At the recent Bardolino and Custoza Anteprima event, I had the great good fortune of dining twice at the Alla Borsa restaurant in Valeggio sul Mincio. I had never tried this restaurant before, nor heard of it, but that turns out to be my own fault more than anything else. And there is now no way that this will be my last stop there.
The market town of Valeggio sul Mincio has functioned as a commercial crossroads for centuries, probably for millennia, with its position right at the southern tip of the ancient trade route along the Garda lake and into the Mincio river, leading further south into the Po system. As in so many other such towns, this function has led to a strong gastronomic tradition, with Valeggio sul Mincio becoming especially well-known for its tortelli. There is an abundance of pasta shops selling tortelli in town, and all of the restaurants are specialized in it.
The Alla Borsa restaurant is named for its function through the ages as a meeting place for merchants making deals over a good meal. The name literally means “the bourse” or “the exchange”. The place has functioned as an actual restaurant since the 1950’ies, and is presently headed up by the dynamic, likable and strong Nadia Pasquali, daughter of the founders of the restaurant. It is widely held to be the best in town, and judging from the two meals I had there, that is very likely to be true. I would at least have difficulty imagining somewhere better to eat anywhere.
The first meal I had there was an official dinner under the auspices of the Anteprima event, and featured asparagus in several declinations. Without mentioning every plate we had, I would single out the following servings:
• The first starter was raw white asparagus, which we had to peel into thin strips ourselves and then dip in olive oil with ground pepper. This was great in its simplicity, relying completely on the quality of its raw materials. The Verona area is famous for its asparagus, and grows about 70% white, 30% green. This white asparagus was by no means the fattest or longest I had ever seen, but its flavour was so exquisitely fresh and sweet that it completely filled my mouth with the noble character and sweetness of white asparagus.
• Next on my list is the sorbir d’agnoli. This is essentially a dish of meat broth with tortelli, and as such no doubt sounds somewhat boring. However, in this version, the broth was light, but enormously flavoursome and well-balanced, and the tortelli were revelatory. The pasta was so thin that the stuffing – of meat – was clearly visible, and the soft texture of the pasta, a marvel in itself, was such that it allowed direct access to the grainy-yet-soft texture of the stuffing. Great cooking technique, and even greater flavour. Two discussions emerged: One: Apparently, in the Emilia Romagna, sorbir d’agnoli is the same dish, but requires that Lambrusco is poured into the dish when the tortelli have been consumed and there is still broth left, whereas in the Garda area this is not done; much loud and good-natured recrimination ensued. Two: Our host, Angelo Peretti, likes these tortelli even better simply served with butter and sage. While this is clearly my favourite way of eating another type of tortelli, agnolotti (for example the fabulous agnolotti of Hotel Barolo in Piedmont), I had my doubts. Angelo therefore ensured that the tortelli were also served with sage and butter, and while this method actually enhanced the meat flavour of the stuffing, I clung to the broth version, as this method ensured the amazing softness of the pasta, which was slightly compromised by serving it with butter and sage.
• The ultimate dish served here, though, were the tortelli with Monteveronese cheese and green asparagus from Verona. I am normally a white asparagus lover above all, but in this version, the greenness of the green asparagus, which is too often rather bland and covers what I consider to be the nobler asparagus aromas, was exalted to such a degree, and was complemented so beautifully by the rest of the stuffing as well as the fragrant olive oil it was simply served with, that I had to give in. This was one of the most beautiful dishes I have had in years, a veritable foodgasm, with its beautiful, softly perfumed greenness, the fantastic, soft consistency of both the pasta and the stuffing, and the beautifully balanced savoury counterpoint provided by the cheese and the olive oil.
I am not doing that meal justice, as we had other dishes, all lovely, but I will have to urge you to go there to experience it all.
My next meal there was a couple of days later, for an informal lunch while driving around the neighbourhood visiting wine producers. I will spare you the details, but the stand-out dish on this occasion were tortelli very much in the mould of the green asparagus tortelli, but this time made with tender young hops shoots. Hops shoots are a highly seasonal Northern Italian specialty, not frequently encountered in restaurants, but here done in the best way I have ever come across, with the tender crunch and slight green bitterness of the shoots playing perfect counterpoint to almost the same stuffing as for the green asparagus. I was in heaven once again.
To sum it up, Alla Borsa is a fabulous place. This is no molecular gastronomy place, but technique is nonetheless at the very highest levels, an exaltation of traditional craftmanship, mixed with a sensitivity to the raw materials and a philosophy of seasonality that you can really only find in Italy, and then only at the very best places. Ignore it at your peril.
After the informal lunch, I spoke with Nadia, and she promised to send me the recipe for the green asparagus tortelli. She promptly did, and with her permission, I have translated the recipe. This is somewhat timeconsuming, but I promise you that it is worth the effort (any inaccuracies or mistranslations are purely mine):
TORTELLI with Monteveronese d’Allevo and Mezzano dop and Green Asparagus from Verona
Ingredients for 4 persons:
For the pasta:
• 400 g wheat flour “00”
• 100 g spinach, boiled, squeezed, chopped and passed through a sieve
• 3 whole eggs
• 1 spoonful extra virgin olive oil, preferably Garda Trentino dop (Nadia uses the herbal-tinged, greenish-perfumed oil from Madonna delle Vittorie, which is fabulous, but probably difficult to find, so use any fresh, green but not too pungent/bitter extra virgin olive oil you can find)
• Salt, a tiny bit
For the stuffing:
• 200 g fresh cow’s milk ricotta
• 200 g grated Monteveronese d’Allevo and Mezzano dop cheese (these are two different ageings of the same cheese)
• 200 g green asparagus stalks, tips off (Nadia uses the green asparagus with protected denomination of origin from Verona, and while these have a unique sweetness and perfume, they are likely to be very hard to find, so you should use what you can get your hands on, so long as it is fresh)
• 50 g grated Monteveronese extra-aged (so-called stravecchio)
• 100 g mascarpone
• 1 egg yolk
• Salt, sugar, pepper, nutmeg
• Possibly a boiled potato
• Extra virgin olive oil, preferably Garda Trentino dop (Madonna delle Vittorie)
• A handful of young, thin green asparagus tips (left over from the stalks used in the stuffing)
Make a “volcano” with the flour and add the other ingredients for the pasta in the centre. Using a fork, start beating the eggs and gradually incorporate the other ingredients. When this starts to form a dough-like consistency, start working the pasta with your hands. Work the pasta long and energetically, to obtain a smooth and homogeneous pasta. Cover with foil and let rest in a fridge for 2 hrs.
In the meanwhile, pass the ricotta through a sieve into a large bowl. Add the rest of the cheeses, the yolk, salt, pepper and nutmeg (I personally hate nutmeg so would leave that out) and mix. If the stuffing turns out too soft, make it thicker with a boiled potato. Boil the asparagus, stalks and tips, for 20 seconds in a large pot of boiling water with salt and a bit of sugar, strain and throw immediately into water with ice cubes in order not to lose the beautiful green colour of the asparagus. Leave aside the tips for serving later and cut the stalks into tiny rounds. Mix the rounds into the cheese stuffing and add salt and pepper to taste.
Roll out the pasta to a thickness of about 5 millimetres, cut it into squares about 4 cm by 4 cm, place a small spoonful of stuffing in the middle of each square and fold one corner of each square over the stuffing and onto the opposite corner, forming a triangle. Now fold the “long” corners of each triangle onto each other, giving it the classic tortello shape.
Boil the tortelli in salted water, strain and serve with the gently re-heated asparagus tips and some extra virgin olive oil.
Nadia proposes to serve this with the rosé Chiaretto Bardolino, but I also found it had a beautiful affinity for white Custoza with a bit of age.
This is a strongly seasonal dish, depending on the availability of asparagus, which in the Verona area is from the end of March to the beginning of May.