Via Roma, 18
28010 Soriso, Novara
Overall rating: 7/10
Date of visit: September 2012
Al Sorriso is run by Angelo Valazza, who is in charge of running the dining room, and his wife Luisa, who is the chef. It’s located in the small town Sorriso in the northwest corner of Italy.
The dining room itself is very classic, maybe a tad old-fashioned if that type of décor is not your thing.
Although this restaurant has held three Michelin stars since 1997 (but lost the third one in 2013), I had heard mixed things about it before coming here, and a reliable source had been somewhat disappointed here, so it was with some caution that I booked a table here.
As well as a la carte, they offer two menus: “Classics” or “Sea and earth”. For me the classics by far appealed the most to my tastes, and it did also seem to be the one most people chose. The price was €165. I can’t recall if “Sea and earth” was the same price, but if not I think that one was only €5 more. Angelo said it was no problem to change some of the courses, and at my request they added a course from the other menu for free, although I made a suggestion for a dish we could swap it with.
I had one glass of white wine at €10. Water was €15, which was the most expensive of all the places I went in Italy.
Before I even had the menu I was given a small appetizer: Black rice with a shellfish croquette and pesto underneath, and baked eggs with parmesan on the side. The rice lacked a bit of seasoning, but that’s my only complaint. The croquette was great, and the pesto lovely (8/10).
The first proper course was presented as foie gras and figs. I’m not too sure what everything here was, but when I later asked, they confirmed that there were grapes on the plate. These ones were American ones not for wine. There was also a thick terribly lovely passion fruit sauce underneath the grapes, and some no less than spectacular balsamic vinegar across the plate. Also one raspberry and a bit of crushed pistachios. These were the best things about the dish. I’m not a fan of foie gras, but I could tell that this particular foie gras was sweeter and less fatty in taste than many others I’ve had before it (I hear Italian foie gras is supposed to be like that). It was a bit stringy though, and I had to cut off several pieces. The figs were, as usual in Southern Europe, not very good, as they simply barely had any flavour. I’ve said it several times before: The brown Middle eastern ones have better flavour and better texture. There was also a jelly underneath the foie gras, but as the dish was just presented as “foie gras with figs” I have no idea what this was. I couldn’t taste it either, as the jelly had no flavour at all. Overall though, this was a classic dish partly with great ingredients, and there had also gone some thought into it.
Bear in mind that I’m not a fan of foie gras, so a foie gras lover would probably score this dish higher despite the flaws mentioned (7/10).
Next was one of the highlights of the meal: Perfectly cooked scallops with a bit of ham, a dried slice of orange, a blackberry, squash strips, melon raviolis with a squash stuffing, and some fresh melon. Some prefer to undercook scallops a bit so they don’t become dry. These ones were cooked all the way through, but were still juicy. They can really only be described with one word: Stunning. I have no doubt whatsoever that these are the best scallops I’ve had my entire life. I’ve been thinking about them constantly ever since. The ham was lovely too, the melon not the best ever but still very nice. The problem, though, was the raviolis. Neither the discs (which I was later told was a melon jelly and not thinly sliced melon) nor the stuffing had any flavour. The dried orange slice had most likely not been cooked in syrup before being dried, and therefore the pith was still very bitter (still overall at least 8,5/10).
Another highlight were porcini (cep) mushrooms. This dish was originally from the “sea and earth” menu. I asked if I could add this to my menu and take off the foie gras, but Angelo said they could just add it without any extra charge. The stems had been hollowed out and then stuffed with finely chopped ceps with garlic. The mushrooms were just a tiny bit too salty but nevertheless some of the best mushrooms I’ve ever had – then again, porcinis are always going to be lovely if they are proper quality and well-cooked. Around them were a basil vinaigrette, and on the side bitter lettuce leaves, basil leaves and a fennel top. I don’t like bitter things, so I left most of the lettuce. It seemed many other people did the same thing. The mushrooms themselves were at least 9/10, but I find it a little difficult to grade the dish as a whole when I didn’t like half of it.
Next I had a surprise dish. It wasn’t on the menu, and they wouldn’t explain what it was. It was a hollowed out potato filled with an egg yolk and covered in a thick slice of melted cheese. On top was grated white truffle. This wasn’t a very interesting dish: The potato was a bit floury, as almost always seems to be the case in Italy and Spain, and the truffles didn’t have any flavour. Angelo told me that the season had just begun for white truffles, and therefore they might not be so flavourful. In any case, this dish didn’t really excite me (5-6/10).
Risotto was made with pumpkin, gorgonzola, amoretti biscuits and balsamic vinegar. The rice were cooked well and still had bite, but the pumpkin lacked flavour. The flavour in the pumpkin soup I had at Dal Pescatore two days before was far superior. There was simply not enough vinegar and biscuits in this dish. It was a great idea, but not quite as nice a result simply due to the low quantity of those two ingredients. Overall, a nice risotto though (7.5/10).
The main course was local beef served with a braising sauce, half a potato, parsley cream wrapped in a leek strip, slightly cooked tomatoes, raw tiny red and green tomatoes, a carrot, and a strip of squash. Although I didn’t care much for the tiny tomatoes, like at Dal Pescatore the cooked tomatoes can only be described with one word: Stunning. These ones and the ones at Dal Pescatore are simply the best tomatoes I’ve ever had (if you discount Quique Dacosta’s “Bloody mary”, as that had been tampered with). Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the rest of the dish. The beef was very tender and well-cooked, but it simply didn’t have much flavour. There was nothing wrong with the rest of the elements, but as a whole the entire dish was simply terribly uninspired. It really seemed like they had just thought: “Ehm, what should we do for the main course? Hmmm, let’s just do a slab of beef with some braising sauce, and then that’s over and done with”. You could find this in many restaurants where they charge €30 for three courses. Seriously, wouldn’t you expect a bit more from one of the supposedly best restaurants in the world? The potato was just as floury and bland as any potatoes I’ve had in Southern Europe, and a carrot, parsley cream and a strip of squash was simply not enough to make this more than just mildly interesting (7/10 – mostly due to the tomatoes).
Next up was the cheese serving. Admittedly, I like cheese, but I’m not a big enough fan of it to truly appreciate the cheeses served in restaurants like this. Hence, I usually skip cheese. Seen in retrospect I should also have done that here too or asked to swap the cheese for an extra dessert.
I’m sure these cheeses were very nice, but even though I asked for mild cheeses these simply weren’t my type. I was served jam on the side too and a piece of bread. Still, it was all too gooey and creamy for me. The bread didn’t help. It was dry, dull and hard. I only had one bite. It should have been put directly in the bin instead of on my table.
A pre-dessert was simply a passion fruit sorbet with a sprig of mint on top. If they had tasted this before serving it, I’m almost certain they wouldn’t have sent it out. It was very sour. I only finished half (3/10).
The proper dessert was raspberries, wild strawberries, zabaglione cream and biscotti biscuits on the side. The strawberries weren’t extremely flavourful, but they didn’t have as much as a hint of the sourness that otherwise always accompanies strawberries. Very impressive! The raspberries were not quite as good, but nevertheless nice. The zabaglione cream was by no means as good as the one I had at Dal Pescatore just two days before. At Dal Pescatore you could really taste the wine and the egg yolks. You could even see it in the colour (just compare my pictures) (7.5/10 – mostly due to the strawberries).
The petit fours were not bad as such, but simply not very interesting either. There didn’t seem to have gone a lot of care or thought into them. I could probably have done these just as well myself, if not better, and that wasn’t the point of going to a restaurant (at best 6/10).
Just compare how they look to the ones from Osteria Francescana:
The white wine I had here was the worst I had in all five restaurants in Italy, but I would actually prefer the wording “least good”, as it was still a nice and very enjoyable wine. This really testifies to the quality of Italian white wine. After living one year in Spain, in restaurants and in shops I’ve only tried two or three good Spanish white wines.
I also noticed how much care the sommelier put into preparing the glasses for wine. He even used a small manual machine to pour from the bottle.
Angelo served several of my dishes, and in the beginning we did talk a bit, although I never really felt the warmth from him that I have felt in Spain as well as in Le Calandre and Osteria Francescana in Italy. I’m sure some people would find him very charming, but to me there wasn’t much humour nor charm, and everything seemed a bit formal and stiff. I think he mostly spoke to me because he had to. Often I said a lot, and he just said “okay” or “thanks” and then walked away.
When Angelo came to take away my plate of cheese, I said that I felt a bit bad about wasting their undoubtedly very fine cheese as I wasn’t a cheese lover. He didn’t even look at me nor say a single word – just walked away with the plate. When my meal was over, he did shake my hand and say thank you, but that was all he said, and I had the impression that he was just happy that I left.
He did seem to be more charming towards the other guests though, so maybe he just didn’t like me. If he didn’t, fair enough. But showing it? No. The point is always to make the guest feel welcome. I don’t personally know anybody else who has been here, but I’ve read other accounts about condescending behaviour from Angelo. For all I know, the staff at Le Calandre and Osteria Francescana could have hated me, but if they did they didn’t show it at all. I felt like I was their friend right away. That is just one reason (the other is the food) why those two restaurants were better for me. All in all, the service at Al Sorriso wasn’t bad, but it definitely deteriorated as the meal progressed.
A young waitress also served some of my dishes, and although she wasn’t exactly talkative, she was a lot more approachable.
Like in the rest of the restaurants I went to in Italy (except for Osteria Francescana), the waiters didn’t hold my chair when I sat down, nor walked me to the toilet. I simply don’t think they’ve ever seen this done, and therefore don’t know that three star restaurants in other countries do this. There was also a bit of waiting, mostly in the beginning and at the end, but not an excruciatingly long wait.
So, to conclude, there were some stunning things in this restaurant (the scallops, the porcinis, the vinegar and the passion fruit sauce in the foie gras dish, and the tomatoes). They managed to pull off simple food with superb ingredients. That is after all what Italian food is all about, but unfortunately every dish had problems. As you can see above, all the dishes that had stunning elements also had elements that were less than great – whether it was the quality of the ingredients or the technique. Then there were dishes that overall simply didn’t work that well (the potato and egg yolk, the beef, the passion fruit sorbet, the petit fours).
This is a three-star restaurant, and I can’t help but think “is two mushrooms with some shredded lettuce on the side, a potato filled with an egg yolk and covered with a slice of cheese, or a very sour passion fruit sorbet really supposed to be some of the best food money can buy anywhere in the world?”.
Some people say that good food has always been good food, and if you just have the best quality ingredients and you cook it well then you don’t need any kind of frills. To some extent I agree with this. Some of the food at Al Sorisso was a good example of this statement, but I couldn’t help but think that it surely must be possible to take top quality ingredients, like the mushrooms or the scallops, and pair it with something a bit more exciting than just shredded lettuce. Most chefs in one-star restaurants who had the right connections would be able to buy ingredients like that and pair it with something more exciting than just shredded lettuce.
I missed the elegance, the creativity, the pampering, the luxury, the perfectionism that top restaurants should exude.
All in all, the level was simply too uneven and often far from three-star level. There were too many dishes that lacked care or inspiration, and often the food simply seemed too old-fashioned. I didn’t see the striving for perfection that I in general see in Northern Europe, and that I also have seen in Osteria Francescana and Le Calandre in Italy, and Sant Pau and Quique Dacosta in Spain. The food at Al Sorrio was overall a bit better than at Dal Pescatore, but then there was the service at Al Sorriso…
Someone once said: “The success of a business does not depend on how many customers go there, but how many go back”. I will probably not go back.