The day: 9th May 2008, Dinner.
The place: piazza S.Maria Assunta, 2 – 38027 Malè (TN)
The venue: El Barba
The food: Regional Italian
The drinks: Local
Maurizio Boscolo is a chef and a blogger. As a blogger he runs Bistro Chez Maurice, and as a chef, he runs El Barba, a trattoria in the beautiful Val di Sole. For a long time we’ve wanted to sample his take on regional cuisine and so here we are, after a twisting and scenic one and a half hour drive from Trento, through the Val di Non before the Val di Sole, happy to have dodged the murderous Friday evening drivers that infest these roads. Maybe after our dinner it will be them who are afraid of us, who knows…
There is a nice outside space overlooking the central square of the village, but it’s still a little chilly at these heights to have a whole dinner outside, so we go in. We are, and will remain, the only customers in the simple and warm L-shaped room.
The menu has few dishes, but all enticing without exception. Primi go for €8.50, mains are in the range €14-16, and desserts are at €5, so within about 10%-15% of the best value for this type of establishment in the region (e.g. this and this), and even with an added service charge of €1.50 per person they remain low on a national scale. A great value four course surprise menu at €25 tempts us greatly, but for variety and diet reasons we prefer to go, as we most often do, for our own three course selection a la carte.
The bread arrives:
OK, we see that Chef Maurice does not specialise in bread-making…so we’ll focus on the dishes…
For primi we had chosen:
– Tortelloni with asparagus, zucchine and casolet (local cheese) sauce (€8.50)
– Tris of Canederli (local dumplings) (€8.50)
Since virtually everybody in the region makes canederli, in all sorts of preparations, this trio is a nice way to try to differentiate the dish from the rest of the pack. The resulting range of flavours is interesting indeed. One version is of six small specimens in a delicate (almost too delicate) broth. Then there is a giant specimen with lucanica (local sausage) in butter, which is very satisfying in its restrained assertiveness. And finally the ‘martian’ (green) specimen with casolet (local cheese) in the dough and presumably herbs conferring the vivid colour, also very flavoursome.
The dough of the tortelloni is quite ‘resilient’, but cooked rightly, and most importantly it contains excellent asparagi. The casolet sauce is once again delicate. A nice touch in this dish are the small cubes of crunchy courgettes, which provide something to do for the teeth and increases above the average the vegetable content of a tortelloni preparation. A good dish.
Our secondi are:
– Baby Pork shank with ‘miele di melata’ and olive oil potato puree (€14)
– Grilled venison fillet with asparagus (€16)
The shank is really satisfying, very tender and moist, cooked in its own protective fat, with an intriguing shade of light but aromatic sweetness provided by the ‘melata honey’ (not produced by a flower but obtained directly from a tree, or better from the insects that transform the tree sap). Note also the beautiful colour. The puree is unfortunately not so successful, quite gluey in fact, we are not sure what went wrong there.
The venison comes, as usual in Trentino, from neighbouring New Zealand (we didn’t ask but of course it was previously frozen – like almost everywhere else, and we challenge you to distinguish the difference from a ‘fresh’ one). In its simplicity this dish shone in glory, the venison’s flavour and juiciness forever sealed in by excellent cooking, accompanied by tasty asparagi, but above all, garnished with Guerand salt in perfect dose (after our own redistribution among the venison pieces…) , a gift for the palate. This is what real trattoria cooking is about, forget opprobria like this (in Italy) or this (in London).
And here are our desserts;
– Linzer pie
– Apple and chocolate pie
Well, we come slightly down to earth after the mostly excellent experience so far. The cakes are quite similar in appearance and feel: they are by no means bad, in fact they are good in a rustic sort of way, but they are quite dry and therefore feel somewhat stodgy. We can see them as a good dunk in the milk at breakfast, say, but as a dessert they are in serious need of some liquidity and moisture: we would humbly but dterminedly encourage Chef Maurice to add an ice cream, a cream, a syrup, some fruit…In the meanwhile, Woman glares at Man sarcastically: she had wanted to try the (presumably lighter) mousse (we think Chardonnay mousse in fact, or was it Moscato?), while Man had insisted on trying the two cakes, arguing that ‘these alcohol based mousses are 95% of the times disappointing’. He looks quite coy now.
So Man, not wanting to end in this way, asks very unusually for a little grappa, not knowing that there will be more to come in the alcohol department. With the grappa (€3) ends the paid part of our meal. Adding water (0.75 litres at €2.60), a bottle of Pinot Nero (2005) Istituto Agrario San Michele All’Adige at €23.10 (it was advertised as a 2001 and came as 2005, but the atmosphere was too pleasant and relaxed to point out the ‘detail’…), the bill comes to €88.70, not the absolute best value in the region but most certainly good value for this quality.
Being the only guests, we took Chef Maurice away from his nightly blogging duty, and we were offered, now lounging in the coolly agreeable outside air, a fantastic and original ‘amaro’ (a herb alcohol infusion) which caressed the nose with a complex mix of sweet spices and zesty, orangey notes, before hitting the palate with its fresh, bitter punch in a dense consistency. And also a very pleasant conversation.
Pinot noir, grappa, amaro…maybe it will really be the other drivers who are afraid of us…(don’t worry, we are in fact very careful on the distribution of alcohol intake between driver and passenger).
Service is provided with domestic friendliness and directness by Maurizio’s wife Mara. Chef Maurice is a gentle, thoughtful and intellectually curious man, and all these characteristics are nicely reflected in his take on traditional cuisine. There is much lightness and delicacy also in the heartiest and most generous of his regional dishes (OK, some desserts excluded…), and a little nice touch, a little surprise is always behind the corner. We know that his daughter is specialised in something that can be translated as ‘herb science’, while his son works in a Paris restaurant, and both of them no doubt will contribute thoughts and materials for Maurizio’s variations on the Trentino classics. You can spend a very pleasant evening indeed at El Barba (and if you speak Italian and you come to the restaurant off season, be aware that Maurizio is an engaging conversationalist, too!).