Piedmont-Le Langhe: Alba and around--report 4/09
I will keep adding reports of our 5 days in this area in April, 2009:
PROFUMO DI VINO, Treiso (7 km from Alba)
The gastronomic fame of tiny (pop. 763) Treiso originated with the Michelin-starred La Ciau del Tornavento. The owners of Profumo di Vino met in the kitchen of Tornavento several years ago. About a year ago, Memo, a Baja Californian with Cordon Bleu training, and Cameron, a Scot who grew up in Colorado, joined forces to open this handsome restaurant and wine bar facing the main piazza. (The wine bar is open from 10am to 1am, save Tuesday closing day, and offers three tasting plates for every glass of wine ordered—keep this in mind on the off-chance that you want to skip lunch!)
The handsome gray and ivory dining room, with a chiseled stone wall and striking local landscape photos, was empty when we arrived on this rainy night, but soon filled up with locals—Memo, who handles the wine, told us that they often host winemakers and their guests. (One table was eating an all-fish meal, which the restaurant will do with advance notice) On the stereo, Nat King Cole alternated with Sinatra.
Dinner began with complimentary (there is a word for “amuse bouche” in Italian (begins with “A”…..(???) wedges of frittata dense with herbs and served in a large steel spoon. Already on the table was a basket of grissini and several varieties of excellent house-baked bread including one studded with walnuts. After much grissini sampling during the week, Profumo di Vino’s version of these Piemontese breadsticks was voted winner and reigning champion. Amazing, amazing little sticks of goodness!
Antipasti: “Uova in pasta,” two of the most vivid orange egg yolks that you could ever imagine, encased in delicate, large ravioli which were drenched in brown butter and topped with shreds of Parmigiano and spears of roasted asparagus. Heavenly!
My partner echoed my delight after taking one bite of his veal meatballs, served with a mustard that had been blended with foie gras and espresso.
These two dishes (and the breadsticks) were so good that my partner insisted upon returning to the restaurant later in the week to try them again!
Next, we shared a creamy carrot and potato soup. Excellent.
Because we could not decide on a pasta course—we opted for 3 primi and passed on the secondi.
Gnocchi with duck confit and brussel sprouts in a Dijon cream sauce. While the flavor was excellent, there was little variety in texture and a bit too much creaminess; this was my least favorite dish of the evening.
Risotto carbonara with speck, Grana Padano, egg yolk and black pepper.
A modern, Piemontese take on the old Roman standard and a resounding success! Also to be repeated later this week.
(The flat plains near Vercelli and Novara are one of Italy’s major rice growing regions, accounting for 60% of the country’s production, and we had driven through mile after mile of patchwork fields crisscrossed by irrigation canals en route from Malpensa to Alba. The story is that the genesis of the American rice industry stems from Piedmontese rice smuggled, in the face of an export ban, to South Carolina by Thomas Jefferson.)
Tajarin (Piedmontese dialect for tagliarini) tossed with shrimp, asparagus and black olives. What made this dish memorable for me were the Taggiasca olives, tiny black beauties from Liguria which were, simply the best olives I had ever tasted. (Two jars now sit in my kitchen, treasures for the next day’s supermarket expedition with Roberta, in Alba) The olives, and the olive oil brought to the table to dress this tajarin, were so terrific that I asked to see the bottle: FRANTOIO DI ALDO ARMATO, Via Solferino, 3, Alassio. Note that the frantoio in Liguria welcomes visitors from November to March:
With the meal, I drank a glass of Roero Arnais, an indigenous varietal from the neighboring Roero, and a glass of La Ganghia Barbera d’Alba (we were too tired to even contemplate a bottle).
We were presented with a complimentary dessert course of macaroons (chocolate and local hazlenut); choclate truffles; hazlenut chocolate bites; and lovely corn and butter cookies that Memo told us are characteristic of the region. Along with these treats, a tiny glass of pureed frutti di bosco.
And finally, the house grappa, from Villa Prato in Mombaruzzo, another courtesy.
With mineral water and cover, the total was 63 euro.
L'OSTERIA DEL VIGNAIOLO, Santa Maria, La Morra
Here is a sample printed menu just to give an idea of offerings and prices at this SlowFood osteria:
Aperitivo Calice di vino bianco Euro 2,50
Antipasti Trancio di tonno scottato con verdure grigliate Euro 8,00 Merluzzo mantecato con patate e pomodorini Euro 8,00 Carne cruda battuta al coltello Euro 8,00 Vitello tonnato Euro 8,00 Tortino di pasta brisé con topinambour e fonduta Euro 8,00 Cialda di parmigiano con cosce di quaglia al rosmarino Euro 8,00 Carciofi stufati con scaglie di grana Euro 8,00
Primi piatti Tagliolini al ragù di salsiccia Euro 8,00 Ravioli di seirass con purea di zucca Euro 8,00 Gnocchi di patate con raschera e radicchio trevisano Euro 8,00 Risotto con zafferano e carciofi fritti (min. due porzioni) Euro 8,00
Secondi piatti Coscia d'anatra arrosto Euro 11,00 Carrè di agnello al forno Euro 11,00 Lepre al civet con crostone di polenta Euro 11,00 Filetto di storione spadellato con julienne di verdure Euro 11,00 Stracotto di vitello al Nebbiolo Euro 11,00
Formaggio Piatto degustazione con cugnà Euro 8,00
Piatto degustazione con cugnà e calice di Passito Euro 11,00
Coperto Euro 2,00
And here are some photos (not mine, unfortunately) of the restaurant and a few of the dishes:
Because we were not very hungry and eating only in the interest of research, we opted for a light lunch at Osteria delle Vignaiolo:
We shared the antipasto: Cialda di parmigiano con cosce di qualgia al rosmarino. Four meaty quail legs, roasted and glazed and set over a, for lack of a better word, parmesan pudding. Hands down, the best quail I have ever tasted. Excellent!
Primi (main course for us):
Ravioli di seriass con asparagus—this were lovely ravioli stuffed with seirass, the local name for ricotta produced in Cuneo province, and also around Asti. Bathed in a light butter sauce. Impeccable, as was each and every pasta dish we sampled on this trip.
Tagliolini al ragu di salsicca—ribbons of long pasta in a light meat (sausage) sauce. Also excellent although I preferred my ravioli.
After we finished the pasta, a plate of duck legs were brought to a nearby table and to this day, I am sorry I did not give in to one more course.
Instead, we finished with coffee. The bill, including one glass of wine and water, totalled a reasonable 35 euro.
Although we had only a small sampling of the food, I liked this restaurant very much. Neither rustic nor fancy, with gracious service , it was my kind of place and I was sorry that we did not make time for one more meal here later in the week.
LA LIBERA, Via E. Pertinace, #24, Alba (closed Sunday, and Monday lunch)
La Libera is a sleek, contemporary SlowFood restaurant adorned with handsome food-centric photos. A bouquet of artfully scattered grissini on each ivory-linen-draped table hints at the contemporary twist that Chef Marco Forneis gives to traditional Piemontese cuisine. Those breaksticks were excellent and we agreed that the first test of an eating place in these parts should be the breadsticks!
(Surprisingly, we were served obviously packaged grissini only once the entire week--at Antiche Sera in Turin)
Cruda di fassone battuta al coltello, or raw veal cut by hand and dressed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon, is a classic of Le Langhe.
I was determined to try as many traditional dishes as possible during the week. I also wanted to try that other quintessential Langhe dish: vitello tonnato.
Although these are listed as two separate dishes on the menu (10 euro each), the server did not hesitate to offer to mix half orders of each dish as an antipasto for me.
Vitello tonnato—delicate slices of rare poached veal sauced with a blend of tuna, anchovies, lemon, capers, mayonnaise, and olive oil may not sound particularly appealing. But this dish, which reflects the traditional link of Piedmont to the coast, is a marvel! The Slow Food guide calls La Libera’s vitello tonnato “very good.” I would call it great!
Here is a recipe; it would make an elegant party dish:
The menu ventures into other regional territory, including Emilia Romagna and Liguria. Tortellini in brood is one of my partner’s favorite dishes, so when he spotted Raviolini di gallina in brodo on the menu, he did not hesitate. He also wanted to try the Lasagnetta gratinata di asparagi e burrata, lasagna with asparagus and burrata. He pronounced both to be excellent.
It was on this Monday night in Alba that I actually met a dish I did not like: The carne cruda. I tried several mouthfuls and just could not get past the raw meat texture. Noticing that I left more than half of the (half) portion on my plate, the server asked if I would like to try another dish before my secondi. I, too, opted for the excellent raviolini in brodo. This was not added to the final bill.
After reading a recent New York Times article about the rising popularity of goat,
and sampling it once at an Italian restaurant here in New York, I was
eager to try it again and so was elated to find capretto nostrano arrostito al forno con primi asparagi on the menu (roast local goat with the very first asparagus of the season).
What a revelation! I loved the flavor of the roasted meat; more subtle than lamb with a wonderful delicate flavor. Excellent!!
We passed on dessert, but were treated to a complimentary plate of lovely cookies with coffee.
With the meal we drank this bottle of Dolcetto Diano D’Alba 2007 from Bricco Maiolica (11 euro)
With water and wine, the bill totalled 65 euro.
Erica, (aka ekscrunchy?) thank you for your informative reports about your eating experiences in Piedmont. Us folks who live here know that we have the best food and wine in Italy here in the hills of central Piedmont – the Monferrato and Langhe.
We own and run a B&B here and over the almost 10 years we live here have guided hundreds of guests around the many little osterie and trattorie of the region as well as the finer dining places and of course the wineries. My wife is highly regarded by guests and locals alike as a gifted cook and I dabble in wine – we have a small vineyard and make our own wine, although not to everyone’s taste as I go for traditional wines and not the modern styles. Of course it is nearly impossible to have tried all the restaurants and wineries personally, there are just too many, we have our own personal shortlist and we get continuous feedback from our guests about the ones we can’t try.
One comment I will make is that so many people think that Alba, and the part of the Langhe in its vicinity, is the holy grail for wine and food tasting in Piedmont; not so, it is in fact, only one area, a part of the whole, amongst several distinct areas in the Monferrato and Langhe, not to mention Turin and other parts of Piedmont. In my opinion you are losing out if you only focus on this area and not visit the others.
Also for those in the know, Alba has lost its sheen for tartufi bianchi (white truffles), there are too many tourists coming for the big October truffle fair (which has now moved from the central piazza to the giant new exhibition centre outside town) and not enough truffles in the woods (which have been cleared for vines). Not too long ago it was well known that the Alba truffle merchants came to the early morning market in Asti to buy their truffles, but nowadays Asti and Alessandria provinces have established themselves as white truffle centres in their own right and so many of the “Alba” truffles sold to tourists come from Umbria, Slovenia or Croatia. In October and November (the later in the year the better), every weekend there is a local truffle festival in one of the small towns in which you can get a feel for the local flavour. If you don’t have a local person with you, stick to getting your truffle fix from the restaurants, who would never dare to serve anything but Piedmontese truffles.
As for your restaurants I will only comment on the ones which we have eaten at ourselves.
Il Profumo di Vino in Treiso. I note that you ate there in April as we saw several rave reviews at around this time and decided to try it out in June. I normally wouldn’t bother to write a negative review if I don’t like a place, but we found the food so bad and paid over the top compared to so many other places that I felt ripped off and ashamed that this restaurant is in Piedmont. The amuse-bouche was on aluminium spoons BTW and not amusing. The gnocchi was so chewy that I coined a new phrase “gummy-bear” gnocchi , and the egg in the ravioli was raw – a technical achievement to be sure, but not to our taste. OK the grissini were very good and the deserts quite acceptable but at 140 euro for 2 including a modest bottle of wine I felt cheated and the food sat in my stomach for hours. I would never recommend this place to any of our guests.
On the other hand L’Osteria del Vignaiolo, in Santa Maria, near La Morra, is an exceptional restaurant for both food quality and price, and in spite of being reviewed in NY Times a few years ago, still maintains its standards and quality. It’s a pity you didn’t have a full meal here, everyone we sent here loves this place without exception. BTW since you were here they now have outdoor tables, which is a plus in summer.
I do strongly urge people coming to Piedmont to be adventurous and try out some of the many restaurants not written about, it very hard to go wrong around here, (with the exception of Profumodivino, which I why I am so upset with them) you will be well rewarded.
TRATTORIA DELLA POSTA, Monforte d’Alba (a few km outside the town, in the countryside). Closed Thursday, and Friday lunch).
We arrived at Trattoria della Posta with high expectations, based on the multitude of reviews I had read during my research. We were not disappointed. This place fulfills every element that we could want in a restaurant—great local fare, warm service, lovely surroundings, no pretension of stuffiness. And prices that are most reasonable. I only wish that we had had time for a second meal here; we certainly would have returned but their scheduled closing days did not allow this.
The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a country house.
There are a couple of dining rooms, including the two front rooms which I think are the nicest—a couple of window tables offer a fine view. Furnished with antiques and a library of food-related books, the restaurant is elegant but not at all ostentatious. Tables are large and there is ample space between them. The place was only about half filled on the April Tuesday afternoon we were there. (But after lunch, the German couple at the next table proceeded to confer with the owner about a group dinner planned for late September; reservations are a must in high season)
Considering how much we had looked forward to our lunch here, we had a rather small meal:
After placing our orders, we received complimentary crudi (raw fish) of swordfish carpaccio, lightly dressed with a lemony vinaigrette.
For my antipasti, I chose Bagna Cauda. (15 euro) This was undoubtedly not the most exciting choice, as we discussed don the related Alba thread, but I was determined to sample as many Piemontese classics as I could, and there is probably no dish more representative of the local cuisine than this preparation of raw vegetables accompanied by a warm, anchovy-laced dip (bagna cauda, or "warm bath"), a relative of the Provencal anchoiade, that reflects the historical links between Piedmont and France.
Had I thought out my selection in a bit more depth, I would have realized that this dish would have been better ordered when the famous peperone (red peppers) of Asti and Cuneo and cardi gobbo (“hunchback” cardoons) of Nizza Monferrato where in season, later in the year.
But although bagna cauda is a trademark dish of the region, it is not frequently found on restaurant menus, being more of an end-of-harvest extravaganza prepared at home. Nevertheless, it was delicious—a plate of red peppers, fennel, and endive surrounding the deep cup of bagna cauda. Although the vegetables were not in their prime, I could not resist dipping into the anchovy-and-garlic-laced “bath.”
My partner chose the vegetable soup, a chunky puree presented in a handsome copper pot-- excellent, if lacking excitement.
He proceeded to the agnolotti del plin, one of the two quintessential Piemontese pasta preparations—delicate “pinched” ravioli (usually made with rabbit or veal) in a light butter sauce.
I skipped a primo and followed the bagna cauda with one of the house specialties: Il Cosciotto d’Oca Ripieno del suo Fegato Grasso (25 euro) —roasted goose leg stuffed with its own liver. I had never tried goose before, but I will certainly try it again. Perfectly cooked.
For dessert: A molten chocolate cake with orange syrup (8 euro
With water and one glass of wine, the bill came to 74 euro.
Clearly, this restaurant is an essential stop. In good weather, tables on the terrace offer a stupendous vineyard view.
I have enjoyed your informative posts about this area. I will be in Alba in late October. I am trying to make reservations at the restaurants in advance, what is best way to make reservations, and how far in advance is required? I see that these have websites and I have emailed them requesting reservations:
Trattoria Nelle Vigne
Trattoria della posta
I would also like to try these, but not sure how to contact or reserve:
We will be staying in Alba...hoping to sample some Tartufo d'Alba
Any suggestions or feedback greatly appreciated...thanks
Fulminating, in late October you don't have to worry about making reservations to any of these restaurants on your list except maybe on Sunday lunch. Also these are the "famous" ones written up about and catering to tourists, but there are hundreds of small osterie and trattorie all over the area where you can eat mouth-watering food for very low prices.
Also be cautious about the "Alba white truffle" sold locally, many of which come from other parts of Italy or Croatia to be sold to tourists coming to the Alba truffle fair. Better to get your truffle fix at one of the little trattorie which serve locals who are the fiercest critics or one of the weekend truffle festivals held all over Piedmont's wine hills.