One of the many positive attributes of Mudgee is the number of places one can eat at. ‘Pub grub’ in town has always been a feature of Mudgee, but these days just in the village one can eat ‘ethnic’ with two very passable Thai restaurants, one Italian (plus two pizza places) and a good Indian diner, two Japanese and two Chinese options (plus an excellent yum cha in Rylstone), three modern Australian restaurants and a number of cafés with interesting menus.
In recent years a few wineries have opened pretty smart restaurants out of town, serving up to forty diners and doing so very well, offering a small range of wines (mostly their own).
We have established our Cucina di Lusso very deliberately as a winery restaurant, with an attractive outlook capable of serving a large number of people – well over a hundred – with both a ‘gourmet pizza’ and a ‘smart-casual’ Trattoria menu.
A word about our Trattoria menu. It is purposely less formal than that of a ristorante, but more formal than an osteria offering. For example, although we do have a printed menu, the service is deliberately casual, and the emphasis is on serving a steady regional clientele rather than on 'haute cuisine'.
That being said, we have introduced an element of what is called alto borghese. This just means the addition of ingredients or methods that are different from the typical regional Italian fare of the classic, simple combinations, seasonality and freshness that usually define their dishes.
For us, wine fulfills the role of making good food taste even better! We are very keen to discuss our wines with you before your meal, to help you to enjoy the unique way that Italian food and wine enjoy each others' company.
Scattered through our menu are features of what the Italians call “alto borghese" - an Italian style one doesn’t find much in Sydney but which is more common in Melbourne. This style uses ingredients or methods crème that demonstrate that the cook has travelled beyond the borders of Italy! Good examples of this style would be fraiche, coulis or confit.
Italian food is a little more complicated than one might think.
At the risk of over-generalisation, I claim that in large part this is because Italian cuisine is more regional than say France or Germany. The shape of the country (long and thin, being Alpine in the north and practically African in the south, dissected by mountain ranges that act both as shields from neighbours and providing very specific micro-climates throughout the country) is one reason; another is the fact that Italy has been a particularly attractive part of the world for invaders.
From the time of the Greek dispora twenty five hundred years ago, the Middle Eastern armies of a thousand years ago, the Spanish of five hundred years ago, the French of two hundred years ago and the Americo/English of fifty years ago Italy has been subjected to ‘visitors’ who, while they have found the regional offerings good enough to retain while they lived there, were also prone to ‘tweaking’ many dishes with imported ingredients. (Sicily being the best example of having different elements on a restaurant menu, but also Liguria and Puglia)
So, what should one look for to ‘analyse’ an Italian menu?
Literally, this translates as ‘poor’ vs ‘rustic’. One can have fun looking at an ‘Italian food’ menu to pick out elements of each style. Examples of povera are either very basic foods that the poor could grow easily and cheaply (and that their masters didn’t want anyway) or foods that are easily foraged. For example offal – Romans sent the best cuts of meat to the Papal tables and were resigned to eating the other bits.
On many occasions through history, vast numbers of Italians have survived famine or war by eating chestnuts – half carbohydrate for short term energy, but with manganese, vitamin C, B6 and copper. Life saving! Or rice. Able to be foraged or even grown, then eaten with herbs or even nettles for flavour, it served a similar purpose. (In recent times, of course, foraged foods have been elevated to fine dining status. Think of mushrooms, truffles, onions, celery, moss etc, etc.
Food can be both povera and rustic. In fact, rustica is really just povera without the ugly bits! Central to its style would be the bollito misto (mixed boiled meat), polpette (meatballs of various types), most pastas (but especially dry spaghetti), fish stews, borlotti and other Italian beans, most frittata fillings.
Even at the post-Renaissance height of its powers, the Italians never had the same ‘level’ of aristocracy - or gluttony - that was common for the French in say the time of Louis XIV. (Meals of 24 dishes over 6 courses were very regular events at Versailles, and became ‘best practice’ for thousands of aristocrats around the country).
Cucina Alto Borghese means “Kitchen of the Upper Class”, but upper class in Italy never reached the heights of the French. The emphasis was more on seasonality and freshness, with an interest in ‘tweaking’ Italian dishes with a foreign (usually French) influence.
Almost every serious restaurant in Italy today would have a half dozen alto Borghese dishes. Terrines, pates, galantines, soufflés and rillettes for example. (The favour is returned in the menus of French restaurants, with pasta, white truffles, gnocchi, carpaccio being common examples).
Nuovo Cucina, the Italian equivalent of the nouvelle cuisine introduced to France in the 1980’s, is best described as a style characterized by lighter, more delicate dishes and an increased emphasis on presentation. It has remained mostly a French and northern European thing – particularly in degustation offerings. We have no ‘authentically’ nuovo dishes on our restaurant menu, but there will be on any degustation offerings.
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