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Taste the Flavors of Piedmont

Oberto Gili Sardines and caramelized red peppers with <em>bagna cauda</em> gelato.

Photo: Oberto Gili

Due lanterne (two lanterns) was what the man watering his window boxes at dusk had said when we asked for directions to I Bologna, a trattoria in or around the stucco settlement of Rocchetta Tanaro. At least that is as much as we, with our semester of college Italian, had understood. Still, two lanterns (and two left turns—we'd gotten that, too) seemed more promising than what the elderly man in the town square had volunteered: Chiuso. (Closed.)

And now we were at an intersection: to our left was a building, shuttered, with an unlit lantern on each side of the front door; to our right, the lonely road out of town.

We had no intention of skipping dinner that evening, or on any other evening during our culinary foray through Piedmont. The day before, we'd landed in Turin, the area's largest metropolis, to begin an itinerary that would take us south to the wine-making towns scattered among the vine-covered hills of Asti and Alba for six days of tasting and sipping. Even if Tuscany's remote Maremma region seems to be garnering much of the foodie cred nowadays (due largely to the opening of Alain Ducasse's L'Andana resort), for people who scratch out a living writing and fantasizing about food and wine, a trip to Piedmont will always be the Holy Grail.

In many ways, Piedmont is Italy's gastronomic capital, thanks to the frenzy that surrounds white-truffle season each fall. But it is also here that the grapes for austere, elegant Barolos and Barbarescos (as well as fizzy, bubble gum–fresh Moscatos) have been cultivated for centuries. It is here, too, that you find Cherasco, a hilltop town with a reputation for having the tastiest snails in the world. And there's Bra, the seat of Slow Food, that international movement of people dedicated to preserving the tradition of handmade, artisanal cuisine. Oh, and there's cheese. It was Carlo Petrini himself—the Slow Food founder—who years ago told us with utter sincerity that the "flavor of the future" will be Castelmagno, a rustic Piedmontese cheese turned out by a handful of farmers who allow their cows to graze on the grassy, vertiginous lower slopes of the Alps.

Piedmont has a certain buzz this year. The 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin left businesses flush with money and expansion plans. The proprietor of the family-run, 10-table L'Agrifoglio—Turin's most beloved restaurant, hands down—was positively giddy at the prospect of taking the summer off and finding a new location come fall, as the restaurant has occupied its handsome room on the Via Accademia for 12 years. And sleek Grom, the gelateria with a Slow Food sensibility that wine-making scion Claudio Martinetti and Federico Grom opened in 2003, has taken flight, expanding to nine more Italian cities over the past three years. Up next: New York.

There's even a frisson of Hello! magazine glamour in Piedmont these days, spurred by the return of the House of Savoy, the dynasty that ruled this region from the 14th to the mid-19th century. Exiled to Switzerland in 1946 on the founding of the Italian republic, the family was forbidden to set foot in Italy until four years ago. Now, young Prince Emanuele Filiberto of Piedmont and Venice, a dashing Swiss hedge-fund manager, and his French film-star wife, Clotilde Courau, are frequenting the wine region around Alba. (True to script, the prince's father, Crown Prince of Italy Vittorio Emanuele, was charged with corruption by the Italians shortly after his return to the country.) But few people here seem to resent a flashback to the time when Piedmont was the seat of power for the entire country.

Before leaving for Italy, we'd contacted some friends in high places for advice. The I Bologna we had in our sights came highly recommended by Lidia Bastianich, the Istria-born restaurateur famous for her authentic regional Italian cooking. She is also known for the unwavering discipline of the kitchens she runs, so when we followed that desolate road out of Rocchetta Tanaro and found, not 200 yards from the man who'd given us directions, a carriage house with two lanterns ablaze and a lot full of black German luxury sedans, we were ecstatic and not entirely surprised.

I Bologna had, in fact, been closed for renovation but reopened two weeks before we'd arrived, according to the stout gentleman with silver hair and goblet-sized glasses—an Italian Ed McMahon—who welcomed us. Later, it was he who ushered us into the wine room to choose what we wanted to drink when our Italian—and his English—failed us. In short order, his son, Giuseppe Bologna, in starched chef's whites, joined us in the glassed-in wine "cave." He is the executive chef of the operation but counts on his mother to make the pasta. In fact, she'd just finished the agnolotti del plin for the evening. Wouldn't we like to see them, and to meet her?

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