I could not journey almost nine thousand miles across the planet all the way to my home town in Italy without having at least one meal at this restaurant. I had actually hoped to have two meals there, but this recent trip has been such a whirlwind of friends and family, the kind that always involved either lunch or dinner (sometimes both) at one place or another, that I only managed one. It goes without saying that this is one of my favorite restaurants, and…. oops, I’ve said it!
The restaurant’s name “Crotto Valtellina” is very descriptive both of the place and the cuisine. Located in a restructured medieval building, it has a grotto (an old, inactive sandstone cave) in the back. In the summer, diners can find cooling solace from the intense heat at one of the outdoor tables by the grotto, and snow and lights make for a magical display during cold winter nights.
The early 1900s see the birth of the first restaurant here, then called Trattoria Grotto Val Cabrina, which also had rooms and stables available for travelers headed for nearby Switzerland. The trattoria was also a popular gathering place for local people, who would enjoy a glass of red wine, play card games and, in later years, also come here to dance. And old lady reminisces longingly of her youth: “This is where I met my poor husband back in the day when we used to come dancing. We would walk all the way from town. There used to be thousands of fireflies. It was wonderful.”
In 1973 the building was purchased by the current family, who are from Valtellina – an Alpine valley in Northern Italy within the Lombardia region (view on a map), which is the same region where the restaurant is located, and where I am from. They renamed the restaurant Crotto Valtellina, and the food served is typical of the valley of origin.
You can find the story on their website, but it is all in Italian, which is why I have just given you a brief summary here.
The current owners are the talented Leonardo and Maria Vittoria Valbuzzi. Leonardo’s father was the one who started the current restaurant in 1973, serving traditional dishes from Valtellina. I remember dinners at this restaurant from when I was about thirteen or fourteen-years-old, with Sciatt and Pizzoccheri being my favorite dishes – and they still are. Leonardo, son of the original owner and current chef, has maintained the traditions while evolving and lightening them through his own style. This, by the way, is what has been happening in the restaurant scene all over Italy over the past thirty-some years with the newer generation of chefs. Now you know why none of us (Italians) has ever heard of spaghetti with meatballs, except in America, of course.
Leonardo and Maria Vittoria have a son, Roberto, who is also a passionate and talented chef. He does work at the restaurant, though not full time, as he hosts a popular cooking show on one of the Italian TV channels. You can follow him on his Facebook page if you like. Recently, the restaurant’s kitchen has been revamped and reorganized to allow for cooking classes which Roberto will be teaching.
I have known Leonardo for many years, since my brother and I first opened our restaurant in fact. I remember how, a few months before that, I decided to attend a class on flambé cooking held by the local chamber of commerce. Flambé cooking is the cooking procedure in which alcohol is added to the hot food in a hot pan to create a burst of flames, and is usually associated with table-side presentations of certain liqueur-drenched dishes, such as Crepes Suzette. It turned out that Leonardo was teaching the class. It was fun!
In the rustic, warm and welcoming ambiance of Crotto Valtellina you can enjoy some really high quality regional food, as well as wines from a wide and truly excellent selection of bottles. The wine selection from Valtellina is particularly rich, of course, but there is also an ample and high quality choice of wines from all over Italy, France and the world. This is a wine lover’s paradise.
The classic Valtellina dishes are the cured meats, the cheeses, porcini mushrooms, game, and the unmissable Sciatt and Pizzoccheri. Sciatt – found among the appetizers – are dumplings of casera cheese dipped in a batter made with buckwheat flour and then quickly fried to a crisp. The are served hot on a bed of thinly sliced chicory salad dressed in a light vinaigrette (see image below).
Pizzoccheri, possibly the most recognizable of all the dishes from Valtellina, are a pasta made with a mix of buckwheat and wheat flours, boiled with pieces of potatoes and Swiss chard or cabbage, then dressed with a regional cheese called casera, freshly grated parmesan, and abundant butter fried with garlic. Pizzoccheri (image below) are oh-so-good, very filling, definitely comfort food, and one of my favorite dishes, ever. The restaurant is now also offering them as take-out, something I need to let my dad know. Just call ahead to place your order if you are in the area.
Among the appetizers you will find some classics, like Venison Bresaola with Red Currant Compote and Crispy Buckwheat Bread (see above), and the classic Bresaola from Valtellina served with herbed butter (see below). Bresaola is a cured meat, usually beef unless otherwise specified, that is traditional from this valley.
The Primi Piatti – which in Italy are pastas, risottos and soups – also feature Risotto with Venison Prosciutto and aged Casera cheese, and my mom’s favorite: Buckwheat Ravioli with Speck (a smoked prosciutto) and Porcini Mushrooms (see image below).
Entrees are rich in meats, usually beef, lamb and venison served in various preparations and accompanied by classic vegetables and polenta. My father’s favorite dish, and what he actually orders each time here, is Venison Fillet 1848. The 1848 stands for the year in which this dish was first created. The occasion was a dinner that took place in the Sertoli Salis Palace (now the home base of Salis Winery) in Valtellina, which, in 1848 was still under the Austro-Hungarian domain.
This dish is a complete meal as it also includes Porcini mushrooms, stewed apples, chestnuts, Brussels sprouts and Polenta Taragna – the typical polenta from Valtellina which is made with a blend of corn and buckwheat flours – and a red currant compote (image below).
If you are not sure what to order and would like a bit of everything, the menu features a Traditional Tasting Menu, as well as daily and weekly specials that change with the seasons. If you go with a large group, many of the dishes can be served family style, that is, set in the middle of the table for all to share. And seconds are always available with Pizzoccheri!
My mother may love her tortelli, but for her anything before dessert is just a prelude to what the meal is really all about. Sometimes she orders two desserts. I tell her she should skip the rest and just have three. Watching her choose her dessert, admire it when it comes and finally eat it – not to mention use all her willpower to prevent herself from licking the plate – will turn anyone into a dessert lover. What? You mean you do not know anyone who does not love dessert? Neither do I.
That day she enjoyed one of the most luscious desserts on the menu: Warm Nougat Souffle with Almond-Vanilla Gelato and Praline Sauce. I believe she is still thinking about it. The reason why I do not have a photo of that is because she started digging into it before I had a chance to whip out my camera, or even my iPhone.
After Sciatt and Pizzoccheri I was so full that all I could handle was the refreshing Trio of Sorbets (lemon & sage, green apple, pear) in the image below.
Among the other desserts were a Buckwheat Cake with Blueberry Jam, a Warm Bisciola Parfait with Creme Anglais (Bisciola is a traditional sweet bread from Valtellina), or Stewed Pears with Chocolate Sauce and Milk Gelato. And for those who would like a little bit of everything (again), there is a Dessert Sampler featuring four desserts.
After espresso and grappa and before you leave, don’t forget to stop by the pantry right across from the bar counter. This old wooden cabinet is stocked with a rich assortment of regional Valtellina goodies, as well as local ones, which you can purchase and enjoy at home: locally grown and canned peaches, jams and compotes, local salamis, cookies, honey, chestnuts, wines and liqueurs, as well as the buckwheat bread sticks you enjoyed with your meal.
Leonardo and Maria Vittoria are also exporting a lot of these items to the United States, so you may be able to find them in some specialty food stores. If not, Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Ca, I know offers the breadsticks through their website.
As usual, I don’t have as many photos as I would like. It was overcast that day, and the light coming from the window was low. I do not like to use the flash, not for photographing people and not for food. I will shoot more next time and add them to this post. I will alert you via social media when I do that. In the meantime, you can view more images on the restaurant’s website and more on their Facebook page.
If you enjoyed this post, here are a few more about Italy you might enjoy: