…

What surprise will the main spring for us?

- Suckling pig leg stuffed with with wild asparagus, on a bed of smoked potatoes, the first shoots of the season and crispy pancetta.

In the context, this is not a bad dish, just a sad dish. This was suckling pig, its meat should have been tender, of the melt-in-your-mouth variety. Pity: not tasting of anything (just look at that watery gravy), the dry and toughish meat at least leaves no bad flavour in the mouth. Except for the pancetta slice which is pure concentrated salt.

We look forward to the end:

- Orange bavaroise in citrus fruit zuppetta with Bronte pistachio ‘croccante’

A rather weird, disconnected dessert, with a very acidic zuppetta on one side and a creamy bavaroise which, though decent, does not taste at all of what it should taste. But the stunning thing is that the advertised pistachio croccante is not there, replaced by pistachio crumbs and an amaretto biscuit in the glass. When we point this out to the waiter, first he tries to convince us that the pistachio croccante was not in our menu. Presented with the crime evidence, he politely apologises and we implore him not to bring any croccante, because we are more than satisfied with what we had… we are itching to get out.

With a bottle of Pinot Nero Pojer e Sandri 2006 (€23), the best part of the meal, and water at €3, the total comes to €94. Not much but far too much when you think you can have accomplished cuisine at €70 (including drinks) on the other side of the Adige valley.

The service is polite, friendly and incompetent (no knowledge of any dish). Not much to say on the food, really: visit Castel Pergine, by all means, a real treasure with wonderful exhibitions and the breathtaking views. But steer as clear as you can from its restaurant. We want to believe that the main chef was not in the kitchen at the time we visited, because we do not think any self-respecting professional would let that sort of food go through the pass. But we wonder how much his presence alone can overturn the desperate situation. A pity, as this could be an absolutely unbeatable venue.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Da Pino

The day: 8th April 2009, Dinner.

The place: Via Postal 39, Grumo, San Michele all’ Adige, Trento (IT) (0461 650 435)

The venue: Ristorante Da Pino

The food: Regional and fish

Airport: Verona, Brescia (BA, Ryanair)

The drinks: Mostly from Trentino-Alto Adige, very wide selection (in the high hundrdes of labels)

We thought by now we knew all the interesting choices within 10 miles of Trento. Well, life is full of surprises: how presumptuous of us! Driving along the Adige valley, in Teroldego wine country, this spacious restaurant appears in the tiny village of Grumo, with claims to honest, wholesome cuisine and boasting appealing prices.

The interior is spacious, welcoming, light, neat if a bit eccentric, with a gentle touch of formality that one might not expect. We learn later that the restaurant caters for large parties and functions. Anyway, on the night, luckily for us there are only a dozen customer beside us.

On the menu, many local, trattoria style dishes, but what catches our attention is a copious presence of seafood offerings. We call the waiter and try to glean some information (we are in the middle of mountains and to eat good seafood one really must go to the right places: Man’s disgusted grimace at Woman’s proposal to go for fish says it all…). The waiter is convincing. Woman eggs on. And we are encouraged by the information that all seafood here is supplied by a well-known fishmonger nearby, a fishmonger that serves some of the best restaurants in Trento. We go for it. (Next time we might try the Trentino tasting menu at €32, with enticing items such as Local apple risotto with cinnamon or Seared venison loin with pan-fried apples, juniper and Polenta di Storo).

The bread arrives:

Not a bad offering, indeed the variety is very surprising: walnut bread ‘taralli’, standard white, grissini, rye. The usual thought strikes us: a restaurant that shows such care for the bread basket must show a similar care for food.

Both our primi are seafood:

- Thyme tonnarelli with Scampi (aka Dublin bay prawns) tails and asparagus (€10)

- ‘Fazzoletto’ al nero (squid-ink) with seabass filling and langoustine sauce (€10)

The fazzoletto (a large pasta slice, lasagna style, but folded) looks impressive, its elegant black dress provocatively offering a glimpse of the filling. It’s a balanced explosion of Mediterranean flavours, the fish fresh, tasty, light, and generous. The pasta is very good: the restaurant buys it in from a trusted supplier, who formerly worked on the premises. Always suspicious of bought in materials, for this reason alone we had not wanted to try this dish (Woman’s disgusted grimace at Man’s proposal to go for it says it all…), but when we expressed our perplexity to the waiter he vouched so energetically for the quality of the pasta, egged on by Man, that we capitulated. And once again he was convincing…

The tonnarelli are sligthly salty. But the fish once again cannot be faulted for freshness and flavour, nor its quantity for lack of generosity. The asparagus comes in both white and green variety, a nice touch, and the always present tomatoes add moisture. All is bound by very good quality olive oil, leaving an impression of richness and lightness at the same time.

For mains, we both go for the same choice:

- Roasted seabass (€15)

For the joy of the waiter we insisted on boning the large portions of fish ourselves (which –we noticed- wasn’t the case at the other tables: what is the world coming to?).

It does not take that long to produce this:

When eating fresh fish, the process, slowing you down, actually increases your pleasure and satisfaction, don’t you agree? And this was truly fresh, full of flavour. What more to say? Well, maybe that it was a little overcooked, though mercifully just so and definitely not to the point of spoiling the experience. The roast tomatoes with capers, herbs and olives, in true ‘southern’ style (at the foot of the Alps!), were a delicious accompaniment (but very rich!).

We are in the mood for dessert.

- Raspberry cake (‘tortino’) (€5)

- Sweet fantasia (€6.50)

The tortino is correctly made and carries an intense, authentic raspberry whiff, but is slightly dry, so the accompanying custard, quite OK, is very welcome.

The fantasia presents us with a strawberry parfait (a little ‘brittle’), a ‘crostata’ (slightly dry), panettone-like (OK), blueberry buckwheat cake (excellent, intense, and strudel (OK, but made with puff pastry and therefore neither truly traditional nor fully successful).

With a bottle of Chardonnay LongarivaPraistel 2000 at €28 and 1 litre of H2O at €2.50 the total damage comes to €95,30. This is extremely reasonable for a seafood dinner of such quality and quantity.

What a nice little place (well, actually not so little) this one. The service is friendly with varying levels of professionalism (one knowledgeable and very passionate waiter, another less interested in the dishes he was selling us), but always attentive. As for the cuisine, it expresses a rewarding feeling of generosity, of care, both in the choice of materials and in the process of cooking itself. Despite the formality this is essentially a (superior) trattoria: you will not find highly sophisticated creations here, but plainly good food, with some touches of originality with respect to the classics, some attention to presentation, and some assuredness of touch. So, congratulations to the head chef Beppe Principe and to the family who runs this operation with such honesty and integrity (it reminds us a bit of Da Barbara in Sardinia). We will probably be back, and we invite you to try it, too!


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Two stars in Trento

ADDED FEBRUARY 2010: Maso Franch has now sacked chef Baumgartner

No, there are no Michelin 2* in have had to multiply our visits to 1* venues :).

Recently we have visited again two restaurants, Lo Scrigno del Duomo (reviewed here) and Maso Franch (reviewed here). Though neither of them reached, to our taste, the magic and equilibrium of Locanda Margon, both of them nonetheless offered us rather spectacularly good dinners…

We will depart from our usual format, and instead of offering separate formal reviews we will report some memories in parallel. This time we focus with what is 'around' the core meal...beginning with the amuse-bouche.

- Flan di lenticchie in crosta di pistacchio su crema di riso con zafferano (Scrigno del Duomo) (Lentil flan in a pistachio croute on saffron rice cream).

Though the presentation is (as often happens here) a bit sloppily executed - even if nicely conceived-, this is a truly impressive amuse bouche, which strikes you for its solidly elegant combination of earthy and aromatic flavours, pleasantly rich in textures.

At Maso Franch, in the mewanhile, they serve:

- Terrina di carciofini con animelle e porcini avvolti in carote; testina di vitello in crosta di erbette (soffritta) su crema di patate; cavolfiore fritto in pastella di birra. (Artichoke terrine with sweetbread and Ceps wrapped in carrots; lightly fried veal 'testina' in a herb crout on potato cream; deep fried cauliflower in beer batter

Beautiful, tightly presented, labour intensive, ingredient-dense: the long name of this dish says it all, this is a trademark Maso Franch amuse bouche, in which the chef firmly and almost brutally asserts what he stands for and the range of what he can do, serving what is effectively a full, chromatic and varied dish. We remember with delight the contrast between the soft, intense testina and its delicately crispy crust; the totally luscious terrina with the porcini flavour standing out; the elegant frying of the cauliflower.

The bread arrives…


Maso Franch:

Oh my, both baskets are quite overwhelming, the Maso favouring chromatism and the Sctigno architecture. All breads are fresh, fragrant, striking. In the Maso Franch one the attention stealer is clearly the black piece with the expected squid ink and an unexpected secret…which we keep a secret.

At the Scrigno what dominates are the ‘cones’ on the left: they are cheese based, and their architectural dominance extends to flavour!

And...after many other things...the petit four:


Maso Franch

In line with the general style, the Maso Franch offering overwhelms you with abundant variety, whereas Scrigno favours a more classical restraint. The drawback of the the ten varietes in single items as opposed to the five varieties in double items is that the former is more conducive to arguments... But both are extremely generous, pleasant and display skill in the art of patisserie (we are not sure at Maso Franch, but at Scrigno there is a separate chef of patisserie).

What a treat it was in both places!


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