Italia 2001, The First Week
For me personally, this trip to Italia ranks as our best. My command of the Italian
language has improved dramatically over the last two years and, therefore, I was
able to communicate in Italian at the level that Terry has always assumed I could!
Secondly, Terry had done such a thorough job of mapping out our automobile trips
that I, as navigator, had a relatively easy time doing my job. We had 17 glorious
days where the biggest decision was whether to drink an ’82, ’85, or ’90 Barolo!
We arrived in Bologna on time, but thoroughly exhausted. Our flight on
Northwest/KLM took us from Seattle to Amsterdam. Unfortunately, we had a five-
hour layover in Amsterdam before we headed to Bologna where we picked up our
rental car and headed to Modena, land of Balsamic vinegar, for the night.
Our hotel, The Canalgrande, is located in the center of town. It was formerly a
patrician villa and today is a hotel with neoclassical architecture. The foyer and
salons are done in stucco and beautiful old paintings give the place a cozy
atmosphere. I liked its faded grandeur.
Dinner on our first night couldn’t have been more perfect. We opted for Osteria
Francescana. It is chef-owned by a young chef, Massimo Bottura, who did some
cooking in the U.S., met his American wife in New York and then went home to open
his own restaurant. He is one of the new breed of chefs in the Emiglia Romano and
the Veneto regions who are combining tradition with lighter, creative preparations.
He made our evening very special by coming out initially (most chefs do this in Italy)
and telling us about the menu. When we told him we really would like to try as many
things as possible, but with very small portions, he happily “created” our menu.
Modena 16 maggio 2001
You are always offered an aperitivo in Italy. It can be champenoise, spumante, white wine or some special concoction. On this night, we have the house special
which is vodka and orange juice with what tastes like warm zabaglione on top. I’m
still not sure exactly what it was but as close as I can figure, the foam was some of
the actual drink with a small amount of egg white that was frothed with some gizmo
that uses gas. It was very tasty. The combination of cold, warm, foamy and non-
foamy changed the simple “Screwdriver” ingredients into something quite delicious
We then must have a glass of white wine to go with our antipasti course and we are
served a glass of Villa Bucci, 1997 Riserva Verdicchio from Le Marche. It is
deliciously clean and crisp, beautifully balanced and served cool, but not icy cold.
Very enjoyable and perfect with the appetizers.
Antipasti was fabulous - slices of smoked salmon on a sweet garlic sauce with a The
caviar garnish and a pistachio cracker. Then, Baccala (salted cod fish) on crispy
potato, sautéed fresh spinach, tomato confit and a crispy ring of sweet Naples
Cappuccino of Asparagus and Langoustine – this is a pureed asparagus soup served in a coffee cup, topped with a layer of the frothy foam and a perfect little
langoustine. Here the foam has no egg whites; just the soup infused with the
All three of the appetizers are so flavorful and beautifully presented – the
components of each plate are very distinct and separate, but join to enhance and
complete the dish.
We chose an Italian Syrah, Poderi Il Bosco Manzano 1996, Syrah Di Manzano, to
have with the rest of our dinner. It is well priced at about $29. The Primi course
is usually pasta or risotto. The chef has chosen Squid Ink Risotto made with a fish
stock using the Langoustine shells, etc. This is topped with tiny little sautéed squid.
The flavor of this dish in intense but it is not overly rich.
The Secondi, or main course is an unbelievable preparation of rabbit with Balsamic
and Tomato “Foil”. The “foil” is sheets of balsamic and tomato gelatin. It is served
with olive oil mashed potatoes. The rabbit is so moist and cut into small pieces,
including a little “chop” with the rib attached. This dish is incredibly light but so much flavor. Without a doubt, one of the best preparations of rabbit we have ever
We are exhausted – been up for 32 hours now. No coffee, no dessert, just sleep
17 Maggio 2001
We head out early in the morning after breakfast. Out destination is 7 km from
Verona with a stop for lunch on Lake Orta. Two years ago, we had a wonderful lunch
at Vecchia Lugano. The emphasis here is fish – mostly fish from the lake. So we opt for a slightly frizzante, lightly chilled Barbera Del Monferrato La Monella 2000, Braida Giacoma Bologna, which turns out to be an excellent choice with the fish.
They have a fabulous antipasti “bar” here that we remembered from our first trip.
There are several plates of fishes and vegetables. Most of the fish are grilled and
marinated in olive oil, garlic, herbs, and capers. But each is a bit different. The
vegetables are grilled, pickled, sliced, slivered. We taste a bit of each dish (there
must be 10 or 12) and it is delicious. It could be LUNCH, but instead we go on
asking them to split some items so we can have tastes of several dishes.
We start with a very light risotto with lake fish, prepared with tomatoes and herbs
Gnocchetti with Crayfish. This turns out to be heavier than before we move on to
expected. The sauce is made with a crayfish stock and olives and the result is a
very strong and rich flavor. The gnocchi themselves seem heavy – not tiny little pillows but more like blobs (that’s Terry’s description). It’s easy to leave most of
this on the plate.
The Secondi Piatti are both excellent. I enjoy a Branzino (black bass) filet, rolled around an herb filling on a tomato caper puree while Terry has the fresh lake pike
with stewed barlotti beans and polenta. This is so Italian tasting. Obviously not as
light as the bass, but one of those dishes that seems unlikely for me to duplicate.
It is, of course, the unique flavor of the pike, as well as the beans and other local
ingredients and I really can’t figure out what the ingredients of the sauce are. Our
waitperson has disappeared so I have no one to ask about it which is unfortunate.
An espresso and our plate of little sweets and off to the Villa Del Quar, our base for the next 4 days.
The Villa Del Quar is about 7 km out of Verona. This is Valpolicella country – the
land of the very special Amarone wine. The hotel is right in the vineyards. The
building is typical of the region, with three wings around a central garden. There
are beautiful salons and bedrooms and a one-kilometer walking path through the
vineyards. Great thing to do first thing in the morning!
Our first night in Verona, we chose a relatively new restaurant, Trattoria L’Oste Scuro, which specializes in fish and seafood. The owner chef speaks a little English,
but not much. We ask him to prepare a tasting menu for us and off he goes!
We are drinking a 1993 Valpolicella Classico Superiore Quintarelli and it goes beautifully with our fish.
To begin, Simone prepared a plate of raw fish – monkfish carpaccio, salmon tartar, Sicilian red prawns, Adriatic scampi. He serves this with a bit of mixed greens and
drizzles it all with olive oil, fresh thyme, basil and marjoram. Every fish is in
perfect condition – fresh and clean, light and delicious. The BEST raw products; a
Our next treat is grilled shark’s fin with lemon, olive oil, oregano and fresh capers
followed by seared Tuna and a mixture of cooked carrots, celery, onions, pine nuts,
raisins, prunes (no tomato or peppers). The veggies are diced perfectly and quite
Caponata, but it’s small and cooked until it caramelizes together. Simone calls this
nothing like the Caponata I know.
There are several Sicilian touches to his food and I ask him if he is Sicilian. He
says NO, NO. Terry thinks I have offended him. He is, after all, Veronese and
The next course is a plate of very fresh, tiny baby calamari about 1 ? to 1 ? inch
total length. They are simply fried and are so tender. They come from the
Adriatic and disappear from our plates quickly.
We really are finished, but a huge platter of grilled Sicilian red prawns with olive oil
and herbs and a wonderful mixed green salad is delivered to our table.
We think this is it, but Simone disagrees and delivers a Pistachio Parfait (sort of a
Panna Cotta but lighter) with a Wild Berry Sauce and a glass of a Sicilian Hazelnut
Liqueur (to which I tell him there are some good things in Sicily.) He graciously
smiles at my “joke”.
“Abiamo mangiato molte bene! (We ate very well). I miei complimenti allo chef (our compliments to the chef) before we roll out of there. What a fun experience!
18 Maggio, 2001
We spent the morning in Verona, shopping and walking around and had lunch at the
Botega Del Vino. Although we had very good food here last year, the reason one comes here is because they have 90 bottles of excellent wine by the glass. We did
our best to try as many different wines as possible and had a bit of lunch. There
are a lot of locals who come here to drink the “tap” wine, which we haven’t tried.
For years now, I have wanted to dine at Il Desco and Terry has not! It is a highly
rated Verona restaurant and is considered by some to be one of the top 10
restaurants in Italy. So here it is, from start to finish.
The chef’s wife is the person who greeted us and she is quite nice and very
personable. Unfortunately, that was the last time we saw her until we left. We did
see her at other tables, but she did not visit us during our meal. The interior of
the restaurant is a bit formal but comfortable with some modern art on the walls –
a nice room.
We did not even have a chance to look at the menu and our waiter came over and
niente (nothing). Just, “Ready?. said, “Ready?” Not “do you have any questions”,
We said we needed some time and he went away.
The stuzzichini (the tiny little free palate teaser), was an olive oil ice cream on a tomato pure with fresh basil. Sounds weird, but it was quite good.
We finally ask if we can see the sommelier and we order a Joseph Drouhin, 1990
Clos Des Mouches. This is a very nice wine, but we didn’t come to Italy to drink
French wine. But the prices on the wine list are ridiculously expensive so we opt for
the best value. We are already not very happy.
Primi Piatti is Fois Gras with Balsamic, pears and onions served with a sweet
Veronese wine, Ansemi I Capiteri. Terry says it is excellent. I opt for a Ravioli of Chickory, with Butter, Fava, and “Fried” Breseola. It, too, is delicious.
Secondi is a Wild Norwegian Salmon (it takes me forever to get an answer as to
where the Salmon came from.) It is served over a lentil stew with spring onions and
cilantro. My sea bass is served on a potato pure with fennel and baby calamari. We
end with a nice mixed salad.
Because we have a bit of red wine left, we share an uninspired cheese plate with fig
bread and squash chutney (the chutney is good).
Terry’s instincts were right on with this one. Although the food was quite good, the
overall experience was not. The service was very poor. We were very rushed with
our dinner, which never happens in Italy. So, I can now check this off of my list.
19 Maggio 2001
Today, Saturday, we have scheduled a drive to Erbusco which is about 40 minutes
West and slightly North of Verona. We are going here to eat lunch at Gualtiero
Marchesi because the chef there is one of the chefs Saleh Judeh (Saleh al Lago)
trained with early on in his career. It is a highly rated restaurant in a beautiful
Relais and Chateaux Hotel, L’Albereta.
We arrived early (we always do) and walked around the gorgeous grounds. The
hotel is in the hills between the Alps and Lake Iseo – the landscape is magical and the hotel is elegant. This would be the perfect place to spend a first night in Italy
if you were flying into Milan (about 40 minutes away). The staff is very
accommodating and offer us an espresso while we wait for the dining room to open.
The sun was shining, the view was unbelievable and we were happy campers.
The dining room is very elegant and we are one of only two tables. Lunch is not as
big a deal in Italy these days. People are tending to go the American way with “fast
food”. Terry immediately recognizes our waiter and we decide that he had been
our waiter two years ago when we ate in a 3 star restaurant in Lombardia about 100
Dal Pescatore 2 years ago, miles from there. When we ask him if he was working at
we discover we are correct. Hmmmm. Now we are recognizing waiters in Italy!!
We begin with the Stuzzichini which are the little bites of free appetizers. They
are very elaborate here and there are many including: in a little demitasse spoon,
there is finely chopped eggplant and peppers with parmesan cream and caramelized
garlic; a fried won-ton filled with pumpkin and drizzled with Amaretto; a shrimp
wrapped with bacon and a piece of mint leaf; thinly sliced Daikon wrapped around
sweetened ricotta and almonds; a toast point with avocado cream; a fried morsel of
lard (yes, lard – it’s a delicacy); a thin zucchini flower that looks pressed (we are told the chef sits on them all morning) BUT as beautiful as these are, they seem to
be lacking in flavor.
The wine for this day is a 1997 Pio Cesare Barbaresco, and it lives up to it’s reputation. But we find it to be over-priced by Italian standards. Terry begins with
a Straci di Pasta Al Ragu Fini Di Vitello. Translation, spinach pasta, a light béchamel and a veal sauce. The sauce is not red, but made with a stock reduction – quite rich
and very good. My first course is Raviolo Aperto – two squares of pasta filled with pieces of fish and seafood. This is not as successful as Terry’s dish. The sauce the
fish is in is very non-descript. Baby lamb for Terry and Rabbit for me. The lamb is
prepared quite simply – roasted in the wood burning oven, served with an au jus for
dipping and a raw fennel salad. The rabbit is in natural juices with potatoes and
fave beans. Nothing special about either dish. The cheese plate includes
Gorgonzola, a local hard cheese called Bagoss, Teleggio and Pecorino. The cheeses
are served with almond tuille, Cugna (cooked dried fruits and nuts), honey and figs that are preserved with hot mustard and fave beans – delicious. No, we are not through yet. The finale is a Tiramisu made with Panettone instead of sponge or lady
fingers. It is a delicious note to end the meal on.
We probably would not return to this restaurant. It was a very nice experience
thanks to our waiter and a young Japanese woman who is the sommelier. BUT, the
food is really not special and certainly there is no real creativity. It reminds us of
expensive “hotel” food in the American sense.
20 Maggio 2001
Piemonte. We were Sunday May 20, we are anxious to get on the road and head to
drove from Verona to Lake Maggiore, which is about a 3 ? to 4 hour drive. Our
reservations for lunch were in the town of Lesa on Lake Maggiore. Once we arrived
in Lesa, we followed the signs for Antico Maniero. As we approached, we saw a beautiful well kept old manor house, surrounded by battlements and rolling parkland.
Since we had arrived early, we went to the house and asked to use the bathroom
and also, to have an espresso. A very attractive but harried woman directed us to
the bathroom but said she couldn’t fix us a coffee. This is so unusual, we felt rebuffed and wonder if we really wanted to have lunch here. Then she indicated
that we could go sit outside and have an apperitivo while we were waiting for lunch
to be served. The entire conversation, by the way, was in Italian. We went out and
walked down a forested path where there was a table set up with all kinds of
apperitivi and glasses. We hadn’t been there long when 3 or 4 older Italian men,
dressed in black tie attire appeared and poured us some Spumante. By this time,
cars are rolling into this place like it was the World Series. So we headed back to
the house for lunch. We were taken to a sitting room and given menus, but the
owner, Michele (husband to the woman we talked to earlier), verbally recited a menu
“of the day” he would like us to have. Of course, we agreed, but said we didn’t want
to eat a lot. The wife then came back in and gave us a tour of the dining room(s).
It appeared that they had 4 or 5 huge families or groups coming in for lunch – Holy
Communion, Graduation, etc. Ours was the only table for two in the whole place.
And so, we came to understand why Giovanna, the owner, was so stressed out when
we arrived early!
We ordered a 1990 Collis Carellae Ghemme. Ghemme comes from the Gattinara area and you don’t see them much in the United States. Our first course was a house
made duck Prosciutto served with a drizzle of olive oil and shaved parmesan. It was
perfect. Next, there was a zucchini flan served with a fresh tomato puree and
basil. This dish was so light and flavorful. Terry really liked it a lot. A richer flan
made with Parmesan and served on a Parmesan béchamel, was very tasty, but a bit
rich and we forced ourselves to leave some on the plate in anticipation of the next
course. And it’s a good thing we did, because pasta filled with crab, ham and
fontina cheese was then served. Whew – this would be dinner if we were home. The fontina is unlike anything we can buy in the States. How about a little “test”,
they mean taste, of risotto. Can you believe it? And now, there is the main course,
veal stuffed with chopped veal, breadcrumbs and herbs in a Barolo sauce. We beg
Michele to stop. Nient’altra, we cry (nothing else), but to no avail. Dessert is a
Sicilian Moscato and a Mandarin Semifreddo with two sauces, orange and berry. It
really is the perfect ending to a great meal. We had such a wonderful time watching
and listening to all the locals. And the food truly was wonderful. We visit with
Giovanna and Michele, who speak wonderful English. They have a daughter who has
been an exchange student to the States and they go there often. Giovanna
apologizes about not making us coffee, and we are able to tell them how we
understand, having been in that position with our own restaurant. They are planning
to add some rooms to the restaurant in the future, so maybe we’ll be able to stay
there one day. They are such nice people, but it was time for our visit to come to
an end so we could head to Soriso where we will stay in an Inn where we will also
have dinner. Giovanna and Michele tell us we are going to the “temple of food” – in
other words, a place where other Italian restaurateurs eat because it is so good. I
Il miei complimenti allo chef. So tell Giovanna to give our compliments to the chef,
she took us to the kitchen to tell him ourselves. He was so appreciative. Finally, we
are off. Antico Maniero was an unexpected star.
Il Ristorante Hotel Al Sorriso is in the quiet village of Soriso in the verdant hills of
Lake Orta. Among the little houses that climb up a hill, the charming façade of the
restaurant and hotel elegantly stands out. Often in Italy, restaurants will offer
rooms for their dining guests. Dinner is late, Italians usually drink a lot of wine
with dinner, and so you just climb the stairs to bed. Very convenient, even if the
rooms are miniscule. They do have every convenience, however, including newly
renovated bathrooms. Angelo and Luisa Valazza are our hosts. She is the Chef and
he handles the front of the house.
This is obviously a place where locals with money are regular guests. They are very
well dressed and everyone seems to know the owner and the other guests. The
dining room is elegant and attention to every detail is evident from the Fiandra
tablecloths to the fresh flowers and cut glass goblets. Terry and I choose two
different tasting menus, which should be very small portions (we hope). Served
with our apperitivo, a sparkling wine from Ca’Del Bosco, is a tiny bit of potato and
tomato mousse on a bed of pureed basil and olive oil. It is just a thimble full,
bursting with flavor. I am served a tuna tartar and sashimi with julienne of
zucchini, tomatoes and almonds. The tuna is coated in herbs and chives. Terry’s
appetizer is Foie Gras on a purée of fresh peas and fave beans, garnished with
whole fresh peas, fave and corn and a red pepper marmalatta di cipolle. Both are
excellent. The second appetizers are prawns with a potato and black olive flan and
scallops with black rice stuffed tomato and balsamic sauce. Now it’s time for the
Primi, usually pasta, course. I enjoy Gnocchi of nettles with a Parmesan sauce and Foie Gras and Terry savors Green Ravioli with a Goat Cheese Filling. Secondi, or
main courses, include Squab and a White Fish with mushrooms. By this time, we are
too full to appreciate this course, but after sitting for a while and sipping the last
of our wine, we managed to find a little room for a berry tart, made with those tiny
little wild strawberries and served with a pistachio pastry cream.
What a day. We feel like we could go for 2 or 3 days without eating, but we know
we’ll be ready to go after a nice walk in the morning and a drive to our next
destination, Isole d’Asti.
Many of the restaurants we visited on this leg of the trip were “city” restaurants –
restaurants with Michelin stars and well-touted reputations. But for us, the most
enjoyable experiences are in the wine country in small family owned restaurants
where the same person who waited on you then goes to the kitchen to prepare your
meal. So we look forward with great anticipation for the coming weeks in the wine
country of Piemonte.