(Written 23 December 2005)
Framed by the white-capped peaks of the still-distant Dolomites, La Cucina di Crema occupies a large, pleasant, multi-story building, with several expansions framing its inner gardens. An illuminated fountain dances with elegant restraint, while the rows of roses which frame the expanse of lawn are hibernating in the chill of winter. A flagstone pathway wanders through the outer gardens, past frozen artificial ponds and landscaped grass. The family still uses the field at the very end of the lawn as a football/soccer pitch, but it's demurely manicured now and touched with frost. Near the front door, framed by a trees, a vista expands across a wintered wheat field, to the silhouette of the next village, crowned with campanile (bell tower).
Here, by Montello, a first foothill to the Dolomites, we spent a sumptuous afternoon of food and drink, treated to a wonderful, lavish meal (with accompanying wines) by the cook and proprieter himself, a thank you to my parents for hosting him last month on a sister state exchange. Although all the tables were set, they were booked full for the evening, and Christmas business has been good, we were the only ones there to busy the staff for lunch today, a temporary, holiday-induced lull. The scent of a recently-cut, decorated pine tree and festive gilded balls of woven vines made warm and festive an elegant, comfortable space, a bowl of brightly-colored dried exotic fruits providing the final festive touch to each table.
Our host began by recounting the menu he had in mind for us; we were happy to accept his suggestion - his treat! - of high cuisine-influenced Trevisan foods, starring numerous in-house and local products. He disappeared to work (we met at least three chefs in the kitchens later) and the waiter, a friendly, wide-eyed professional, promptly presented us with a platter of homemade breads. Surrounding the fresh, light bowl of olive tapenade was a loaf of housemade bread, radicchio-flavored pillow-shaped crackers, the same kind of crackers flavored with herbs, and small slices of a cold, fairly dense, quiche-like confection with which we all began. Had we realized that the prosecco was purely to drink before beginning our meal proper, we might have made hastier inroads on its bright bubbles before the first antipasto arrived.
The first antipasto was the highlight of my meal (not that the other courses weren't good!): slices of smoked, aged ricotta had been marinated in locally-produced wine. Together with marinated radicchio and fresh rosemary, the pleasant elements combined to create smooth, smoky, tart complex bites of contrasting purple, green, and white. Lovely little tear-outlined cracker cups, colored with squash, added further color to the plate. The accompanying wine, a Franciacorte Frizzante, worked well with the tartness especially. The second antipasto (my parents' favorite) was a goose ragù topped with celeriac foam and pepper threads, and served in a small martini glass.
For the pasta course, plates of squash-stuffed agnolotti arrived, the sweetness of the gourd an indulgent contrast to a reasonably lively, but not overpowering, roquefort sauce, also crowned with pepper threads for a light touch of spice. It was served with a wine striking for its narrow but complex taste range, a creamy white with strong vanilla notes, another local specialty. (Falconera, a chardonnay from Loredan Gasparini)
A piece of beef, stuffed with tasty local barboni mushrooms and plated with translucent melted slices of lardo, a prized Italian meat fat, was accompanied by grilled radicchio and dried (or briefly fried?) cuts of tomato skin, a splash of red against the whites and browns of the main dish. I missed out on the accompanying cabernet franc (I don't drink reds), but the waiter suggested that the white served with the primo would work fine with the main, or he could find something else. I opted for the former. I really did like those mushrooms, thinly sliced, rich but not overpowering, a good match for beef.
For the first time in the course of the meal, we mused over the dessert menu, each choosing a different one, some of us with input from the chef as to particular dessert highlights. But first, a pre-dessert arrived, a comforting confection of grape sauce, gianduia ice cream, and a chilled banana foam, topped with a ground pistachio-white chocolate sheet, the plate garnished with a glitter of candied ginger dust.
And dessert itself? The others went for the millefeuille, the chocolate panna cotta with orange fan, or the dolcetto morbido di caffé (soft coffee dessert), while I opted for the chef's recommendation of chocolate flan. Although made from dark chocolate, the flavor wasn't too strong, nicely balanced. An accompanying bowl, grappa-soaked raisins topped with mint foam, was a striking pairing, but not quite as successful as the other elements - the grappa dominated the entire grouping. The bowls of flan and grapes were framed with thin slices of kiwi, starfruit, oranges, and the plate completed with delicately shredded coconut, creamy mint sauce, and a fashionable, elegant, and seasonal physalis.
To finish, as good Italian meals do, there was coffee, accompanied by a traditional Befana's day* nibble, anise-flecked pincia, and then grappa, the grappa infused with orange. Having had limited and poor experiences with harsh, rough grappe, it was a revelation to discover that the highly alcoholic drink can be really good, smooth and lushly flavored.
Our host came and went as the meal proceeded, introducing us to his daughter when she came home from school, and one of his sisters, most or all of whom work at the restaurant too. Afterwards, he gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the business, from his office to the warehouse in the back where they store the hundreds of glasses that the places requires. There were multiple kitchens, the pasta and baked goods chef busy in the basement. The dish-washing station proved unexpectedly exciting for the cutlery-drying device: it agitates dried, ground-up, de-kerneled corn cobs, burnishing and drying cutlery in the process. Originally developed for jewelery shops, it's now a handy feature for larger restaurants.
We finished the tour in the wine cellar, a cool room a few meters below ground level, lined with full wine racks. Unexpected touches caught our eyes: the large jars of grappa marinating away for their requisite forty days. And the bottles of a locally-produced wine of a type unfamiliar to us. A dessert wine, prosecco passito, produced only in a few places near Treviso (he said) the grapes are picked in September and left to dry on racks until December, when they are pressed for their sweet remaining juices. He opened a bottle for us: it was drier than I was expecting after such a sweet description, full of the flavors of raisins and plums. It reminded C. of madiera.
A walk through sunset's chill, down the garden paths. A drive to the train station. Despite the long leisure of the afternoon, we were already making our fond farewells on the train station platform. It was wonderful afternoon.
* The Befana is a old woman who heard that the infant Jesus had been born from the passing wisemen and after a while of baking and cleaning and generally getting ready, she set off in pursuit to pay homage to Christ. She finally arrived on twelfth night, Befana's Day, the sixth of January, when Italian children receive stockings filled with candies and there is mulled wine and a regatta in Venice with all the rowers dressed in drag as Befane. Mainland towns also may have bonfires, and pincia was traditionally baked in the ashes of the Befana's Day bonfire.
P.S. Had we only arrived in the area sooner, I could have advertised La Cucina di Crema's christmas fare booth in the Campo S. Stefano market currently going on, but tomorrow, Christmas Eve, will be its last day. They've only recently branched out into their own-branded (and produced) products, but they're pondering venues for future sales, such as in retail shops. Perhaps someday you'll be able to pick up a packages of their radicchio-flavored, pillow-like crackers from a venue outside of the base of Montello. Until then, you'll just have to seek out the restaurant for yourself.