If ever we find ourselves plotting a trip to Venice, Valeria Necchio is the first person we turn to for some local wisdom. Born just outside the city in a sleepy village bursting with fresh produce, she grew up whiling away hot afternoons picking fresh beans, tomatoes and cherries from her grandparent’s verdant gardens. It was here that she fostered a love of home cooking, which mingled perfectly with that natural affinity for food, wine and conversation that most Italians have coursing through their blood. She married the love of her life in her hometown, and moved to London straight after the wedding. It was there, during soupy English winters and in high-octane swing of city life, that a culinary nostalgia for her homeland began to stir. She launched her blog, Life Love Food, which explored the recipes passed down by her grandmother and mother – braised artichokes; fig risotto; Nonna’s tomato sauce. Far from home, she was able to see the indissoluble tie between herself and the comforting, handmade food of her childhood. Her first cookbook, the memoir-like Veneto: Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen, will be out this July.
Here, Valeria takes us back to a lunch she had in the Veneto hills at Al Sasso, a shabby, clattery rural restaurant with exactly the kind of regional Italian food that Valeria is bringing the world with her own recipes – simple, seasonal, understated and inextricably bound to its native home...
Having lived in Veneto for what is still the best part of my life, the existence of Al Sasso had always eluded me. It was in London that I first heard about it. The place is like no other, a friend said, a culinary worshipper and native of Veneto like myself. Like no other? Apparently, it was only a stone’s throw from where I grew up. How had I never heard of it? I was intrigued. So much so that, when the first occasion for a visit presented itself, without thinking about it twice I picked up the phone and booked a table for lunch.
The drive from the Southern flatlands of my hometown to the hills where the restaurant is located is, in itself, quite the diversion. The road takes a couple of steep climbs and descents and a few detours around the verdant slopes of the Colli Euganei, before reaching the apex where the restaurant is perched. In November, this means catching sight of many a persimmon tree, standing against the foggy backdrop with their fruits dangling on the branches like Christmas balls; of pointy bell towers and cypresses breaking through the haze; and of barren vineyards of Glera and Merlot, coating the side of the hill like a mantel, gone dormant for the winter.
That Al Sasso was no fine dining mecca was clear from the state of their landscaping, then sporting a shabby array of wild herbs and weeds. What was also clear, however, was that it wasn’t the sort of place that had to fight hard to shine. Its food and wine, as I would soon find out, were simply a cut above the rest.
The menu was brought to the table with a side of fried onions and a bread basket worthy of a starred restaurant. Reading through the list, I could see that the region’s classics were heavily featured, but in such a way that left no room for boredom. Everything sounded incredibly tempting. Indecisive until the end, I eventually settled on a starter of local cured meat; green tagliolini with fowl and wild mushrooms; and a dose of their famous (or so I was told) fried chicken.
To tell you the truth, I was hesitant about the chicken. Many other dishes on the menu seemed more intriguing. But then again, I thought, it must be famous for a reason. So I tried to stand by my choice (the fear of missing out was palpable); cleared my bowl of tagliolini, found solace in the Cabernet, and waited for the rest to show up.
The chicken arrived at last. Cut into bites and piled in such a way to resemble the hills outside the front door, it differed greatly from the picture I had drawn in my mind. I was perhaps expecting wings and drumsticks coated in buttermilk breading. Instead, to my surprise, the bone-in bits, at once crisp and juicy, enveloped by a bronzed, airy coating that gave no trace of grease, alternated dark and white meat, breast and thigh, in a game of flavours and textures that made the experience all the more enjoyable. This, combined with the innate appeal of all things fried, meant that demolishing every bit it seemed just too shockingly simple.
I know now that ordering a plate of fried chicken after a round of antipasti and a bowl of pasta is completely acceptable, better still advisable, not least to have the chance to enjoy more of Al Sasso’s great food. Anyway, as it turned out, the chicken was very much worth the leap of faith. So worth it that it’s now a fixed presence on my table whenever I visit. And I have. Often. There’s much lost time to make up for after all.