[For the latest information on requirements for leisure travel in Italy, go to Ministero della Salute.] Italy’s mountain cuisine has been in culinary spotlight in recent years with Michelin-starred restaurants sprinkled across its alpine range from the Valle d’Aosta to the Friuli Venezia Giulia. But only one of these eateries in the far north of the country can claim three of the coveted stars, and that is it St. Hubertus, located in the Dolomite city of San Cassiano. Since 1996, the restaurant has been run by Norbert Niederkofler, among the country’s most renowned chefs, who with formidable ingenuity have given the food from its South Tyrolean terroir a modern edge and shine as well as cross-border fame. Travelers have long visited San Cassiano for alpine sports and landscapes, but now they also come to taste a maestro’s work that shows some of the most sophisticated cooking in Italy today. Adding to the remarkableness of his performance is that Niederkofler only uses local mountain products to do so.
Whether you are heading to Italy’s Dolomites to enjoy the mountain culture or try award – winning dishes, this summer you can do both at the same time. St. Hubertus and Alpine Rose, the luxury hotel where you will find the restaurant, offers a hot weather dinner initiative called St. Hubertus Unplugged, which starts on June 27 and runs every Sunday until September 5, 2021. Now in its second year, the program gives you the opportunity to learn about St Hubertus’ award-winning cooking and gives you the chance to try it in an alpine setting that coming away from it all. Ursula Mahlnecht Pizzinini, who along with her husband Hugo are third-generation owners of Rosa Alpina, describes the experience as “a lunch with three Michelin stars at 2,000 meters without electricity, cooked on an open fire.” St. Hubertus Unplugged Day begins at 8:30 in the morning with a trip to feed for ingredients for the five-course lunch that follows after dinner; the meal is prepared by restaurant chefs in a mountain hut owned by the hotel and located on the Piz Sorega plateau.
For Niederkofler, St. Hubertus Unplugged an outdoor opportunity for guests to be a part of what he and his team do in the kitchen, or in this case away from it, showing “where we go, what we collect and talk about who our farmers are,” while they take a closer look at his “cook the mountain” approach to food. Although Niederkofler’s dishes win raves for their groundbreaking ingenuity, his methods of procuring ingredients are as timeless as the alpine landscapes that surround San Cassiano. “It’s about nature,” says Niederkofler about his strict approach to local cooking, one that uses only foods found in season in the high altitude settings in his area. So strict is sourcing that Niederkofler does not even use olive oil in his dishes as olives were not harvested in the area. (Grape seed oil is replaced.)
The pursuit of such culinary purity may seem daunting, even though Niederkofler and his team have found it anything but. The mountains offer, despite the difficult terrain and climate, their own clear rewards–he cites access to over 500 types of vegetables and more than 2000 mushroom varieties (of which 50 are used). In addition, there are alpine lakes and rivers that supply fresh fish and game to the source in forests and valleys.
Yet his methods of sourcing and cooking require an extraordinary level of planning – and flexibility. “It’s complex. You have to think differently, as you never know when and how much product will come in, ”he says. “We have to change the menu all the time and can’t say what we’re doing in a month’s time.” (Niederkofler uses no greenhouses and has developed a network of 50 farmers and producers to get the best out of local produce when available.)
Despite the sourcing challenges, Niederkofler and St. The Hubertus team did not allow themselves to be hampered by the whims of nature; instead, they use the unpredictability of the natural world to serve as a catalyst for the development of new dishes. “We always start with the product,” says Niederkofler. For example, when the restaurant had an overconsumption of plums, they decided to experiment rather than just cook the excess in seasonal desserts as one might expect. They fermented the fruit to see what flavor profiles would develop, and after six months, they found plums that gave a tomato-like flavor, so tomato-like, they actually started using the fruit as a topping for bruschetta. Plum bruschetta appeared on St. Hubertus menu and became one of its most talked about topics.
Pasta may offer a greater level of control, but cooking at high altitudes rather than at sea level also presents challenges. “Water boils faster in the mountains, which is why you need good quality pasta,” says Niederkofler. When he’s not making their own varieties, he and his team work with select Dolomite manufacturers, like Monograno Felicetti, known for its organic pastes made from special grains. As you might expect, the pasta dishes he turns out are different, with variations like beetroot and gnocchi (the “ground” is a blend of beer and flatbread powdered to a powdery consistency); ditalini with game essence; and farro pens cooked with baked pepper, eggplant cream and green apples. Since apples are abundant in South Tyrol, they also often appear in St. Hubertus’ desserts, which often involve updated versions of classics, such as pies, strudels, sorbets and frittelle.
With the restaurant’s laser focus on seasonal ingredients from the mountains, the menu at St Hubertus Unplug understandably depends on what’s fresh and available at lunchtime. (Vegan and vegetarian requests can be accommodated with prior notice.) However, when ordering, you can look forward to strictly sourced, authentic flavors that are the subject of the area, with dishes prepared by a three-Michelin-star team in a setting that offers sumptuous mountain views. (If you are not traveling to northern Italy this summer or to learn more about Italian mountain cuisine, check out Niederkofler‘s Cook the Mountain: The Nature Around You, a fantastic two-volume set of recipes that was published late last year.)