It’s a busy Saturday night at Grotto Morchino, located in the sylvan hills of Pazzallo in Ticino, Switzerland’s southernmost canton that borders Italy (Italian is the official language), and owner Pierluigi Olgiati is making the rounds, exchanging greetings, shaking hands and sometimes taking orders. A group of boisterous women get his attention; on a long table set before them flowers and gifts have been spread out in celebration of someone’s birthday. Pierluigi, who just happens to resemble George Clooney, proceeds to join them and a round of successive kisses on their cheeks ensue (that’s three kisses each in Switzerland). Plates of assorted salamis and cheeses arrive, and the gregarious restaurateur offers them a buon appetito before moving on to another table. Olgiati was practically reared in this forty-seat (plus forty-five seats outside, used during the summer months) grotto that’s been run by his family for decades (a grotto is a small, typically rustic eatery with outdoor, communal seating that serves artisan-produced cured meats, cheeses and classic Ticinese dishes). Initially Olgiati had no desire to take over the family business, and instead ended up working in marketing. When his mother died in 1980 he inherited the restaurant, but held onto his day job treating the business like a hobby, which he rented out for private parties and used for dinners with family and friends. In 2000 fate intervened. During a torrential rainstorm a tree was severed by lightening and crashed through the roof causing serious damage. The restoration required a good deal of money and sweat equity, but in the process he transformed the humble grotto of his childhood into an elegant dinning room with a wood-beam ceiling (hidden for decades by a suspended ceiling), a large fireplace, sunny yellow walls, walnut tables and soft lighting. He saw the potential to once again use the space as a public restaurant, where he’d serve classic grotti dishes, but in a more upscale setting. He quit his job, and has been running this successful venture ever since.
I joined two friends who live in the area for dinner there in October, and the usual menu had been augmented with la selvaggina, wild game that’s prized during the fall months (Pierluigi makes it a point to showcase monthly, seasonal delicacies such as wild asparagus in April, porcini mushrooms in September, etc.). The evening commenced with the quintessential grotto antipasto, affettati misti and formaggi (slices of excellent, local cured meats, made mostly from pork, and fresh cow and goat’s milk cheeses). The meat portion consisted of prosciutto, lardo (thin slices of salt-cured pig fat that’s seasoned with herbs and spices) and one of my favorites, mortadella (not the soft, larded version made in Bologna, but a crumbly sausage-like variety that includes the pig’s liver). To this we added a plate of salametti di cervo e cinghiale from the game menu (thin, crimson-colored, fresh salami made from deer and wild boar, respectively). Cured meats are always accompanied with pickled onions and gherkins, and the sour, crunchy vegetables provided the perfect contrast to the savory affettati. A plate of cheeses followed: a fresh, tart little round variety made from a mix of cow and goat’s milk called formaggino (that you eat with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, salt and coarse black-pepper corns that are soaked in grappa) and formaggio delle Alpi (a firm, buttery cow’s milk cheese similar to raclette).
A classic first course is busecca, hearty minestrone with the addition of tripe that is right out of the canons of Ticinese “peasant food.” A few dishes from neighboring Lombardy have worked their way into the area’s diet. Various types of risotto, for instance, are offered and one that’s prepared with grappa and luganighetta (mild pork sausage that’s also served grilled) reveals the culinary symbiosis of the Southern Swiss and Northern Italians. No grotto meal would be complete, especially during the colder months, without Ticinese polenta, which is a combination of cornmeal and buckwheat that’s slow cooked in a paiolo di rame, a timbale shaped pan made from hand hammered copper (also a shared Italian staple that you find in Lombardy’s Valtellina). The polenta is served with a choice of braised meats, cheese, egg, or milk (the latter two hark back to the days when animal “by-products,” not the animals themselves, were the primary foods of this once indigent community). We ordered polenta with a typical autumnal dish featured on the game menu, salmi di camoscio (a dark, wine based stew of wild Alpine goat), which turned out to be a bit chewy, but very flavorful none the less—I can’t imagine how you could tenderize any animal that can scale the Alps with ease. Sticking with the game theme, we then shared a plate of sautéed pheasant breast that was accompanied by a salad of bitter greens. Finally we punctuated the meal with another specialty of the area, grilled filetto di puledro (horse, which was an essential part of survival in this mountainous area, since they provided transportation, aided in farming and were often the only source of animal protein). Puledro is always served rare, and the flavor is rich and oddly “beefy.”
Ticino’s premier grape varietal is Merlot (with Barbera coming in second). Swiss Merlots were once met with disdain, since they tended to be bland and syrupy, but due to recent improvements in vinification the Ticinese are producing Merlots of distinction. Pierluigi also likes to feature a regional wine monthly, so we ordered the October selection, Terra Matta Merlot 2007 that hails from nearby Locarno (on the northern tip of Lago Maggiore: that's a big, round wine with current and blackberry notes; exactly what you want when you’re eating full flavored salamis, cheeses and game.
Desserts are simple, homey and delicious. Two standouts are the rotolo di castagne (a rich chestnut flour cake made with coco powder and ground almonds that’s served warm with a dollop of whipped cream) and a flaky, cinnamon-kissed apple tart. We didn’t think we could eat another bite, but we managed to finish both—and emit a purr or two in the process.
Eating at a grotto is taking part in an age-old tradition where family and friends come together to share and extol the simple, often crafted, foods that are a part of this canton’s culinary heritage. Pierluigi Olgiati has made it his mission to keep this custom alive and with style, commitment, great food and joviality he’s managed to do just that.
Via Carona, 1
CH 6912 Pazzallo, Switzerland
(Canton Ticino )
Tel. +41 (0) 91 994 6044
Open May – December (outdoor seating June-August)
Tuesday – Sunday (Saturday dinner only)
Lunch 10:00 – 2:00
Dinner 6:00 – 10:45
Credit Cards: Visa, Master Card, American Express, Diners’ Club