|Top notch beef at Locanda Costa Degli Ulivi|
From Venice, our road tour kicked off (via an Autogrill or two) as we drove about 1 ¼ hours to the Valpolicella region of Italy for a sip of some big boy Amarone on its home turf.
Our first taste of a great Amarone was a few years ago at a terrific little restaurant called 18-28 in Milan, recommended by a local Italian colleague (and now by me - great food). The cork was popped. The wine was poured. We swirled, we sniffed, we sipped. We looked each other in the eye. Then we clutched our glasses like mother cats guarding their young and ordered a full bottle. And then another.
|Villa Monteleone - looking out onto the vines|
This wine hails from the Valpolicella region, north of Verona and east of Lake Garda. Drive by row after row of leafy vines and hilltops dotted with soaring church towers and sleepy villages. The perfect base for your explorations is winery and B&B, Villa Monteleone, in the heart of the region. Owned by Lucia Raimondi, the villa is a traditional 17th century building overlooking the vineyards of Monteleone and Gargagnago. The villa has its own small, family run vineyard producing about 35,000 bottles a year (its first vintage was in 1989), and right across the road is the regional commercial giant, Masi, where you can taste some big hitting Amarones that will cost you hundreds of pounds to sample in London.
Our homely meal at Locanda Costa degli Ulivi (www.costadeliulivi.com) could have set an example to a Michelin star restaurant or two. A ginormous platter of pumpkin risotto and a steaming bowl of handmade coccinelle pasta shells with local sausage, olives and tomato were fabulous, but even better were the mains – 4 perfectly pink and plump lamb cutlets, and generous thick slithers of delicious grilled beef. Serving sizes are large, great value and absolutely top quality. This is a place where they start with great produce and then cook it simply but perfectly to bring out its best but take nothing away from it. The room had zero atmosphere on the night of our visit (completely out of tourist season), but the food and wines (at about €4 for a decent Amarone or €2 for a Valpolicella) had us smitten. Our amazing feast cost about €40 per head for 3 courses, sides and highly enjoyable wines. Food wise, TPG rates it up there in best ever meal category. A total surprise package.
|Hand made pasta with sausage, olives & tomatoes at L.D.C. Ulivi|
It was far better than our slightly more expensive dinner the next night at Dalla Rosa Alda (www.dallaroasalda.it) which gets rave reviews online, but apart from the lovely wines and a bit more buzz in the cave like room, our meal was only “so so”. Still, to be able to match 3 local wines (including a gorgeous Amarone) to each course for only €15 is quite something. There’s lots of horse meat on the menu – a local specialty – but TPG routinely cries in Phar Lap and Sea Biscuit so I thought better of trying it. Lamb and beef were good, but not up there with those at Ulivi. The slab of yellow olive oil cake (another regional speciality) was a little dry although the wobbly pannacotta brought flaming to the table, was lovely. About €50 per head.
|Lasagne with radicchio & mushroom at Bottega de Corgnan|
Better yet was our lunch at tiny, out of the way (seriously off the tourist trail) Bottega de Corgnan (www.bottegaitaliana.net), a super fun, casual hang out of the locals where you can feast on platters of local salamis and cheeses, bowls of pasta using only seasonal ingredients (or a radiccio and mushroom lasagne in my case), polenta, rabbit, steak, or lamb over a good selection of wines at very reasonable prices (about €10 per course and wines from €2). Opposite is the more upmarket restaurant, Grotto Corgnan, where you can linger over a longer, fancier meal which the locals also rave about.
|Meat & 3 Veg at Bottega de Corgnan|
On the road from Venice to Monteleone, we also stopped off in the beautiful walled town of Soave (I can’t resist a sign post bearing the name of a good drop), where we shared a magnificent lunch of cured meats, local cheeses and grilled vegetables with some local Soave wines (ranging from €1-€4!) for around €15 per head at the fabulous Enoteca Del Soave. Delightfully simple.
We did a tasting of Villa Monteleone’s own gorgeous wines with friendly cellar master, Raffael. If you don’t want a quick lesson, look away now.
The main wines of the region are:
|The tasting room at Villa Monteleone|
The main wines of the region are:
- Valpolicella Classico - the light, easy table wines of the region.
- Ripasso (or Valpolicella Classico Superiores) - can be a thing of beauty, made when the partially dried grape skins left over from the fermentation of Amarone or Recioto (dessert wines) are added back to the Valpolicella, adding complexity and depth.
- Amarone - bigger, full bodied wines made from late harvested, very sweet, ripe grapes which are then dried out for several months. The wines are then aged in barrels for several years (3 in the case of Villa Monteleone’s own lovely version).
- Recioto – sweet wines. Villa Monteleone’s Recioto is glorious – of only light to medium sweetness (unlike some of the more cordial-like wines we tasted).
|Raffael in the grape drying room|
If you are lucky enough to come across Villa Monteleone wines in your country (they export 90% of their wines), I highly recommend them – some of the most enjoyable of our trip, and at excellent prices (from €10 for the Valpolicella Classico to around €30 for the Amarone). All the grapes at Villa Monteleone are picked by hand, to create wines faithful to the tradition of the region. Our tasting included a private tour of the vines, the small cellar and the grapes being dried for the Amarones. Thirst inspiring stuff. I believe they may also be able to put on a rustic lunch for you.
Where to stay - more details on Villa Monteleone:
Our room was one of only 3 at the villa, and was traditional (except for the added bonus of a sauna - gold!), spacious and comfortable, with views out over the vines. Guests are provided with a lovely breakfast each morning of coffee, juice, pastries, freshly baked bread, jams, granola, cereals, yoghurt, fruit and local hams and cheeses. (Although save some room for lunch - they don’t hold back on portion sizes ‘round these parts). There’s WiFi in the main lounge area and lots of books to nerd up on the local viniculture. You’ll also be provided with maps and lots of tips on where to eat and drink from Lucia and her friendly and helpful right hand woman, Sara. This place is all friendliness and charm - we loved it.
There are tonnes of places to eat or taste wine within easy access – some only a few minutes away (and some restaurants will transport you to and fro so that you can indulge in the wines thoroughly).
While in the area you can also lunch in Verona (30 minutes drive) or by the shores on the stunning Lake Garda (20 minutes away), where we took a stroll and coffee. The outdoor opera season at the famous Arena in Verona is in July and August, but November is also a beautiful time to visit for crisp sunny days and the magical Autumnal colours.
|The high vines at Villa Monteleone|
We flew to Venice where we stayed a couple of nights, and then drove for about 1.25 hours from there. Alternatively, you could fly to Verona which is only about 30 minutes away from Villa Monteleone.
Greedy Diva was a guest of Villa Monteleone – I wholeheartedly recommend it as a place to stay or at least get in touch with Lucia to taste the wines - at via Monteleone 12, 37015 – Gargagnago, VR (Tel: 045 770 4974) email@example.com www.villamonteleone.com. Rooms are €90 and €95 per night, including breakfast.