It’s not every day one gets not only to dine in a Michelin-starred restaurant but take espresso with the chef & sommelier afterward. In my experience, in fact, it’s been not a single day. Until this June, when I traveled to Alto Adige/Südtirol for the inaugural Festival del Gusto Alto Adige. It was my job (someone’s got to do it) to explore the foodways of Italy’s northernmost province—whose proximity to, & centuries of rule under the empires of, Austria is manifest in every aspect of life from the architecture to the official German-Italian bilingualism to, of course, the cuisine—which I heard billed, more or less accurately, as Alpine-Mediterranean.
Granted, the designation applies more obviously to the contemporary upper end of the dining scale, where “outside” (i.e. invading Italian) influences are incorporated more easily, with more relish. (That’s true anywhere: few are the true barbecue pits of the American Deep South, for instance, that have added, say, Thai ingredients to their repertoires, whereas Asian fusion has flourished in modern urban kitchens for decades.) Overall, during my time in the Südtirol, I ate far more knödel (potato- or bread-based dumplings) & strudel than I did ravioli & gelato. But restaurants like Zum Löwen exemplified the remarkable potential for hybridization.
That much was suggested by the setting itself, all crumbling centuries-old charm on the outside
& minimalist yet warm pop touches throughout the stone-walled interior.
But the proof was in the food & wine pairings of owners Anna & Alois Matscher—a self-trained chef & sommelier, respectively, whose allegiance to regional tradition was only highlighted by the framework of exquisite technique.
There’s a time for reviewing & a time for pure show-&-tell. This here’s the latter.
AL FRESCO HORS D’OEUVRES RECEPTION
Phyllo “spring rolls” stuffed with graukäse—a pungent, fresh local cheese made from skimmed, soured milk
Horseradish knödel in chilled beet consommé
“Carbonara” of cuttlefish, white asparagus & fried speck “brittle” (Come on!)
Italy makes some fantastic refined-flour breads—focaccia & ciabatta come to mind—but it’s not known for darker stuff like rye, & varied bread baskets aren’t common. (In most trattorias, the pane e coperto—basically a cover charge that includes cold, unsalted white bread—is traditional.) This region is an exception, reveling at every turn in herbed, seeded loaves & rolls. Zum Löwen’s basket was accompanied by a quenelle of luscious, robust schweinefat—compound butter flavored with pork fat & specks of, yes, the lightly smoked ham called speck, as well as a whipped-sweet swirl of ricotta cream.
Beef tartare was a wonder, since the marshmallow-sized, arancino-like mound was coated in schüttelbrot (thick cracker) crumbs & lightly fried without compromising the integrity of the raw interior. Set atop mustard sauce & a precarious tower of pickled pfifferlings (chanterelles) layered with potato chips, it struck a swoony balance between richness, acidity, & spice.
Only shaved schüttelbrot croutons & the use of quark rather than ricotta as filling shook these origami-gorgeous tortelloni over tomato compote & flecks of basil from their Italian roots.
By contrast, deconstructed knödel skewed toward the other side of the Alps in tender, near-melting slices that alternated with spoonfuls of wine-dark venison ragù & ultra-subtle mushroom foam.
Over marinated, roasted peppers & potatoes, braised local agnello proved an exceedingly gentle relation to Colorado lamb.
Pie-spiced apple compote filled crinklingly delicate pastry pouches garnished with walnut foam & accompanied by ginger ice cream.
As if that weren’t more than enough, the meal ended with confections—
& the aforementioned powwow with the rock stars themselves.
I was especially curious about Alois’s wholly European, mostly Italian, largely local wine list. While a Michelin-starred restaurant can hardly ignore the likes of Bordeaux & Burgundy, Piedmont & Tuscany, Zum Löwen makes an impressive commitment to supporting Alto Adigean wineries (not that they’re anything to sniff at, reputation-wise). Over the course of the evening, we’d drunk a Manni Nössing Müller Thurgau, a Colterenzio Chardonnay, a Franz Gojer–Glögglhof St. Magdalener—redolent of wet dirt, ripe tomatoes & cherries—& a chocolate-tinged, long-lasting Muri-Gries Lagrein Riserva.
Acknowledging that “sometimes locals want to see Californian & Australian wines” for the sake of novelty, Alois explained that if he hasn’t personally visited a given winery, he won’t sell its products. Fair enough. I also asked him about the fact that although they seemed terroir-driven, 100% varietals were so much more common than blends in these parts—St. Magdalener, typically a Schiava- (aka Vernatsch-)dominant blend with a touch of Lagrein, being the exception. (Understandably compared to Beaujolais, it’s light enough to warrant chilling in compensation for the lack of structure, according to Alois, but it’s also bright enough to inspire loyalty in South Tyroleans, for whom the varietal & the blends it yields constitute the everyday go-tos.) His answer (to quote our translator): “Because the vineyards are so small, you can get very intimate with the planting.” In other words, you can micromanage the varietal beforehand rather than tinkering with percentages afterwards.
In any case, the regional emphasis comes naturally insofar as Anna walks the talk of her chefly contemporaries worldwide, leading the way for her husband with a microlocal & hyperseasonal menu that changes every few days. Had I been dining a la carte, oh, how I’d have loved to try the sweetbread cappuccino, the cheese dumplings over rhubarb ragù, the curried tripe.
I guess there had better be a next time.