Trentino is often linked to its northern neighbor, the Alto Adige, by many Italians as well as foreign travelers, but it could hardly be further from the truth. Trentino is much warmer, much more Italian in style, feel, and look; and the people of Trentino consider themselves Italian and speak the language. The food in Trentino is a cross between the southern Tyrolean cooking of Austria and the cooking of the Veneto, its neighbor to the southwest. Renowned throughout Italy for its annual harvest of apples, plums, chestnuts, mushrooms, the agrico-tourism business is hopping here, with literally hundreds of masi (singular maso, a working farm with places to sleep as well as dine) to check out.
Along the southern border of Trentino is a micro climate based on the lake effect of the northern end of Lago di Garda, where some of the most northern olives in the world grow. These olives are picked later than most, from late November thru February, and produce a light-textured, sweetly perfumed oil, perfectly flavored for the delicate lake fish it is often served on.
Polenta is the main primo of the Trentino table, often served sautéed or grilled with butter and cheese, or as smacafam, an often baked dish with sausages and mushrooms (see regional recipes).
Gastronomically, the center of Trentino is its capital. Although there are literally hundreds of great ristoranti, trattorie and masi outside of Trento, I will concentrate there this time. My fave is not so famous, but certainly merits the whole trip. Al Tino ( via SS trinita, 10 tel 0461984109) is a simple trattoria serving up excellent versions of Trentino classics, including a canederlotti al puzzone to knock your socks off. Canederli are basically bread dumplings, these larger versions are sauced with puzzone di moena , a rich and fragrant cheese I have never seen outside of Trentino. The classic Carne Sala is a kind of pickle brined beef, sliced thinly and served raw like carpaccio, often with apples or beans, as it is here. Although strudel is considered foreign by purists, I find it delicious throughout Trentino and the version at Al Tino is definitive, rich with grappa soaked raisins and chestnuts.
The most famous place in town is called A le due Spade (via don Rizzi, 11 tel 0461234343) and justly so. There is a well-conceived excellence that pervades the entire restaurant that emanates from the kitchen of Rita Vedana. Everything, literally everything that comes to the table is dreamy with a capital D. Starting with the venison prosciutto with smoked ricotta and black truffles, the steamed testina with a green bean torta, and a poetry infused pumpkin soup with fresh water shrimp. Followed by strangolapreti with cabbage and smoky guanciale, and beet-filled half moons with duck ragu. Pheasant breast with lardo and apples, baby lamb with thyme and a tangy little cake of potatoes and sheep's milk cheese keeps the passion alive and then little apple tarts with homemade apricot jam and sambuco flower gelato. The full on tasting menu is 50 euros and they will match wines for another Andrew Jackson. Make reservations at both of these places, especially at the 30 seat Spade.
Another cool place I found about about in Fred Plotkin's travel gem (Italy for the Gourmet Traveler) is called Locanda Port'Aquila (via Cervara 66, no phone I could find). They serve absolutely classic osteria fare in an antique setting, an homage to the local sports of mountaineering and cycling. Mixed salami and sausages, followed by polenta with anchovies and butter, then pork chops with sauerkraut and juniper, all washed down with great house wine and finished with a glass or two of apple distillato and we are singing the Alpini anthem.
Shopping around town there is a great butcher and salumist called Polla (via oss mazzurana) that is a mini Peck and holds many of the national treasures of Italian cooking as well as a great supply of local salumi. Buy some and hide it from your customs officer- you will be the only one in your town holding the prize.