Valle d’Aosta

It was a few days past New Year’s, and the marble offices were closed for another week (Italy gets long winter breaks, in addition to month-long vacations in August), so we had time to take an excursion to the Italian Alps to get in our first ski of the season. The weather forecast predicted snow for the next few days, so we packed up Ryan’s large snowboard bag/suitcase and stuffed it in the car with JoJo in the backseat. I wish I had a photo of this because our new automatic car was a 2-door Audi that was barely the length of the snowboard case that flanked from the front dashboard to back window. Sitting in the front passenger seat, the snowboard case nearly blocked my entire view of Ryan, and my front window.

It was a four hour drive to the Italian-Switzerland border. Our destination was Cervinia, home to a large ski resort that connected to the famous Switzerland mountain of Zermatt. The climate changed drastically as we climbed in altitude. What was a mild 55 degree day in Pietrasanta became closer to 25 degrees as we entered the Valle d’Aosta region. Snow started to layer the ground and the mountains grew larger and more ominous. About a half hour from Cervinia, we let JoJo run in the snow for his first time ever, which inadvertently disturbed a herd of cows crowding in a barn, wondering why this white fox was frolicking on their pasture.

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It had been snowing for two hours straight at this point, and as we approached our hotel in Cervinia, our Audi’s tires gave out trying to wind up a curve on the mountain. Thankfully, we had snow chains in the trunk, but this ended up becoming a 45 minute ordeal- us pulling over and trying to figure out how to put snow chains on in a mini blizzard. We were frozen and wet by the end of the experience and were gracious for the well-heated lodge we had booked.

That evening we ventured into the town of Cervinia, a quaint skiing village lodged in a valley in between the mountains. We had dinner at a casual trattoria where we dined on soup, steak, and pasta bolognese- all average to say the least but we were starving! After renting my skis for the following morning and purchasing well-needed snow boots, we let JoJo run free in the snow by our hotel. We had never seen him more in his element!

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Getting ready to ski the next morning, I was a bit nervous. I had only gone skiing the previous year with Ryan’s family – the first time in 8 years before that- and was still unsure of how much I would recall of my 4 days of lessons. Thankfully for me, most of the runs open were easy to intermediate. The more treacherous black runs were closed due to a lack of snow in the beginning of the season. I thus felt very comfortable, but Ryan was rightfully disappointed considering his more expert ability. Compared to skiing in the U.S., there were a lack of signs indicating which run you were on and where it was taking you- giving the experience an air of uncertainty about whether you were going to end up on the opposite side of the mountain. We also spent a significant amount of time on chairlifts- ones that took nearly 40 minutes at times. This was especially true on our way to Switzerland, where we spent half of the time on chairlifts and half of the time skiing.

 

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We stopped in the Swiss town of Zermatt, a picturesque village with neatly lined homes and shops. The village was empty compared to Cervinia (perhaps the snow conditions weren’t good enough?). Ryan had visited Zermatt with his family years ago, and apparently the only way to reach the village was by train because it is lodged deep in the mountains. We dined at an excellent restaurant with soul-warming pumpkin and barley soups, finished off with fondue.

It had been about 6 hours since we left JoJo in the hotel room, so we promptly headed back to Cervinia- an hour and a half ski/lift ride from Zermatt. We returned to find our dog had ripped up a cardboard box, and part of a carpet that was barely attached to the lower part wall. We quickly put the carpet back in place under the heater and hoped housecleaning wouldn’t notice!

Our last night in Cervinia we dined at Copa Pan, a Conde Nast recommendation. It held a cozy vibe with an acoustic guitarist serenading the apres-ski crowd.  They graciously allowed our dog to sit in the more casual bar area, where we took up conversation with a British couple and two teenage daughters, who were completely enamored in JoJo. They even invited us to come visit us in the UK, where owned horses in the countryside! Although the atmosphere was stellar, the food was lacking in flavor, from my lentil soup to Ryan’s venison.

So far food had not been the strong suit of this trip, so Ryan was craving a final good meal in the Valle D’Aosta, home to numerous Michelin Star restaurants. He located one directly on our route back home, called Cinzia da Christian e Manuel, located in the town of Vercelli. Driving through Vercelli we wondered why a Michelin Star restaurant would possibily open in this location. It looked like a lower middle-class neighborhood with little in the way of tourist attractions. The restuarant was even located in a 1960’s style motel with stark red and yellow paint on the outside. We could not believe we had arrived until the sign designating the restaurant’s name proved otherwise.

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We hesitantly entranced into a surprisingly elegant dining room, with about two other tables full of Italian diners. We were promptly welcomed by the staff who exuded the professionalism and perfectionism of Michelin restaurants in the past. The menu was overwhelming with a host of different tasting menus plus a generous a la carte section. This also included a selection of twenty-something risottos that the region is famous for Ryan opted for the tasting menu and our waitress- speaking in clearly enunciated Italian specifically for foreigners- recommended a seafood appetizer and risotto for me.

Ryan’s tasting menu was incredible, consisting of some of the best dishes he had tasted in his life. Pictured below are our favorites- from the shrimp with pistachio crusting, a succulent squid, a creamy, buttery soup that was by far the best dish of the meal, and an unusual green dessert with balsamic vinegar and white chocolate.

Other dishes included a black carrot, a vegetable salad, my seafood carpaccio, a creamy amouse bouche, a semi-freddo-like dessert, and my risotto. My only complaint was that my risotto was a little on the heavier side and that it needed a pinch of salt to balance its creaminess. There were egg yolks hidden under the rice and truffles, which made it even that more decadent.

Overall, we decided it was the best 1-star Michelin restaurant we had ever been to. Plus it was significantly less expensive than any Michelin restaurant in Chicago, coming in at about $170 euros for two people including wine. At the end of the meal, the chef came out, who explained to us that this was his family’s hotel and that he and his brother opened this restaurant after being professionally trained in France. They wanted to return to their home town to pay homage to the culinary traditions of the region. Since we were the only diners left in the restaurant, they allowed us to bring JoJo in from the car and graciously gave him water and many hugs. We still cannot get over how much people love dogs in Italy. Plus how many dogs can brag about being in a Michelin Star restaurant? Needless to say, this was a satisfying end to our mini-trip.

 

 

 

 

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