Lunch and dinner in Piemonte

Every time we fly to Italy we pass over the lakes in Piemonte, and every time it looks pretty and enticing. This Christmas we finally got to spend a day there. We didn’t make it up to Lake Como where Anakin and Padmé first kissed in Attack of the Clones, but to the smaller Lake Orta, where we’d found a restaurant we wanted to try.

We arrived by the lake in time for lunch, and stumbled upon an intriguingly modern and trendy trattoria called Olina. Several dishes on the menu were either recognised by the Slow Food organisation or were marked “Km 0”, meaning that all the ingredients had travelled less than a kilometre to get to the table.

I had a starter of cheese and chutney:

Followed by purple potato dumplings with a chestnut and toma cheese sauce.

We spent the afternoon on the Isola San Giulio (a separate post on this next time), and then made our way up into the hills to Al Sorriso (3 Michelin stars), where we would dine and spend the night.

Our host was very chatty and keen to regale us with anecdotes about his experience in restaurants and hotels around the world, but I was distraced by the fact that something about him reminded me of Paul Daniels. We chose the truffle menu and a bottle of a local red. The wine was good, but more interesting to me was the contraption used by the sommelier to hold it. As well as supporting the bottle at a specified angle, presumably to keep the sediment at the bottom, the handle on the right could be used to gently tip the bottle when pouring was required. You’ll also notice a small candle holder at the bottom. It wasn’t used that night, but I’ve seen it before, placed under the bottle neck so as to warm the wine as it exits the bottle, in case the wine hasn’t had time to reach room temperature since being brought up from the cellar.

We started with scallops in a pumpkin sauce with chestnuts and crunchy bacon and carrot strips.

The next course was probably my wife’s favourite, and it bizarrely reminded me of something we’d eaten the year before in a hotel in Austria. It’s a potato, covered in cheese and shaved truffle.

But when you break it with your fork, it bleeds egg yolk.

Next were potato and cabbage gnocchi with a Bettelmatt (an alpine cheese) sauce and shaved truffles. Nice, although a little gloopy and stodgy in the mouth. The main problem though was that we’d had two very similar dishes in a row, both variations on a mound of squishy potato and melted cheese. Now I’m all in favour of comfort food, and mountainous regions like Piemonte are known for their hearty, filling fare, but from a 3-starred restaurant I expected something a little more delicate and refined.

The next dish was a yummy raviolo containing foie gras, leek and guinea fowl, although to look at it you’d say it was just another mound of cheesy truffles.

Venison, again covered with truffles. Livened up this time with thin slices of onion and apple, although these were a little chewy when I’d have preferred them crisp and crunchy.

The cheese course. No problems here: a great selection of mostly local cheeses, including Testun, which means “stubborn” or “pig-headed” in Genoese dialect. Lovely chutneys and jams to accompany them, too.

A mandarin sorbet to cleanse the palate.

And then a very pleasant and not too rich chocolate and orange dessert. I didn’t eat any of the decorations, including the pointless sprig of rosemary.

Sweet nibbles with the coffee, although by this stage we were too full to finish them.

So a pretty mixed bag, on the whole. Great cheese, but it would have been better to keep it in its own course at the end, rather than smothering it over so many of the main dishes.