My wife and I just got back from a fabulous cycling trip in Italy with Alta Quota Adventures. Italian food is truly special and we enjoyed some great meals, so I wanted to share a bit about the food here.
We stayed in two towns:
- Cortina d’Ampezzo which is a famous resort town in the center of the Dolomites and
- Bormio (link 1 & link 2) which is a little known mountain destination deep in the Italian Alps.
Cortina is known for two famous local specialities:
- Casunziei — half-moon beet and ricotta-filled raviolis served with a sage butter sauce and poppy seeds
- Canederli — bread and prosciutto dumplings served in a clear beef consomme
Bormio is famous for:
- Pizzoccheri — buckwheat noodles served with cabbage, potatoes, cheese, garlic, sage, and butter
- Malfatti — tiny “mal-formed” spinach dumplings (much like spätzle) served with butter and parmesan cheese
I never stop talking about how much I love Pizzoccheri. On this trip, I tried it five times! And last year, I figured how to make it myself at home.
This year, I hope to make the other three specialties and add blogs to share my recipes.
The Menus (logistics)
We generally ate dinner at our hotels. The dinner was a multi-course affair with choices of first and second plates, a nice dessert, and a generous salad bar.
We’ve been on many cycling trips before, with many different tour operators. On most bike trips you get no choice of entree or starter. If everyone is getting linguine al pesto for the starter, you’re having linguine al pesto. If the hotel is serving rabbit with mushrooms for the main course, you’re having rabbit.
This can cause a few problems. If you are vegetarian, you may not want to eat rabbit, so you get a cheese omlette instead. Often the vegetarian choices aren’t as good and the vegetarians get tired of having an omlette or steamed broccoli every night. The flip side is if one member of the group won’t eat red meat, nobody ever gets red meat because the hotels try to make something that pleases everyone. As a gluttonous gourmand, I don’t want to be held back.
Not the case on this trip. Our hotel in Cortina gave us a choice of three different primi piatti and three different secondi piatti each night. There were always good choices for the three vegetarians on our trip. And there was always a generous salad bar and a nice dessert. Our hotel in Bormio took it a step further. In addition to the delicious salad bar, there was always a beautiful composed antipasti. For Primi, we typically had three choices plus a soup. For Secondi, we had five choices. For dessert, they served a special dessert each evening. If you the chosen dessert didn’t suit your fancy, you could choose from a generous dessert bar instead.
Yes, we ate pretty well on this trip. That made it hard to lose any weight. Despite all the cycling we did, I didn’t lose a single pound. Darn!
So, now let’s get started. My taste buds are already salivating…
In Cortina, we drank a good selection of Italian wines. Most of the wines were from the better known regions of Italy. We had some Valpolicella, some Chianti, some Brunello, some Barolo, and a few other wines. I’m not super educated on Italian wine. (I’m more familiar with French, Spanish, and Californian wine.) I liked the Brunellos the best.
In Bormio, we drank the local wine. Valtellina has a variety of local wines — Inferno, Grumello, Sassella, Sfursat — to name a few. Until recently, these wines have been truly undiscovered. In fact, I’m not sure if you can find them in the US. Turns our these wines are absolutely lovely. They are inexpensive and truly delicious.
We also discovered a new trend in Italy, a popular aperitif called a “Spritz” or more commonly an “Aperol Spritz” for its main component. Aperol is a bitter red-colored liqueur. To make a spritz, you mix equal parts of Aperol, Prosecco, and seltzer water. My wife loved this pre-dinner drink and I’ll be trying to make it soon. I’m not sure if I can find Aperol in the states, but it is similar to Cinzano. I believe it is more delicate than Cinzano, so if I can only find Cinzano, I may have to dilute it a bit.
Here’s our waiter Beppe delivering a tray of drinks in the garden before dinner. From left to right we have a Forst beer, white wine, and an Aperol spritz.
Ok, that sure has been a lot of text. All talk and no rock, huh? I promise some photos in just a moment. Lots of them.
I do want to put a plug in for Forst. Forst is a German-style brewery in Italy. It is located just on the other side of the Stelvio in the German-speaking part of Italy. Their beer is particularly delicious. It’s a lager, but has a remarkable yeast flavor.
OK, now it’s time for some pictures of food.
A proper Italian meal starts with antipasti. In the US, antipasti is usually a buffet of roasted vegetables, salami, etc. Yes, you can get that in Italy, but they often serve more serious antipasti. Our hotel in Bormio served a composed appetizer every night. They were alway “haut” to borrow a French word.
Here is one of my favorites. It was a tiny quiche made from a variety of forest mushrooms, served with a few slices of prosciutto. On the menu, it was referred to as “Piccola quiche di pasta brisè ai funghi misti di speck affumicato artigianalmente.” The photo cannot communicate how delicious this was.
The primi piatti is the first plate, usually pasta, often risotto, and sometimes something else. Here are few photographs of primis I enjoyed on the trip.
The first is a pretty standard spaghetti with tomato sauce. In this case, it was “Fettucine casarecce Baita dei Pini al pomodoro fresco San Marzano, basilico e ricotta infornata.” Nothing special, huh? The noodles were homemade, the tomatoes were remarkably bright and fresh, and the ricotta added a delicate richness. Produce and pasta are treated with great respect in Italy. The result is that simple foods taste great.
The next dish is ravioli. This time they called it “Mezzelune al tuorlo farcite alla ricotta fresca di latteria e spinachi sulla passatta di pomodoro al burro e salvia” which means something like “half moon raviolis filled with fresh ricotta from the local cheesemaker and strained spinach with a sauce of tomatoes, butter, and sage.” Yeah, try finding that in the local freezer section! :-)
Now we get to another of the Italian standard pasta dishes, linguine with clams. In Italian, it is “Spaghetti di grano duro alle vongole veraci nel suo fometto, aglio e prezzemolo.” I liked this so much I had it 4 or 5 times. The fresh ocean flavor and the sweetness of the clams was incredible. This dish was consistently better than anything I have tasted in the US. The best version was one done with fresh razor clams, but I ate the whole thing before I remembered to take a photo.
Why is linguine with clams better in Italy than the US? Here’s my guess:
- the clams are fresher — that can be duplicated easily — food needs respect and repays the effort you put in with flavor
- the pasta is more al dente — I buy DeCecco in the US and am very careful to not overcook it but semolina-based pasta is always more al dente in Italy than I can achieve at home or any restaurant I have found in the US. I still don’t get how they do this!
And here is another popular and incredible pasta dish, spaghetti with bottarga. No, I don’t have the eloquent Italian description from the menu. I forgot to photograph the menu. Bottarga is mullet roe, often called poor man’s caviar. If you think you don’t like fish eggs, try this! Bottarga is used sparingly with spaghetti and the result is an incredible delicate flavor.
My first experience with this concept was a plate of “uni spaghetti” I enjoyed at an Italian restaurant at Keio Plaza hotel in Shinjuku, Japan in 1997. Uni is a lot more powerful than bottarga, but the concept is the same. Keio Plaza adapted spaghetti with bottarga to Japanese ingredients and delivered a wonderful and memorable dish.
And lastly, we have the holy grail of pasta dishes… Pizzoccheri !!! Pizzocheri is the pride of Bormio and the one dish that most captures the mountain experience for me. My first time eating pizzocheri was in Bormio in 1995. I’ve enjoyed it everytime I’ve been in Bormio since, have made it at home, and had it 5 times on this trip.
Pizzoccheri is buckwheat noodles cooked served with potatoes, cabbage (or chard), cheese, garlic, sage, and butter. For more info, including a recipe, click here. The best version of Pizzoccheri we had on this trip was at Rifugio Branca when we hiked Forni glacier.
OK, enough with all the spaghetti, how ’bout some main courses?
Secondi piatti literally means the second plate, or the main course. Here are a few of the nice secondi we enjoyed on this trip.
First is “Scamone d’agnello in crosta d’erbe alla provenzale con ratatouille vegeteriana” which means something like herb-crusted lamb with ratatouille. This was SO incredibly delicious! The lamb was soft and delicate and bursting with flavor and the ratatouille was delicious, too.
Next we have “Galetto di primo canto alla diavola on salsa agrodolce piccante” which means something like “spicy chicken in sweet and sour sauce.” No, this isn’t the same deep-fried sweet-and-sour chicken you get at the buffet in a Chinese restaurant in the USA. This was a truly delicious dish.. The chicken was tender, juicy, and flavorful and the sauce was a delicate complement to the meat.
Last, we have a German-inspired dish. The Alps are right on the Swiss border and the culinary traditions are heavily influenced by centuries of trade. This one is called “Tagliata di cervo alla pesteda grosina con cavolo rosso, salsa ai mirtilli e spatzli” which I would translate into German as “Hirschpfeffer mit rotkuhl und spätzle” which is basically venison with red cabbage, spatzle, and blueberry sauce.
This is a classic alpine dish. My very first trip to the Alps was in late September/early October of 1991. Most of the hotels served “Rehpfeffer”, “Hirschpfeffer”, or “Gamspfeffer” (female deer, male deer, or marmot) because it was the middle of hunting season so I remember this dish well. It is nearly always served with an accompaniment of spätzle, red cabbage, and berries from the forest. I especially remember a meal I had in Bivio on Julierpass in Switzerland, just one day’s ride west of Bormio.
Dolci means dessert. I apologize that I only took one good photo of the many incredible desserts they served us. Here it is. It is essentially a medley of fruits with some sorbet or ice cream. On the menu, they called it “Cannolo in sfoglia di fragola farcito al pistacchio di bronte con foglie marinate di annanaso e mango” which I can’t translate but it includes words like strawberry, pistachio, pineapple, and mango.
Lastly, I want to put in a thank you to Doriano who was the head waiter (in French it would be Maître d’Hôtel) at our fine hotel in Bormio and one of the most friendly and helpful restaurant professionals I have ever encountered. He explained the Italian menu clearly in English, was friendly and cheerful, and always made sure we were happy. Thank you Doriano!
Hope you enjoyed my photos! Italian food is terrific and I really enjoyed the experience.