During a cold January visit with winemaker Aldo Rainoldi a few years ago, I was first introduced to Pizzoccheri della Valtellina, a pasta dish second only to Macaroni and Cheese in gooey cheesiness. Aldo lives and makes wine in the Valtellina area of Lombardy, in northern Italy, which comprises a thin strip of the Adda river valley bordered on both sides by the Alps. Wine grapes are grown on the south-facing slopes (so steep that much of the harvest is brought down to the wineries by helicopter), and cows graze on the north-facing slopes, producing rich milk for butter, and for Casera and Bitto cheeses. Buckwheat is another local product that is used in everything from bread and pasta to cakes and tart shells. Thus we find that the most important local pasta dish is a combination of the three: Pizzoccheri della Valtellina, a decadent dish of fresh buckwheat pasta (“pizzoccheri”), butter-soaked savoy cabbage and potatoes, and gorgeous gobs of melted cheese.
Aldo, a cheese fanatic who took us on tours of three cheese shops in one day, insisted upon making us dinner reservations to experience the true Pizzoccheri della Valtellina at Ristorante San Pietro. This popular restaurant in the town of Teglio boasts a membership in the Accademia del Pizzocchero di Teglio. The Accademia is “a free association which brought together 27 founding members” who believe pizzoccheri to be an “original and irreplaceable” part of their heritage. After a 30 minute drive of hairpin Alpine turns during a snowstorm, we arrived at the very, very busy restaurant and immediately ordered the set Menu Accademia del Pizzocchero. The menu starts off with glasses of local Nebbiolo wine, gorgeous slices of local Bresaola and another buckwheat treat called Schiatt (Valtellina dialect for toad), that are buckwheat fritters filled with gooey melted cheese. After we were stuffed with cured beef and fried cheese, our server appeared with an enormous, steaming platter of hot pizzoccheri, potatoes and Savoy cabbage swimming in butter, and dotted with melted blobs of Casera. She scooped pasta out of the platter and onto our plates, and expertly wrangled the strings of cheese connecting our portions to the serving dish. The tender, nutty pasta wrapped around butter-soaked cabbage and stringy with cheese was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, and I can imagine nothing better to wash it down with than lean, slightly tannic, elegant Valtellina Nebbiolo wines. There was no room for seconds when she came back by with another platter. There was also no room for the local cheese assortment served immediately after. (More cheese?!) And then dessert… Full disclosure, I couldn’t resist a slice of the soft buckwheat cake with raspberry jam filling. It was marvelous.
The following is my own adaptation of the Accademia’s recipe. We are lucky to have the perfect Marco Giacosa pizzoccheri pasta in store, so no need to make the pasta yourself unless you really want to, and, call me crazy, but I’ve reduced the butter amount by half. Because Valtellina Casera D.O.P. isn’t always available, it’s fine to substitute another Alpine cheese, like Gruyere or a young Comte – just don’t tell the Accademia!
Formaggio Kitchen Pizzoccheri
1 box Giacosa Pizzoccheri
2 small/medium potatoes, cut into eighths
1 head Savoy cabbage, sliced into 2” strips
½ lb (8oz) Casera D.O.P. or Comté Fort Saint Antoine
¼ lb (4oz) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 stick of butter
2 small cloves garlic, sliced thinly
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the potatoes and the cabbage to the water and cook 5 minutes, or until the potatoes are done. Add the pasta and cook about 10 minutes, until al dente. When pasta is cooked, scoop about a third of the pasta, potato, cabbage out of the pot and put into a large serving dish. Sprinkle with a third of each cheese, and then repeat twice. In a small sauté pan quickly fry the garlic in the butter, until the butter is melted and the garlic is just beginning to turn golden. Pour all of it over the top of the pizzoccheri.
Serve with a Valtellina red wine like Aldo Rainoldi’s Prugnolo.