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REPORTBACK - Alba

I had three nights in Piemonte, and chose to spend them in Alba. It really is the capital of truffles - every other shop was a food store with truffles in the window, and the air heavy with their scent.

I know everyone recommends getting a car and driving around, but I was by myself, my trip was short and I didn't fancy driving on the right hand side of the road. Instead, I took the train or pullmans (coach buses) to neighbouring towns and to and from Turin, , which was a good way to see the landscape and surrounding villages. So even if you don't have a car, the area is navigable and certainly worth the visit.

I found it quite busy at the moment, but mainly with older French and German couples, who weren't at all noisy or otherwise objectionable in the way tourists unfortunately can be. I was there in the week, so I imagine it was quieter than the weekends, when the truffle festival is underway.

I feel that with all the truffle celebrations, other local specialties get forgotten in the excitement. Porcini, hazelnuts, artichokes, cardoons all abound, and were a total delight to eat.

I stayed at Minihotel Ai Portici, , Via Roma 6, 017 329 3307. It is a budget hotel, but clean recently renovated and a rarity in Alba, relatively cheap (E50/night). It's up two flights of stairs, but it's in a great location, just off Piazza Savona.

LA PIOLA, Piazza Risorgimento 4, 017 3442800
Same piazza at the very good tourism office. Open for lunch and dinner, and alos opens at the unfashionable but sometimes helpful hour of 19.30. This was my favourite restaurant; lovely simple but bright atmosphere (think: modern Italian bistro), a chalkboard menu, flawless service. I ate there twice.

White truffles available at E4.50/gram, at least 4grams recommended per portion. Although it wasn't on the menu, I saw a german couple order fried eggs with truffles, which looked lovely. Couldn't afford E4.50/gram myself, but was very content with gnocchi alla cacciatore (ragu with porcini, seriously light gnocchi, E10.50), antipasto plate (vitello tonnato, ham and verdure al giardiniera, carne cruda, russian salad, acchiughe al verde and a local soft cheese, E10.50). The panna cotta (E4.50) was superb but very rich. And the breadsticks were out of this world - I'd return just for the breadsticks!

three courses: E23

OSTERIA DELL'ARCO, Piazza Savona
Slow Food's celebrated restaurant. Very good, but not one of my top-ten Italian meals ever.
I really enjoyed an appetiser of cardoons with a local melted cheese (E8.50), and had very good pumpkin ravioli (E11). However, to my surprise the advertised black truffles that accompanied it were shaed over the top raw, rather than cooked with the dish. I noticed several other dishes with black truffles, all with them shaved raw over the top. Traditionally, white truffles are served raw, and black truffles cooked, and now having tasted them raw, I must agree with tradition. I couldn't really taste them raw. I was surprised to see them treated thus at this restaurant. Is this common in this part of Italy?
I found the dessert a bit disappointing - a parfait alla grappa which was a bit grainy and heavy, and the 'caramelised grapes' were actually raw grapes sitting in a pool of caramel sauce. E6. Looking at other tables, the cipolla gratinata looked great - half a roasted onion, still in its skin, filled with melted cheese!

Sitting right next to the kitchen, I found it interesting but lovely that all the cooks were women, and most of them very young. I was interested to see that they had and used a microwave (thawing my parfait, heating small amounts of sauce). I personally think microwaves are very useful energy-saving devices, but I know many of my fellow slow fooders think they are 'cheating', so was amused to see it in use in a Slow Food kitchen!

AKASH LOUNGE BAR, Via Emmanuele II
Inside a little shopping centre in the middle of this popular road, I found this little place a godsend. While I enjoyed my restaurant experiences, the traditional food is very heavy, and something lighter for lunch, in a comfy location, was very welcome. This is a modern but comfy cafe, that wouldn't be out of place in Greenwich Village, or Seattle's cafe culture. Lots of wine and artisan beers, but most attractively, a light lunch menu with toasted panini, and some interesting salads - farro with prawns (US shrimp) and zucchini, couscous with tomatoes and mint, superb looking salads and even burgers.

BRA
Although I didnt eat there, I did pass Boccondivino when travelling through Bra, and it looked amazing. And full - remember to book!

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  1. Gooseberry: Many thanks for the helpful report. I am planning a trip to the area next year and this is most useful. Were there places outside Alba that you would have chosen for dinner that were inconvenient without a car? Or did Alba offer a very good range of eating places?

    (I am debating whether or not to stay in a hotel in Alba itself or in an agriturismo-type place in the countryside or in a smaller village..) Thanks again for reporting back..

    11 Replies
    1. re: erica

      Hi Erica

      There was lots of good eating within Alba. It struck me as a very wealthy town, with all the sophistication that comes with that, including a wide range of restaurants. The centro storico is quite small, so it was easy to walk most of it in a day or so.

      So if you have a car, why not stay in an agriturismo? It's a lovely experience in of itself. I cannot comment on restaurants in the countryside, since I obviously didn't have my own transport. Others on this board have spoken highly about places in Neive and Verduno. The question is, if dinner is your big meal of the day, how far do you want to be driving late at night, coming back from dinner?

      1. re: Gooseberry

        Gooseberry, many thanks, yet again. I would prefer to stay in one of the (many highly-rated) agriturismos but as you mentioned, the issue is the nighttime driving after dinner....I do prefer to have dinner be the big meal of the day. There seem to be so many options in the area; I did see a few tempting small hotels in La Morra/Verduno and in Neive and also in Cherasco..
        Such decisions! I do like to be able to wander around (mostly looking at food shops/markets/menus!) without having to drive everywhere..

        1. re: erica

          I would highly recommend having a car for most of your visit to the Langhe region of Piemonte. Even the largest towns in the area, such as Alba, are rather small. You can pretty much see all the sights of Alba in a day.

          Having a car allows you to visit the small towns such as Cherasco and Bra and the villages of Barolo, La Mora, Monforte d'Alba, etc. It also gets you to many of the wineries and the wonderful enoteca in Grinzane Cavour.

          1. re: DavidT

            David: Planning to rent a car, but wanted to stay someplace with good eating options to cut down on driving in the dark after dinner... Are there any towns smaller than Alba with great eating options--easy to drive in and out during the day but with enough dining spots within walking distance, or very easy, short drive, to keep us busy for about 3-4 nights?

            I did see what look like very nice hotels/B&Bs in La Morra and in Cherasco--how tiny are these towns? Are there food markets? Thanks!

            1. re: erica

              Erica,

              I'm off to Torino on Saturday and have booked a weeks worth of meals. All of my reservations are for lunch, with the exception of Da Cesare (which is not open for lunch). I might suggest you consider making lunch the main meal of your day. I also suggest that you have a GPS in your car. You'll still get lost, but not as frequently. Go to the "walking spots" for a casual dinner. We like to rent a place with a kitchen and prepare a light meal "at home".

              1. re: erica

                Erica: The Langhe district is very rural. Alba is not very big. Asti is the largest city in the area, I think. I have driven in the area for several years in the off-season. In the roads through the vineyards, I encounter very few cars. The roads are well marked with new signs. Barbaresco is a tiny village just outside Alba, just beyond hiking distance. It has several restaurants including a great trattoria and a Michelin-starred restaurant. There are several good lodging options in the area. Monforte d’Alba has outstanding lodging but is tiny. La Morra is a very small town. I have stayed in Cherasco, a one-street village with a great wine shop. Borolo is a tiny village. The tourist office in Alba has a book that lists all the lodging available in the area. You can write or e-mail for a copy. There are outstanding dining options tucked all over the countryside. We use the Slow Food “Osterie & Locande d’Italia” to discover our options. Then I start the hunt, following the little signs along the roads to discover some of the best food I have ever had in my life. Oh! by the way, they have nice wines too.
                http://www.langheroero.it/default.asp...
                The picture below is of the village of Barolo taken from La Morra looking out across the Langhe district.

                 
                1. re: BN1

                  Erica -

                  As BN! has noted, the Langhe region is very rural. Alba would certainly have the most quality restaurant options for dinner. Even so, I would be surprised if there are more than 5 or 6 worthwhile restaurants within walking distance of the center of town. The smaller villages might have only 2 or 3 dinner spots, if that many.

                  You might want to have some nice lunches while visiting the villages of the Langhe and have your dinners in Alba, assuming you do decide to stay there.

                2. re: erica

                  I am planning to spend 3 days in Alba next September, and the hotel I have decided on, the Langhe, is on the outskirts of Alba, a 3 minute drive into the old town. I expect we will be having dinners in Alba, and lunches wherever we travel during the day. When travelling by car, I always prefer hotels close to but not directly in city centers. It is usually less expensive and parking is free.

                3. re: DavidT

                  DavidT is right; you can do Alba in a day. However, if you want to eat at more than one or two of its restaurants, you clearly will need more time. Given that I was quite tired after my conference in Turin, I had a lovely time wandering the city slowly, and got into some great holiday routines - going to a local bar for my morning coffee and pastry, reading the paper there for an hour, then spending the day exploring Alba or hopping a pullman (coach bus) or train to visit a neighbouring town.

                  In the end, I only daytripped to Bra. While it's got some amazing architecture, I'm not sure that I had enough of a different experience to warrant the trip away from Alba. I wish I had booked at boccondivino, though, since it did look amazing.

                  So obviously, I was in a different headspace from someone who goes to the area to get as much in, as many restaurants, towns, wine tastings, etc as possible!

                  The tourism office in Alba was great - they had maps of some lovely rural hikes, and half day tours to neighbouring towns for about E30/pp. If I'd been there an extra day, I might have tried one of those.

                  1. re: Gooseberry

                    As I have mentioned on other threads, I have found the tourist offices in the Langhe/Piemonte to be the best I have seen in Italy. The brochures they have cover a wide range of subjects and are all available in English. The brochures related to food & wine tourism (dining, markets, wineries, etc.) are especially good.

                    1. re: DavidT

                      I prize my collection of free booklets from the Alba tourist office, which contain some stunning pictures of the area. I have “Hospitality”, “The Land”, “Cultural Tourism” and “Wine Tourism” from Tu Langhe Roero. I also have “Barbaresco Terroir” from the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco. I use these often to show people where I have visited.

                      Click the picture below to see the village of Barbaresco, which I scanned from the Terroir book. Of course, the picture in the book is much clearer.