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 (18/20 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 (19/20). 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 19/20 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 (20/20). 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 (20/20).
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 (20/20). 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 (20/20).
To follow we had a fine lemon parfait (19/20) 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 (20/20).
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.
Further reviews: 15th Mar 2013