Saturday, November 12, 2011

Al Sorriso (Novara in Piedmont)

October 2011

Via Roma 18, 28010 Soriso, Novara, Italy
Tel: +39 322 983 228

Update: In the newly released 2013 Italian Michelin Guide, Al Sorriso lost one star and now has 2 Michelin stars.

Tucked in a small hamlet in a town called Soriso which was 20 minutes drive from our hotel at Villa Crespi, is one of Italy's six 3 Michelin star restaurants (and the only one in Piedmont). When we got there at 8pm, it was already dark and the entire town seemed deserted. There was only one place which appeared to be open and lit; and that was the Hotel and Restaurant Al Sorriso. A humble-looking property run by a husband and wife team, Angelo and Luisa Valazza, we can only imagine that the hotel caters almost exclusively to restaurant guests (who do not wish to drive a long way back after dinner). Angelo runs the dining room and Chef Luisa is the much celebrated chef who runs the kitchen.

Interestingly, Chef Luisa is one of three women in Italy who hold 3 Michelin stars (there are six 3-star restaurants in the whole of Italy), which speaks of the domination of female chefs in Italy (as compared with France).

Update: In the 2012 Italian Michelin Guide which just came out after our visit here, there are now seven 3-star restaurants in Italy with the inclusion of Osteria Francescana

The dining room was simple and elegant yet a little rustic. The restaurant's interior and the quiet hamlet on which it was located reminded me a lot of Antine. In fact, there was a very Piedmontese feel about the restaurant. We were served by Angelo and two young wait staff in the most attentive manner possible. Angelo was very charming and would speak to us constantly throughout the dinner, asking about our meal, where we came from, etc.

The wine list is quite extensive but not necessarily cheap. I picked out a 1995 Rocche Dell'Annunziata Barolo from Paolo Scavino which was supposed to be very good (and a good vintage as well) but somehow it disappointed as it was quite acidic and wasn't like the great Barolos we have gotten used to.

Simplicity seemed to be the philosophy of the restaurant. You would not get any of the fancy stuff normally expected of a 3-star restaurant here, as the Valazzas seem intent on keeping everything down-to-earth and focusing on getting the fundamentals right.

Amuse bouche was a not insubstantial grilled aubergine, which was delicious in its simplicity.

The classic duck foie gras was probably the best executed foie gras in this form we have ever eaten. It was nothing innovative, just perfectly cooked (no veins, you'd be surprised how rare that is even in some of the top restaurants) and the sauce was brilliant.

The lobster with dried apple was also very good. The choice of the sweet fruit was interesting as it complemented the lobster well. There were some pine nuts and bean sprouts sprinkled around to add to the light flavours.

The large porcini mushroom was simply out of this world. Chef Luisa cooks the food with the minimum of fuss and in the way it should be cooked.

The saffron risotto was also very good, not too creamy and with a nice bite to it. The deep fried zucchini flower was also a nice addition.

At the start of the meal, Angelo was already raving about the beef. He kept saying numerous times that the beef was the most tender (he called it the most tender beef) and that we will not regret trying it. This was the local Piedmontese beef which was so tender that it could be cut with a spoon. Remarkably, its tenderness did not come from its high fat content, and the meat tasted surprisingly lean. The sauce, as can be expected, was excellent.

Al Sorriso had a good cheese trolley, and the 3 blue cheeses I had matched well with the rest of the bottle of Barolo.

 Pre-dessert was a simple vanilla ice cream.

The molten chocolate cake was a rather unexciting dessert to end of this meal. Though it was (as with the rest of the meal) perfectly prepared and the chocolate was very good, I would have expected something a bit more grand. That said, our experience dining in Italy is such that fancy desserts don't really form part of their dining psyche, and that generally they would be happy with a scoop of gelato, a piece of cake or a panettone.

The petit four consisted of some small pastries, nuts, chocolates and sweets which, to be honest, didn't look very appetizing. It was a bit of a flat ending to an otherwise fantastic meal. The entire meal was simple, well-cooked and unpretentious, yet unfortunately, for the dessert, I'd prefer something innovative instead of something simple.

Final Thoughts: This meal was an object lesson in simplicity. There was little surprise in any of the dishes but each of the main courses were prepared with such perfection. Each of the main courses could be judged on a standalone basis to be of 3-star quality. Chef Luisa's style of cooking didn't rely on fancy techniques, tricks, foams, garnishes or ingredients; lesser chefs will struggle to cook like that as there's nowhere to hide. With Angelo's forceful yet charming personality and Chef Luisa's skill in the kitchen, they are a formidable partnership. Pity about the desserts but then one must adjust one's expectations for dessert when one dines in Italy.


  1. "no veins, you'd be surprised how rare that is even in some of the top restaurants"... I am surprised by this statement. Even at a passable bistrot, I never saw that. Would u mind sharing about top restaurants that did miss such a basic thing as properly deveining foie gras?

    1. There were a few places in the past (which put us off pan-seared foie gras in restaurants for a while) of which the most notable one was the 3-star Jean-Georges in New York during a dinner in 2009 when both our pan-seared foie gras had veins still intact. Despite all the wonderful reviews we read about that place before and after that meal, it was one of our worst meals in a 3-star restaurant. If we recall correctly, the foie gras we had at Le Pont de Ciel in Osaka had a similar problem, though not as bad.

  2. Hello there,
    As a chef, I really enjoy reading blogs of passionate people like you who take time to appreciate our work. With that said, I need also to shed lights with you on some aspects of cooking: first, I know Al Sorriso cuisine very well (they do not know me in person, but I ate there on many occasions) for having spent years in the region and I do admire what they do. I writing this because what follows may appear not flattering (to Al Sorriso?), but it would be a mistake to see things that way: people would be surprised by the depth of talent that is there at Al Sorriso. What most do not know is that Luizza can cook extremely complex dishes better than most of nowadays fashion chefs.
    Now, my point (and again, nothing to substract from
    Luizza's amazing cuisine): do you cook? If Yes, then what is rocket sciente with just buying that porcini mushroom in a market, while you were there, and you just sautee it gently with minimal seasoning. I know what successful food with nothing to But I am always surpised to see foodies with experience like Andy Hayler and you being impressed by what does not need to. Again, I respect Luizza and believe she deserves her three stars, I am not too sure if you will have the courage to publish my comment, but it does not matter: my message to you is that foodies like you should step further in their passion of great food and start cooking.

    1. Your comment is very thought-provoking, thanks. No, we do not cook as well as we would like to, and have not tried cooking a porcini mushroom before (and we are in no way as experienced in food as Andy Hayler). However you raise a good point. The dishes we had at Al Sorriso, though cooked perfectly, didn't appear to be the most complex or innovative (especially the dessert; we expected more). We admit that despite the 'simplicity' of the food, our dining experience there was very positive and this contributed to our overall impression of the restaurant and its food. Too often have we been let down by celebrated chefs 'cooking to the gallery' and over-innovating for the sake thereof (one particular recent example was our meal at The Metropole in Venice), and it was refreshing that night to be served food which tasted like it should. That said, your comment struck a chord in us; perhaps we should have expected a bit more from Al Sorriso given that it has 3 Michelin stars after all.

  3. Excellent blog. Congratulations!
    As for Al Sorriso, my wife and I both love the restaurant, service and people. We wish we could stay the night and have another couple there so that we can drink more wine from the excellent wine list. As a 3 star restaurant, it will no doubt be analyzed and criticized. As a customer, I only judge a restaurant by its overall experience. If I feel like wanting to come back for more, that is 3 stars for me. My wife and I both want to go back for more, just like Guido at Relais San Maurizio and La Rei at il Boscareto! Finally, my observation about the Paolo Scavino is that it is a traditionalist Barolo and will need 4 to 5 hours to open up.
    Please keep up the good work!