Restaurant of the Year - Alpino
It's a family affair at Ristorante Pizzeria Alpino, in Vodo di Cadore, Italy.
Before getting to the highly-anticipated (and somewhat delayed) topic of Pizzacentric's 2012 Restaurant of the Year, let's first touch upon the topic of dreams. Because whether for money or love or a new job or no job, or the clean air of Alaska, or softer sheets ― we all wish for things. I love to travel with my wife and daughter; I’m always dreaming of our next trip. I wish I could speak other languages; but at best, I fumble through French and Italian. Of course, I daydream about food all of the time.
I've done my best to live these dreams, in particular, by visiting Italy (on a shoestring) as often as possible.
My friend's father is a retired American diplomat who has lived in different countries. I imagine his has been a life full of good food. I’m lucky because for many years he has hooked me up with tips, all of which have been in Italy.
Could truffles lurk beneath the earth's surface amongst these Umbrian trees?
First came Trattoria Cibocchi in Todi (Umbria) in 1996. Just one bite of the tagliatelle with shaved truffles and it became the standard to which I have since judged all pasta.1
Six years later, as my wife-to-be and I planned a visit to Siena (Tuscany), he suggested we stay at the Pensione Palazzo Ravizza. “Be sure to have dinner there. They have very good food,” he said. Spot on again: our meal in the hotel’s peaceful backyard garden was perfect ― and it didn't break the bank.
A year after that, in 2003, we returned again. This time it was our honeymoon. For a week, we stayed in an apartment in a small village in the Dolomite Mountains (Veneto). The area is close to Austria and in fact, has at times in the past been a part of Austria. Foods of the region reflect this. Casunzei anyone? (It's a ravioli-like pasta filled with beets and ricotta, and topped with poppy seeds and butter.) How about krapfen? (It's a donut filled with either marmalade, cream, or thick dark chocolate ― and then topped with powdered sugar.)
On certain hikes one encounters herds of cattle. This is me, with some bakery pizza I brought along for lunch.
As my friend (the retired diplomat's daughter) reviewed with us her hiking and food recommendations for our visit to the area, she mentioned that her father thought we should have dinner one night at Ristorante Pizzeria Alpino, in Vodo di Cadore. And, that I should order the stinco di maiale.
It was the first time he had mentioned a specific dish. It was also the first time I’d heard of stinco di maiale. It's braised pork meat that, with just a slight pull of the fork, detaches from its rather substantial bone. Alpino serves it with polenta and a brown jus specked with bits of rosemary.
The first time I had it it was enough food for two people ― but it was so good I ate it all. When we returned a few days later the serving was smaller. Adequate, but smaller. I hunted along the bone for secret pockets of meat and found some.
What would Americans think of inconsistency like this if it occurred in a restaurant in the United States? Pork shins of different sizes? They would complain. Because Americans assess restaurant food not only for flavor and mouth feel, but also for amount. I’m guilty of this ― though by the end of most meals I wish I’d eaten less (and I have noticed that when I eat slowly, smaller portions work fine).
So maybe Alpino did me a favor by not serving such a huge piece my second time there. Nowadays, I've tired of cookie-cutter stuff: American chickens that are all breasty and the same size, dirt-free produce that doesn't have taste, and so on. I like variation because in nature, things vary.
But enough about food politics and serving size and eat-speed. I have accomplished my goal: to thank my friend and her father for the many amazing recommendations they've thrown my way over the years. Thank you A & L ― and N & G, too!
Ristorante Pizzeria Alpino is along Route SS51 in Vodo di Cadore ―
about 20 minutes drive from Cortina d'Ampezzo, a ritzy ski town in Italy's Dolomite Mountains.
The goal of this post is to announce and explain and celebrate Pizzacentric’s 2012 Restaurant of the Year. So let’s go to the Dolomites, where the winner is... Ristorante Pizzeria Alpino!
You may be wondering, especially if you live in the United States, “Why is Pizzacentric giving Restaurant of the Year to a place so far away?”
Well, I ask you: what sort of restaurant should Pizzacentric name as Restaurant of the Year?
Should newness, million dollar financing, prime location, foam, or an air conditioned sidewalk be the criteria? How about the offering of homemade ketchup for a $4 surcharge? In New York, I feel smothered at times by restaurants that use wholesome ingredients but charge really high prices.
When it comes to pizza, I chuckle aloud whenever the Times or New York magazine or Time Out New York proclaims “New York’s Best Pizza” yet again. It’s a rotation that seems more random than fair but honestly, the task seems useless anyway: the breadth of pizza variety alone makes comparing pies an overtly-subjective exercise. What of Motorino? Did it decline in quality? Or does Kesté ― I mean Forcella ― I mean Don Antonio ― now make the best pizza? Really?! What about liftable slices? If hold ‘n’ fold matters to you (as it does to plenty of New Yorkers) then the hullabaloo over fork-and-knife pies is, at best, lip service to a single (and expensive) pizza style. Perhaps the magazines prefer newer places. Maybe they like to rotate their favorites up and down the list, based on... well, I shouldn't speculate. But I wonder, what about great old places like Totonno’s in Coney Island and Patsy’s in Harlem, or top-tier slice joints like Luigi's in Sunset Park ― because I think they belong in any list of important New York pizza places.
In the case of this award, selection is simple. It makes no difference where the contenders are as long as I’ve had their food and as long as their food is exemplary and priced fairly. Idyllic setting helps. And it should be a place where the people behind the food are the reason the food is good. But the food can be rooted in newly-born passion or inherited recipes. Either works, so long as it is heartfelt.
It’s all about love and authenticity. Please, no pretentiousness. Bloated egos need not apply. High prices: meh. Shit, I don’t even care if a place doesn’t serve pizza because at Pizzacentric, pizza is code for foods made with love. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if pizza is on the menu.
Rifugio Alpe di Senes, as viewed from the nearby hillside. Great fried cheese!
In July 2012, I returned to Ristorante Pizzeria Alpino for the first time in nine years. I knew even before entering what I would have. I'd had it for lunch a day or two earlier at a mountainside restaurant called Rifugio Alpe di Senes. Their stinco was a little more precious, and less rustic, than the Alpino version I'd had years ago ― but nonetheless, delicious.
Alpino's "Popeye" pizza has spinach and ricotta.
I also knew that Alpino's stinco would be enough food for me, but I also doubted I would get to return to Alpino any time soon. So, since I’d tasted my wife’s spinach pizza ― she had ordered the Popeye; it’s a thin-crusted cheese and tomato jobby with cooked spinach and soft, white-as-a-cloud ricotta (Euro 7,00) ― and since she loved it too much to share any more than one bite with me, I ordered for myself a pizza with mushrooms.
Scroll past the photo of Alpino's stinco di maiale to see what it looked like after I was done.
First they brought me my stinco. It was just as I remembered it: a big bone with tender pork that pulls off with nary a touch, rosemary in the jus, and a slice of polenta. A true culinary miracle.
I finished it and the waitress, whose name was Jennifer, cleared the plate and brought my mushroom pizza. I felt guilty. My wife said, "You're gonna eat a pizza now?" Everyone at the table looked at me. But after one bite, the stares didn't matter. It had the same thin crust as my wife's Popeye, but instead of spinach and ricotta, it had mushrooms. Amazing.
Alpinos offers choices when it comes to pizza with mushrooms. I had the cheapest of them (in addition to the stinco) ― and it was amazing.
Later, I found out that the mushrooms on my pizza came from a jar. And they were great! Here's why: Alpino is in an area where during the right season, people forage for good mushrooms. I doubt Alpino (or any restaurant in the area) would sell inferior ones. Customers expect good mushrooms. So the budget ones in a jar? They're jarred in olive oil, pure and simple. Not in water mixed with citric acid or things even worse.
I also found out later that Alpino offers three options for pizza with mushrooms: the one I had, which is called Funghi (Euro 6,50); Porcini (Euro 7,00); and Pizza ai Funghi Freschi (fresh mushrooms) (Euro 8,50). I hadn't spotted the pricier two on the menu or I would have splurged, but I know next time I'll get the Pizza ai funghi freschi (local and fresh porcini, galletti, and chiodini mushrooms picked fresh and cooked in parsley and olive oil).2
After my pizza course, the owners allowed me to visit the kitchen. The first thing I noticed was a pot full of mushrooms with a top layer of olive oil shining through in one corner. These were certainly the mushrooms that were part of my friend Nick's Piatto dell'alpino, a plate of mushrooms, melted cheese, polenta, homemade sausage.
Nick and his Piatto dell'alpino. Stretchy cheese: a pizza lover's dream!
I loved watching the people in the kitchen. It was an Italian family at work in their restaurant: one woman at the stove, another plating, a man and a woman making pizza, and Jennifer (our waitress) walking in and walking out. It was busy but not frantic.
Ristorante Pizzeria Alpino is run by three generations of the Zammichieli family working together. It was opened in 1974 by Jennifer's grandparents, Maria and Marcello Zammichieli. She was 33, he was 40. I don't know if this has always been true, but nowadays the only people who work there are family. I asked Jennifer if it's a good job, and if she would share her thoughts on working in a family-run restaurant. Here's what she said:
"A waiter in Italy earns 900 Euros and up [per month], depending on qualifications. Tips are not obligatory and lately, perhaps because of the [economic] crisis [in Italy], they are rare. A good cook can earn [upwards] of 2000 Euros [a month] and even more. As long as we can [all work here] we will continue [this way]. If any of us were to leave, we would try [to hire new] personnel. But nowadays, few will work a job like this, especially [because] you are forced to work even on weekends."
The airport nearest to Vodo di Cadore is Venice, about ninety minutes away by car. People visit the area for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. The nearest large town is the charming (but pricey) Cortina d'Ampezzo.
1. Truffles have long been expensive ― even in 1996. But restaurants like Cibocchi had the inside track for "cheap" truffles because they came from nearby. Prices have skyrocketed over the years, in part due to forests shrinking, Euro gains against the dollar, and increased demand. I haven't returned lately to a truffle-producing area to verify this, but one Italian friend of mine told me they can still be relatively cheap in the local areas. "You have to know who to go to for the product. It's a relationship-based business," she told me.
2. One evening, when we cooked dinner in our rented apartment, my friend brought a large orange mushroom that a neighbor in the village had found in the woods that day. Seeing it ― and tasting it (she cooked it up with some garlic) ― had me wishing I knew how to hunt for mushrooms. Did you know that you can bring found mushrooms to any Italian hospital and someone will go through your basket to separate the poisonous mushrooms from the batch?
Ristorante Pizzeria Alpino in Vodo di Cadore, Italy (Province of Belluno). Via Nazionale 40, Vodo di Cadore, Italy. Tel. +39 0435 489001. Map Alpino. Hours: 6 days/week for lunch and dinner (closed Thursday).