Deep Within the Dolomites
Famous for an array of activities from skiing and mountain climbing to hang gliding and base jumping, this haven for outdoor adventure also offers a treasure trove of culinary delights.
Legend says there once was a haunted castle hidden between the jagged peaks of Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. A poor farmer found the castle and discovered a vaulted cellar packed with barrels of the most delicious wine he had ever known. Overtaken by its beauty, the farmer collected some of the wine in a leather pouch. As he did this, three ghosts suddenly appeared. They told the terrified farmer that if he swore to keep the location of the cellar a secret, he could take as much wine as he’d like.
A few nights later, the farmer drank too much at a local tavern and revealed the location of the mysterious cellar. His drinking companions went to the spot, and as they approached, the castle dissolved into thin air. The legend persists to this day; ask about the castle and you’ll be told that it still exists somewhere in these mountains, but you will never find anyone willing to reveal its secret location. Mountains do indeed keep secrets; the imposing wall of snowcapped Dolomites, which acts as a metaphorical bookend, terminating the Italian and Mediterranean experience at its northern extremity, is filled with them. Isolation and geographic extremism have shaped one of Italy’s most rewarding and authentic destinations.
The unique composition of the dolomite mineral (calcium and magnesium carbonate, also known as magnesium limestone) gives the mountains crystalline pink and coral colors with an ability to refract sunlight in a unique way. Often, the purity of light is so remarkable, distant ridges come into startling focus. These geologically young mountains also stand apart for their razor-sharp contours. Over the centuries, glaciers and blizzards have whittled away at the rock to create serrated crags and ragged spires.
“They are not the highest, but they are certainly the most beautiful mountains in the world,” claims Dolomites native Reinhold Messner, who famously made the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen.
Deep within the nooks and crannies are myths of dwarfs, hobbits and Amazonian women whose beauty was turned into the very stone you see before you. Near-extinct languages like Ladino (a strange blend of Celtic speech and Latin) are still taught in school, and even the simplest home recipe relies on a collection of mountain herbs and ingredients that residents profess to hold magical, medicinal or aphrodisiacal properties.
The Dolomites, which are part of the Alps, fan across three regions: Trentino, Veneto and Alto Adige (Südtirol). Trentino and Alto Adige enjoy measures of regional autonomy, but in many ways Alto Adige is a nation apart. In its capital, Bolzano, street signs are written in German and Italian and the cityscape is composed of gingerbread houses and cheerful beer halls, many of which produce their own brews. Some 70% of the population prefers to converse in German, and in remote areas, spoken Italian draws blank stares. Mountain devotees will be tempted by the excellent skiing and, in the warm months, the endless miles of hiking trails to explore, with paths that skirt glacial lakes and alpine fields colored by buttercups and edelweiss.
Perhaps the best way to explore the Dolomites is on a food and wine tour of the area’s extensive and well-organized wine roads. In fact, visitors will find a treasure trove of outdoor activities; there’s plenty to explore on foot, and adventures aplenty from biking and horseback rides to parasailing and hang gliding. Detailed itineraries are available online at www.stradedelvinodeltrentino.it and suedtiroler-weinstrasse.it. These excellent sites include interactive maps arranged according to food and wine products. Maps can also be found at the local tourism office.
Chances are, whatever secrets you discover in the “pale mountains,” you’ll want to keep them to yourself.
Most likely you will come to the Dolomites by way of A22, the toll road that heads north from Verona to the Brenner Pass and Innsbruck, Austria. The highway follows the glacial blue water of the Adige River to the charming city of Trento where the sheer mass of the mountains begins to close in on the blue sky above. Trento marks the confluence of three valleys, hence its name, which stems from the word trident, making this city a natural gateway to the Dolomites in general.
Apple orchards blanket the valley floor (Trentino’s Red and Golden Delicious apples are among the best in Europe) and near-vertical vineyards coat the dramatic slopes of the valley walls. If your journey takes you through Trento at lunch or dinner, an excellent breaking spot is Scrigno del Duomo wine bar and restaurant on Piazza Duomo in the center of town. This is an excellent opportunity to get acquainted with the local gastronomy. You can try wines made with native varieties such as Marzemino (said to have captured he affections of Mozart) or hearty Teroldego. Ask for an assorted cheese and meat platter with local specialties such as spressa or grana Trentino (two aged cheeses) served with spicy fruit marmalades.
Lake Garda falls to the southwest of Trento. Temperatures near the lake are slightly warmer on average and you might see one of Europe’s northernmost olive or citrus groves. It would be a shame to visit this part of the Dolomites without a reservation at Ristorante Al Forte Alto in Nago, on the northern tip of the lake. Located inside the thick protective walls of a massive fortress, this elegant restaurant offers elaborate renditions of local dishes: Garda Trout with Brenta Raspberry Vinegar and Caviar, or Spicy Pork Loin with Local Herbs, Apples and a Garda Olive Oil Emulsion. Another celebrated restaurant is Ristorante Castel Toblino, which sits on a tiny point overlooking the powerfully romantic Lake Massenza. This fairy-tale castle restaurant serves Duck with Pumpkin Passata and Toasted Pine Nuts, or Roe Deer Stew with Sweet Cornmeal Sformatino.
After Trento, the mountains widen just a tad to reveal the Piana Rotaliana, one of the most important wine areas of the Dolomites and—indeed—Italy. Because vineyard land is fragmented among thousands of landowners, the cooperative model was perfected here. The most impressive tasting rooms to visit are Mezzacorona (www.gruppomezzacorona.it) which also offers winery tours on request, the cheerful Vinoteca at La-Vis (la-vis.com), the L’Enoteca di Cavit (cavit.it), and Cantine Ferrari (www.cantineferrari.it), for those curious to learn more about how sparkling wine is made. Cantine Ferrari also recently refurbished its Locanda Margon restaurant (locandamargon.it) where you can feast on an all-sparkling wine menu featuring Shrimp Moutabbal Dip and Suckling Lamb.
For an authentic meal with a breathtaking outdoor terrace overlooking the Valle dell’Adige, head to Trattoria Vecchia Sorni (+39.0461.870541) in the town of Sorni di Lavis. In this cozy atmosphere the owner serves up modern expressions of traditional dishes such as Polenta Gnocchi with Goat Ragù and Roasted Rabbit with Thyme and Chanterelles.
The western part of Trentino is home to the sharp contours of the Dolomiti di Brenta where the Madonna del Campiglio ski area is located. One venue is the Hermitage Biohotel and its gourmet restaurant. The log building is situated inside an old baita, or mountain chalet, and there is a less formal dining room called la Stube with a cozy atmosphere surrounding a wood-burning stove. The northwestern area of the region is home to the Val di Non, where Italy’s apple production is concentrated, and the east-west running Val di Sole. If you decide to explore the latter, check out Ristorante Maso Burba in Commezzadura along route SS2.
The eastern part of Trentino is home to the spectacular trio of interconnected valleys—Val di Cembra, Val di Fiemme and Val di Fassa—and offers some of the area’s most beautiful vineyard panoramas. The La-Vis wine group recently opened its Maso Franch hotel and restaurant (masofranch.it), just a mile or so from at the start of the Val di Cembra. From here, carefully manicured vineyards cling to the mountainsides and come into stunning view with each turn of the winding road (SS612).
Just a few kilometers up the road at Palù di Giovo is the Agritur El Volt (+39.0461.684132)—an unforgettable experience. Recognized as one of Italy’s very first agriturismi, (or a rural bed & breakfast), El Volt is run by the boisterous Pellegrini family and offers a complete itinerary of rustic country life (through the wine cellars and the old house), a home-cooked meal accompanied by accordion music and spontaneous sing-alongs. Three additional, albeit more formal, restaurant recommendations are El Molin in Cavalese, Ristorante Malga Panna in Moena and El Pael in Canazei.
A one-of-a-kind experience can be had at the Rifugio Baita Monzoni (+39.337.452935) at the far end of the Val di Fassa in Pozza di Fassa. Like Agritur El Volt, Rifugio Monzoni is run by a cast of mountaineering characters that may—or may not—answer the phone to take your reservation. In this case, the restaurant is located at 1,792 meters (about 5,900 feet) above sea level and requires an hour-long hike to reach (bring snow boots and heavy clothing). Once there, owner Nello will serve polenta, sausage and copious amounts of house wine. When you are done, he gives you an old-fashioned sled and points you downhill.
The capital of Alto Adige is a lively city that represents an enchanting meeting point of Italian and German cultures. Bolzano’s cobblestone streets are lined with beer halls, pretzel vendors and outdoor flower markets. If you come in summer months, the city is immersed in a sea of green vineyards that reach the very edges of the metropolis.
Bolzano makes an excellent base from which to explore the well-marked Strada del Vino (or Weinstraße in German), which connects the 15 towns at the heart of South Tyrolean wine production to the south and northwest of the city. The towns include Nalles (Nals), Terlano (Terlan), Andriano (Andrian), Appiano (Eppan), Caldaro (Kaltern), Termeno (Tramin), Cortaccia (Kurtatsch), Magrè (Margreid) and Salorno (Salurn). If you are a fan of Alto Adige’s beautiful cool-climate wines, you will certainly recognize these names because each hosts a cantina sociale, or cooperative winery.
Among the best restaurants along the Strada del Vino is Ristorante Zur Rose in Appiano, where you can try delicacies such as Polenta Ravioli and Black Truffle, thin sheets of sauerkraut pasta with a meat and mustard sauce, and Roasted Veal Shank with Vegetable Ratatouille and Celery Purée. A second high-quality option is Marklhof in Girlan. Recently opened, Pillhof offers an excellent selection of local wines and an enchanting atmosphere with wooden wine crates stacked high in the corners. The menu here boasts Terlano asparagus, a seasonal treat in the spring, and schlutzer (a local ravioli-like pasta) stuffed with pork and ricotta. Another local specialty is the ubiquitous canederli (or knödel in German)—giant bread balls stuffed with speck (cured ham), cheese and other kitchen leftovers. They can be served in broth or with melted butter and cheese. Lastly, Castel Ringberg in Caldaro offers a vast array of local specialties and a deep selection of local wines.
If you visit in November, you should plan a trip to the Merano (Meran) wine festival, which showcases some 500 producers from across Italy, 15 distilleries and a special culinaria (food) section. But whatever time of year you visit the Dolomites, be prepared for one of the peak experiences of your life.
For a true taste of delicious Dolomites fare, try this recipe for Canederli allo Speck, or bread dumplings also called knödeln in German. Great to enjoy on a snowy winter day, canederli is often compared with gnocchi, only instead of potato, bread is mixed with meat and parsley. The dish is best paired with a medium-bodied red such as La Vis Ritratti Merlot from Trentino or the more structured Porphyr Riserva Lagrein by Cantina Terlano. Both wines have the natural acidity that cuts through the bread and the aromatic intensity needed to accent the spicy perfumes present in the speck.
1 ½ cup dried bread cut into small cubes
¾ cup milk
Salt and fresh black pepper, to taste.
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup speck chopped into small cubes
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1/3 cup flour
8 cups of meat or vegetable broth
Sprig of sage, for garnish
Pour the cubes of dried bread into a large bowl. Add two beaten eggs, milk, salt and pepper. Mix well, cover with a towel and set aside for two hours. During the two-hour period, periodically mix so that the bread absorbs the extra humidity. In a large skillet, fry onions in olive oil and butter. Once the onions are transparent, add the cubes of Speck and set aside to cool. After two hours, pour the fried onion and Speck into the bread mixture. Add the parsley and dash of ground nutmeg. Dust over with the flour and mix well until all the ingredients are blended. Set aside for an additional 30 minutes so the Speck aromas penetrate the mixture and the canederli develops its signature flavor. When the time is up, shape the bread mixture into 4-inch balls. Roll the canederli in flour, then boil them in the broth. They will rise to the surface when they’re ready, about 10–15 minutes. The dumplings are served in chicken broth with grated cheese or sometimes with melted butter and a fresh sage as a garnish.