On my most recent trip to Italy I experienced a big disappointment when a friend of mine from Vicenza and I were supposed to get together and the plans fell through. Actually, it would have been a sad meeting because he owns a pizzeria and gelateria but is being forced to close his business for the foreseeable future due to skyrocketing energy costs. I’d been invited to come by for his final night in business and looked forward to seeing him again, as well as sampling his fine organic pizza and gelato one more time. But on the appointed night, I drove to his shop in Vicenza only to find it closed and dark. I sent a few text messages that went unanswered and was stymied by what might have happened. Confused and sad that I‘d apparently missed him, I then had to attend to the immediate situation: I was very hungry and it was after 8PM on a Sunday night, so I knew I might not have many options for dinner. Relying on good old Google, I searched, “best restaurants near Vicenza” and up came the name Antica Trattoria al Sole, which roughly translates into: Ancient or Old Restaurant in the Sun. It was located a few kilometers outside Vicenza in the small village of Castegnero, so off I went into the unknown.
I arrived to find a lovely building with a few cars in the parking lot and entered the restaurant hoping I wasn’t too late for dinner, but the kind hostess smiled and led me to a nice table. As I settled in and perused the menu, I realized I was going to have to make some difficult choices; the menu sounded absolutely fantastic and I was hungry, which can be a dangerous combination. Luckily the phrase, “I want everything on the menu and I want it now” was not easily accessible in my Italian vocabulary. I remained calm and tried to narrow down my choice for a first course, which is typically a pasta or rice dish. It came down to one of two choices: Bigoli with a ragu of duck or Tagliolini with pumpkin and black truffles. I love duck. I love pumpkin. Why couldn’t they be together in the same dish? Oh, the cruel decisions these Italian restaurants force upon their guests!
I asked my waitress if she recommended one dish over the other, and she thought about it for a few seconds before carefully responding with, “Well, the tagliolini with pumpkin is one of my very favorite dishes.” Great, an expert opinion to guide me! I’d go with that one. But before I could speak, she smiled and added, “But if you asked me again in just five minutes, I might say the bigoli with the duck ragu. They are my two favorites.” Feeling a bit betrayed, I spontaneously blurted out, “Taglioni con zucca, per favore!” Just as rock beats scissors or paper covers rock, for me, pumpkin edges out duck.
My waitress left me at that point, and soon the hostess came by and asked if I were planning to have a second course. Again, I was blown away by the choices, but it came down to either lambchops encrusted with hazelnuts or braised pork chops from the Iberian peninsula where the pigs are raised on a special diet to give the meat a distinct flavor. Despite the fact that my first attempt at advice had not gone so well, I decided to try it again and asked the hostess which of these two dishes she thought was the better choice. Like my waitress, she thought for several seconds and finally said, “I think you should try the pork.” Ready to make that choice, I started to open my mouth, but she leaned in close and whispered to me, “But if it was my choice I would go for the lamb. It is my favorite.” I have been in the field of Psychology long enough to know that I was getting very mixed messages from these folks!
I decided to order the lamb, and my hostess seemed a little uncomfortable, saying that it is a very distinct dish and that she hoped I would like it. It became obvious to me that the pressure of choosing for me was high and that she was worried that if I didn’t like my choice, I’d blame her. As it turned out, she had nothing to worry about.
First came the pasta, and as someone who has probably eaten more pasta in Italy than many native-born Italians, the flavors and textures nearly brought tears to my eyes. If I could make that dish for myself, I’d be making it 4 or 5 days a week. It was absolutely amazing, and my waitress seemed very relieved when I told her how much I was enjoying it. Next came the lamb. People close to me know that there are three things I don’t like food-wise: raisins, shredded coconut, and most nuts. So why would I order hazelnut-encrusted lamb, you might ask? It just sounded right and my hostess’ recommendation pushed me over the edge. The four little lamb lollipops on that plate were perhaps the most flavorful and tender lamb I have ever had. I could not have loved that dish more… unless there had been a few more lamb chops on it! It was simply perfect.
Seemingly more confident now that I was raving over my dinner, my waitress told me that for dessert, the millefoglie, an Italian version of a French Napoleon, had been made fresh earlier in the day, and I ordered it without hesitation. Living up to its name, which means “thousand sheets or layers”, this flaky pastry melted in my mouth, and the rich cream filling and slivers of chocolate that adorned it pushed it over the top. Rarely have I so thoroughly enjoyed every single course of a meal.
I think the restaurant staff may have perceived me as a bit matto (crazy) given my over-the-top reaction to everything, but I told them I wanted to review the restaurant on my website and we had a nice chat after dinner as they offered me a complimentary glass of grappa. It’s places like this that are the reason why Italy has such a great reputation as a culinary wonderland: here is an unassuming trattoria in a sleepy little village, yet the level of excellence of the food and service was on par with some of the finest restaurants I’ve dined in around the world.
Many people who visit Italy unfortunately don’t have the will or opportunity to get away from the tourist centers and experience the more authentic side of this wonderful country. And of course, to reach places like this, one needs to either rent a car and drive or perhaps drop a lot of cash on a taxi or Uber ride, but I assure you, the reward for doing so is great. Thank you, Antica Trattoria del Sole for turning what began as a disappointing evening and turning it into one of the most memorable meals of my entire trip. I vow that I will come back some day to try some of those dishes I didn’t choose this time around!