Always choosing reasonably priced accommodation on our travels we rarely come across a hotel that exceeds our expectations to such an extent that we feel compelled to write about it, but our recent stay at Relais Sant’Ambrogio in Bobbio was one of those occasions.
The trip was a spur of the moment thing so it was more a question of taking what was available rather than conducting any real research, a lucky find in other words that deserves to be shared with a wider audience.
The hotel’s enviable location on a hillside across the river from Bobbio affords a lovely panorama of the bucolic Trebbia valley and its large informal terrace takes full advantage of the vista. This is the setting where the owners, Giovanna and Paolo, serve a pre-dinner aperitif at 7.00 pm together with a selection of hors d’oeuvres and this is when you get the first inkling of Giovanna’s skill and imagination in the kitchen. Giovanna calls this space 'La Bolla' where all her guests can relax and unwind as they anticipate the feast ahead.
The aperitif of choice here is Paolo's own ‘orange’ wine (ie. a white wine with extended skin maceration) from the indigenous local grapes, Malvasia di Candia and Ortrugo, of the Colli Piacentini, one of Italy’s lesser known DOC zones that surrounds this river valley.
After the leisurely aperitif, dinner is served inside the tastefully renovated farmhouse. It’s a very intimate setting that is carefully curated with an eye for detail in furnishings and colors, more drawing room than dining room, with even the table cloths arranged artfully to leave bare an expanse of wood to make the atmosphere more informal. The oak ceiling and stone pillars give way to a vast expanse of glass so the view can be enjoyed until enveloped by darkness.
To enter the dining area you have to walk past the open plan kitchen and in the array of dishes that will shortly be arriving at your table there are several that require two or three hours of slow cooking, which means that the aromas wafting up from the stove as you pass by are deliciously mouthwatering or as the Italians say, fa venire l’acquolina in bocca.
As soon as we were all seated Giovanna gave a short introduction explaining her philosophy in the kitchen and it was really quite an impressive and clearly heartfelt presentation. Everything we were about to eat was produced organically within 20 miles of where we were sitting, including produce from new or restarted small scale enterprises employing traditional artisan methods, exemplified by the fascinating story of her new cheese supplier with its herd of rare Ligurian cows (mucca cabannina from Val d'Aveto) that are smaller than normal and produce much less milk; but it’s milk of an exquisite quality, to which I could also testify the next morning at breakfast when I tried the yoghurt from the same producer.
Part of the enjoyment of the fixed price, no menu dinner here is having no prior knowledge of what will emerge from the kitchen, nor any idea of how many different dishes will ultimately arrive at your table, or maybe that's just me because of deficiencies in my Italian comprehension. Frankly I lost count and should have paced myself a little better because I was pleading with them to stop bringing their delicious food by the end of the evening. Probably due to the fact that Elena was not eating her fair share.
Call it a menu degustazione if you will but, as can be seen from the photos, these were not the dainty and overly-artistic creations typical of fancy restaurants but instead were real food portions with the emphasis firmly on tradition and flavor, including of course Maccheroni Bobbiesi (below right photo) accompanied by the local red wine blend of Barbera and Bonarda grapes.
Knowing a thing or two about Italian cooking I was astonished by the level of preparation many of the dishes required and the amount of Giovanna’s day that must have been spent in the kitchen. This was confirmed when we checked out the next morning at 10.00 am and she was already hard at work in her kitchen preparing the next day’s dinner.
The price for this multi-course dinner was 90 euros for two people, a real bargain considering the quality of the food and the fact that it also included several glasses of wine. On restaurant menus in Lucca and most other Italian cities this would typically be at least 50% more, so kudos to Giovanna and Paolo for making luxury affordable.
I’ll only mention the rooms briefly to say that as the last people to book we were in the cheapest of the five suites, but I would happily take it again as the bed was extremely comfortable and the spacious shower was a refreshing change from the tight plastic cubicles so often found in Italian hotel rooms. Furthermore at only 115 euros for the room and an abundant homemade breakfast it was excellent value. The photos on the Relais Sant'Ambrogio website will give you a better idea of the level of comfort here.
And as for privacy there was a very amusing interaction we had just before dinner with the young man who occupied the suite next door with his girlfriend; he told Elena that he had deliberately made some noise to determine how soundproof the walls were and wanted to know if we had heard anything so he could be sure that we wouldn’t be disturbed later that evening! I’m not sure what he had in mind but as their suite contained a generously proportioned bath tub for two, you can indulge your imagination. Nevertheless our sleep went blissfully uninterrupted.
As we chatted with Paolo the next morning he suggested that we should take a 20 minute detour from our Sunday itinerary and drive south to Brugnello, a restored village perched precariously at 1,500 feet at the end of a rocky spur that juts out over a sweeping bend in the river Trebbia. Brugnello is one of those fascinating little places that you’ll never stumble upon without a little inside knowledge so it’s always worth pausing to chat to the local people you meet in shops, restaurants or hotels.
Note: Given that we now live in a world of paid 'influencers' (ie unpleasant grifters spawned by the abomination that social media has become) who pretend to be impartial commentators, let us make clear that we always pay in full for our accommodation and meals. We never solicit or receive any type of compensation for any of our articles or recommendations on wine, olive oil or food and Giovanna and Paolo had no advance notice that we were even going to write this article.