Al Sorriso is a family affair: Luisa Valazza does the cooking, her husband Angelo runs the front of house with help from their daughter Paola. The restaurant opened in 1981, gaining its first Michelin star immediately, a second star in 1988 and their third star in 1997 (before losing the third in 2013). Luisa is a self-taught chef, completing an art degree before deciding on cooking as a career. Al Sorriso is in the quiet commune of Soriso (population 745), situated 82km north west of Milan, not far from the pretty Lake Maggiore. The restaurant has a few rooms for diners to stay.
The simple dining room had well-spaced tables and pink tablecloths. There were two tasting menus on offer, at €140 and €150, one with seafood, the other with some meat dishes, in addition to an a la carte menu. The extensive wine list had more than 600 selections, ranging in price from €40 to €7,500. Examples were Barbera d'Asti La Luna e i Falo 2007 at €60 for a wine that can be found in the shops for €15, Vintage Tunina 2006 at €90 for a wine that costs €55 retail, and Antinori Tignanello 2001 at €160 for a wine that will set you back €95 in the high street. At the prestige end of the list, Petrus 1995 was €3,200 compared to a retail price of around €1,767.
Bread was made from scratch, with slices of white, black, olive and cereal bread; the bread was good rather than dazzling, the olive bread my personal favourite (7/10 to 8/10). Nibbles comprised cannelloni with tomato and basil, creme brûlée of a local cheese and a fried fish ball with bacon. The quality of the tomatoes was remarkable, with stunning flavour, and the bacon was also dazzling (9/10 nibbles). Tartare of Fassone beef was served with a Parmesan tuile nest containing salad leaves, with a spoon on the side with vitello tonnato sauce. The beef was lovely, lightly seasoned, the Parmesan tuile delicate and having lovely flavour, but for me the sauce was the star, the tuna flavour coming through beautifully; the salad and it's dressing gave balance to this otherwise rich dish, which overall was superb (10/10).
Prawns from Sicily were served with mango sauce and little blobs of coffee sauce. The prawns themselves were of superb quality, perfectly cooked, though for me the mango sauce was a touch sweet, even with the bitter hint of coffee as balance; still, the prawns were memorable (8/10). The next dish showed some technical skill, with what appeared to be a pasta dish actually made with scallops, the shellfish cut into pasta-like strands before being cooked. The scallops themselves were from just south of Venice and were lovely (9/10). Agnolotti of chicken with spring truffles had excellent pasta, the chicken nice flavour, the truffles quite subtle; a very good dish though a little less striking than its predecessors (8/10). Pumpkin risotto with Gorgonzola had lovely flavour, the dish enhanced with a little 25 year old Balsamic vinegar; a fine classic, simple dish with excellent technique, the stock for the risotto classy (comfortably 9/10). Spring lamb (four weeks old) was served with its kidney, liver and heart, along with a very impressive wild onion. The lamb was very good though I was actually more taken with the onion, which had an unusual blend of sweetness combined with a bitter hint (8/10). The meal finished with a sabayon of vanilla and raspberry, the fruit having lovely flavour (9/10).
Service was charming. This dinner was much as I recall my previous meals here, between 9/10 and 10/10 level overall, the odd dish a little below this. Ingredients were impeccable, cooking technique excellent, flavour balance generally very good, though I was not sure about the mango, coffee and prawn combination tonight. I do not understand Michelin's change of rating here, as the food seemed to be of a generally similar standard to my previous meals. My dining companion had eaten here several times in the last couple of years and felt there was no change in quality; there are certainly plenty of worse places in the world with three stars. Certainly the cooking here is quite classical and has little in the way of chef gimmickry, but for me that is a positive thing. I find Al Sorriso to be a particularly enjoyable place to eat, showing off the lovely flavours of Italy at their best.
The notes below are from June 2010.
Al Sorriso is an unassuming property in a sleepy village near lake Orta, and half an hour drive from the magnificent lake Maggiore and its islands, including the famous Isola Bella and its delightful gardens. Husband and wife team Luisa Valazza (chef) and Angelo (front of house) have created a dining experience that is highly ingredients-based, with the emphasis on showing off the beautiful local produce to its very best, with minimal “improvement” from the kitchen. There are some bedrooms here above the dining room, but be aware that these are not air-conditioned (though the dining room itself is).
The dining room is very simple, with white walls, green carpet and low ceiling, with some prints of herbs and flowers decorating the walls. Breads are made from scratch and consisted of rolls of tomato bread, olive, white, poppy seed and whole grain, as well as assorted bread sticks (8/10 bread). The tasting menus are €150 or €160, depending on your choice. The wine list is mainly Italian and French, with selections such as Planeta Merlot 2001 at €80 compared to a retail price of around €23, Jermann Vintage Tunina 2006 at €90 for a wine that retails at around €35, the lovely Lebanese wine Chateau Musar 1988 at €120 compared to a retail price of about €76, up to more rarefied territory such as Pingus 1998 at €630 for a wine that costs about €390 to buy in the shops.
Warm foie gras was of high quality, its richness balanced by red currants and a skilful application of seasoning, on top of an almond sauce (9/10). Scallops were from the top drawer: large, plump and beautifully sweet, again seasoned boldly and accompanied by a wild rice crisp and an aubergine crisp, which were intended to give a texture contrast but were not quite as crisp as I was expecting. The scallops themselves were perfect, but the dish was a fraction lower overall at 9/10 due to the crisps.
Gamberi rossi prawns were brought to the restaurant on the day we visited by a regular supplier up from San Remo on the Riviera. These shrimp are red/purple in colour and have fabulous flavour, as nice to eat raw as cooked. Here they were prepared simply with a salad of artichoke, and were simply stunning (10/10). Another very simple dish was a large porcini mushroom, cooked perfectly and served with a salad of local leaves and a light oil of garlic and herbs, the mushroom again boldly seasoned, the celeriac leaves amongst the salad giving a contrasting yet well-matched earthy flavour – again the ingredient was of such high quality that the lightest of cooking touches was all that was needed (10/10).
Saffron risotto was skilfully made using top quality carnaroli rice, just a little red crab meat as a garnish, the stock that the rice absorbed a study in restraint – the texture was superb (10/10). For the main course I had Piedmonte beef “fassone”, a breed that many regard as the finest beef of Italy, in this case the meat coming from a cow killed after three years or so, and which indeed had quite dazzling flavour; it is ultra-tender, but in a different style to for example Kobe beef, which has a higher fat content and tastes almost buttery; this still tasted very much of beef, but had remarkable texture. This superb meat was served simply with a potato crisp and a little tower of vegetables (celeriac, tomato, courgette), again letting the main ingredient shine (10/10).
To follow we had a fine lemon parfait (9/10) and another particularly impressive yet seemingly simple dish: zabaglione. In this case the egg yolks that are used are from a local farm, and the balance of the alcohol and sugar was very finely judged; it is very easy for this classic dish to be too sweet, or dominated by alcohol, but here the eggs, marsala and sugar were in perfect balance (10/10).
Service is predominantly in the skilful hands of Angelo Valazza, who effortless switches languages between tables and manages a very genuine charm and an obvious desire to see his guests made as happy as possible. This is many ways quite risky cooking, as so little appears to be going on, and the simplicity allows no margin of error whatever. Yet time and again technique was perfect, such as the precise seasoning, terrific timing and flavour balance. This is food of the highest order.