Al Castello, Piazzale San Leonardo, 7, 31015 Conegliano TV, Italy
Al Castello: it's the sort of place that you see in your friend's holiday snaps and try to convince yourself it wasn't that good
Having been expressly told to avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm, why then, are we walking up steep, barely cobbled side streets with no water, shade or sun protection? Well, like many people before us, we’re following a man who allegedly promises eventual salvation.
My friend Pudsy is a charismatic man.
Conegliano, famed as the origin story of prosecco, is watched over by a castle that has since become not just a historical site, but a restaurant and a car park, too. Being the bald and genetically weakest of the group, I’m doing my best Solid Snake impersonation as sticking to all available walls, praying to find a box I can hide under and crouch-run my way to safety.
Typical of his character type, Pudsy is also a complete psychopath who is able to convince himself that suffering is joyous- and is sure that once we find a seat at ‘Bar Ristorante Al Castello’, to adjust our seating plan, guaranteeing that he remains directly in the suns glare whilst absolutely pounding Aperol Spritz. “Water is for the weak”, he incises.
Initially, an apperitivo is an unsettling experience because where we’re from, everything is extra- nothing is served to you out of a sense of hospitality or welfare without forking for it. England has an appalling drinking culture that has the rest of the world wincing when they see us rock up to any waterhole, regardless of if we’re wearing football strips. If only we served something to abate the booze as a matter of course, I feel like most town centres wouldn’t descend into pitched battles which is only exacerbated when the sun decides to make an appearance.
Having never really understood the British penchant for fish and chips in open ground when it’s hot as fuck, a basket of deep-fried things isn’t something I’d opt for, but lo, there was Pudsy who orders the fritto misto. Olive Ascolane; green olives stuffed with soffritto, pork and beef mince, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried are thrown in with chips and Mozzarella in Carrozza- battered and fried cheese sarnies.
Like many structures of strategic military importance, Al Castello offers incredible views- a gently undulating landscape stitched with luscious vineyards, dotted with terracotta roofs all set against the gently misted outlines of mountain ranges; we decide unanimously that this has to be the place for dinner. Returning with word of what we have seen, the rest of the group are enthralled and I see Pudsy tent his fingers in satisfaction of his swelling ranks.
Come dusk, the restaurant is twinkling with fairy lights with sunset imbuing everything it touches with a Cacklebean-yolk glow. As the dewey bottles of white slosh and people pore over the menu, I play the usual waiting game, having decided on my choices roughly eight hours ago. It’ll come to no surprise to you then, dear reader, it’s the veal tonnanto and fillet tartare, with the Editor unable to resist the porcini linguine being the fungiphile she is, along with the fillet with green peppercorn cream sauce. Next to me is my friend Ross- the sweetest man alive- who's excitedly confused with the translated menu still unable to further describe duck ragout gnocchi or the tartare. I’m rushed with that feeling of knowing he’s about to have a great time.
The veal tonnato is perhaps the best I’ve had to date. Not simply because veal isn’t widely used for this dish in the UK, but the balance of the sauce. It’s often regarded as bad form for it to cover the entire dish as to completely obscure the meat, but this is applied thinly and is so masterfully blended, that you can pick out all the elements as they collapse like dominos into the next. The anchovy seasons with the capers and vinegar pulls their salinity into check, the use of raw egg yolk over boiled, along with the grassy olive oil has emulsified into silk that’s turfy with parsley and the tuna giving that distinct body. Sharing with Ross, you can see his curiosity burst into wide-eyed amazement and without pause, I’ve already loaded another forkful for my boy.
The porcini linguini is glossed in another slick emulsion of pecorino and pasta water, loosely coiled in the bowl like a plump twine ball. Slices of porcini exhibit attention to detail- equally plump with juices that have been gently seared-in, all rolling about in garlic, parsley and underpinned with what seems to be a mushroom stock that’s this deep, continuous umami snog.
The duck ragout is outrageous. Viscously coating all it touches, it would be rib-sticking were it not for these gnocchi- silken chunks of a starchy dream- so light and rounded, they could be floatation devices for The Borrowers.
The tartare is prepared at the table for three of us. Three yolks, cornichons, shallots, parsley, capers, mustard, lemon, anchovy and a blob of ketchup all chucked into a pool of Worcester sauce and Tabasco, served with buffalo butter and plenty of bread. Processing and assessing, Ross’s eyes scroll left and right until he locks with mine- “it’s like the best Big Mac you’ve never had” he beams. I love Ross. I also love that I’ve been given the leftovers, which equate to easily another half portion.
The Editors fillet has been liberally doused in a creamy sauce, the resting juices permeating the top with the green peppercorns in such abundance, clusters at a time pop with every bite leaving their fresh heat behind. A side car of potatoes cooked slowly in olive oil is rampant with garlic and rosemary, each chunk waiting to be picked like a Minion to be bathed in the leftover sauce.
Arrogantly, having booked this table for 8pm, I thought we’d make it to the gelateria just before it closes at 11pm but realising this was out the window, we order espressos. As is customary, out comes the chap with the limoncello along with another liquor made with ‘mixed berries’. I’ve been trying to find the name of it since, even going so far as my friends' wife, who is from the region, calling the restaurant to ask. It has no name. They make it there themselves. That’s it. Frustrating as that is to hear, it’s so quintessentially Italian- making something beautiful with a flick of a modest wrist, all because you can, without further agenda. It’s the colour and flavour of blended forest fruits, slightly thinner than Calpol and twice as delicious. And I completely failed to get a picture, though I did get one of this beauty-
Looking about the table, the restaurant is empty, save for our lot, illuminated with touch lamps. It’s one of these dining experiences that’s almost cliché in its mise en scene. The wine still sloshing with abandon, people gesturing for a refill as the bottle’s passed amongst a dervish of giggles and chatter, with the residual heat of the day slowly cooling as everything outside of the lamps glow is indistinguishable in the pitch black. A reasonable trade for late-night gelato, I suppose.