When I want a complete change of scenery, I get in the car and drive for 40 minutes. As soon as we cross the border into Italy, everything is suddenly different: the people, the language, the music, the clothes, the coffee (especially the coffee).
Due to a series of uncontrollable events, it had been months since we last found the time to have lunch in Liguria. We had originally planned to explore the seaside town of Bordighera, but as I flipped through my trusty guidebook I found a tempting description of the olive oil trail behind Arma di Taggia, just after San Remo. The book mentioned a restaurant in the obscure little town of Molino di Triora where mushrooms are a specialty. It's the season for porcini, known as cèpes in France, and I wasn't about to miss an opportunity like this one.
Breaking out my rusty Italian, I called Trattoria Giovanna to reserve a table for five. "Under what name?" said the kindly man on the phone. "Jackson," I told him. "I'll note it under inglese," he replied.
We meandered through the valley, stopping to pick up some Taggiasca olive oil and spicy bottled anchovies, and arrived at the restaurant at the same time as the other 100 or so diners. The atmosphere in the dining room, decorated only by a wild board tableau that appeared to be drawn on a chalkboard, was that of a large family gathering — or, I should say, a large Italian family gathering. Everyone talked at once and the waiters looked relaxed and happy despite the incredible feat they were about to pull off.
We soon realized that there would be no menus, nor would we have a choice of wines — each table was already equipped with an open bottle of Dolcetto d'Alba. When the waiter spotted Sam he immediately offered him a can of coca cola: if the parents are going to indulge, he seemed to be saying, why not the children too? No wonder children don't mind sitting for hours in Italian restaurants.
A few minutes later, a small army of waiters dressed in black or burgundy waistcoats started to circulate, dropping food into plates. First came a single slice of silky prosciutto; a few marinated raw mushrooms the color of apricots soon followed. Smoked tuna came next, alongside a little omelette rolled with cream cheese, ham and herbs. Sam's eyes were popping out of his head. "I'm dreaming," he said, "and I can't wake up."
By now we had understood that this would be no ordinary meal, though we couldn't possibly have guessed how many courses were still to come. What appeared to be a pressed crab cake was followed by a fish fritella (a kind of pancake/fritter). Then came a spoonful of salt cod and potato purée, known in France as brandade and here as branda cuiun; this version was pleasantly chunky with vivid specks of parsley.
A single slice of breaded and fried porcini magically appeared at just the right temperature, crispy on the outside and steaming hot within. Sensing our enjoyment — it's dangerous to show enjoyment at Trattoria Giovanna — the waiters dropped off seconds before the next course, a spoonful of mushroom and potato gratin.
Cheesy crespelle (a kind of crêpe) in a snow-white cream sauce went down in a couple of bites before vitello tonnata (thinly sliced cold veal with creamy tuna sauce) that made me understand the point of this dish, a subtle interplay of flavors and textures.
Finally, it was time for the waiters to whisk away the first plate and replace it with a clean one in honor of snails, a specialty of this valley. Instead of the garlic, butter and parsley found in France, they were served here slow-cooked with red wine and shallots. At this point in the meal I couldn't use the word "light," but they did seem a little less heavy than the French version.
The plates again disappeared, leaving us wondering if the meal might be drawing to a close (hah!), before the first pasta dish: spinach-filled ravioli with just a splash of crimson tomato sauce. I loved the intensity of the green filling, which was not watered down with breadcrumbs or cheese.
After a pasta dish, what could be more appropriate than another pasta dish? Spaghetti with porcini had us cleaning our plates again, even if Sam was starting to look a little the worse for wear.
Here is Sam's photo of the very calm kitchen, where one man stood before the sink washing all the dishes by hand.
Sam also caught the waiters in action as they emerged with plates of flaming shrimp, a dramatic interlude before the inevitable meat.
Plates were changed again and the waiters plopped a slice of rare roast beef with porcini mushrooms on each one. We were about to breathe a sigh of relief when, as we polished off the meat, they came around again with a spoonful of polenta. A thicker slice of slow-cooked beef in an intense wine-based sauce soon followed.
Could this be the end? No! Incredibly, the tireless waiters rolled out trolleys bearing rare grilled steaks and ceremoniously placed a slice on each plate, followed by a few salad leaves. The waiter winked at Sam. "Gelato is coming next!"
After placing a slab of vanilla ice cream on each plate, the waiters came around with silver jugs of steaming chocolate sauce which they poured over top. Fortunately this water-based sauce didn't seem too rich, though it was a bit late to worry about things like that. By now some people had left the table for digestive walks outdoors and others were nodding off in front of their plates. After the ice cream, an extended family celebrating a baptism tucked into a cake topped with lashings of icing.
Just as unreal as the meal itself was the price: 35 euros per person including wine, coca cola and coffee. We left the restaurant blinking in the daylight, not quite believing what we had just experienced. Though the word "full" couldn't begin to describe what we felt, after a stroll through this village of many water mills we were ready to drive up to the next town, Triora. The motive was, of course, food - I wanted to stock up on the white beans of nearby Badalucco perhaps some local cheese or jam. Oddly, Triora is also known for its witches and we would come across plenty of witch kitsch.
La Strega di Triora, despite being in a remote hill town, had some of the most beautiful food displays I had seen anywhere: baskets of fresh porcini and white beans, oozy farmhouse cheeses, glimmering jars of preserves and the local witch-themed chocolates in black wrappers. Hédiard and Fauchon could learn a thing or two from the Italians. In fact, we all could.
11 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.
Wow, that sounds amazing. we will definitely have to check it out this Spring when we are back in Liguria!! The food in Italy really can't be beat, and the prices are amazing. Ciao!
I am very glad that restaurant is more than 40 mins away from me.
I should say my waistline is very glad for that.
What can I say, I'm insanely jealous. of the colors, the sounds, the aromas, the feasting. Why is dining out in the U.S. so lame? Oh yeah, every restaurant is a chain and those that aren't fail quickly because...everyone wants to eat at the chains where life is...sooooooo predictable. As always, Rosa, wonderful writing, a nice light touch.
Erica, you will love this place. Italy is definitely another world.
David and Mardi, if it makes you feel better the restaurant is 1 1/2 hours away - it's the border that's only 40 minutes away. Um, does that make you feel better?
Thanks Jim! I can't imagine what people would make of this restaurant in the US, what with all the carbs!
I had a very similar experience in Florence although at this point, all I can remember is the name Dante, our guide responsible for taking us to the awesome feast which we thought would never end! Shame U.S. palate not as adventurous!
Yes, great post, Rosa. I'm glad after that, you lived to tell!
Coffee is disgusting. But, everything else just sounds wonderful.
I would really like to go to Italy.
Can't wait to finally get there - have so many visitors to Nice and this will be the perfect italian sejour. thanks, Rosa!!! bises
What a wonderful description of Molini di Triora, which we know well as we have a home nearby. If this restaurant is busy, pop into Santo Spirito Hotel, they also serve a lovely set meal, (no menus) and is open for lunch and supper. They also have rooms, if you want to stay for a few days. The serving of lots of courses with no menu seems the tradition in this valley. The restaurant in Triora (which is slightly higher up) also offers a good lunch menu with a terrace...and fantastic pizzas in the evening. In short this valley is well served with small independent restaurants and kindness.
Rosa: Does this restaurant still exist? Margaret and I will be in Italy this September and I'd be willing to drive to Liguria for this repaste. I have been reading about Matisse in Nice and that makes me want to return for a visit to Vence. I hope all is well with you...jim
Hi Jim, good to hear from you! I can't imagine that restaurant ever not existing... it seems timeless. Hope to see you back in the area sometime!