It’s a lazy Sunday lunchtime on a February Sunday and I’m having lunch in a restaurant with family and friends. The restaurant is La Genzianella in the hamlet of Fraciscio above Campodolcino in Valchiavenna. It’s a small place with an adjoining bar that fits snugly into its context with a wood-panelling dining room and a cosy atmosphere that feels like it could take you back to 1956 when the restaurant first opened. The waitress comes over and tells us what’s on the menu today. There’s a short moment of reflection and then quick agreement that we’ll have a taste of everything, or rather not quite everything. We decide to skip the antipasti or cold meats and cheeses which vary according to where you are and what the local produce dictates, but only because we can’t wait to start with the primi or first courses. We know that they have ravioli filled with soft fresh cheese and served in a fresh tomato sauce. And above all, they have pizzoccheri alla chiavennasca.
I often think that happiness is a dish of pizzoccheri, not only because of the food itself but because of the situation that is always involved. Take a mountain trattoria or a mountain refuge, in any case somewhere in the mountains which always has the winning factor for me personally because quite simply it is in the mountains. Fill it with family and friends around a table, add good honest food and it ticks all the right boxes in an atmosphere that makes you feel at home. Serve pizzoccheri and everyone’s happy.
What you need to know about pizzoccheri is that there are two types. One is from the Valtellina and involves large flat ribbons of pasta that could be equated with pappardelle, only they’re cut into short strips and made from grana saraceno or buckwheat, and dressed in greens and butter and local cheese. The type of pizzoccheri up here in the Valchiavenna is the other type, the one where roughly shaped gnocchi are made from stale bread and potato and served swimming in butter and local cheese. This is the whole point of this type of pizzoccheri. It’s supposed to swim in the cheese. You’ll also find them referred to as gnocchetti alla chiavennascha, little gnocchi Chiavenna-style. This is comfort food pushed to the max, the kind of thing you eat and then dream about afterwards.
It’s the dish that most represents this valley, with ingredients that people could generally get: potatoes, stale bread, cheese and butter. It served its purpose to feed people who live up in what can be quite unforgiving conditions in winter. It fed you, put something warm in your stomach and it was full of calories. It serves a similar function today for skiers in winter and hikers in summer. Fraciscio is at an altitude of 1341 metres above sea level. The road from Campodolcino leads on to the ski resort of Madesimo and the mountain pass of Passo dello Spluga up at 2114 metres. It’s one of the old transport routes linking Chur in Switzerland with Como and on to the Po Valley in Italy. The pass is closed in winter, but in summer you can go up there and enjoy its wild, remote beauty.
The first courses are followed by costine al forno (pork ribs cooked in the oven), brasato (pot-roasted beef) and salmi’ di cervo – venison stew with juniper berries and served with polenta. Venison is naturally a lean meat and for this reason it’s often marinated in wine, vegetables and herbs before cooking which helps to make it more tender when cooking. The polenta is the type that’s found up here, where the familiar yellow polenta cornflour is mixed with buckwheat to give it a distinctive speckled appearance. This is all followed in its turn by home made desserts including torta di grana saraceno or a fruit tart made with buckwheat flour again. Finish with a strong black espresso and one of the grappas made with the herbs you can find up here. It’s the kind of place where you find yourself dreaming of a sofa and a log fire afterwards.
Ristorante La Genzianella, Via Fraciscio, 93, 23021 Fraciscio SO, tel: 0343 50154. (Booking in advance is strongly recommended.)