Ristorante Il Nazionale di Vernante
Near the border between Italy and France in the Maritime Alps, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, forests, and streams, you can find Vernante, a small village of just 1300 people, known to many as “the village of Pinocchio,” but I would argue that it should be famous for one of the best restaurants in Italy, Ristorante Il Nazionale.
Most people know of Pinocchio because of the 1940 film produced by Walt Disney, but it originated as a children’s novel in the late 1800s by Italian writer Carlo Collodi. The first edition of Collodi’s Pinocchio was illustrated by Attilio Mussino, known as “Pinocchio’s uncle” who happened to spend much of his life in Vernante- hence the reference to Pinocchio. To pay homage to the famous illustrator, locals decided to revive the scenes of the children’s novel on the walls of the town.
Found in the heart of the village, not far from the murals, the Macario Family operates the Nazionale Hotel and Restaurant. Their cuisine is based on hundreds of years of Piedmontese cooking traditions utilizing the highest quality fresh ingredients, most of it from the mountains and region surrounding the restaurant. As the seasons change, so do the ingredients and menu, so there is always something new to taste and discover.
I am lucky enough to be at the restaurant at the end of the fall and the beginning of winter, which means my plate will be graced with amazing white truffles from Alba, chestnuts mixed into the menu from Cuneo, and Helix pomatia alpine, which is escargot from just down the road in Borgo San Dalmazzo (also home to Italian ski racer Marta Bassino).
For our starter, the table had wild trout sashimi, which is smoked at the table and includes the grilled skin with apple and acid butter. I’m told the trout was caught locally in the mountains earlier today and it was smoked directly in front of us- yes, directly at the table. The experience and taste of this dish is incredible and it smells like a small campfire at your table.
After the trout, we tried the “Unusual” vitello tonnato, which is the restaurant’s take on the dish found frequently in this region. The thinly sliced veal was presented with hazelnut, Bottarga (dried tuna eggs), and Grue. I’ve had vitello tonnato many times in this region, and this rendition was one of the best.
For my main course (I forget how many we had), I had risotto with a 48 month aged Parmigiano and more importantly an elegant, but obscene amount of white truffle shavings on top. If it wasn’t for the amazingly fresh bread and butter that I couldn’t get enough of, I could have eaten this at least twice.
Although I was thoroughly full, this meal was so good that I enjoyed trying the Veal Tail with mountain potatoes and butter made by locally. Of course, when I could not fit another thing in my stomach, they bring out a wooden cart with cheese that comes from the Giordano family who produces cheese in nearby Palanfre at 1400 meters elevation. The waiter did an amazing job explaining the history of each cheese and the differences in each.
Throughout the meal, we tried some of the best wines from the region, including nearby Barolo and Alba. My favorite wine of the night was an 18-year-old Roagna Barolo from 1998, La Rocca e la Pira Riserva. It was explained to me that the wine was a carefully aged Barolo Riserva from the Pira cru, otherwise known as La Rocca. The taste was rich and elegant, but quite bold and accompanied the Veal Tail nicely.
Very simply, if this restaurant was in France, it would probably have a Michelin star. The taste, the smell, the presentation, the experience, the service, all equally as good as any Michelin star restaurant I have been to in France. I would choose Ristorante Il Nazionale over most of them as the staff also patiently translated everything into English and gave background stories on the ingredients. If you are in Limone Riserva Bianca for skiing this restaurant will be the highlight of your trip. Make a reservation now.
PS- Don’t forget to leave some time to see the Pinocchio murals found throughout the village.