I headed for my first visit to the val d'Aosta with considerable gastronomic trepidation: All my previous experience of polenta and fontina cheese had been pretty negative, and everything I read while planning my trip emphasized these two foodstuffs as mainstays of Valdostana cuisine. For me, it was a welcome surprise to encounter a cuisine with considerable variety, and the fondutas, vellutatas and polentas I did try were much more palatable to me on their home ground than I had tasted elsewhere.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the quality and enjoyability of the local wines, and surprised to be so often served, at the height of summer, many wonderful mushroom dishes, chestnuts, artichokes, apples, beets and even truffles -- incorporated into light and tasty summer dishes, that were plainly born of the clean mountain air and water.
Chowhound rules forbid me from raving about how much visual and cultural excitement is packed into Italy's smallest region, but I can say that if delicious eating and gastronomy is why you come to Italy, the val d'Aosta stands head and shoulders above a great many other Italian tourist destinations whose restauranteurs have turned utterly indifferent to maintaining standards, simply because they have an endless supply of hungry customers more focused on views than what is on their plates. I live on the Italian Riviera and it was quite a revelation to see how hard restaurants in the val d'Aosta are working to maintain traditions of quality. I didn't visit the major ski resoirt areas like Courmayer or around the Matterhorn, so maybe things fall off dramatically there. When we got closer to Mont Blanc, I could certainly see the cheap tourist trade tricks seeping in.
However, all that is easy to avoid and, with the help of Slow Food guide or an Italian Touring Club guide to get beyond the tourist traps.. It becomes easy to find cooking and wine production that proudly upholds not only fascinating ancient traditions reaching back to Roman times (and maybe before!), but also the constant criss-crossing of French and German influences (and yes, rich skiers too).
Gastronomically, I found it a region where notable sophistication and discipline exists cheek-by-jowl with very unsophisticated areas, where homey basic foods are dished up at establishments run by the same family for generations (8-year olds bring you your soup), I found some incredibly innocent places offering true hospitality that I hope will never change..
We relied on the Slow Food guides for osterie, locande and agriturismi and on Michelin mainly for lodgings. I didn't realize until I arrived in the val d'Aosta that I had inadvertently left my copy of Fred Plotkin's Italy for the Gourmet Travel behind, but I know he recommends some of these places too. A few eateries, noted below, were our own happy finds.
In order of Chow-worthiness:
LE VRILLE -- Pleasantly high in the hills above Nus and Chambave, but not at all far from the main autostrada, La Vrille is a very serious, award-winning winery and agriturismo, serving home-made five course dinners to lodgers only, and its own award-winning wines. (All at an extremely fair price). Everything is local and seasonal, many of the recipes are historic, and all of it is done with generosity and care.There is no menu, and the ambience is serene. Our evening meal started out with a modest sampler of organic cured meats from the neighborhood, followed by a "tris" of chestnut dishes, including a fascinating porridge that I couldn't help but think was the original regional "polenta". That was followed by perfectly done roasted pork, carmelized onions, baked cauliflower and a wonderful contorno of marinated giant zucchini, served at room temperature in its lemony, herby marinade. We were offered second helpings of everything, which we would have leapt for had we not had such a filling lunch. Dessert was a buttery upside down peach cake, with Valdostana butter and peaches picked right out the door. We drank Le Vrille's best red Fumin wine, mellow and charming. Breakfast the next morning was a generous array of homemade cakes, breads, cookies, organic yogurts, marmalades and honeys produced on the farm. Le Vrille is destnation-worthy, delicious, healthful and providing a lot of insight in historic and contemporary val d'Aosta.
LOU TCHAPPE -- A stone's throw from commercialized Cogne, the unrenovated village of Lillaz has a ring of waterfalls, snow-capped peaks, total silence and this gem of a country eatery serving sophisticated fresh food bursting with flavor. Our lunch on a sunny terrace began with sizzling hot snails in a buttery, garlicky sauce. My husband had a bowl of summer vegetable soup, which consisted mainly of wild mountain greens and herbs in a creamy base, and the riot of flavors was fantastic. I was just as happy with my chestnut gnocchi in a fresh mushroom sauce. I wanted to hug my plate as well as lick it clean it was so good. Lou Tchappe is one of very few Italian restaurants where I have regretted not ordering right from the start a secondo and a contorno -- not because the portions were skimpy, but because everything I tasted was so good, I wanted to taste more. We had fresh mountain berries for dessert. Highly recommended.
LE PETIT DAHU -- Valnontey, a few miles from Cogne, is the last outpost of lodgings, restaurants and horseback riding stables before entering the pristine Gran Paradiso national park. Le Petit Dahu serves dinner only to its lodgers, who are given a choice of a fixed price menu or the option of a la carte menu, only 5 euros more expensive. My husband sprung for the fixed menu -- cured meats, a penne with finferli mushrooms, a "caprese" salad of tomatoes and house-made mozzerella (there is a organic dairy across the road). All of it was incomparably fresh, and I especially admired the penne cooked just to al dente nuttiness, more al dente than I ever dare try for at home, but it was perfect for the dish. I ordered ala carte; crepes baked to crispness in a creamy fonduta sauce that instantly dispelled my distaste for fontina cheese; a salad secondo of cured goose breast tossed with sliced baby peaches and frisee. Although the delicious ripe peaches did yeoman's wok lightening the dish, I still thought at first bite I made a wrong choice ordering goose in July. It is just too rich. I felt the same way when I succumbed to ordering a rich chocolate dessert (rather like a terrine) while my husband savored his fixed-price dessert of fresh mountain berries. But I don't blame my wrong choices on the cook, and breakfast the next morning was lovely array of homemade breads, cakes, preserves, local honey and yoghurt. Recommended.
LE BONNE ETAPPE -- About 4km from the Castello Fenis, we found this delightful and tasty restaurant after mistakenly imagining it would be too hard to find parking in Fenis itself . We swung in the direction of St. Marcel hoping for a roadside restaurant, and when we spotted the crossed knife-and-fork sign for Le Bonne Etappe, pointing us toward the pinspeck town of Supplian, we followed a petite castle there. Le Bonne Etappe occupies a very unassuming modern structure, surrounded by pretty fruit trees. We were surprised when we opened the door we were not the only customers. The fixed menu my husband ordered -- mixed rustic salume, a primi of canneloni, a secondo of carbonade with polenta and a dessert of summer fruits -- was cooked with gusto and almost more than he could eat. My fancy appetizer was thin line of shaved truffles separating twin pates of turkey and proscuitto. The truffles were delightful but the flavors of the mousse-smooth pates were almost indiscernible. Like my husband, I too polished off a plate of the rustic, meaty (almost gamy) canneloni. It was wonderful, and despite the richness, wasn't oily or fatty. We saw jewel-like desserts being devoured at other tables -- parfaits, chocolate chests filled with fruit, edible spoons of sweets -- but we barely had room for espresso. The eclectic mix of classic Valdostana plates alternating with the cook's passion for personal touches had its own integrity. We were happy, for about 30 euros apiece. Recommended.
PERRET --- This Slow Food recommended locanda is located in Bonne in the val Grrisenche, at the start of several trailheads and with a horizontally split view of the valley's enormous curved hydroelectic dam and the mesmerizing Rutor glacier. For lunch, we had a brilliant start with carne salata dressed with marinated halved artichokes and a mountain of shavings of a local hard aged cheese. We just devoured it. It was so bright and fresh, it was just fanstastic. We followed it with a carbonade with polenta (the secondo menu was quite limited that day). The carbonade juices were so flavorful that I managed to eat all my polenta! We had fresh mountain berries for dessert. Recommended.
TRATTORIA PRAETORIA (city of Aosta) -- This is a Slow Food recommendation in one of the (very few) super-touristy areas of the city, and the food is classic, mostly quite simple and very well-executed. We ate herb ravioli and my husband ate polenta. We had sauteed calves liver for a secondo. My experience might have been pure happiness had not a tourist family at the table right next to us allowed their todder to shriek and shout for a half-hour straight without walking him 5 steps out the door to play. The interior space is small, and we got the last table for lunch. It is a popular place. Recommended.
MAISON DES REVES -- The ski resort town of Le Thuile is also the jumping off point for Monte Bianco hikes and cable car rides, and it pumps up the tourist trade in summer with things like chocolate festivals and rock concerts, or sexy spa weekends. We couldn't find accommodation in the quieter neighboring town of Le Thovex (with a recommended Slow Food restaurant), so we ended up at this boutique Hotel-Ristorante. When the young and energetic proprietors learned I had been on a futile hunt to taste a highly local speciality -- blood sausage from the adjacent town of Morgex, which include lard, beets and potatoes, known as "boudin" -- they delivered for our dinner their father's home-made version, and it was a wonderful treat for me. It is eaten as an antipasto with dark bread, and we followed that with wild boar and prugne ravioli, and then carbonade and a dessert of fresh berries. Nothing else quite reached the level of the home-made sausage, but that high level of sweet hospitality shone all through the establishment.
HOTEL PARAMOUNT -- I am forbidden by the rules of Chowhound to tell you why my dining experiences at the Hotel Paramount in Planaval were the highlight of my stay in the val d'Aosta and the ones I will most treasure for the rest of my life. But certainly you should know that if you are traveling all the way to the val d'Aosta in search of the great taste sensations or classically prepared Valdastona specialties, you shouldn't stop here. If you stop anyway, the daily soup is a good bet, the pastas are OK, the simpler your secondo, the better, and you might as well skip dessert. Be prepared for servers not out of grade school, dogs migrating from neighboring tables to sniff your plate, 20 hikers from Madrid or 15 from Lyon eating up most of the breakfast buffet before you reach it. There are flies (but there is also a fly swatter.) The adorable grandmother manning the bar doesn't know one red wine from another. I am not trying to discourage you from coming here. Just discouraging the thought that this is a Chowhound destination. But if you are more than a Chowhound, you might have a great time all the same.
LE RIONDET -- This restaurant is located within the lower Italian-side reaches of the Piccolo Gran San Bernardo, a harrowing switchback road without guardrails and vertiginous drops that is only open during summer months, when it becomes the playground of daredevil motorcycle riders and a few fools like myself. I went up it because I was told I could find a restaurant up there that served boudin, the Morgex blood sausage. I gave up the search after 10 minutes, swerving off the road as soon as I could -- and found myself in the parking lot of this restaurant. Since it was lunchtime, we went in and had lasagne and home-made torte which -- while not at all unpleasant -- was exactly the kind of high-fat, crowd pleasing, served-quick cheap food that is in much in demand in such a touristy locale. Service was sweet and ski-bunny, the decor was all Alpine kitsch.
HOTEL MIAGE -- I originally intended not to book anything in advance for my road trip through the val d'Aosta, but then I panicked, thinking that because it was July and we were arriving by train for our first night, I should book that first night. This is a Michelin-recommended hotel and the restaurant is a disaster. We ordered from the menu the classic Val d"Aosta seuppa valpallenentse --bread, cabbage and fontina soup - and it had not one bit of bread in it. The rest of the food was worse.
SOME SPECIAL FOOD TREATS -- In addition to the summertime abundance of mountain mushroom dishes, fresh berries and wonderful dairy products from organic latterie, we found it a special treat to (sparingly) eat the local lard from Arnaud, especially when paired with dark bread and chestnut honey, the aforementioned boudin from Morgex, the light white wine of Morgex, and both the wine d'Enfers and Torrente Superiore from the center of the region, but especially the aforementioned Fumin from the "heroic vinyards" above Chambave. There are many other prized local specialites and wines we didn't get a chance to try, and the only we tried that we didn't like was a round, somewhat lacy cookie called "tegole," but we also suspect we didn't get a fair example of it.