GAZZO, Italy — In September, I went on a wild mushroom hunt in northwestern Italy, in the region of Liguria. I left the autostrada at Albenga, turning away from the sunny beaches of the Riviera and heading up into the cool, steep-sided, densely wooded Arroscia Valley. I passed through a succession of plain but pretty little villages--Ortovervo, Pogli, Ranzo--and then found Borghetto d'Arroscia. Here, I made a sharp turn onto a narrow mountain road, hardly more than one lane-wide in some places and given to ferocious zig-zagging, and continued uphill to the hamlet of Gazzo.
I found a place to leave my car, walked a few hundred feet and found my goal--not a grassy meadow peppered with mycological delights, not a dark forest floor thick with exotic fungi, but an ordinary-looking restaurant called La Baita--any mushroom hunter's dream.
La Baita (a baita is an Alpine shepherd's hut) doesn't have a menu; it has a meal , changing slightly with the seasons but always Gargantuan in scale and always mad with mushrooms--above all funghi porcini ( cepes ), fresh whenever possible and otherwise sott'olio, preserved in olive oil.
When I found La Baita, the mushroom season had made tentative beginnings and so fresh and preserved were mixed. These are the dishes that were offered to me, one after another:
Stuzzichini ("teasers")--small flour fritters flavored with parsley and porcini essence.
Three-inch-long, salami-like boar sausages.
A cold salad of assorted raw mushrooms preserved in oil, flavored with lemon juice and assorted herbs.
An unusual and delicious salad of raw, fresh porcini and raw, ground veal.
A giardinera- like salad of barely cooked cauliflower, zucchini, sweet peppers and onions in an acidic, fresh tomato sauce.
An uninteresting miniature frittata of porcini .
Superb cotechino sausage with fagiolini, which turned out to be oversized white butter beans--an immensely satisfying dish.
Fresh porcini sauteed with garlic and parsley. (Need I say more?)
Grilled, mildly flavored fresh prataioli mushrooms.
A remarkable dish of pumpkin blossoms stuffed with pureed potatoes in a sauce of ortiche (wild nettles) and porcini-- the best dish of the whole meal, and one that wouldn't have been out of place in the fanciest dinner at our own Valentino or Rex.
A very good porcini soup, thickened with potatoes but rich with mushroom flavor.
Herb-stuffed ravioli in porcini sauce, unremarkable.
Soft polenta strongly flavored with white truffle oil.
Plump Burgundian-style snails in a rich brown broth.
Grilled faroana (guinea hen) and rabbit, the latter too dry but both very flavorful, served with fried potatoes and breaded-and-fried (what else?) porcini.
Soggy little pastries filled with apple preserves, hardly worth sampling.
And, in case the diner still has a craving for mushrooms, finally a fungo caldo or "hot mushroom"--which turns out to be a porcini- shaped ice cream mold with warm chocolate sauce.
All these dishes were offered , as I said: In most cases, serving dishes were brought to the table and I was able to take only what I wanted--which was usually just the merest sample (though not always, I must confess).
To help wash all this food down, there were unlimited quantities of the proprietor's own wines, a white and a rose-hued "red," both good and honest. (La Baita also has a good list of commercially available wines.) With dessert comes a fizzy sweet muscat, and then an assortment of bitter liqueurs and grappas--again, made by the proprietor (who is a professional distiller).
The most welcome offering of all, though, was the check: The meal I have just described (with, as noted, seasonal variation), including unlimited house wines and after-dinner drinks and service charge, goes for a fixed price of 30,000 lire per person--about $24 as I write this. It hardly seems morel.
La Baita, Gazzo d'Arroscia, tel. (0183) 31.083. (Take Albenga exit from A-10 autostrada, then follow signs to Pieve di Teco. At Borghetto d' Arroscia, follow sign to Gazzo.) Open weekends only from October through May. No credit cards.