A report on Slow Food recommendations in Northern Piemonte, and some other finds
I just today returned from a road trip through the lovely and tasty val d'Aosta, and will write up a detailed report when I get the chance. But traveling to and from, I had to pass through Piemonte, and I tended to follow Slow Food recommendations when it was convenient. Here's my take.
La Bettula (40 minutes west of Torino, in. San Bernardino di Trana)
We knew this to be a Slow Food recommendation, and although we were prepared for the relatively high prices, we were surprised to find ourselves buzzed through a locked door into a super-elegant, almost suburban-plush restaurant, crystal and cream tablecloths, with an internationalized feel and pretty views. One lovely touch in the light, bright dining salon is the floor to ceiling mirrors that allow for discreet people-peeping, along with checking out what other people ordered. We both opted for the special menu of the day, every course local mushrooms, prepared in a variety of ways. A complimentary stuzzachini began the meal: smoked salmon wrapped around a square of robiola cheese, that barely rose above the level of cream cheese and lox. The first real course was brilliant -- a tartare of veal covered in shaved raw mushrooms. Simply delicious. What followed was disappointing taglloni tossed with a creamy mushroom ragu -- overcooked and gummy, the ragu too creamy. Next came a tris of cooked mushrooms, two of which were stellar (one served in a package of cellophane, another is tiny copper pot) but the fried mushrooms were no better than a roadside cafe. We skipped dessert, suspecting we'd end up being presented with an array of sweet bites to accompany our coffee. We were, ranging from intense chocolate to a jigger of apricot puree, and they were nice, but not amazing. The service in the restaurant was generous, professional and lovely in every way.
Hotel Lago del Laux (Usseaux)
The locanda (hotel) of this restaurant, tucked away in the val Chisone of northern Piemonte, is recommended by Slow Food, and needing a place to sleep was our real reason trying the restaurant, but we were thrilled to see, when we arrived, that the entire small lake in front of the hotel is devoted to trout fishing, and that the restaurant had many signs outside boasting of special menus of fish and frog. Alas, we discovered when we arrived for dinner that trout isn't on the menu in high summer (frogs neither), and we found ourselves poring over a menu of wall to wall classic and inventive polenta preparations and braised meat choices. They did offer an herb ravioli del plin for a primi, se we leapt at that, and it proved to be the single best pasta we had during our 8 meals in Piemonte. For a secondo, we took one order of snails as a secondo and a stracotto of beef, and my husband, out of sheer curiosity, ordered a special spiced polenta. We found the snails and the stracotto of beef quite dull, and while my husband mainly finished his polenta I found it inedible -- but we readily admit we are not the people to judge whether this was classic and great mountain cooking or middling (although I do know the meat was fresh),
HOWEVER, for dessert I picked a dessert of cream gelato covered with crushed hazlenuts and the local famous honey from nearby Pragelato honey) and it was terrific. Even better was he breakfast we were served the following morning: huge bowls of local mountain berries, homemade apple cake, any amount of cheese or local cured meat we wanted, plus honeys, jams, toast, lovely butter, plenty of espresso. It was a wonderful prelude to a walk through the valleys filled with the millions of tiny delicate flowers that are the basis of the justly prized local honey.
Osteria degli Archibugi -- Exilles
This osteria probably would fit almost anyone's definition of a "touristy" place. It sits right under the truly formidable, eye-popping mass of the fortress of Exilles. (Its size makes the Fiat factory in Torino look wimpy). It has a huge parking lot, a playground, and the interior of the restaurant is decorated to a fare-the-well with actually quite valuable and authentic memorabilia that memorliazes the history of the armed forces that lived in the looming fortress above (an "archibugi" is a kind of blunderbuss).
But you know what? The food was really very good, and if you look at the website, you'll see that the restaurant is not at all tourist tacky, but unique. I ate a well-prepared risotto made with, instead of parmagiano, a l toma cheese from neighboring Chiamonte, My husband had a simple malfatti pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil -- but when he saw a a pizza headed for another table, he grieved his choice. (It did look good, and the restaurantt advertises itself as serving cuisine from Piemnote, Toscana and Napoli). The restaurant has a nice wine list, and we were quite happy until the dessert course. I ordered a budino because the menu said it was flavored with mint from the garden I could actually see from the restaurant parking lot-- and while the basic budino was just fine, and the leaves of mint were indeed incorporated, it also came doused in Italian mint syrup -- which never fails to remind of toothpaste, and which I find gag-worthy.
That said, were it easier to get to Exilles, I'd be a repeat customer at Osteria degli Archibugi.
DELLA POSTA (Norvalese)
We picked this tiny-town albergo ristorante as an alternative to staying and eating larger Susa, a choice turned out to be fairly disastrous, since the establishment appeared to also double as a charity for senior citizens. It would be unkind to slam it for not being suitable for foreign visitors and vacationers. We were treated well, it was absurdly cheap, and in many ways it was fascinating.
EATALY (Lingotto, Torino)
Even though I will frankly admit I start out being suspicious of things such as "EATALY" or "SLOW FOOD" -- or anything purporting to be purely Italian that markets itself solely in English -- even I was surprised by how much I hated everything about EATALY. I never imagined I could find a place that I disliked being inside more than a Home Depot or IKEA, but I actually disliked EATALY quite a bit more.
I have no idea how anyone could walk through the doors of EATALY and continue believing that this was a temple to "local" eating or "slow" food. The place is a riot of frantic consumerism, a staff that looks absolutely miserable from overwork at low wages, and there is not an ounce of pleasure to be witnessed in any of the ugly, noisy food courts. What EATALY does have going for it is its ability to purchase and use high quality ingredients in bulk -- and, to be fair, the preparation of individual dishes is not stupid. In the self-serve fish bistro, we ate an insalata of squid where the squid very well cooked and extremely tasty, but the calamari had not been sufficiently cleaned of cartilege. Likewise our simply baked orata was fresh and only barely overcooked, but it was scaly and of course not boned. When we asked for bread (which we had paid for), we were told by a copiously sweating server that they had "run out." Really? In a supermarket? Later, when we saw break heading to other tables, we were finally able to flag down another exhausted table-cleaner and get some bread. . The wines available were very good and the food is remarkably cheap given the quality -- largely because there is no service. They hire teens and immigrants and pay them nothing.
I could not wait to get out of there. We felt blessed to escape, and doubly so when we emerged back into the fume-choked air of summer Lingotto to discover that there was a live concert in the piazzetta outside EATALY, the popular Piemontese cabernet group I TreLilu, which performs comic songs in a dialect of Piemonte, and which seemed to take particular relish that evening in making vaguely obscene jokes about the meaning of EATALY.
SoSushi (Porta Nuova train station, Torino)
There must be travelers in Italy who figure out how to NEVER need to eat in a train station, but I've yet to learn how, so imagine my excitement to discover SoSushi, a chain of conveyor-built sushi joints that apparently operate all over Italy, and one of them is in the main train staton of Torino. It turned out to be a great alternative to Chef Express and MacDonald's, although it is not cheap. The best of the sush nibbles run 5 euros a pop. But I thought you might want to know about it.
I forgot one restaurant!
After a truly comic escpade racing through the suburbs of Torino, looking for a restaurant in the tiny frazione of Moncallieri called Reviagliasco, and having our GPS steer us into a briar patch, we finally found the Slow Food recommendation and -- this being the first day of August -- learned they only served lunch on weekends by reservation in August.
With the Italian lunch hour fast dwindling, we roared into the nearby gown of Percetto Torinese (sign at the town walls says they grow great cherries) and park in front of the first open eatery we see.
Ristoriante Pizzeria L'ESCALIER (Percetto Torinese, 15 minutes outside Torino)
Only "locals" eat in L'Escalier. No tourists ever come to Percetto Torinese. (It looks remarkably like West Orange, N.J.). The restaurant has two cheerful terraces overlooking the main street, and a sleek interior space. (It bills itself as the world's first design pizzeria.) The day we were there, it was doing a lively lunch trade with people of all ages, from infants to nonnas, to the local construction trade, a few dating couples, some men in ties -- and us. The fixed lunch prices were excellent, and I opted for plate of penne in tomato sauce that was sweet and tasty, and then a leafy salad that included sliced cold beef served with a sharp white cheese from Lanzo and honey. My husband had an excellent leafy salad that included really tasty shrimp and strawberries. (I know -- but it was delightful.) He followed that with robust rigatoni with eggplant and ricotta. We ate big bowls of blueberries for dessert. Our two servers looked harried on a hot day, but the crowd was patient. It is precisely the kind of Italian eatery where everyone seems to be having a very nice time and enjoying their food, from the baby blissfully munching a grissini, to the 11-year old downing patate frties, the working guys tucking into pasta, the dating couple picking over their antipasta, the grandfather having a pizza, the grandmother a proscuitto and melon, and there was a breeze on the shady terrace. We had a nice meal and nice time too, for not much money.
Thanks for the heads up on Sosushi, we were in Turin yesterday and wanted a quick lunch and non-Italian. After giving up on an Indian restaurant that we have tried before but it is always closed, we went to Lingotto next to Eataly, the old Fiat factory which is now a shopping centre and has a fast food court where we had a quite decent yakitori and sushi at the Japanese outlet. Couldn't face the idea of Eataly - although it is great for a first time visit for tourists, and the lunch bars are not bad it you want a quick light lunch, but as you say it is a temple of food consumerism masquerading as a Slow Food heaven (I suspect its an uneasy relationship between Carlo Petrini and Oscar Farinetti, they both need each other) and pricey too.
Just as a caveat: I honestly don't know how well SoSushi holds up in a taste test comparison once you remove if from the confines of a train station, where your only other choices are the typical Italian train station fare. There are no tables, just stools around the conveyor belt, and the decor is bubble-gum cheerful in that Japanese "Hello Kitty" style (although the pop music soundtrack wasn't bad!) I found it pleasant to be able to serve myself at whim, and eat only as much or as little as I wanted. Everything on offer was healthier than the industrial salami and cheese that goes into the typical Chef Express lunch fare. They even offered a low-sodium soy sauce on the conveyor belt. For once I was able to have a fast meal before boarding a train and not pay for it with an hour of heartburn.