Photo © David De Vleeschauwer
Intel from the Dolomite mountains of the Italian Alps, where foodies from around the world come to ski and skiers from around the world come to eat.
Last winter, on a trip to the Dolomites in Italy, the mountain range south of the Austrian border and north of Venice, I had an epiphany: I may have grown up in New England, but when it comes to snow sports, I am 100 percent Italian.
"Italians only ski when the sun is out and the trails are perfectly groomed; and they spend as much time eating as they do on the slopes," said Agustina Lagos Mármol, founder of specialty travel company Dolomite Mountains. We had just finished a lazy lunch of handmade schlutzkrapfen (half-moon ravioli stuffed with spinach and dripping with sage butter) with a glass of local Sylvaner, an earthy German white variety originally from Austria that often gets overlooked next to the region's more famous Rieslings. The meal, which ended with a hot slice of apple strudel, was particularly memorable because of the setting: the terrace of the Ütia de Bioch, a wooden hut perched above the Alta Badia valley, surrounded on all sides by a jagged crown of snowcapped limestone peaks.
This was the first stop on a custom four-day, hut-to-hut tour organized by Mármol, a skilled skier originally from Patagonia, Argentina, and led by local mountain guide Luca Gasparini. Using skis, gondolas and the occasional snowmobile, Gasparini and I crossed almost 100 miles of the Dolomites Superski pass (which connects all 12 ski areas within the Dolomites), spending the night in both five-star hotels and remote mountain inns on the way. We rarely skied a run more than once and never repeated a meal. Most importantly, we took plenty of Italian-style breaks: to sunbathe, take in the dramatic views, have a drink—or, ideally, do all three at the same time.
Like the savvy Germans who tipped me off to the Dolomites, I return as often as possible, for the surreally massive mountain landscape (the size of two Grand Tetons), as well as for the awesome variety of ski trails—from the lazy runs near the village of Cortina d'Ampezzo (George Clooney has been spotted there) to the narrow black-diamond trails that drop steeply down the Lagazuoi mountain, which is riddled with caves that were used as lookout posts during World War I. There are the nearly empty trails of the Alpe de Siusi, sandwiched between the massive limestone shards of the Sasso Lungo mountains and Mount Schlern, and the supremely popular Sella Ronda ski runs that circle the Sella mountain range.
Perhaps the area's biggest draw is its ambitious alpine food. The French Alps might have the glamorous ski resorts of the Savoie region, and there are world-class ski-in restaurants in Austria and Switzerland, but the Dolomites, in the province of South Tyrol, also known as Alto-Adige, are home to such a dynamic mix of culinary influences and accomplished chefs that they have more Michelin stars than any other Italian province.
Before World War I, much of the area belonged to Austria-Hungary; today the Austro-Hungarian culinary tradition is still strong, with plenty of pork, cabbage and goulash—and the perfect strudel. There's also the rustic Ladin influence; Ladins are mountain people unique to the region who trace their language and culture back to the Roman Empire. Together, the result is the efficiency and refined cuisine of Austria, the dolce vita spirit of Italy and the simple dishes of hardworking mountain farmers. In four days, I tasted all those flavors: kaiserschmarrn, an Austrian pancake specialty; linguine loaded with fresh shellfish; and Ladin-style polenta dishes served with wild venison. All were made by hand with the best possible ingredients.
One of the region's most famous restaurants is the Restaurant St. Hubertus in the Rosa Alpina, a legendary 74-year-old inn in the village of San Cassiano. According to Mármol, the Dolomites' culinary movement started here with the efforts of owner Hugo Pizzinini, who inherited the property from his father, and chef Norbert Niederkofler, who has earned two Michelin stars for the St. Hubertus since 2007.
The two men are arguably responsible for the area's new buzz: They encouraged local business owners to modernize their menus and collaborate with well-known chefs from around Italy. Now, Pizzinini and Niederkofler are often asked by other European ski areas to consult on "skiing the Italian way," Pizzinini told me. "That means a cappuccino followed by an aperitivo, and then a two-hour lunch. An hour or two of skiing, and then back down to the hotel for a spa treatment and then dinner."
My evening at the Rosa Alpina started at the intimate lobby bar, where I took in the crowd: discreetly wealthy Italian families, well-dressed middle-aged Russian couples and a group of gregarious Americans going over their day of heli-skiing with the former Olympic ski champion Franz Weber. The atmosphere was more formal at the Restaurant St. Hubertus. Mármol joined me for a dizzying three-hour dinner inspired by the surrounding mountain farms, which included a carpaccio of veal scented with spruce and served with pickled vegetables. Sometime after midnight, I retreated to my enormous suite and its plump featherbed. The next morning, it took all my willpower to leave. The cozy warren of rooms on the ground floor was glowing with crackling fireplaces, and as I put on my ski boots, I spotted robe-clad couples checking into the spa. rosalpina.it
One evening, as a fiery coral sunset slowly melted into the snowcapped hills, a snowmobile bumped us and our luggage up and down along a narrow track at about 30 miles an hour toward the Rifugio Fuciade, a complex of rustic wooden houses sunken into a vast field of snow. Waiting to greet us was an enormous black mountain dog and Emanuela Rossi, a middle-aged woman in an apron with her hair pulled back in a tight bun. Rossi owns the Fuciade along with her husband, Sergio, also the head chef, and their three children. The couple bought the main hut 30 years ago and raised their family here; every winter morning, the kids had to snowmobile to school.
The Fuciade's seven simple bedrooms are on the second floor, but guests tend to spend their time on the ground floor, where three dining rooms are decorated in typical Alpine style (wooden banquettes, carved chairs and lace-covered windows). Several of the paintings on the wall are of Emanuela Rossi, given to the family over the years by artistic regulars, and in fact she is never far away, only disappearing to check in on her husband and 29-year-old son in the pristine professional kitchen.
Martino Rossi, who trained in Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy and San Sebastian, Spain, has punched up the menu, adding a sous vide machine to the kitchen and cooking modern yet still rustic dishes, such as The Soul of the Forest, a rich puree of potato loaded with chunks of perfectly roasted game, mushrooms, berries, truffle and locally foraged herbs. It was one of seven dinner courses that highlighted recipes from father and son, starting with a sauerkraut soup and ending with ravioli stuffed with wild pears and figs. fuciade.it
Rifugio Emilio Comici
Our best lunch was at the packed Rifugio Emilio Comici, a white hut with sky-blue shutters in the middle of a bowl-shaped valley. The walls of the hut's three small dining rooms were covered in photographs of Italian athletes, and waiters wove between tables, serving Champagne and plates of pasta studded with fresh shellfish brought in every day from Grado, near Venice. One of the owners, dressed in a tweed jacket, did the rounds and used his charm to keep the waiting crowds in the front bar happy. Out the window was a scene from the jet-set Costa Smeralda, but on snow: A few dozen skiers stood drinking wine at a scattering of tables at the outdoor bar, which was spread with olives, fresh oysters, fish carpaccio and grilled shrimp.
"Try to find a place like this on the slopes of France or Switzerland," said Gasparini. "You can find excellent restaurants in the villages, but not in the mountain rifugi." rifugiocomici.com
Coming upon a chef talent like Franz Mulser working away in a closet-size kitchen in his GostnerSchwaige restaurant is a little bit like bumping into Edward Norton performing at a small theater on the Appalachian Trail. After training with the German two-star chef Harald Wohlfahrt and the legendary Austrian Eckart Witzigmann, Mulser decided to return to his family farm and turn one of his father's mountain shelters into a restaurant with just nine tables.
Mulser is so dedicated to the local customs that he cooks wearing traditional lederhosen and a wool cap. For his signature dish, Hay Soup, he collects 25 different herbs from surrounding fields, including lady's mantle, yarrow and wild mountain pepper; he then cooks those herbs in cream sourced from his cattle, which eat those same herbs. Finally, he serves the soup in a loaf of sourdough bread that he bakes in a nest of hay, and scatters edible wildflowers on top. The dish was a revelation: as hearty as something a local grandmother would cook, but with all the sophistication of a serious urban kitchen. 39-347-836-8154
The sun had already gone down, and the slopes were lit only by the stars and a sliver of moon. Chef Mulser kindly gave us a snowmobile ride to the Alpina Dolomites, a high-style hotel designed by Italian architects De Biasi & Comploi, that was lit up like a modern sculpture. A fire pit was roaring on the hotel's wraparound terrace, which, like the rest of the hotel, incorporates blond wood, stone and glass. Dinner would be marinated celery salad with raspberries and walnuts followed by veal steak served with fennel, almond cream and olives—chef Julian Seeber serves healthful takes on regional dishes. First, though, there was one thing left to do, something Hugo Pizzinini, the owner of the Rosa Alpina, said was crucial to the Dolomites skiing experience: I had to spend some time in the spa. 39-0436-4660
Berlin-based Gisela Williams is the European correspondent for F&W. She also contributes to the New York Times.