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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

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.

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