Taste the Flavors of Piedmont
Published: April 2009
By Matt Lee, Ted Lee
For dedicated gastronomes, northern Italy's promise of Slow Food, long lunches, and bold red wines is too good to pass up. <em>Matt Lee</em> and <em>Ted Lee</em> embark on the culinary journey of a lifetime
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 gumfresh 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?
Those agnolotti were a kind of angel food entrée—no more than a postage stamp's worth of paper-thin, tender egg pockets stuffed with minced pork, veal, cheese, and summer truffles. The guanciale di cavallo (horse cheeks) were described to us with such glowing enthusiasm that we couldn't pass them up. They were undeniably delicious, with the beefy richness of oxtails and the pull-apart tenderness of pork shoulder. From a cheese course of sheep's-milk Robiola, which had the texture of a soufflé, to the sparkly dessert wine Brachetto d'Acqui, which erupted with the scent of wild roses, our meal was exactly the kind of taste experience we'd sought in Piedmont: focused and uncluttered—even simple—yet entirely new (to us) and exceptional.
And we had a newfound appreciation for a chef with a strong, singular personality. Bastianich had warned us that in larger cities, we'd see kitchens caught between the impulse to prepare meticulous renditions of classic Piedmontese foods like vitello tonnato and tajarin, and the desire to keep up with the Spanish new wave's foams, airs, and gelées. At our first meal in Turin, we'd been presented with that split personality writ large: a menu creativo and a menu tradizionale. Whichever you decide on, and however good the results, it's easy to feel as though you're missing out on something special. The success of our first insider's tip encouraged us to follow an itinerary the next day that Mario Batali, the larger-than-life chef-restaurateurTV host, had laid out for a market morning in Alba, the city that serves as the urban center for the wine-making towns of Le Langhe, as the region of hills that stretches out around it is called.
Batali had advised us to head early to Antico Caffè Calissano, a baroque tea hall with vaulted ceilings, gilt, and pink marble, for a caffè corretto—a wonderfully syrupy espresso "corrected" with a splash of grappa (which we desperately needed after spending a half-hour idling while waiting for a parking space). It was Saturday, and the town was teeming with old-timers stuffing their mesh shopping bags with opal-colored baby artichokes, the local ricotta variation called Seirass, and black Livornese hens. The truffles for which the town is most famous wouldn't begin appearing until October.
But the narrow stone side streets leading away from the market center in Alba were comparatively calm, and we soon found the serene La Bottega del Vicoletto, an utterly contemporary take-out deli Batali had recommended for assembling a brunch picnic. We were headed up the hills to Barolo that afternoon to do a bit of wine tasting, so we bought some of the sweetest roasted peppers we've ever had (Bastianich had alerted us to those), slippery and cold and perfect on a hot morning, and a dish of polpette di tacchino—turkey meatballs studded with carrots and herbs and bathed in a delectable white-wine gravy. Unable to defer gratification, we proceeded immediately to the shade of the Piazza Savona and ate our brunch, washing everything down with a half bottle of plummy Barbaresco as we watched the traffic rotate around the square.
Piedmont wine country isn't like Napa and Sonoma, with their come one, come all policy and tasting rooms à go-go. There are very few Italian wineries that welcome impromptu tours, and the ones that do generally don't make wines you'd go out of your way to drink. Thankfully, most wine-making towns feature enotecche regionale, wineshops with tasting rooms that carry many, if not all, of the wines from the region.
The enoteca in the town of Barolo is one of the region's most impressive: a long, vaulted brick chamber in a grand, turreted castle where sommeliers in black tie and long black aprons pour generously from about 60 different Barolos. Despite the $20 tasting cost, the place attracts a mixed throng of Milanese on vacation, Japanese in Commes des Garçons, French people in bright stripes, and Americans in college T-shirts and shorts.
Although great labels are offered at the enoteca (we sampled lovely, complex wines from Einaudi, with herby notes of eucalyptus and thyme), all of the wines available during our trip were from the 2002 vintage, considered, because of heavy rains, to be the weakest for Barolo in the last decade—so much so that the best winemakers didn't bother to make their wine that year. Fortunately, the town includes a few other wineshops (and a snazzy corkscrew museum), among them a charming enoteca called Il Bacco, presided over by a bookish couple and their cat, that offers all the best labels of Barolo and the better vintages.
We bought a few souvenir bottles but didn't taste too deeply. We needed our faculties intact to find the Cappella di Sol LeWittDavid Tremlett, an architectural work of contemporary art in the middle of a vineyard owned by the Ceretto family. We knew only that the chapel was very colorful and that you had to take a dirt road south of La Morra to get to it. After a couple of wrong turns, we spotted four thirtysomethings in a late-model Audi stealing cherries from a roadside tree, and we deduced that we were on the right path.
Vineyards spilled out from the narrow gravel track, which steeply descended the slope from La Morra but afforded ravishing views across one of the major valleys that arc back toward Alba. Finally, in the near distance, a psychedelic church appeared in a field. Built in 1914 as a chapel and a shelter for vineyard workers during storms, the one-room capella was never consecrated. In 1999, the Cerettos asked the artist Sol LeWitt to paint the exterior in his trademark geometry of vibrant colors. David Tremlett, a British artist, painted the interior in a moody, more contemplative palette. The cherry pickers arrived soon after we did, to take pictures, and so did a local couple, out walking their Irish setter.
From the door of the chapel, across the valley, hilltop burgs can be seen, set at regular intervals along the ridgelines. When we arrived in Cherasco, we knew we'd found the most picturesque of them all. The town is home to the Istituto Internazionale di Elicicoltura—a research facility dedicated to the farming of snails—and its restaurants are said to serve the tastiest lumache in Italy. We headed straight for Osteria de la Rosa Rossa, figuring that if we arrived toward closing time, we might snag a table. Reservations here are notoriously hard to get, both because of the restaurant's size—12 tables—and its reputation: the real deal in a tourist town.
The place had settled into a late afternoon's quiet roar when we arrived, and after a short wait, our patience was rewarded with terrific snail dishes—one with wild mushrooms, another with tomatoes and chiles. We discovered that the osteria also turns out some memorable plates that don't involve lumache, such as a gnocchi made with a velvety sauce of cream and Castelmagno, fruity tang tempering buttery richness; a simple, beautiful plate of cured leg of lamb with arugula, sweet cherry tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil, and lemon juice. There was an antipasto we'd never seen, which the waiter called carpione, a piquant chicken dish with batons of zucchini; the bird had been pickled for two days in white wine vinegar and water and was served just slightly chilled—a delicious refresher on a humid afternoon.
The dining rooms and the cooking at La Rosa Rossa are casual enough that you could make it your daily canteen (we drank a juicy, inexpensive Dolcetto d'Alba from legendary winemaker Renatto Ratti), but the place offers enough indulgences that you might be inclined to spoil yourself on occasion. It made total sense that the local couple behind us were celebrating their 45th anniversary there in the company of a few friends—at 4 p.m.
That evening, we checked into the Hotel Castello di Sinio, a hotel freshly restored by Americans James Russell and Denise Pardini, who describe themselves as two refugees from the Internet boom. Their castle is an impressive brick mass that dominates the town square in minuscule Sinio, and near the front entrance it features what is becoming a hotelier's most prized possession: a framed note from the Crown Prince of Savoy on his official letterhead, thanking the castle's keepers for a recent stay. The Castello's tranquil terrace pool and chaises longues hover over the main square, just out of eyeshot of everything except the town's bell tower.
Before they bought the castle, Russell and Pardini guided winery tours in Piedmont. They know all the wine players in Le Langhe and can arrange for private tastings and tours for their guests at most of the wineries that keep low profiles—a relationship we imposed upon in short order after tasting that night a 1985 Barolo from Paolo Scavino, a wine that left us wanting to taste more, and know more: we had to make a pilgrimage to the winery.
Before we checked out the following morning, Pardini had secured us an appointment with Enrica Scavino, Paolo's granddaughter, for a tour and tasting the following day. We drove into Bra feeling triumphant, but the town seemed to be waking up only lazily. (Slow Food's logo is, after all, a stylized snail.) So we downed a quick macchiato at the Caffè Converso and headed off to explore Pollenzo, a Roman-era town in a riverside plain just a few miles away. Bra may be the administrative seat of Slow Food, but it is in Pollenzo that the future of the movement seems to be taking shape.
In a vast, sprawling, neo-Gothic estate on the edge of the town that in the 1830's was home to Savoy's King Carlo Alberto, a consortium of public and private entities has pooled its capital to create a gastronomical campus called the Agenzia di Pollenzo. Within the complex are a sleek new four-star hotel; an accredited graduate school for food studies called the University of Gastronomic Sciences; the Banca del Vino, an "archive" of Italian wine; and a restaurant, Guido Pollenzo, run by the Alciati, an esteemed family of restaurateurs.
When we arrived at the walled compound, a chic wedding party was descending on the hotel, and in the building's main courtyard a gaggle of students loitered outside the entrance to the university cafeteria. The harried "welcome" we received at the front desk made us wonder whether warmth and hospitality had escaped into the ether of the Agenzia's constellated mission.
No matter. We had a reservation at Guido, housed in a separate building, a minimalist restoration of a 19th-century granary, with soaring, two-story brick arches. It is here that the Agenzia's potential is embodied, in Piero Alciati, who as soon as we sat down poured us eye-opening glasses of a cold Langhe white wine that had all the jasmine-scented richness of a Viognier, married to the racy citrus flavors of a Sauvignon Blanc (and which had been made, to our great delight, by the Scavinos). We sipped it with an amuse-bouche that was a lesson to all those conceptual "bites," "shooters," and "spoons" that come unbidden at the beginning of fancy meals these days. Here were shaved onions and carrots, lightly pickled, served chilled, with a drizzle of superb olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt. "Coleslaw" may have been invented in Holland, but the Italians have perfected it.
There were other highlights: a pinwheel of sweet red shrimp nestled on a tangle of thinly sliced eggplant that had been marinated in herbs and olive oil; a steamed hunk of cod dressed with a pesto made of lettuces; a veal shank cooked in a broth of milk and Moscato d'Asti for eight hours and served with a spoon; and an interpretation of a classic Piedmont finanziera, a stew of veal sweetbreads and brains, that proved that hearty comfort food can seem light, elegant, and uplifting.
Which was crucial, because our afternoon excursion was to Castelmagno, two hours away—a heroic distance in the condensed geography of Piedmont. We skipped a cheese course—in the hope that we'd be nibbling on a hunk of Castelmagno's namesake in a couple of hours—but inhaled the quince ice pops and cream-filled macaroons Alciati set down with the check.
After we'd driven about a half-hour due west through wide-open flatlands, the delicate tracery of the Alps became visible on the horizon, and with every passing minute, the mountains loomed larger. At Caraglio, we took a hard left, and the road began climbing along ledges that were lush and green, with grassy slopes below and a fringe of snow above, on the loftiest peaks.
The road steadily became narrower and steeper, a track of back-to-back double-hairpin turns, without any guardrails whatsoever. And just when we'd be thinking the road couldn't get any narrower, an obstacle like an asphalt-paving crew or slow-climbing cyclist would show up just around the next blind curve.
When, finally, we arrived, we found that the locus of Petrini's "flavor of the future" resides in just a few houses built into the mountain, which rings with the sound of cowbells clanging on distant slopes. One house we passed had a hand-lettered sign reading FORMAGGI, so we pulled into that driveway, past sleeping dogs and pecking chickens. Soon the cheese maker's mother stepped forward. She rewarded our ascent with an enthusiastic guided tour of the spotless cheese making rooms, where bulbous mesh bags of curds hung, dripping whey, from a rack; the not-so-spotless barn, where a few calves were dozing in the hay; and the dark, damp cave where the cheese was aged.
We bought a large wedge and broke off chunks on the ride down the mountain. This Castelmagno, fresh from the source, had an almost chalky texture, not as farmhouse-funky as it had seemed when served in the gnocchi at I Bologna. It also had a pleasant tartness balanced by nutty notes, and a taste of the mountain grass that surrounded us. But it would require some time to reach its full potential.
We were happy to have seen the cows up close, and they reminded us that Patrick Martins, a Slow Food member and co-owner of Heritage Foods—a New Yorkbased company that scours American farms for the most flavorful meat from humanely raised rare breeds of cattle, pigs, and poultry—had told us about a small, quiet, in-the-know kind of place in Alba called LaLibera, where serious food lovers congregate.
Judging by the international crowd that had assembled there at noon, word had clearly gotten out about LaLibera, a pretty set of salons strung together in the sleepiest corner of the bustling southern end of Alba. The kitchen—so small that a sous-chef was peeling potatoes in an open courtyard behind the restaurant—didn't miss a beat: grilled sardines came on caramelized Piedmontese peppers, with a scoop of bagna cauda gelato; a spit-roasted pigeon had green garlic and rosemary; and veal fillet, perfectly medium rare, was served with a scattering of capers and chopped tomatoes over the top.
Before catching our plane back from Turin to the States, we needed—in the august tradition of all tourists—to find out who was making the best gelato in Italy. Since the arrival of Grom, which we'd heard about from Faith Heller Willinger, an American author and educator who lives in Italy and writes about Italian cuisine, the Turin gelato wars have become particularly intense. Everyone has taken sides, and even the concierge at our hotel added her two cents: "Fiori"—an esteemed gelateria that's been around for ages—"is the more better."
It would be hard to top what we sampled at Grom, which was an outstandingly rich, smooth gianduja made with intense Tonda Gentile hazelnuts from Le Langhe, and a stracciatella made with chocolate from Turin's finest chocolatier, Guido Gobino. There was also a raspberry gelato whipped up from organic berries so sweet that just a hint of sugar had been added.
But for comparison's sake, we hustled over to Fiori, in the heart of the pedestrian-choked university district. Fiori was making no big deal about its flavors or ingredients, just working as fast as it could to make a dent in the line stretching out from the streetside window. We got six small cups to try (two flavors in each cup), and in short order, the cups were empty. The pistachio was genuinely nutty, deserving of its name.
Caught up in the heat of the competition, we then jogged over to Gelateria Silvano, on the Via Nizza. It was our incredible good fortune, before anything got out of hand, to find a sign in the window: CHIUSO. In our book, every guest should leave something for the sequel.
WHEN TO GO
Early fall—when temperatures hover just above 70 degrees— is the ideal time to visit this region of northeastern Italy. September is particularly delightful, and the cooler autumn months of October and November bring the Barbera and Moscato wine harvests, along with the crowds who arrive for white truffle season.
The towns around Alba and Asti, the gastronomic heart and soul of Piedmont, are about two hours from Turin, the region's largest metropolis. Fly to Turin International Airport (TRN) and rent a car, a must for touring the hills of Le Langhe. Flights from North America connect through Rome, Milan, Paris, Frankfurt, or Munich.
WHERE TO STAY
Castello di Verduno
The enormous baroque rooms of this shabby-chic castle on a hill south of Alba go a long way toward helping guests overlook the spartan amenities (there's no TV—or phone).
9 Via Umberto I, Verduno; 39-0172/470-125; www.castellodiverduno.com; doubles from $75.
Hotel Castello di Sinio
A luxurious base camp for exploring Le Langhe, run by a knowledgeable American couple with a passion for the food and wine of Piedmont.
1 Viccolo Castello, Sinio; 39-0173/263-889; www.hotelcastellodisinio.com; doubles from $188.
A spacious, tastefully appointed private farmhouse with outstanding views, on the grounds of a winery famed for its Barbera d'Asti.
28 Piazza Alfieri, San Martino Alfieri, Asti; 39-0141/976-015; www.marchesialfieri.it; doubles from $115; to purchase Marchesi Alfieri Barbera d'Asti in the United States, call 425/747-9241.
Relais San Maurizio
At the summit of steep, vineyard-covered slopes, this former monastery, decked out in grand florals and Murano glass chandeliers, features a Caudalie spa.
39 Localita San Maurizio, Santo Stefano Belbo, 39-0141/841-900; www.relaissanmaurizio.it; doubles from $337.
WHERE TO EAT
Antico Caffè Callisano
In the vaulted arcade of Alba's Piazza Duomo, this 18th-century confection of pink marble and gilt is the preferred first stop for truffle hunters seeking an eye-opener on market mornings in November.
3 Piazza Risorgimento, Alba; 39-0173/442-101; coffee and pastries for two $10.
Caffè al Bicerin
The signature bicerin (melted chocolate, coffee, and cream) has been served at this Turin landmark since 1763.
5 Piazza della Consolata, Turin; 39-011/436-9325; pastries and hot chocolate for two $6; www.bicerin.com.
You, too, might spy Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini downing an espresso at this ornate turn-of-the-19th-century café and bakery.
199 Via Vittorio Emanuele II, Bra; 39-0172/413-626; coffee and pastries for two $6.
Ciau del Tornavento
The 45,000-bottle wine cellar, peerless cheese selection, and adventurous modern Italian food are the draws at this restaurant, where ho-hum ambience is redeemed by stunning views.
7 Piazza Baracco, Treiso; 39-0173/638-333; dinner for two $152.
This new-school gelateria meticulously sources all ingredients—from cream and eggs to add-ins like cornmeal cookies and coffee.
1D Piazza Paleocapa, Turin; 39-011/511-9067; gelato for two $6.
An old-world warmth suffuses the service in this dramatic, modern room; the kitchen turns out contemporary riffs on traditional Piedmontese comfort foods.
19 Via Fossano, Pollenzo; 39-0172/458-422; dinner for two $190.
Owned and operated by an esteemed Bologna wine-making family, this trattoria cooks impeccably fresh, flavorful renditions of esoteric regional classics.
4 Via Nicola Sardi, Rocchetta Tanaro; 39-0141/644-600; dinner for two $100.
La Bottega del Vicoletto
A great place to stock up for a picnic, this shop cooks up dishes to go and offers local cheeses and rare provisions such as venison prosciutto.
6 Via Bertero, Alba; 39-0173/ 363-196; picnic for two $25.
L'Angolo di Paradiso
Dining at "Da Cesare," as the locals call it, is like being in chef Cesare Giaccone's kitchen. His signature capretto, or roast baby goat, is cooked on a spit in an open fireplace in the restaurant.
12 Via Umberto, Albaretto Torre; 39-0173/520-141; dinner for two $180.
Osteria de la Rosa Rossa
Book early to get a table at this casual, homey osteria serving seriously delicious snails.
31 Via San Pietro, Cherasco; 39-0172/ 488-133; dinner for two $28.
This sleek corner room attracts an international crowd for its inventive preparations of market-to-table fresh ingredients.
24A Via Elvio Pertinace, Alba; 39-0173/293-155; dinner for two $100.
In a pink minimalist space, chef Enrico Crippi serves avant-garde Italian food made with rarely seen ingredients like hop sprouts and goat's beard.
4 Piazza Risorgimento, Alba; 39-0173/442-800; dinner for two $178.
WHERE TO SHOP
Enoteca Regionale del Barolo
Sommeliers pour wine from a cross section of Barolo's producers.
Castello Falletti, Barolo; 39-0173/56277; www.baroloworld.it; $4 for a flight of three wines.
A superb, tiny boutique cellar with some of the best wines in the region.
87 Via Roma, Barolo; 39-0173/56233.
I Piaceri del Gusto
This wine store's deep selection of books (in many languages) on Piedmontese wine and food complements a cellar of excellent, hard-to-find bottles.
25 Via Vittorio Emanuele II, Alba; 39-0173/440-166.
This shoebox-sized shop has an extensive selection of outstanding sauces, vinegars, and oils, many of which are made with the shop's winter stock-in-trade—white truffles.
26 Via Vittorio Emanuele II, Alba; 39-0173/440-456.