I’ve been traveling to Italy an average of 4-5 times per year for the last ten years (my most recent trip that ended only one week ago was my 49th) and I’ve enjoyed hundreds of wonderful meals. I’ve had a couple (count them – two) meals I’d consider ordinary, but I’ve never had a bad meal. Almost always, I’ve enjoyed marvelous dining experiences, whether at a Michelin-starred restaurant or humble osteria or trattoria (most often at the latter). I can report with great satisfaction that my lunch at Trattoria alla Ruota in the town of Mazzano in the Valpolicella district was one of the very best I have ever enjoyed anywhere in Italy.
The first thing I should tell you is that I’ve never thought of the Valpolicella district as a home to great food. I’ve dined at several local eateries and I’ve always found the food to be honest and tasty, but perhaps a bit old-fashioned and rustic. There’s nothing wrong with that, but too often I found the food to be a bit heavy, lacking finesse and complexity. Perhaps it’s the need of the chefs to pair local foodstuffs with rich reds such as Amarone and Ripasso, but for my tastes, the food, while always good – and sometimes very good – never truly captured my fancy, certainly not in the manner of so many brilliant dining rooms in Piemonte.
So experiencing the elegantly styled cuisine at this trattoria was a wonderful experience, but even before we sat down, I was won over by the owner, a charming young man named Stefano. I asked him if I could see the wine list and he immediately answered, “No.” I thought about it for a second and realized he was kidding; he smiled and asked me if I wanted to see the wine cellar. I was with a local producer (Gian Paolo Speri of the outstanding Amarone house, Speri), so he knew of my interest in wine, but what a gracious man! The cellar is small, but filled with all sort of gems and it was nice to try some white wine amidst all the Valpolicella I was tasting that week. I selected the 2009 Cantine Bosoni Vermentino (Etcihetta Nera) from Liguria. This is a brilliant example of this variety (brilliant is a word I use rarely) and I had tasted in on two instances in the past year; this was the first time I paired it in Italy with a meal at a restaurant and the wine showed exceptionally well with our pastas. It was also a treat to try the 2009, a superior vintage to the currently available 2010.
As I looked over the list to see what Stefano had selected for his wine program, I noted a Franciacorta from Villa, a producer with whom I was not familiar. Stefano asked Gian Paolo and I if we would like a glass – very gracious on his part and of course, we said yes. This was the producer’s 2006 Brut and the wine was wonderful with deep concentration and ideal acidity. But Stefano did not stop there – he brought out a Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi he highly recommended – the 2008 from Il Cornocino. The wine has excellent depth of fruit and persistence with intriguing flavors of pear and a touch of saffron. It was drinking beautifully and will continue to be a delight for the next 3-5 years.
Beyond that, Stefano won me over with his charm, his enthusiasm and his passion. He was working about five separate tables this particular lunch and was scurrying to greet everyone and move them to a different table as a cold front started to go through the area, forcing diners from the outdoors section overlooking vineyards to a more protected area of the dining room. He had a lot to do, but always did things cheerfully. Finally, having to wait on all of these tables didn’t stop him from telling Gian Paolo and myself about about an outstanding local olive oil he had discovered from Marco Sartori, which he brought to our table. Very few of us in the United States think about extra virgin olive oil from the Verona area, but Stefano knew what he was talking about; this had a deep green color and an intense fruitiness, without the bitterness you often find in young oils. I’d match this up against many of the best I’ve had from anywhere in Italy, be it Toscana, Umbria or Abruzzo. A great olive oil from the Valpolicella area – who knew? Stefano did and while I didn’t have time to purchase a bottle during my trip, I’ll be on the lookout for it on my next visit to the area.
Now on to the food, prepared by Stefano’s wife Renza. The primi in the top photo was amazing – the gnocchi are filled with very young Monte Veronese cheese and the freshness of the cheeese along with the sweetness of the purple potatoes offered an amazing combination. This was one of the finest pasta dishes I have ever enjoyed in Italy. Stefano, sensing how much I enjoyed this brought over a pasta, tortelli di carne all’Amarone. I don’t usually eat red meat, but I made an exception in this case. Stefano and Renza in an email told me this is an exclusive plate at their trattoria. I hope the photo below can give you an idea of how sensually tempting this dish was – and note that outstanding olive oil!
The rest of the meal was equally splendid and delicious. A choice of vegetables – I went with roasted potatoes, carrots and tomatoes – was followed by roasted chicken with polenta, a dish that was elegantly simple and scrumptious! Given all the wine and marvelous food, I simply didn’t have room for dessert- a rarity for me anywhere, but especially in Italy. But no matter, as I was as satisfied after this meal as I’ve been at any restaurant in a very long time.
Given the passion of Stefano, the culinary talent of Renza, the beautiful collection of wines and perhaps most of all, the extraordinary range of superb local foods, I rank Trattoria alla Ruota as one of the finest dining experiences in all of Italy! It is a must if you are in the Valpolicella district and it will change your mind about the local dining scene. I can’t wait to return!
Trattoria alla Ruota, 37024 Mazzano di Negrar (Verona), via Proale #6
Tel: (039) 045/7525605 / Closed Monday and Tuesday