Last June, in the midst of a European heat wave, I slowly made my way down through Italy over the course of three weeks. It was my first visit, and the food I tried in every town rendered me speechless. Until you eat Italian food in Italy, you just can't understand the magic and power of Italian ingredients and cooking traditions.
I have to say this because it's absolutely true: I fell in love at first bite in Trento. My very first meal of my very first stop on the journey. And it's not like I'm new to discovering fantastic foods around the world--I've been living and traveling abroad for 10 years. How was it that the pasta presented to me had the perfect texture, color and shape? How did the creamy mushroom sauce taste so divine? How was the wine, a simple house red, so incredibly complex? And why did it all still feel kind of healthy?
So when I returned to the US for a visit and found myself in Austin, Texas, I was overjoyed that this eclectic city known for its cuisine of BBQ and food trucks (both of which I love!) is now home to some serious northern Italian cuisine by way of the recently opened Hotel Granduca and its restaurant, Ristorante Visconti. Heading up this new dining establishment is Chef Tom Parlo, who has held executive chef positions at an impressive list of 4 star properties, including Four Seasons NYC and Mandarin Oriental Miami.
As it turns out, Visconti is good for either a creative and hearty Italian meal or lighter fare--the restaurant also does brunch, happy hour and afternoon tea. Either way, the ingredients are always as local and seasonal as possible--but over half of the wine list is composed of northern Italian wines.
My Visconti dinner consisted of a varied and flavorful parade of mouth-watering plates. How about some pickled chestnuts with whipped lardo to start? Cured pork back fat never tasted so good. How about some ricotta gnocchi (oh yes, that does exist), a saffron-infused seafood stew or Chianti-braised pork cheeks? Perhaps a pecorino massaged with juniper (pecorino ginepro) and served with fig marmalade and honeycomb will satiate your Italian foodie cravings. Ever tried cranberry gelato for dessert? And about that pickled green strawberry that keeps showing up--well, when you see one hanging out on a plate, just grab it and savor it.
The dinner was also accompanied by meticulous service, and I couldn't have been more delighted with the highly attentive waiters who answered my many questions in patient, hushed tones. Waiters in Italy don't really do "patient, hushed tones", but so what? My tastebuds were in ecstasy, my travel nostalgia (and probably the 2012 Franco Serro Barbaresco wine from Piedmont) had me dreamy-eyed, and I felt very much at home.
But it wasn't just the restaurant that made me feel cozy, content and right at home. I also spent that night at Hotel Granduca, and as I turned off the bedside lamp with a click, that was when I realized it. How many times had I turned off the table lamp at my own house? It wasn't a switch on the wall, a touch-screen control or even your classic clap-on-clap-off light. It was a good old-fashioned, fabric-shaded lamp.
Of course this luxury hotel seems designed to exude that elegance and charm, that Old World Italian ambiance--the unbelievably buttery leather chairs in the private dining room of Ristorante Visconti, the relaxing game room open all day and night (great for insomniac guests), and the 1,700 pieces of art throughout the hotel--sketches, paintings or photos of Italy past and present.
In fact, my room in the hotel contained simply-framed photos of vignettes of Italian life, displayed so casually on the bedside table and the writing desk as if they were my own vacation memories that I had placed there myself.
Although I knew I was in Texas, the hotel sits on a hillside spot over the green, "Tuscan-like" slopes of west Austin so I could continue to pretend I was right back in delicious, magical Italy.