Whereas the acclaimed Locanda Vecchia Pavia ‘Al Mulino’ was described as “Cucina Creativa” (creative cooking) in a recent Michelin guide and reinforced in the less reliable Fodor’s, Cascina Vittorria proudly offers more locally rooted cuisine, if done in a sensible contemporary fashion at times. And done terrifically. The lunch we had there was like a meal I had at Brennan’s in Houston in 2015 when Danny Trace was heading the kitchen. I had three different items or preparations that were the best of each type that I had ever had. At Brennan’s it was strawberries – sourced from a small farm in Louisiana during the height of the season – soft shell crabs, and Lemon Meringue Pie.
The delicious surprises at Cascina Vittoria began at the start of the meal, with the bread service, with plump, moist-looking squares of focaccia. I thought that this was a bit odd. Focaccia is something that I hadn’t associated with the region of Lombardy where we were. But Pavia is just an hour-and-a-half by train to Genoa, the capital of coastal Liguria, and the land of focaccia as much as it is that of pesto. Expectedly soft, a touch oily from the fragrant, light olive oil, the bread was very fresh and absolutely delicious with a long, very pleasant taste. I had to force myself to eat three (or four or five) pieces before the first real course of the meal. I do like focaccia, quite a lot, in fact. I ate it daily, more than daily, during the near-week I spent on the Ligurian coast some years ago, including buying about half a pan of it studded with a few sprigs of rosemary for a light lunch during a few-hour drive. It made for a memorable, savory crutch before dinner.
That had been my focaccia of memory. The version we had at Cascina Vittoria was better, and better than all of the excellent focaccias I had in Liguria, and elsewhere. The chef, Giovanni Ricciardella, came out to explain the focaccia, for which he was very proud. The flour for it is milled on the property, which is more than a restaurant, and is 100% whole grain. Spurred on by a starter with more than a few years to it, the bread is baked in a wood-fueled oven. No herbs are used in the bread, just some salt and olive oil. That’s certainly all that was needed.
Then came the antipasto course, Millefoglie di melanzane e le tre consistenze del parmigiano: cald-freddo-croccante. This is essentially an eggplant flan, an involved flan with the delectable Parmigiano served in three states: crispy, as a sauce, and ice cream, and so three different temperatures and textures. Complemented with excellent tomatoes and mozzarella and other complementary ingredients, this imaginative and quite involved culinary exercise succeeded grandly. It was absolutely delicious and quite interesting when more than one of textures and textures was combined in a bite. This was certainly the most intricate eggplant dish I’ve ever had, and it was also the best. Probably not surprisingly, the menu showed that it was the Piatto firma dello Chef, the chef’s signature dish.
After the secondo, the main protein-centered course, the chef returned to describe what we would be having for dessert. It was to be something that’s never really served at restaurants, but made sense as Christmas was not too distant and we were just south of its home, Milan, panettone. It was especially appropriate because the restaurant and chef had won acclaim for it earlier the year as one of the best versions in Italy from the leading Italian paper, the Milan-based Corriere della Sera, and also because they were selling the panettone. At least a couple of my travel-mates bought one. If I had room to spare in my suitcase, I would have, myself, even at €35, more than three times what I typically dole out for one, as I did yesterday. As wonderful as their panettone was – simply much more vibrant, fresh-tasting, with noticeably better and more compelling ingredients than usual – it was probably worth more than what they were charging.
It was an excellent meal, through and through, highlighted by the very best versions of focaccia, an eggplant dish, and panettone that I’ve ever had. Cascina Vittoria is worth a detour if you are in the Milan area with a car, and the chef told me that about 70% of their patrons come from the big city. Smart folks, or least ones with fine palates and a few euros to spend.
via Roma, 26, 27010 - Rognano (Pavia)
The Millefoglie di melanzane at Cascina Vittoria