Imagine a corner of Italy where rice is as commonplace as pasta. Where you can visit a university of gastronomy and a university for truffle-hunting dogs all in the same day. Windsurf a secluded lake, mountain bike old Roman trails, hot-air balloon above vineyards, or test the powder on an Olympic-quality ski run. And through it all, taste some of the flat-out finest food and wine anywhere.
Welcome to Piemonte. Meaning “foot of the mountain,” and tucked in between the Italian Riviera and the Alps of France and Switzerland, Piemonte (pyeh-MOHN-teh) has aptly been called Italy’s “green treasure chest.” Home of Barolo and Barbaresco wine, wild boar and venison, butter and cheese, and the “Holy Grail of cuisine” – the white truffle – this prosperous province offers something for everyone, every month of the year.
The Truffle Shuffle
They may look like mutant potatoes, but white truffles rank among the priciest and most sought-after foods on the planet. Finding them – in the woods, underground, in the dead of night – involves a keen-nosed mongrel dog and arcane lore (including moon phases) passed down from father to son. Every trifolau (truffle hunter, in Piemontese dialect) guards his best spots like secret fishing holes. No wonder – the prize fungi fetch stratospheric prices (a 1.2-kilo giant recently brought more than $120K at auction, and even ordinary ones can cost hundreds).
Every fall, the world celebrates Tuber magnatum pico at the Truffle Market in the historic town of Alba. You enter below a larger-than-life poster of Sophia Loren holding a monster truffle, then thread your way past booth after booth of cheeses, sausages and other local specialties. Sample the truffled wild boar salami, the testun cheese with its crust of grape pressings, the breadstick dipped in chestnut honey, the dense hazelnut cake, and follow the heady aromas to the café bar in back.
For 25 euros you can taste what the fuss is all about. While you watch, one stately gentleman shaves tissue-thin truffle slices over a pair of sunny-side-up eggs; another pours you a big glass of Barolo from magnum. (This is Breakfast of Champions Piemonte style!)
Around the bend, past fragrant heaps of porcini mushrooms, the trifolai themselves display their finds. If you buy a truffle to bring home, keep it dry and cool (some suggest packing it in dry rice) and use it as soon as you can. (Oh, and it will perfume everything in your suitcase.) Or avoid the hassles by getting bottles of truffle oil instead – it’s available year-round, it keeps for months, and a few drops go a long way. (Tartufi Morra, in Alba, is a great source for all things truffle.)
Move over Chianti, make way for the world-class reds, whites and sparklers of Piemonte. They’re varied, versatile, and supremely food-friendly, with a history that traces back to Etruscan times (~800 B.C.). From the castle-studded Langhe and Roero regions to the Alpine foothills, here are a few of the best.
Arneis: A dry, fragrant, food-friendly white with great acidity and clean flavors from stainless-steel aging. Great with freshwater perch from the lake district or trout from the mountain streams.
(Cortese di) Gavi: Dry and crisp; an ancient varietal with DOCG (Italy’s highest) status. Try it with a fritto misto (“mixed fry”) of freshwater fish.
Chardonnay: Piemonte’s cool hillsides make for a balanced, fruit-driven chard, usually with little or no oak. A natural with buttered tajerin (fresh, thin-sliced egg noodles) and local game birds such as quail and pheasant.
Moscato (muscat): Made dry, sweet or sparkling, the highly fragrant moscato shows ripe, honeyed fruit-and-floral aromas. Great with hard-to-pair foods, and as a lower-alcohol afternoon sipper. Moscato passito, a hyper-sweet version, is made by raisining the grapes, either on the vine or in the winery. And love it or loathe it, the muscat-based Asti Spumante is hard to beat with Piemontese hazelnut cake, or with cheese and cogna’ fruit chutney.
Alta Langa, a fairly new DOC (regional appellation), produces metodo classico (Champagne-styled) dry sparklers, primarily from chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.
Dolcetto: Medium-bodied and dry despite its name. Soft tannins, forward fruit and reasonable price make it an easy-drinking intro to Piemontese reds. A good partner for a sampler plate of local cheeses.
Barbera: Piemonte’s most popular everday red; quality has vastly improved in recent years. Bring it on a vineyard picnic or team it with Piemonte’s garlicky staple, bagna caoda (see recipe).
Nebbiolo: When produced without much barrel aging, this varietal is fresh and lively, with medium body and berry-spice flavors. It’s easy-going enough for a rustic lunch of bread, aged sheep cheese and wild boar sausage; heady enough to take on braised veal or wild hare at dinner.
Barolo and Barbaresco: Big and burly, both made from the nebbiolo grape, they’re aged for up to three years in oak and can develop in bottle for decades. Locals call them the “king and queen” of Piemontese reds and serve them with the region’s heartiest fare including venison, risotto with porcini, and anything with white truffles. Barolo Chinato, seasoned with botanicals such as quinine bark, juniper and rosemary, makes a potent after-dinner digestivo.
Many wineries are open to the public for tours and tasting; others require an appointment. In addition, most restaurants and bottle shops feature a wide range of wines from the entire region. Here’s a sampling:
Fonduta – Piemonte’s alpine fondue, made with fontina cheese and often stirred into risotto. For a high-ticket version, shave white truffles on top.
Agnolotti del plin – Ravioli stuffed with veal, pork, spinach and nutmeg; often topped with sage butter.
Riso (rice) – Many varieties (look for short-grain “Vialone Nano” or black “Venere”). Piemontese risotto recipes vary from the salami-studded Panissa of the northeast to the wine-country mainstay, Risotto al Barolo.
Polenta – The best is stone-ground, from heirloom varieties of corn. Served hot and creamy with butter and/or melted cheese, or poured out, cut into squares, and baked or sautéed.
Carne Cruda – Piemonte-style steak tartare; made with beef or veal and dressed with olive oil and lemon.
Bollito misto – “Mixed Boil” tastes much better than it sounds. Assorted long-simmered meats (some recipes include a pig’s foot and calf head along with the veal breast, capon and cotechino sausage) and seasonal vegetables.
Manzo Stufato – Braised beef, with varied seasonings such as bay leaf and nutmeg.
Tartufo Bianco: The white truffle, “Jewel of Piemonte,” tastes best as a last-second topping for simple hot foods such as eggs, buttered pasta and risotto. Shave it as thin as possible (a special tool is available locally) to release its musky, earthy aromas. Learn more at a 90-minute class in the sensory analysis of the truffle’s elusive aromas, or join the fourth-generation rector of the University of Truffle Dogs, and his ace sniffer “Lady,” on a simulated truffle hunt.
Piemonte produces a huge variety of cheeses. The intense, blue-marbled Castelmagno is often stirred into fresh pasta or gnocchi. Caprino, made from goat’s milk, is tangy and creamy when young; denser and punchier as it ages. Murazzano, a sheep cheese from the Langhe region, has its own festival in August. Bettelmat, from the lake district, gets its distinctive flavor from an aromatic local grass that the cows feed on. Melt some Fontina for a classic après-ski fonduta; slice some firm Toma, creamy Taleggio, or nutty, rich Robiola over hot polenta. Families who make their own cheeses often dry-age them to various stages of hardness and pungency, and also cure them in olive oil with wild or garden herbs.
Bonet: Caramel-cocoa custard, usually served cold.
Giandujotti: Mini foil-wrapped chocolate-hazelnut confections, reportedly invented by Napoleon when chocolate supplies were low.
Torta di Nocciole (Hazelnut cake): Made with or without cocoa powder, cinnamon and orange peel, it stars Piemonte’s famous and flavorful tonda gentile (round and friendly) variety of hazelnut.
Frutta: Piemonte’s fruit ranks among Europe’s finest. Try fresh summer strawberries or peaches soaked in Moscato, with some crunchy brutti ma buoni (ugly but good) mini-biscotti. Ciliege al Barolo (wine-marinated cherries), on menus in season, are also available in jars. Madernassa pears (an ancient local variety, recently saved from extinction) are wonderful as is, stewed with spices, or distilled into grappa. (The agricultural cooperative at Cascina del Cornale sells these and more.)
Bicerin: Torino’s hot coffee, chocolate and cream pick-me-up; it originated in an 18th century café’ that still features it.
Caffe’ Corretto: Cuppa joe, wine-country style, served even at breakfast: splash in some red wine to “correct” the coffee’s bitter edge.
Where to Eat
Ristorante Elvezia, in the town of Stresa on Lago Maggiore. Try the lake fish “in cartoccio” (cooked in parchment)
Gianni Gagliardo in La Morra. Restaurant features truffle menus in season; adjoining winery. Vintner Gagliardo founded and hosts the annual Barolo Auction.
Piola on the town square in Alba. Cozy trattoria owned by the winemaking Ceretto family, featuring their wines. Great house-made ravioli.
Belvedere, on the hilltop in La Morra, for agnolotti, wild game and a spectacular view of the Langhe wine country.
La Contea, in Neive. Traditional Piemontese specialties, with home-cured meats, fresh-made egg pasta, game birds, and truffles in season. A “Buon Ricordo” restaurant: you get a hand-painted souvenir plate when you order the specialty of the house.
Combal.Zero for cutting-edge food and presentation, next to the ancient Rivoli castle near Torino. Innovative chef-owner Davide Scabin puts “ingredients together in an unusual way: semi-solid soups, semi-liquid pizzas, cyber-eggs.” (These last come with white helium balloons attached, which make for unique after-dinner conversation…) He numbers each version of a dish “like a new edition of software” – Albese 2.4, for example, for his Alba-style veal recipe.
Golosi di Salute in Alba. Gorgeous pastries and confections with a health-conscious twist. Just ask, and they’ll steer you toward dairy-free, yeast-free, or sugar-free options. Must-try: the butter-free croissants, enriched with extra-virgin olive oil.
Baratti e Milano in Torino. Café’ and confectionery shop, dating from 1875, with ultra-luxe inlaid marble floors, carved mahogany and silk-upholstered furnishings.
Caffe’ Florio, an elegant Torino landmark, since 1780. It’s said that Garibaldi planned the future of Italy here. Renowned for gelato, especially the hazelnut-chocolate gianduiotto.
Where to Stay
Lake district: Hotel San Rocco in Orta San Giulio – A former convent, with ancient stonework, beamed ceilings, updated rooms. Lakefront indoor-outdoor dining (chef Paolo Viviani won top prize in the ’06 “Rice Olympics” chef competition), great lake and mountain views. Hit the nearby shops for picnic supplies or foodie souvenirs: varietal rice, dried porcini mushrooms, multicolored pasta ribbons.
Torino: Hotel Santo Stefano – Sleek and contemporary. Its modern brick façade, with recessed color-changing LEDs, makes a neat old-meets-new contrast with the nearby Roman arches.
Wine Country: Foresteria Conti Roero in Monticello d’Alba – Up a steep, winding mountain road, this remote, country-elegant retreat started life as a hunting lodge for Piemontese nobility. Great wine list geared to regional specialties at its restaurant, Conte Roero.
Albergo dell’Agenzia in Pollenzo, a four-star hotel on a Savoy country estate. Each guest room is named for a local wine, and the fitness center features a Turkish bath. The Agenzia also houses the University of Gastronomic Sciences (the first of its kind in the world) and the Wine Bank (a “bottle library” from producers throughout Italy). You can take the Wine Bank guided tour and taste several bottlings from the cellar. Or book the two-day crash course in Piemontese food and wine, which includes wine-themed dinners and tastings at nearby wineries.
Torino – Museums, Shopping and More
Torino, Italy’s capital of contemporary art, offers over 40 museums and outdoor exhibits. Its Egyptian Museum is ranked second in the world, after Cairo, and the Automobile Museum houses a large collection of rare and vintage cars. (If you’re staying for 48 or 72 hours, consider the Torino Card for free public transport, and free or deep-discount tickets to concerts, museums and more. Some hotels even include the Card with a two-night booking.)
For movie buffs, the five-story Cinema Museum, in the Mole Antonelliana (“Italy’s Eiffel Tower”), traces Italian film history from its beginnings in Torino. Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat is here, along with a shark head from Jaws and an archive of some 200,000 films. An interactive tour leads you through the stages of filmmaking, and spotlights typical movie themes in ten different “chapels.” (In the “love” chapel, reportedly, you lie on red, heart-shaped cushions to watch flicks; in the “humor” chapel, you sit on a toilet.)
Just outside town, the Castello di Rivoli, built for the Savoy royal dynasty, now houses a knockout modern collection in the Museo di Arte Contemporaneo. Along with an extensive permanent collection of Italian and international modern masters, the museum hosts special exhibits (the current show features Claes Oldenburg) of both established and up-and-coming artists.
Throughout Torino’s city center, covered walkways and glassed-in arcades make it easy to shop, snack and people-watch in any weather. The sprawling Porta Palazzo, with over 700 stalls, claims the title of Europe’s largest open-air market, and the former Fiat factory in Lingotto has morphed into a multi-story shopping galleria. (Don’t miss the test track on the roof, overlooking the ’06 Olympic Village.)
For nightlife, head to the wine bars, clubs and dusk-to-dawn discos of the Murazzi del Po, Quadrilatero Romano (Roman Quarter), or Docks Dora in the old warehouse district. Craving a martini? Salute – vermouth was invented here!
Recipe adapted from Seafood Pasta and Noodles, The New Classics by Rosina Tinari Wilson (Ten Speed Press)
Piemontese for “hot bath,” it’s a fondue-style regional specialty featuring assorted raw and cooked vegetables and a rich garlic-anchovy dipping sauce. Add some baguette slices to round out the meal, and to mop up any extra sauce.
Bagna Caoda Sauce
1 cup small whole garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup olive oil
1 cup butter
1 can (2 oz.) anchovies, drained and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
Arrange your choice of seasonal vegetables on a serving platter – raw, cooked or some of each. Examples: carrot and zucchini sticks, string beans, cherry tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower florets, green onions, cabbage wedges, radishes, tiny potatoes.
Simmer garlic in olive oil and butter over very low heat (an electric fondue pot is ideal) until garlic becomes very soft and golden, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Stir in anchovies and parsley and keep warm while everyone “bathes” their veggies.
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