Calling Alitalia's top class Magnifica always seemed to me like delusions of grandeur. Service was inattentive; food was inedible. The best part of the meal was the hot washcloth. I always brought my own food and a small bottle of extra virgin olive oil. But Alitalia almost went out of business and they're now making a big effort. I was skeptical.
I flew to the U.S. in April—barely got out due to volcanic activity, and was surprised to see a regional Italian menu featuring the foods and wines of Veneto. Alitalia is collaborating with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food & Forests; Buonitalia, a company that promotes Italian food and wine; AICIG, a group of geographic consortiums; and Italian chefs from JRE, a European young chef association. The attractive menu, white on white with embossed fork on the cover, in Italian and English, had an introduction to the region and featured some of its DOP and IGP products and even a recipe for one of the dishes.
The offerings were courageous, beginning with appetizers: whipped salt cod with radicchio, prosciutto Veneto DOP, polenta with mushrooms, Asiago DOP cheese. I skipped the pasta—bigoli with duck ragu, pasta with DOP San Marzano tomatoes. There is simply no way that reheated pasta is worth the calories. More salt cod, Vicenza style and a braised beef pastissata (subbing for the more traditional but way too risky horsemeat). Polenta, braised vegetables, chard with Garda DOP extra virgin olive oil, salad for side dishes, a selection of breads, fresh fruit, cake, traditional Venetian cookies, and real espresso, served in an espresso cup with an adorable cover. The wine service was impressive, with attentive flight attendants trained by the Italian Sommelier Association, and the wine list had a regional map with wine zones and thorough explanations of offerings—varietal, vintage, organoleptic qualities, optimal pairing. China and stemmed wine glasses are from Richard Ginori, with Frette placemats and napkins (tied with an adorable red Alitalia logoed ribbon, perfect to tie onto luggage for easy identification). I even watched a video about the region's foods and wines.
On my trip home the Veneto menu was different, with sarde in saor (marinated sardines and onions) and Venetian fish salad, sopressa vicentina (fresh salami), DOP Asiago cheese, mashed potatoes and horseradish. Once again I skipped the pasta—tagliolini with IGT Treviso red radicchio and pasta with tomato sauce, but tasted the Venetian-style cuttlefish and guinea hen with Merlot. The vegetable selection was wonderful—roast potatoes, braised IGT Treviso red radicchio, boiled chicory, and salad served with lovely extra virgin from Veneto—not those ridiculous tiny bottles of terrible olive oil with even worse balsamic vinegar. Breakfast was terrific: fresh pastries, bread, blood orange juice, fruit, and espresso (cappuccino logistics would be tough, I admit), worth a photo.
Two months later I was on Alitalia, to California and back, and the regional menu was from Tuscany, with a list of all the region's DOP and IGT products. Tuscan wine list. Tuscan extra virgin. I was, once again, pleased with food, wine, and service. When I got home I called Alitalia to find out what the plans were for the future. More regional menus are planned, with alternating regions to and from Italy. In September it will be Lazio (from Italy) and Puglia (to Italy). Clearly I wasn't the only one who was impressed—90-percent customer satisfaction, no negative comments. I'm actually looking forward to my next Alitalia experience. Here's a recipe for saltimbocca from the Lazio menu that will be served in September.