Ok, I’ll warn you now, this is probably gonna be a long one. Remember the Purnell’s tasting menu extravaganza? This is up there with that one. So get yourself sitting comfortably, and I’ll begin…You’ll know by now that whenever Mr M and I go on an adventure, food is factored in. Our recent skiing jaunt to Cortina d’Ampezzo was no different. One of the most fashionable resorts in Italy, you didn’t have to go far to find nice wine bars and good eateries.
But with a bit of research, we found the jewel in the crown of Cortina – Tivoli. Set slightly above the town, little unsuspecting restaurant holds Cortina’s only Michelin star, so we thought it would just be plain rude not to check it out.
The thing about Michelin stars and fine dining and all that jazz is it’s still a world that a lot of people don’t feel comfortable in. Quite often, it’s not that they can’t afford it or don’t want to go, but they don’t want an experience that makes them feel like they don’t belong. Don’t get me wrong, I do think things are getting better and it’s still an issue of perception rather than what these places are actually like. But more people need to start believing that if you like decent food it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, and how much money you’ve got. Well, providing you can pay the bill at the end…
Happily, Tivoli is one of those places that certainly doesn’t seem to judge by appearances. No doubt it’s welcomed some of the biggest names in Italy over the years, with Cortina a haven for wealthy Italians and visitors like George Clooney but that hasn’t spoiled the friendly charm we experienced.
From the minute we walked in, we got the five star treatment. A lovely little table in the corner; friendly, knowledgeable staff with excellent English; and a choice of two tasting menus, an a la carte menu plus a mahoosive wine list.
After much deliberation between the ‘Traditional Gourmet Menu’ and its offerings of deep-fried snails and veal fillet, the ‘Gourmet Menu 6 Courses’ and the a la carte, we went for the second. I love a tasting menu, and the promise of lobster tartare, red tuna, gnocchi, and venison was just too much to resist.
The wine list proved to be a slightly harder choice, given our joint lack of knowledge when it comes to vino. But we settled on a 2004 Rioja that was opened with all the theatre that comes with fine dining, watching it decanted and our glasses prepared in a way we wouldn’t have a clue how to do.
And so to the food. After nibbling on a rather delicious basket of bread, we were brought a simple but eye-catching dish of beetroot cream with fried cheese. Think a deep-fried breaded wedge of brie – but about a million times better. Strong, potent, oozy cheese inside a crisp crust, sitting in the middle of a contrasting pool of smooth, creamy, sweet beetroot puree.
Our tastebuds awakened, next up was lobster tartare with wasabi foam. It looked like a piece of art on a plate, and tasted just as pretty. The lobster was delicate, and the wasabi foam subtle enough that it didn’t overwhelm it. It came with a variation on a prawn cracker, covered in fennel seeds, that added a bit of crunch to the otherwise soft dish.
Next up, ‘Two ways of red tuna with wilberries and ginger sauce’. One style, two lumps of tuna crusted with cuttlefish ink with the appearance of little lumps of charcoal but tasting far far better. And great with the sweet, bright carrot puree.
The other type was like a sashimi, always a winner with me. But it wasn’t just the fish that starred in this show, the berries on the plate were a real hit and the blackberries soaked in ‘aroma of pine’ tasted like nothing I’ve ever had before.
The third course was an Italian classic – gnocchi with cod, caper powder and mushroom. Seriously, THE best gnocchi I’ve ever had. Perfectly-formed balls, arranged simply in a uniform line. Press on one with your fork and witness a lava flow of oozy cod sauce from inside. Rich, buttery goodness, with a gentle addition of mushroom.
The next course was ‘Calfs head with mustard, Treviso chicory and horseradish’. Mini croquettes encased in what I think were panko breadcrumbs, alongside mini blocks of rich, soft pressed meat. To cut through the richness of the meat came the bitter chicory, pickled in red wine vinegar, a smooth potato cream, and little smears of spicy wholegrain mustard.
To be honest, it was always going to struggle to live up to the gnocchi and I have to say, it wasn’t my favourite of the meal. But it goes without saying, it was still pretty great.
If the calfs head wasn’t up there with a podium place, the venison fillet with pumpkin, red wine sauce and cocoa beans definitely was. When all your notes say are ‘wow’ in capital letters, you know it was good.
Generous chunks of venison, cooked perfectly so it was still pink inside. Served up with a sweet silky pumpkin puree and an earthy, rich sauce, packed with flavours of cocoa, red wine, and shallot. The perfect sauce to go with the gamey flavour of venison, and washed down perfectly with our wine. A serious winner of a course.
Now for people who say that posh food always comes in small portions, I’ve got to disagree. By this point, we were starting to feel pretty full, and still had all the sweets to go. Yeah, you heard right, not just dessert here – pre-dessert, dessert and then petit fours.
For pre-dessert, one of the key ingredients was humour. Does this vanilla pannacotta remind you of anything? Beautifully done, the mango and ginger sphere burst open just like an egg yolk, producing a tangy, coulis-like filling to cut through the sweetness of the vanilla.
And finally, another bit of humour in the mix. Dessert was named ‘Like a grapefruit with pineapple, sage sorbet and vodka sauce’. Like a grapefruit? Well, yes.
Sour grapefruit jelly, cleverly shaped like a slice of the fruit itself, with a neatly placed dollop of ginger foam, and a scoop of lime sorbet. The dark blobs you can see are vodka sauce – a blow-your-head-off addition to the plate.
The dessert was brilliantly executed though, I have to say, not my favourite. Nicely palate-cleansing, but a bit too much on the tart side for me where I wouldn’t have minded a bit of sweetness.
Fortunately for me, the selection of petit fours added a final sweet touch to go with our coffee, and a brilliant finale to a wonderful meal. It wasn’t just the food – obviously that was entertainment in and of itself, but we had the added joy of watching an evening in a Michelin-starred Italian establishment unfolding.
From the arsey man on his own, talking loudly on his phone and demanding extra pepper for one of his course, to the man in his 60s with his 30-something date, their two bottles of fine champagne, one course of food and speedy departure, all in less than an hour. Not to mention the couple next to us, him on the full tasting menu with full wine flight, and her with just two courses and one glass for the whole meal.
The clientele highlighted the range of people who might visit a restaurant of this calibre – and all for different reasons. Happy in our own little corner, we watched this colourful meeting of worlds in a cosy restaurant in the Dolomites and enjoyed every second of it.
So there we go peeps. Another Manning Michelin moment. Tivoli really was special. The food was imaginative and creative when it came to flavours, not to mention picture-perfect on the plate. Yet despite the use of unusual flavours and new ideas, the courses still had those classic elements that make your mouth water and satisfy you when you try them. The kind of food you really want to eat, not just look at.
And let’s not forget the service. Throughout the meal, the staff couldn’t do enough to make our evening one to remember. They were accommodating, friendly, and endlessly patient of my constant questions.
We had a few good meals on our holiday, but Tivoli was the highlight and in a league of its own. The best part was, if you didn’t know what you were letting yourself in for, you’d have no idea until you step inside. I reckon that’s one of the signs of a really good restaurant – no airs and graces, no big ego, just somewhere with the self-assurance that it’s doing its thing.
Unlike the phone-chatting, pepper-requesting man inside.
We paid in full for our meal at Tivoli. The tasting menu we had was 105 Euros per person, which works out at just over £80. The wine was about 40 Euros. And it was all wonderfully worth it.
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