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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

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 York–based 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."

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