San Pietro in Cariano
Somewhat surprisingly in all of our trips over the years around the wine regions of Italy we had not yet managed to find a nice hotel in the midst of vineyards with a short walk through the vines to a village with an excellent restaurant and no roads to cross. It’s easily done if you want to stay at an overpriced swanky winery with its own restaurant but that’s not really the same thing, at least for us. It’s also not quite the same experience if you have to drive to dinner. The last thing I want to do after spending hours in the car driving from town to town (mostly as a slave to this website) is to get back in the car again to go to dinner.
In San Pietro in Cariano right in the middle of the Valpolicella hills we found the perfect spot and the perfect time to do it, in the last few days of June. The hotel is called Domus Cariana and the reason why it’s buried so deep in the vineyards and accessible only by a strada bianca is because in the 1700s everything around it was part of one large estate, the Tenute Galtarossa, before it was broken up into small lots.
All around the town of San Pietro in Cariano there are many surviving villas of the Venetian period which commenced in 1405 when Venice took control of Verona to give itself a land buffer against aggressors. The villas are scattered around the various frazioni (districts) of San Pietro and were built by Veronesi nobles on their country estates, no doubt as a place to escape to in the summer heat when the stench of a medieval city like Verona would become distinctly unpleasant.
Domus Cariana was not one of these large impressive villas but rather it was a corte on the estate, in this case a barn for animals with a hay loft above. There is an old map in the entrance foyer of the hotel showing the estate as it was when it was one single entity with ten different corti spread around the estate.
In its present form as a hotel it’s exactly the sort of place we like when we’re traveling. Only about 10 rooms, all well appointed and comfortable without being plush and it is completely silent day and night because the vineyards envelop it and stretch into the distance in every direction.
Along with a very relaxing ambience, the hotel also provides a great breakfast which I have found can often be just a token effort in many Italian hotels, but not here. Someone arrives early every morning to bake fresh bread and pastries and her bread rolls I would say without hesitation are among the best I’ve ever had in Italy.
The large outside terrace is a perfect place for breakfast in the summer and we would happily have spent more time lounging in the garden in the afternoon if our itinerary hadn’t been so hectic. Not only is this a pleasant and very scenic location but it’s in the center of the whole Valpolicella Classica zone so whichever winery you’re visiting, the chances are it will only be a short drive from the hotel.
The city of Verona is only 9 miles away and Bardolino and Lago di Garda are just across the valley to the west. At a cost of 95 euros a night at the end of June, including the excellent breakfast, this hotel is somewhere we will happily return to in the future. It’s owned by a local family, one of whom is the manager, Giovanni, and he couldn’t have been more helpful so we took full advantage of his local knowledge, including the restaurant recommendation. We seek out places like this whenever possible and Domus Cariana has certainly become one of our favorites now.
One of the nice things about being there at the end of June was being able to walk to dinner just as the light was fading but had Giovanni not thought to hand us a small flashlight as we were leaving, the walk back would have been a little tricky on a moonless night. There was the same pitch blackness in the midst of those vineyards that Dylan Thomas so eloquently described in the first few paragraphs of his most famous work for radio. (I refer of course to ’Under Milk Wood’ and if you don't know it I've attached a link to the original 1954 recording by one of the greatest ever baritone voices, Richard Burton, describing 'black' at least 8 times in the first two minutes in his mellifluous Welsh lilt) https://youtu.be/gymiPlOqsY0
Locanda dal Nane
It takes all of ten minutes to reach the village and it’s like you’re entering via the back door because the road is unpaved and narrow and seemingly more used by people walking or cycling than cars. Everyone in San Pietro in Cariano must get up early to work in the vineyards because at 8.30 pm there was little sign of life as if they were already in bed. Just past the imposing church in the center, the restaurant Locanda dal Nane is hidden behind a large wall which conceals a lovely grass covered courtyard. It’s a very informal space which we always prefer because we’d rather their investment of time and money went into the food than wasting it on the decor outside.
The restaurant menu in this part of Veneto can be a bit of a shock to Tuscans and foreigners alike, because the local diet includes lots of things you would seldom see in much of the rest of Italy and almost never in some countries.
They certainly like their meat away from the sea in Veneto and as well as the usual cuts of steak from steers or heifers you will often find cavallo (horse) or asino (donkey) and various dishes based on liver or kidneys and interesting items like guancetta di manzo (beef cheeks) cooked in Valpolicella wine and served with polenta.
Polenta is a typical cucina povera dish all over northern Italy, including Veneto, though it has never been my preference. Eating horse meat in this part of Italy goes back centuries and the most famous dish, Pastissada de caval, involves several hours braising the meat and supposedly originated from a battle in 489 involving the Ostrogoth king Theodoric. Having watched so many of their horses slaughtered in battle the hungry Veronesi then had little choice but to feast on their carcasses and were permitted to do so by the magnanimous Theodoric. Copious amounts of wine and other ingredients were required to make the putrefying flesh edible.
Locanda dal Nane had many local dishes on a menu that was over 80% meat of one kind or another making it quite typical of the region. This highlights one problem I have with many restaurant menus in inland Italy. In the cooler months these menus are fine but they never seem to change and become lighter and more seasonal during the hot summer. It's not as if Italy suffers from a shortage of creative pasta dishes using fresh vegetables.
Traditions are slow to change and the substance of traditional food in country areas still reflects the hearty appetites of people who worked long hours in the fields all day. But consumer tastes are changing and restaurants need to adapt so credit to Locanda dal Nane for at least offering an off-menu item that was some sort of fresh vegetable, grains and rice concoction that Elena grabbed immediately and was very happy with. My choice of the guancetta di manzo was excellent and as good if not better than the same dish I've had once before at the excellent Michelin starred restaurant Giglio in Lucca, but again for me it's a recipe more suited to cooler temperatures.
The primo piatto below of maccheroncini with local sausage, leek and almonds was also top notch.
Menu quibbles aside the food at Locanda dal Nane is excellent (otherwise we wouldn’t be writing about it) and all the prices represent truly exceptional value as can be seen from the photograph of the menu. There’s nothing of this quality at these prices in Lucca or in fact in most of Tuscany and included in the total bill of 72 euros was a very good bottle of Valpolicella from a producer with whom we were unfamiliar.
The outdoor setting was ideal and the service was the typical 'get my attention if you need anything otherwise I’ll leave you completely alone' that I’ve come to like in Italy and makes a nice change from being asked if everything is alright every two minutes as happens in the US. Never complain about being abandoned to a leisurely dinner in an Italian restaurant because it’s better than the alternative, which is being rushed through the meal so they can cram in another sitting at your table. That simply never happens here.
San Giorgio di Valpolicella
If you’re visiting wineries in the Classico part of Valpolicella (ie the western section centered around the towns of Fumane and Negrar) our other suggestion would be to make the short drive up to the nearby town of San Giorgio di Valpolicella for a morning coffee or lunch because this is the best place to take in the views of the entire area stretching south down to Verona and west across the Adige river to Lago di Garda.
If it’s a hot day, as it was for us, you’ll get a welcome breeze here on the slopes of Monte Solane at 1,300 feet. San Giorgio is an old attractive village built in beige and pinkish limestone from the local quarries with a church, a bar and a restaurant but not much else. We stopped at the bar for coffee but were much too early for lunch. However, the one restaurant in town, Dalla Rosa Alda, looked very good and we regretted not being able to eat there. It also has 10 rooms, all recently refurbished, so we might try this place next time though it would be difficult to improve upon Domus Cariana.
The church in the village, Pieve di San Giorgio, is from the earlier Romanesque period of the 8th century and behind it there’s an ongoing archeological excavation busy unearthing 4th century B.C. artifacts. Nearby there's also a small museum and some Roman remains. A quiet, simple village that's far from the madding crowd.