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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

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-restaurateur–TV 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 LeWitt–David 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.

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