MILAN, Italy — While traveling in Europe, my husband and I often use a knife and fork as our divining rod while searching out unusual and memorable dining experiences.
Take, for example, an organization called Le Soste.
These restaurants specialize in regional Italian cooking, with progressive touches to enhance the already tried-and-true recipes. Food is outstanding, service superb, and each restaurant a special experience.
Most of the 19 Le Soste restaurants are in the small towns and villages of northern Italy. Each is individually operated, often by the same family for many generations. Owners take pride in their establishments and their heritage. The preparation of food is a labor of love, with results divine enough to induce tears of joy.
Where President Dines
One is Restaurant San Domenico, where Gianluigi Morini and his staff continue "the culinary traditions of the antique noble families of Italy." San Domenico's reputation has induced the President of Italy to dine in the otherwise undistinguished town of Imola.
Inside what was once an old convent, one steps into a new order. Fine artwork and fresh-cut flowers add to the ambiance of rooms in subdued shades of rose and apple green. The menu offers such delicacies as white truffled liver pate, fresh shrimp served in a creamy sweet bell pepper sauce and roast loin of veal in a vodka sauce.
In addition to the regular menu there is a special daily offering, using fresh ingredients of the region. On our latest visit that special was a seven-course meal featuring spring salads and goose liver with balsamic vinegar, spinach crepes with cheese filling, fresh salmon in a red wine sauce with confetti of vegetables. Then there are wine sherbet, roasted leg of lamb with rosemary and vegetables of the season, small pastries, and, finally, the pastry chef's fantasy.
The cost of this extraordinary meal was about $45 per person, excluding beverage. But one should definitely include a beverage because San Domenico offers one of the most extensive wine lists in Italy. Housed in its cellar are 37 spumantes , more than 121 Italian white wines and more than 380 Italian red wines.
The wine library also includes an impressive collection of French wines, among them a series of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti from Burgundy, and the great first-growth Chateaux wines from Bordeaux dating from 1928 to the present. For the perfect finale to an outstanding meal, you can choose Cognacs dating to 1811.
Recently expanded and improved, the wine cellar is under the direct care of Signor Morini. He selects the wines and insists on labeling and storing each bottle himself, by hand. It is not unusual to find him in the cellar during the early morning or late into the evening, laboring over his extensive inventory.
Morini constantly improves and changes his restaurant. We were told that San Domenico will never be finished; it will always be improving. New conference facilities were recently completed and the main kitchen is under expansion.
Not too long ago a pastry kitchen was added that employs two full-time pastry chefs. Every loaf of bread, each pastry and every dessert, including ice cream, is prepared fresh daily. At San Domenico there are no shortcuts and the final product proves it.
In Imola, about an hour's drive south of Bologna, San Domenico is certainly not on the tourist route, but well worth the detour for a grand dining experience.
Other recommended Le Soste restaurants include:
Restaurant Al Bersagliere in Goito, about 10 miles north of Montova. In a vine-covered cottage on the bank of a small river, it is the epitome of elegance and graciousness, with white-glove service. On warm days you can dine near the river's edge, enjoying the serenity of the Italian countryside interrupted only by the occasional noise of passing ducks. On rainy days the same ducks remind me of my grandmother's interest in children--seen but not heard.
In Canneto Sull'Oglio, about 25 west of Montova, is Ristorante Dal Pescatore. Nadia and Mama Bruna carry out the traditions of the region, cooking over a wood-burning oven. A specialty of the house is tortelli di zucca, a delightful dish made of pasta stuffed with pumpkin. It is a traditional Christmas dish of Lombardy but should be enjoyed more often than the short season offers.
In Lugana di Sirmione, on the shore of Lake Garda, is Trattoria Vecchia Lugana. Outstanding cuisine with an elegance far superior to that of any trattoria I have experienced. During the summer the lake-side terrace is open for alfresco dining. At lunchtime the buffet is highly recommended.
If you enjoy the pleasures of traveling with knife and fork in hand as we do, Le Soste can be your guide to many memorable dining experiences.
A current guide may be obtained by writing to Le Soste, c/o Nibbio Italia, Via Torino 46, 20123 Milano, Italy.