My summer culinary adventures begin with a one-night stopover in Merano. Merano, not to be confused with the Venetian glass center of Murano, is a Northern Italian town in the Tyrol valley. Though surrounded by mountains, Merano has a tropical sub-climate—the Merano panorama features a contrasting combination of palm trees, Tuscan cypress trees, and a snowy alpine horizon. Like its geography, Merano has a mixed culture. It combines both Italian and Austrian cultural aspects: all signs are written in both Italian and German, while the food consists of both Italian Mediterranean classics and traditional Austrian dishes.
At lunch, I enjoyed carpaccio and truffle linguini—carpaccio in particular is one of my favorite Italian dishes. Served as an antipasto or appetizer, carpaccio consists of thin slices of raw meat (it can also be fish, but in my case, I choose beef, or manzo) often topped with a bed of arugula and parmesan and drizzled with lemon, oil, and balsamic. Its thin slices make it so tender that it can be torn apart with just a fork—as a result, I find the rawness of the dish far from intimidating. The presentation of carpaccio is likewise tasteful: a bed of arugula, shreds of cheese, and a precisely carved slice of lemon. The carpaccio appetizer shows how Italian cuisine can be simple as long as the ingredients are of the highest quality.
The truffle pasta is heavier than the Carpaccio, but the presentation is equally polished. The ingredients of the dish show the cultural mix in Tyrol: northern European mushrooms with Mediterranean pasta. I notice that the menu also offers tagliatelle pasta with pfefferlinge, small tawny mushrooms common to Austrian and Bavarian forests. The darker mushroom flavors in the pasta dishes can be attributed to the popularity of pfefferlinge mushrooms and other fungi in Austrian and southern German cuisine.
I finish the meal with a latte macchiato, airy with creamy local whole milk and a lighter roast of coffee, and proceed to explore the town of Merano, which, like the food, is beautifully put together. Because of its valley location, many streets slope steeply. One of these cobblestone streets contains a long stretch of flea market stands.
The products vary—I notice an aged trumpet, a rack of woolen vests and rustic blouses, and an entire booth dedicated to wooden African art and décor. Another street has a row of small food stands, one of which, a “hot sausage” booth, is in a mini food truck, while another is in the shape of an ice cream cone. On the main church square is yet another counter, this one serving a variety of dried goods: pastas, fruits, and salamis—all specialties of the area.
At dinner, I am presented with a mélange of traditional flavors: the menu consists of soup, pasta, meat, and dessert. The soup is a South Tyrol “Weinsuppe,” creamy with a white wine base. The pasta dish is also traditional—spätzle with local pancetta. Spätzle, common in the German regions of Bavaria and Alsace, are small pieces of dough poached in boiling water. The pancetta, on the other hand, is an Italian specialty similar to bacon consisting of cured pork belly.
I am most impressed, however, by the different swirls of butter on the table. Because they are unlabeled, I embark on a taste test to identify each kind. One is a black truffle variety, the other sundried tomato and garlic, yet another with olive paste, one more with parsley, and finally the regular old salted butter.
Each dish inspires me—why not mix in other flavors and herbs with butter? Or add Carter & Cavero's truffle olive oil to pasta? Or present a latte macchiato with a square of dark chocolate on the side, as I had had after lunch?
Merano’s culinary tradition parallels the attention to detail in all of South Tyrol, and, as I leave, I look forward to experiencing the Tyrolean combination of Italian, German, and Austrian cuisine in other regions of the Dolomites.