Diane and I took a purely gastronomic vacation in Piedmont. I promised there would be no wine business – well, almost no wine business – just low-pressure touring and high-caliber dining and drinking – simply enjoying what we both enjoy most. Piedmont provided that in abundance.
Abundance is the key term – in Piedmont it is also true, as my friend Gene Bourg once observed of New Orleans, that there is no such thing as an appetizer. Or, as the great Renato Ratti warned me decades ago: The Piemontesi will let you dig your grave with your mouth. If you’re dining in Piedmont, wear loose pants.
Anyone planning a gastronomic or enologic trip to Italy, however, could do much worse than to use the little city of Alba as home base. The heart of both the Barolo and Barbaresco zones and the center of an astounding truffle zone, Alba offers some of the finest dining and drinking to be found anywhere. It was the first stop for us of a trip that would go on to include Torino, a sophisticated city that deserves much more attention than its reputation as a mini-Paris indicates, and would wind up in the alta Piemonte, the sub-Alpine zone of vineyards near lakes Orta and Maggiore. Like Torino, this area and its Nebbiolo-based wines – Carema, Boca, Gattinara, Ghemme, Spanna – deserve to be much better known.
We began our trip with high hopes of savoring the great white truffles for which Alba is famous. The Truffle Fair was on, and on the Sunday afternoon we arrived there the narrow shopping thoroughfare, Via Vittorio Emmanuele, was redolent with the scent of the tubers on sale at stand after stand.
Very promising indeed, until we saw the prices, which probably induced several coronary events in casual fairgoers. It turned out that this was not a good year for truffles: Summer and fall had been dry until quite recently – fine for grapes, but terrible for truffles, which were scarce (the abundance on display completely fooled me on that score), of not great quality (this we proved when we tried some at our first dinner), and expensive (also proved the same way). For more about the truffles, see Diane’s blog.
Despite that disappointment, the fearless gastronomes dined very well from start to finish of their trip. I offer purely as examples (I don’t intend to make you read about every mouthful we ate) our splendid dinners at Locanda del Pilone, a short drive outside Alba, and Antinè, in the town of Barbaresco.
Normally I avoid Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy, because the higher Michelin rates a restaurant the less Italian it is, and I go to Italy for Italian food, not the mongrelized international cuisine that I can eat any unlucky day in New York. Alba provided these two exceptions to my rule, both one-star establishments, both excellent, both deeply Italian, and as different from each other as can be imagined.
Del Pilone provided almost classic French-style service, crisp and efficient, for a deeply regional meal that included carne cruda and finanziera. At Antinè the service was just as efficient but simpler, the ambience less formal, but the food just as fine and just as regional – agnolotti del plin, snails, and rabbit. The wines at both were superb – and by New York standards, practically giveaways: 2005 Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco Sordo (€45) and 1997 Produttori di Barbaresco Riserva Ovello (€60). Both wines interacted in incredible harmony with the foods.
The quality of those wines and the moderation of their prices – this in the restaurant, remember, not at retail; back home in the US those would be remarkably good retail prices – set the standard for the rest of our trip. Everywhere we went I was impressed by the scope of the wine lists and the gentleness of their pricing. There were plenty of options of wines from outside Piedmont, and even some (mostly French) from outside Italy, but Barolo, Barbaresco and their friends were among the main reasons we made this journey in the first place.
Most days we took a light lunch at a wine bar or a cafe: a glass or two of Barbera or Dolcetto and some bar snacks or a panino. We tried to save our calories and our capacities for our dinners, which were always worth it. In addition to the two I mentioned above, here are the rest of the wines we drank that week (the most expensive of them was €88, the least expensive €40):
2009 Prunotto Arneis: a fine example of one of Piemonte’s few white varieties, and a perfect accompaniment – medium-bodied, distinctive but not aggressive – for our solitary fish dinner.
2006 Ferrando Carema Etichetta Nera: In Torino we enjoyed this fine Carema, a Nebbiolo-based wine from near the border with Val d’Aosta – a high-altitude, almost Alpine red of great refinement.
2004 Borgogno Barolo Riserva: This stalwart from an old, traditional house (sadly, it has recently changed hands, and no one knows what this portends for the wines) needed more time to breathe, even after careful decanting. Despite its youth, it loved my tortino of funghi porcini and truffle and partnered beautifully with other traditional dishes.
1996 Rocche dei Manzoni Barolo Vigna d’la Roul: a big, velvety wine that impressed us mightily with the elegant way it interacted with the regional dishes. Everything we drank did so to some extent, but this bottle was particularly lovely.
1994 Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga: our oldest wine rescued a rain-drenched day in Torino and accompanied a huge and splendid bollito misto. By the time we finished the bottle and what we could manage of the meats, we were in (metaphorical) sunshine: a big wine, but perfectly supple, fully ready to drink but not showing the least sign of age.
Next post: Our single wine visit, where we tasted Gattinaras and Spannas spanning eight decades.