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On the Cutting Edge: Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

On the Cutting Edge: Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy

It’s not that maps lie, exactly, it’s just that cartography can’t convey the cultural connections that exist between places on either side of a carefully drawn line. Although modern maps precisely divide Austria from Trentino-Alto Adige, in Northeastern Italy, the regions’ history and cultural heritage overlap. Until Italy annexed the region pursuant to a treaty at the end of World War I, that area had been part of Austria since 1815.

Today, Trentino-Alto Adige, a mountainous region bordered on the north by the Rhaetian Alps and the Dolomites, is made up of two autonomous provinces: the southern portion, Trentino, is mostly Italian speaking; and Alto Adige—also known as Südtirol, or South Tyrol in English—has a high proportion of German speakers and is officially bilingual, accommodating Italian and German speakers. The area also includes Ladins, whose language is a derivative of Latin. While the cuisine across the region shows an Austrian influence, that’s especially true in Alto Adige.

Although Americans in recent years have come to appreciate a wider variety of Italian food, wine and culture, Trentino-Alto Adige’s specialties have remained lesser known—but that is changing.

Lucio Caputo, president of the New York-based Italian Wine & Food Institute, says: “In the U.S., there is an increasing interest to discover other, less well-known regions of Italy in addition to the present centers of attention.

“The Trentino-Alto Adige is a very diverse area, sitting astride a linguistic and cultural divide with the northern part being mostly German and the southern part predominantly Italian. So you find there two distinct cuisines. Italians, Germans and Ladins live in the various Alpine valleys, and consequently there exists a great variety of foods and traditions. The beautiful countryside combined with interesting food and culture will certainly attract the attention of the visitor.”

Giancarlo Tondin, chef-owner of Scossa Restaurant & Lounge in Easton, Md., grew up in Borgo Valsugana, a small town in Trentino.

“Trentino-Alto Adige is a region where in the last, I could even say 10, but definitely in the last five years, is really getting discovered,” he says.

The topography is most interesting, Tondin adds.

“It’s a lot of valleys and mountains and a lot of lakes,” he says. “It’s one of those regions where it’s still a little bit closed in a way,” where many of the local products are only recently gaining recognition beyond the region.

To generalize, Trentino’s cuisine follows more in the Mediterranean tradition, while Alto Adige’s cooking evidences a more pronounced Austrian influence. Still, they share common elements: Both typically are described as mountain cuisine, and traditional dishes tend to be heavier than specialties of regions to the south. Bread dumplings, known as canederli in Italian and knödel in German, are found on menus throughout Trentino-Alto Adige.

Tondin says food in the region “is definitely more a cuisine of winter and cold weather,” with stews, gravies, meat and game playing important roles. He describes one important local dish, carne salada, which is “a beef muscle, marinated for many weeks and dry aged.”

“It could be close to a bresaola,” he says, “but it’s not as dry.”

Another specialty of the region that reflects the rich flavor of mountain dishes, Tondin says, is krauti, “cabbage, sliced very thin and marinated in a little vinegar,” then often cooked with pork ribs and sausage.

At Scossa, Tondin draws from his background in Trentino-Alto Adige as well as his time working for the Cipriani Group—first at Harry’s Bar in Venice and later in the United States—to create a mostly northern Italian menu. He notes, however, that he can’t resist working with fish, vegetables and other inspirations from the south of Italy, too, especially in summer. Trentino-Alto Adige products and dishes that have been featured on Scossa’s menu include canederli, speck, polenta with sausage and Grana Padano cheese, Trentino-style mine-strone, and krauti.

Luigi Fineo, who is from Puglia in southern Italy, recalls moving to Alto Adige to work at Schöneck Restaurant in Chienes and discovering that most of the people he worked with spoke German or a dialect that was “sort of a mix between Italian and German,” which made it hard for him to communicate even though he was still in Italy. Now as chef at La Botte, which earned a Michelin star last November, in Santa Monica, Calif., Fineo tries to feature dishes from every region of Italy, “starting from Sicily and ending to the north of Italy.” Items on his menu influenced by his time in Alto Adige include a “bisque” of lamb, roasted quail wrapped with speck, and a traditional strudel made with apple, cinnamon, raisins and pine nuts.

Another chef introducing U.S. diners to the Trentino-Alto Adige region is Jody Adams, chef-owner of Rialto restaurant in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. Each month, Adams offers a themed menu from a different region of Italy. In March, she will feature the cuisine of Trentino-Alto Adige, matched with wines from the region selected by Kelly Coggins, Rialto’s director of wine and beverages.

“People think of that area as being quite German in terms of the food and the heavy dumplings and things like that, but there’s also a lot of polenta [and] mushrooms,” Adams says. “I was actually in Trentino in November. We had beautiful trout with salsify and leeks in a frittata, which was really beautiful. So they were working with the vegetables of the season, salsify and leeks. Then we had some sausage that was seasoned with cloves and potato purée, and then again more leeks and salsify, and this is what I love about the Italians: If you’re in a place and there is an ingredient that’s sort of at its peak, then you see it through the entire menu. You don’t say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen those tomatoes before, I can’t do it again.’ We had a risotto with squash and mushrooms that was very soupy and yummy, then a roasted veal with polenta and mushrooms—see, mushrooms again—with a caramelized crust. It was just a beautiful piece of veal that was simply roasted with salt and pepper, but the mushrooms were wonderful.”

Speck schmeckt gut…

…or, to translate, “speck is delicious.” Many chefs and diners alike consider speck, a protected geographic indication ham, to be the premier product of Alto Adige. It’s made from pork thigh that’s raw-cured with a mixture of salt and spices, lightly smoked, and then aged for about 22 weeks under controlled temperatures and humidity. Spice mixtures vary by producer, but typically include juniper berries, black pepper, garlic and bay leaves.

Speck gained U.S.D.A. approval for import into the United States in 2004. It’s beginning to show up on restaurant menus. Chef Jody Adams advises: “Be sure that it’s sliced thin, and that you keep it covered—it dries out very quickly. You can use it as you would a Parma prosciutto.” Popular ways to use it include slicing it thin for an antipasto, pairing it with figs or melon, or using it to wrap roasted meats. It can also be used as an ingredient in sauces or pasta fillings. In Trentino-Alto Adige, a little speck is often mixed into the mixture for canederli bread dumplings.

An annual Speckfest celebration in Bolzano each May showcases speck and other local products, such as apples—the region is an important apple producer—cheese, wine and asparagus.

Adams finds the Trentino-Alto Adige cuisine, with its mountain roots, to be a good choice for colder weather. For her themed menus, Adams tries to be faithful to the spirit of the original cuisine, without being constrained to the letter.

“We’re not in these regions,” she says.“We don’t get their beautiful trout. Our seasons are slightly different. They’re ahead of us, or it doesn’t get as cold as it does here. So what we do is we do a lot of research, pull out sort of the main ingredients and techniques, get a feeling of things, and create my menu using what’s seasonal here at the time.”

Canederli, a regional staple

Canederli, known as knödel on German-language menus, and often called “Tyrolean dumplings” in English, are popular throughout Trentino-Alto Adige and are served in humble kitchens and Michelin-starred restaurants alike. Like many traditional dishes, canederli originated as a thrifty way to use old bread and scraps. Chef Stefano Tait cites it as an example of how families traditionally made a meal out of “nothing.”

Denis Franceschini, executive chef for Cipriani Group in New York, and a native of Borgo Valsugana in Trentino, explains how to make canederli: “Usually, you use old scraps from salami, mortadella, prosciutto, all the ends. We cut it up, and we sauté it with butter. Then we get the old bread and soak it in milk. Everything is ground through a grinding machine and mixed together with salt, pepper, egg yolk, Parmesan cheese and flour. Then they get boiled in water—like a gnocchi.”

Traditionally, canederli are served in broth or, for a heartier dish, with meat sauce or thicker meat soup. Tait says that in summer, canederli might be served with butter and grated Trentingrana cheese, a cow’s milk cheese from Trentino that he describes as being similar to Parmesan.

Strangolapreti, or “priest stranglers,” are similar but made with the addition of spinach. They’re more often served with butter than with soup.

While her menu is not yet finalized, she is considering a Trentino-inspired dish of polenta with salt cod, cream and mushrooms, accented with slow-roasted tomatoes. She might prepare polenta with buckwheat flour, another popular ingredient of the region, she says.

Polenta is a cornerstone of the cuisine of Trentino-Alto Adige.

“You cannot forget the polenta, cornmeal, which takes the place of the bread in a way,” Tondin says, adding that it’s often used as a side dish for beef stew, or when the hunting is good, for roast rabbit or venison.

Another dish, polenta pasticciata, “is almost like a lasagna but instead of using the fresh pasta, we use polenta cut very thin,” he says.

Stefano Tait, a chef from Cavalese, Trentino, says polenta is important not only as a dish but as an ingredient—such as substituting cornmeal for some of the conventional flour in pasta dough—and that the area’s polenta di storo is especially prized.

One chef who has done a lot to promote the region’s cuisine is Norbert Niederkofler of St. Hubertus Restaurant at the Hotel & Spa Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano in Alta Badia, a section of Alto Adige known for its Dolomite mountain landscape and skiing. It’s also home to three of South Tyrol’s eleven Michelin-starred restaurants, including St. Hubertus, which earned a second Michelin star in November 2007.

At St. Hubertus, Niederkofler works with local ingredients and classic dishes, but the presentations are far from traditional. For example, a preparation of fresh ricotta cheese and red turnips contrasts temperature, texture, and sweet and savory flavors. The dish includes a medley of ricotta ice cream flavored with honey, thyme and orange zest; ricotta blended with brown sugar, citrus zest, thyme and garlic, which is then baked, sliced, dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried; and ricotta mousse made with grated smoked ricotta and fresh cream. Niederkofler serves the ice cream on diced red turnip, garnished with red turnip chips; the baked ricotta, atop red turnip sauce, garnished with candied orange peel; and the mousse, with triangles of baked dough.

Last month, Niederkofler hosted the third “Chef’s Cup,” which draws together international Michelin-starred chefs, wine-makers and journalists, about 100 in all, for a celebration that includes skiing, car racing and, of course, food and wine. Previous Chef’s Cup events were held in 2004 and 2006. The three-day bash showcased traditional South Tyrol dishes as well as international specialties and culminated with a gala charity dinner prepared by several international Michelin-starred chefs. Proceeds from this year’s dinner will go to the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising funds to support spinal injury research and development. The foundation was started by David Nicholls, executive chef of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London, whose son suffered a spinal injury in 2003.

Niederkofler welcomed his guests with local specialties, such as ravioli stuffed with Graukäse—“gray” cheese; veal goulash with dumplings and local sausages cooked over different woods; and three kinds of apple strudel.

In Niederkofler’s view, one of the most important trends in local cuisine is the move towards lightening traditional dishes.

“The cuisine over here in the beginning was very, very heavy,” he says. “People were working out in the fields, and so they needed a lot of energy.”

In contrast, he points out, people today are likely to spend all day sitting at a desk. In addition, he notes, Europe has a problem with overweight children, so the cuisine needs to change accordingly. He says he sees more Mediterranean influences creeping into the regional cuisine and believes schools should make a concerted effort to educate children about healthy eating and top-quality, fresh products.

Chef Stefano Tait, who’s currently broadening his experience at a restaurant in Bergamo, in the Lombardy region, usually works with his parents, chef Maurizio Tait and Rosalba Tait, at the family’s restaurant Costa Salici in Cavalese, Trentino. Costa Salici is a member of Osteria Tipica Trentina, an organization established in 2004 to promote the region’s traditional ingredients, products and dishes. Typical dishes served at Costa Salici include carne salada, polenta with wild mushrooms and puzzone di Moena—a strong-flavored local cheese—and caronzèi, ravioli filled with sauerkraut and served with caraway sauce.

The Taits also put their own spin on local dishes, such as making canederli with grated smoked ricotta or serving the region’s plentiful venison with an untraditional sauce made with blueberries and raspberries.

Stefano Tait points out that priorities have changed over the years. Before the first and second world wars, he says, the problem was simply getting enough to eat; now, cooks and customers can concentrate more on enjoyment of meals. While taste and flavor remain paramount, presentation has also become important.

Back in Maryland, chef Tondin agrees, saying, “There are certain dishes that you cannot really change.” He emphasizes the need to remain true to authentic flavors, but he finds it important to pay more attention to presentation with a little more finesse.

Wines of Trentino-Alto Adige

Trentino-Alto Adige is one of the most diverse regions in Italy’s wine portfolio, says Kelly Coggins, wine and beverage director for Rialto restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. He sees growing recognition for the region’s wines, which he considers well worth seeking out.

While much of the region’s production has traditionally been exported north to German-speaking countries, says Lucio Caputo, president of the New York-based Italian Wine & Food Institute, demand has been growing within Italy and also in the United States, especially for Pinot Grigio from Trento, red Santa Maddalena and Lagrein from Alto Adige, and Pinot Nero from Trentino-Alto Adige.

The region’s noteworthy whites also include Pinot Bianco, Riesling, Sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau, Caputo says, “which age well for a decade or longer.”

“The best-known are the popular Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer,” he says. “Trentino has the largest Chardonnay-production of Italy. Sparkling wines Trento DOC are highly regarded.”

Coggins considers Müller-Thurgau, a grape of Swiss origin “that many people consider a ‘junk’ grape,” especially interesting. He calls it a “finicky” grape, thin-skinned and late to ripen, which makes it susceptible to mold.

In addition, “it also propagates quickly in the early stages,” he says, adding, “you have a lot of bunches that you have to green harvest.” However, he continues, with proper care, “it makes a really great wine that has some delicious floral notes, a little white peach to it, a lingering minerality in the finish. It can be a delicate aromatic and gorgeous wine.”

“Half of the production in Alto Adige has historically been centered on red wines,” Caputo says. “The Schiava or Vernatsch grape yields a light red, and the famous St. Magdalener/Santa Maddalena originating from the hills and terraces around Bolzano. The highly regarded Caldaro or Kalterersee from the small lake of the same name yields about 15 million bottles a year. Other highly ranked reds with a distinctive personality are Alto-Adige’s Lagrein and Trentino’s Teroldego, the latter grown north of Trento with a capacity of aging well. Trentino’s Marzemino, on the other hand, is a fresh red for casual consumption. Both provinces have increasingly focused attention on the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Merlot, which result in excellent quality wines, alone or blended.”

At Rialto, Coggins says, “we just started highlighting organic and biodynamic wines on the list for their own focus, and there’s a surprisingly large amount of interesting producers doing that style up there [in Trentino-Alto Adige], which has gone over extremely well with our clients.”

Coggins sees an increasing emphasis on quality for the region’s wines.

“The recognition of a lot of the smaller, lesser-known areas of Italy has become that rather than do a bulk production, if you make a more interesting wine, you have a better chance of standing out,” he says.

“Our dining room is pretty much refined, so we definitely need to change some of the dishes around just to make it more attractive and presentable,” he says.

Tait says he and his father are always looking for ways to advance their cuisine, but only by carefully balancing tradition and innovation.

“We don’t want to forget what we are and where we come from, but we want to improve, and we pay attention to new technologies and to the changes of world cuisine, too,” he says. “We can’t stay still to the old traditional cuisine. The cuisine is moving everywhere, and in our region, too.”

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