Well, it really is a damn shame that I had never made it up to Trentino before just a few weeks ago. But sometimes things take a while and I am sort of slow. The trip couldn’t have come at a more welcome time: Living in Trieste presents a unique set of challenges (i.e. abundant melancholy) and I was certainly ready for a change of scenery when my sister-in-law, Lindsay, decided to pay me a visit. She works in wine and, with the help of one seemingly incredible colleague, she was able to set up a number of vineyard tours for us to do together. The vineyard tours I’ve been on in the past have all been in Tuscany and Umbria and they’ve been pretty run-of-the-mill: find vineyard, go into tasting room, have wine, find next vineyard. Maybe you buy some wine, maybe not. Someone tries to stay pretty sober so you don’t die or get forever lost on winding back roads. The product can be quite good and the owners of these places and their staff are certainly gracious, but they’re used to lots of folks coming through and they have a routine they like to stick to–presumably to make their lives easier. Tuscany, we can’t forget, is overrun with tourists. I really feel for the producers there (until I remember that they’re making oodles of cash…).
This was not like that at all. Welcome to Trentino-Alto-Adige where time stops, everyone is excited to see you, and the wine is complex, evolving with tradition, and really important.
On our way out to Rovereto, before launching into our Adige tour, we stopped in Capriva del Friuli to see the folks at Mario Schiopetto. Thanks to a major semi-truck accident on the autostrada out of Trieste, we were about an hour behind, but we were received with open arms nevertheless (being chronically late as a culture greased the wheel a bit, I’m sure). Their operation is truly state-of-the-art and they’ve recently renovated their tasting room and entrance, as befitting a producer of their ilk. Among the innovations these folks are engaged in is the production of their very own yeast strands. If you’re gonna use it, make it yourself! We tasted at least ten different wines ranging from their Blumeri to their Pinot Bianco. They are pretty well represented by importers in the US and, in fact, we weren’t the only ones who had stopped by that afternoon to have a look at the operation.
I’ll admit it, though: I don’t know a lot about wine and this is all an education for me. From my perspective as translator, I was most geeked about hearing about how hard the weather had been this year (too hot; super early harvest), how long the family has been in the business (a long time–check out their site), and getting a rudimentary understanding of the use of wood in Italian wines and additives like yeast and sulfides. Oh, and hearing about everyone’s lives, families, political opinions, etc. Really, it is always a pleasure to talk!
Unfortunately, we couldn’t buy wine because we had lingered too long tasting and getting a tour and the offices had been closed. It is probably a good thing, though: I somehow managed to bring thirteen bottles of wine back to Trieste, making a suitcase so heavy the wheels actually fell off within a block of the train station. I really don’t want to be forced to drink all of this before I head back stateside in November (I tend to drink vino sfuso when I’m here anyway), but I just might have to thin the herd a bit…
After Schiopetto we made the somewhat long haul over to Rovereto in Trentino (long haul by Italian standards = anything over 2.5 hours). Why the hell have I never been to Rovereto before? It is a cute little artist community sandwiched between amazing mountains in the Adige valley, called the Vallagarina. The scenery is enough to make you forget about everything else you’ve ever seen in Italy and it might even bring a tear of appreciation to your eyes (I would have wept with appreciation had I not been driving like a maniac to keep our next appointment. Weeeeee! It is fun to drive with me!). I kept on saying, “This is, like, the platonic ideal of a valley!”
We stayed at Hotel Rovereto, which is owned by Susanna and Marco Zani, who also own Castel Noarna (more on that later). Marco’s father purchased and renovated the hotel in the 1970s and Marco has taken ownership of it and the adjacent restaurant, in which his mother, near 90 years old, still works to prepare the dishes. She is from Mantova, while Marco’s father is from Trentino, so the menu at the restaurant, called Ristorante 900, reflects these different culinary traditions. The hotel is charming and elegant without being stuffy. I think this is due to the eccentric and whimsical artwork about the place, most of which is done by Susanna herself.
I really have to tell you what I ate, though. Reliving it is going to make me hanker to get back there again, which I just might have to do really soon. I finally had a dish that I’ve heard of for some time, but have never had the opportunity to try: carne salada, which is similar to carpaccio, but the beef is aged in a mixture of salt, herbs and spices, and white wine, which all preserve it, but don’t allow it to dry out (think bresaola). This dish is typical of southern Trentino and it can be served raw, like carpaccio, or grilled. Unlike carpaccio, however, carne salada has a very distinct, earthy taste and the use of wine as a preservative allows a range of flavor to develop usually absent in carpaccio.
In addition to this antipasto, Marco suggested a combination of pastas, which would represent both the Adige valley and his mother’s Mantovan roots: strangolapreti and tortelli di zucca. The former are spinach dumplings (like large gnocchi) with grano cheese and sage, and the name literally translates to “priest chokers.” They were both rich and light and the butter in them tasted of the valley itself. Seriously. Whoa. The tortelli were ethereal and sweet with squash, also redolent of amazing butter (the dairy products in the Adige valley are well-known throughout Italy).
The other great part about Ristorante 900 was the clientele: I love it when I see families, couples, singles, and a smattering of tourists eating together. It is not a rustic osteria, or even a trattoria, but a true ristorante and the food reflected that (higher end, nicer setting). Italians can shy away from places like this, preferring to cook at home and avoid high costs and unnecessary hassle (and subpar food). None of that here. Everything is reasonably priced, the food is of the highest quality, and the locals know as much. We were sat between two older men, one on each side of us, eating alone. One started a conversation with me for a moment, but was clearly too shy to sustain the effort throughout the course of his meal. The whole experience was quite charming and heartening to see some many people enjoying such great food on a chilly weekday night.
Ultimately, what I took from the meal, the conversation with Marco and Susanna, and the experience of wandering around Rovereto, which is a far cry from a tourist center, is that there are important things happening in this pocket of the world that don’t scream for attention, but are worthy of it nonetheless. An example/digression: I met a boutique owner, an Italian, who happened to live in Park Slope, Brooklyn during the same years I did (2002-2003) just one block over from my old apartment. We even both had shifts at the Food Coop there and frequented the Peruvian place on 5th Avenue. I’m sure our paths crossed unknowingly dozens of times. He struck up a conversation with me when he recognized the brand of shoes I was wearing (he would like to carry them in his store. Check ‘em out, they’re called Cydwoq) and we discovered our shared history. His store, adami sciuss, looks like it belongs in Brooklyn more than Rovereto, a town which tends towards the medieval rather than mid-century. And yet the place was filled with locals coming in to chat, try on clothes, bring their dogs in to meet with the owners’ dogs, etc. The clothes are presented minimally, and are all of the highest quality. This coupled with the natural Italian desire to help the customer (yes, that DOES exist), makes for a really wonderful experience. If you’re in Rovereto and want to shop, this is a must-do.
Kind of like Ristorante 900′s blending of cuisine from Mantova and Adige, the success of adami sciuss is built on a modern design aesthetic presented in a traditional Italian village. Sometimes when people think of Italy, they picture a homogeneity of architecture, cuisine, people, etc. that simply doesn’t exist, even in far flung places and tiny villages. For me, the true pleasure in discovering places like Rovereto is understanding the different, combined elements within and learning to take advantage of these diversities saves me from expecting one kind of Italy and being disappointed when I find another one. There isn’t one Italy–from the food to the language, it is all local interpretation, combination, and reinvention of tradition!
Think of the history of the Trentino region, for example: part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until 1919, it is not culturally homogenous. The German/Austrian influence is strong even today: the food, the love of hiking and outdoor sports not seen in much of Southern Italy, and the delightful use of dairy products are all testament to this. These tendencies are all reinforced by the steady influx of German tourists in the region. They make up the majority of tourism there and I think they’re on to something.
The wines, to get back to the initial point of this post, reflect these elements, too… I’ll save that for my next post on Trentino-Alto Adige, in which I’ll cover the vineyards of Castel Noarna, Eugenio Rosi, and Gino Pedrotti, who are all doing simply amazing, and amazingly important, things with wine, tradition, and biodiversity.