A non-touristy, small town food mecca...?
I am considering a four or five day food-centric trip to a central-european city, perhaps in Italy. I would be driving from the Netherlands in mid-July, and my dream would be to find a pension in a smallish city to hunker down and explore the food in the surrounding areas. No budget for fine-dining....and any other sightseeing would be secondary to finding wonderful breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks...wine too. I don't speak a word of French, but am not rattled by trying to communicate. I will be a solo gal this time around, looking for low-key deliciousness. Someplace that offers a very specific regional specialty (Steingarten's choucroute search comes to mind) or a lot of different places and tastes... I'm totally open at this point, just needs to be moderately priced, away from the mid-summer throngs of tourists, and delicious. Any and all advice welcome!
Interesting idea. The possibilities in Italy are endless, but to get you started, I'm going to suggest the Langhe area in Piedmont in the province of Cuneo. You could make your base in Cuneo itself or Asti or Alba. It won't be truffle season, but that's not a bad thing. Truffles can be so distracting from the underlying superb cuisine.
mbfant and intrepid - thank you SO much! This is exactly the kind of advice I was looking for...the possibilities ARE endless, and having two people chime in on Alba right off the bat makes it easy to focus my thoughts there! intrepid, when you stay at the Cascina Reine do you get their "dinner of local specialties?" What do they usually serve for breakfast? Do you book through the link you sent? Can you give me an idea of prices - with breakfast and with dinner? Thanks again for your suggestions!
Like the others said, you can't really go wrong with Alba. But for another option you might want to think about the Veneto region. You could make a nice base for yourself in Padova, Treviso or Bassano. There are so many interesting and diverse dishes in this region...lots of great "surf" and lots of great "turf."
I've just returned from a four day food trip to Bologna (with a day trip to Venice, which I wouldn't recommend!). Food was fantastic and it's easy to get to other places from Bologna on the train, eg Parma, Modena, the coast and even Milan. We chose Bologna for its location and great train connections. It's not a 'small town', but it's not big, easy to walk everywhere, and of course has amazing food...
Helen Yuet Ling Pang
There is a wonderful small hotel called Ca'de Lupo in Montelope Albese, which is about 15 minutes driving south of Alba. Wonderful hotel and they will help you set up visits with cheese makers, honey makers, winemakers, etc.
if you are looking for a slightly bigger city, then I would suggest Cuneo. They have a food market there that is astoundingly good. The cheese options alone are overwhelming. And you could easily drive from Cuneo into many of the smaller towns in the area like Dogliani.
If it is Italy you decide upon for your food excursion, make sure you get a copy of Osterie & Locande d 'Italia-A guide to traditional places to eat and stay in Italy. It is the best resource I know of for solid, local, places to eat all over Italy.
WOW - thank you all so much for amazing suggestions and further resources! I'm torn....but keep the comments and suggestions coming - the research is a vicarious trip in itself. I'm still leaning towards Alba, though Parma and Modena sound very appealing...I think I want to explore a relatively small area, since I have so little time, and I think if I chose Bologna I would wind up frustrated with not being able to get to everywhere and do/see everything close....but it sounds like the perfect place to start a proper visit when I can swing it.
Thanks mattrapp, for recommending that book - it is on its way to me even as I type!
I would stay at the Hotel Roxy Plaza (http://www.hotelroxyplaza.it/index.cf... ) which backs to the walls of the 2000 year old walled town of Soave. Soave is almost equidistant between Verona and Vincenza, a one turn half km drive off of the Autostrada. To the east is Venice (one hour) and to the south (one hour +) are Modena (balsamic), Reggio (cheese) and Parma (proscuitto). Bologna is 75 or so minutes south, The Roxy Plaza is a four star, about E 110 a night, and I have used this as a base for my business travel for over ten years. I am making the sincere argument that this is the single most exciting area of Italy to explore for what you are considering. Did I also mention that Soave is the center for the wine consortium for the Veneto? Ground zero for amarone and valpolicella? That the wine shop across the river behind the Roxy Plaza, inside the walls, has the best prices on local wine of any store I have found and carries almost every local grower? If the Roxy Plaza is more expensive than you are willing to pay there are a number of other smaller places nearby. There is another walled city called Montagnana about 45 minutes south which has a small hotel called Aldo Moro http://www.hotelaldomoro.com/home_en.asp . You wouldn't have the autostrada access (about ten minutes or so off of it) but this would be an interesting alternative that is considerably less expensive. A single room there is E 66. It is a small hotel filled with character in the middle of a charming, historic town.
If you were into fine dining I would actually direct you to Germany as an alternative to a tiny mountain village called Baiersbronn but that is another thread...
Another vote for the Langhe. I've been twice, most recently last October, and can't wait to go again! The food and wine are absolutely the best. Hospitality is fabulous. Driving is easy, especially if you're not rattled about getting lost. Nobody speaks much English, but it all works out!
We stayed outside of Alba in 2 different locations. First, Castello di Verduno in the town of Verduno - http://www.castellodiverduno.com/ - a lovely family operation, two amazing restaurants and a highly regarded winery. While we stayed in the castle itself, they have an agriturismo in the town as well for only 50 Euro. They also make the best risotto al Barolo I've had anywhere. Perfect bite, flavor, creaminess (not goopy, not dry). The agnolotti is perfect, too. They embrace the Slow Food philosophy. (How good? The daughter is coming to California to work at the celebrated Chez Panisse). Nice grounds at the castle make it a perfect place to spend an evening before dinner. Verduno is about 12 km from Alba, closer to Barolo. Go to La Cantinella in Barolo for lunch and visit the castle for some wine tasting.
About 5 km from Alba is Villa Lauri - http://www.hotelvillalauri.com/ - in Neive. Viviana, the owner is quite fluent in English, so very helpful. The rooms are lovely - we had a junior suite with an enormous patio. Pricier, but much more modern. Go to Osteria del'Unione for a major inexpensive prix fixe dinner.
Alba itself is a lovely small city. Great restaurants and shopping. You might want to split your stay between Verduno and Alba, unless you don't mind traipsing the winding roads at night. While I feel totally safe in the Langhe at all hours, getting lost alone after dark can be a bit nerve-wracking!
We loved Torino too. No specific recommendations. We splurged on the hotel.
Agreed on the book - Osterie & Locande d 'Italia. Available in English from Amazon. Slow Food site has it only en Italiano!
Buona fortuna e buon appetito!
I want to thank everyone for thoughtful and day-dream-inducing replies...I'm utterly despondent to say that the summer's itinerary has changed and it won't be happening this year. BUT - I'm so wound up by all the ideas, instead of making this an adjunct to another trip, I'm thinking of making it the star destination, hopefully off-season. Thanks again!