By the time we arrived at Malga Pieralongia Alm on a sunny August morning, we had been hiking for several hours and had worked up an appetite. That was a good thing because at the alpine cabin, we were treated to amazing apfelstrudel and had not a care about how many calories we were consuming.
This rifugio, or mountain refuge, in the Dolomites of Italy, sits at an altitude of about 7,500 feet (comparable to Idaho Springs) and is but one of countless stopping places enjoyed by hikers in the Southern Tyrolean high country. Offering outstanding local food, a comfortable and welcoming spot to put your feet up for a bit, and even lodging in some cases, the experience at the rifugios rivaled the scenery that my wife Jill and I were treated to as part of our three-week European trip last year. On another day, after hiking 15K (more than 9 miles), we enjoyed a mountainside meal of polenta with wild forest mushrooms and parsley; faariesa, a soup of fava beans and barley; pick-led potatoes and a cheese and ham dumpling. Washed down with a mug of cold beer, of course.
On evenings back at our home base in Cortina d’Ampezzo, where the cuisine is influenced by the borders of Tyrole and Apsberg, we’d visit the local restaurants for more excellent food like the local dish pastin, a grilled dumpling of ground salami, garlic and spices. And we always saved room for the delectable desserts, such as a pastry replica of the Dolomites, filled with vanilla cream and dusted with powdered sugar.
Our goal was not to duplicate but to exceed the vacation we took to the Dolomites in 1989, even after Jill’s recent knee replacement and my ruptured disk. I was grateful to have such an excellent team at the catering business that I could travel in the month of August. To prepare, we had been training for months with gym workouts and Jill had spent countless hours planning where we’d hike, eat and sleep. And it was more complicated than that because we’d also be exploring the cuisine and enjoying the company of friends in Austria, Germany, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, and then visiting a new destination for us, Portugal.
But the promise of again hiking the rugged trails of the Dolomites was what got us excited initially, so as the trip began, Jill and I looked forward to leaving our hotel at 5 a.m. each day to get to the trailhead ahead of the other visitors who flock to the northern Italian mountains each summer.
As the owner of a catering and events company, I was also on something of a busman’s holiday. When we travel, especially to Europe, I’m constantly seeking ideas on food, menus, preparation and serving ideas that I can bring back to my staff. You won’t have to endure the entire 51-page presentation I made my team in Colorado after the trip, but hopefully will enjoy some of the highlights here!
We hiked two areas of the Dolomites, out of Cortina d’Ampezzo and the area around Bolzano. These areas are, of course, famous for their winter skiing, but just like the mountains of Colorado, they also welcome those with outdoor aspirations in summer.
What resonated with me each day as we hiked and stopped for coffee, dessert and long lunches was seeing the Italian families in groups of 8 or 10 who had been hiking all day, sitting together celebrating on the deck of a rifugio. It reminded me of how I grew up with my Italian family – sharing the love of food, the outdoors and being together.
My goal was to dig deep into the local cuisine, enjoying the comfort food of the regions and make notes on dishes that I can reproduce in our restaurants and at events. It’s pure food coming out of the forest, like mushrooms and local vegetables. There were also a lot of beautiful pizzerias. I spent hours talking with the chefs and owners.
While Jill also loved the cuisine, she was equally taken with such sites as the “White Rock” of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo and the Seceda areas of the Dolomites. The jagged peaks, turquoise lakes and verdant pastures are just some of the things worth savoring at these World Heritage sites.
The other part of our hiking experience was spent in Germany and Austria, a fond destination for us because we were on the host committee for the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in 2015 (as well as 1999) in Vail and Beaver Creek. It was now our turn to visit friends made during those events, in the Austrian towns of Egg and Lech am Alberg (the sister village to Beaver Creek). Our executive chef in Colorado, Norbert Hiller, grew up on a small family farm in that area, so we got to spend time with his family, enjoy- ing the local beer and home-cooked meals including the Austrian favorite, käsespätzle, their version of mac and cheese with caramelized onions. Along with the food, we were entranced with the beautiful little town, and with how humble, gracious, welcoming and hospitable the people were.
Next, we met up with two other couples from Denver that we like to travel with, rendezvousing in Lichten- stein to explore the Lake Constance region. A highlight was taking the eight-hour Bernina Express train from St. Moritz, Switzerland in the Alps into Italy and back again.
On to Portugal
The final nine days of our European adventure were spent in Portugal. With our Denver friends, we flew to Lisbon and then rented a van and driver to help guide us as we toured the cities, explored the coastal villages, visited historic sites and biked through the wine country. Portugal has 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites, most of them cultural, such as the castles of Sintra, which was a favorite of Jill’s. You also can’t visit Portugal without a proper tasting of port, produced from grapes grown in the Douro Valley (also a World Heritage site). Keeping up with the active theme of our trip, we biked through the valley, stayed at a farmhouse, and ate Polvo a Lagareiro, a Portuguese octopus dish, while soaking up the landscape as well as sampling the exceptional ports at W & J Graham’s. We treated ourselves to a five-course sampling menu one night, but most of the time we went to local and casual places, such as the Timeout Market food hall in Lisbon. With more than 30 restaurants and bars, it had every type of cuisine you could imagine, plus live entertainment. We liked discovering small family-run places where they serve items like seafood stew, salted cod with buttered potatoes, and famous pasteis de natas, delicious little custard tarts. That’s what stays with me from the trip, pure food simply prepared. And of course, the company of good friends. We won’t be waiting 30 years to go back.
Larry DiPasquale is chairman and founder of Epicurean Catering Group. He co-founded with his wife Jill and their partner Sharon Magness Blake the non-profit Epicurean Cares to promote such endeavors as the DiPasquale Foundation, an education trust to support hospitality and culinary students. Among his many honors is being an inductee into the Visit Denver Hall of Fame, the lifetime achievement award from the ICON Events Foundation and receiving an honorary doctorate from Johnson and Wales University, where he is currently a trustee.
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