My recent trip to northern Italy was mainly about the hiking. But you don’t hike in Italy without experiencing the cuisine of the region. At least I don’t.
The northern regions of Italy tend to focus more on rice and polenta versus pasta, and butter versus olive oil. When there is pasta, it tends to be the stuffed sort, not the flat noodles and spaghetti found down south. The Dolomites, where I embarked on my hiking adventure, spans two Italian regions, Trentino Alto Adige and the Veneto. The Trentino area, in the southern part of Trentino Alto Adige, is more Italian whereas the Alto Adige is more influenced by Austrian/German culture and cuisine. We headed from north to south on our trip, so our final days of hiking took place in the Veneto portion of the Dolomites, which is decidedly Italian.
What all of this really means is that we had to wait until the end of our trip to taste some of the Best. Pasta. Ever. Not that we didn’t enjoy the Austrian/German influenced food such as Knodel (who doesn’t like a bread ball flavored with things like speck, mushrooms, and beets?), Strudel, and Schnitzel, but when you plan a trip to Italy, your carb-craving brain is picturing a soul stirring bowl of pasta.
We arrived at Rifugio Averau, in Cortina at 8,000ft elevation, after a particularly spectacular morning of hiking. We made our way through the hills and bunkers where fighting between Italy and Austria took place during the First World War. Some of us transcended a rocky, snow-lined passage up to Rifugio Nuvolau, the top of which can only be reached by foot, and took in the 360 degree views. Some days, we weren’t even hungry yet when it was time for our mountain lunch. Today was not one of those days.
When we entered Rifugio Averau, we took our seats at one of the rustic tables and Tommaso, our trip leader, was all smiles. He was clearly excited to dig in to some real Italian pasta, and he rattled off a list of his favorites and specialties of the area. The big problem now was deciding. I ordered a local Forst brew while thinking it over. As I was sipping my birra grande, our angel of a waiter appeared to tell us we could do a sampling of three pastas! Given this new information, I settled on the Casunziei Ampezzani (Beet Ravioli with Poppy Seed Browned Butter) Cappelli di Alpino (little hats of pasta fashioned after Italian army helmets) filled with nuts and cheese and topped with fresh tomatoes, and finally, peasant lasagne with mushrooms and broccoli. The portion was just right, and the flavors unforgettable.
After our hearty lunch, we left with full bellies and satisfied souls, to hike it off — and do it all over again the next day. We enjoyed delicious and hearty mountain lunches each day using our trip, but there was just something special about Averau.