Italia 2001, Week Two
21 maggio 2001
After a very light and simple breakfast of crusty bread (we opted out of the Prosciutto and cheese), fresh squeezed juice and, of course, espresso, we said our good-byes to Angelo and Luisa Valazza in Soriso and headed southeast toward Isola d’Asti, which lies just south of Asti.
Our planned route took us through the Gattinara region, which produces wines that are not very well known in the U.S, but wines we enjoy. This region is renowned for the paucity of production. Gattinara DOCG, after a long time in the doldrums, is trying to regain its quality status and it seems to be working.
Driving through the Vercelli Hills, we snatched a few glimpses of vineyard – but
very few. This area of rapid temperature changes influenced by cool Alpine air, the warm humidity of the Po Valley, and tempering currents from the nearby lakes, grows small clumps of vineyard of various qualities. In a blinking of an eye, they are gone. Just south of this region is the Po Valley flatlands, the center of Italian rice production. It is not unusual to be in a wine zone and also right in the middle of the rice fields. All in all, this is not a very interesting drive and we made the decision to head towards Casale Monferrato, a place, in our book, not to be missed.
We are on a mission – to seek out Krumiri Rossi and buy some Krumiri cookies.
Krumiri are rich, buttery, crisp cookies, shaped like the moustache of King Vittorio Emanuele of Italy. And the best ones are made at Krumiri Rossi, founded in 1878.
We were told to get to the bakery early in the morning when the cookies are just coming out of the oven. The chef/owner at Café Juanita, Holly Smith, makes these
and serves them with a Gianduia (chocolate hazelnut) dipping sauce and they are
delicious. We thought it would be fun to bring her some directly from the bakery. On this day, however, the factory was closed. So we decided to go into one of the local bakeries and buy a bag to bring home with us. (Note: They never made it;).
Cookies in hand, we enjoyed a walk around the rather charming town and before long, we began thinking about lunch. After looking through our notes, we decided to find Ristorante La Torre, a Michelin 3 Fork restaurant.
The restaurant is not in the town square but on a hill overlooking it, and inside a castle-like villa surrounded by greenery. The view sweeps over the beautiful hills of Monferrato and the nearby plain beyond the river Po. La Torre is one of the most
traditional restaurants in Piemonte (Piedmont). The cellar has a wide range of
Italian and foreign wines, with special attention to small-scale, emerging producers. There are several finely furnished dining rooms and very few customers. Our
waiter is an older man who spoke very little English, or so it seemed, because we conversed in Italian. His gravely voice and leathery skin are indicative of someone who has smoked since he was about 12 years old. More than likely, he has worked in restaurants almost as long.
After some discussion, we ordered a Sori Paitin 1997 Pasquero Barbaresco for
about $30. This wine would cost about $100 in the states. We were relying on our waiter to recommend the local specialties on the menu. For our first course, I was served Spinach and Potato Gnocchi with a Potato “Sauce”. The sauce is so delicate
I can hardly believe it is potatoes. It isn’t at all thick and starchy and if I understood him correctly, it isn’t made with cream. Terry’s first course was Risotto with Vegetables and Balsamic Vinegar. The vegetables are served around a
small portion of perfect risotto and drizzled with very old, high quality Balsamic vinegar. The portions are perfect – he listened when we said “piccolo portzione”.
For the main courses, he suggested Duck Breast with Mostarda Di Frutta , served
with those wonderful Italian flat green beans. Mostarda Di Frutta is a spicy
seasoning prepared with fruit, honey, wine, mustard and spices. It was in the sauce of my duck and also served as an accompaniment. (I brought some home with me but haven’t done anything with it yet.) Terry’s Chicken with Sweet Onions and
brought chicken to new heights. It was served with a small side of Balsamic Glaze
potato pureé that was delicious with the onion balsamic sauce.
We finished with a green salad. I must mention the bread, which was a thin focaccia with herbs, poppy seeds and olive oil – thin and tender and yummy.
I told our waiter how much we enjoyed our lunch and thanked him for helping us to order the traditional dishes of this region. He is very proud to tell me the chef is a woman.
Our original plan was to visit some wonderful country inns along the way to Isola d’Asti – a scouting mission for our next trip. But we were getting anxious to settle in to our new digs for the next week and instead drove directly there.
This is a good time to tell you about hotels in Piemonte. There are no first class
hotels in the wine country and there are not many charming hotels with character. Piemonte has yet to become a tourist destination like Tuscany. There are several expensive European style hotels in Turin, where much international business is conducted. But, people in the wine business are more interested in tasting and buying wine than staying in a nice hotel. We have seen some improvement over the last two years.
We choose our hotels based primarily on location. Our goal is to be close to the restaurants we want to visit so we are not driving around on narrow, curvy, unfamiliar roads in the dark. Hence, our choice of Il Cascinalle Nuovo. The
description said, “conveniently located, with simply furnished, spacious rooms above the top class restaurant. Swimming pool, tennis court and large gardens. Good value.” That about sums it up. I never did find the large gardens, however. But it
was clean and family owned. We were greeted by “Papa” who spoke no English, but welcomed us warmly and helped us to get settled. One of his sons, Walter, is the Chef (aided by Mama Silvana) and the other son, Roberto, handles the “front of the
house” and sommelier duties. They also both help in the hotel at the front desk. The brothers both speak English quite well and have very different personalities, Walter being the more outgoing and jovial. Roberto was a bit of a grump and didn’t
seem to be very happy.
The restaurant of the same name has a fine reputation – “filling but not too heavy,
with beautifully distinct flavors and inventive dishes from a traditional base. Excellent wine list. Good value.” We had a reservation for the next evening and
planned to go back to Asti in search of that perfect little “hole in the wall” for our first dinner in the area.
Chef Walter gave us the names of two or three places in Asti and suggested we wander around and check them out before we decide. They are all places he likes to go when he is not at his own restaurant. We settled on Tacabanda, an enoteca or
wine bar. Enoteche traditionally serve small plates of food and wines by the glass as well as bottle.
The entrance is at street level, but the enoteca is below ground. This is fairly
typical – a natural wine cellar. It is a small room with a warm, homey feeling. The staff here is very young, as is the clientele, and very little English is spoken. There really isn’t a menu to speak of and our waiter told us what they are serving that
night. It all sounded good so we decided to let him bring us a plate at a time and we would just stop when we were full. Meanwhile, we had a glass of a red Sicilian apperitivo made from Merlot and Nero d’Avola. Red apperitivo is unusual enough,
but Nero d’Avola is a grape we have never heard of. It was quite unusual, deeply colored, moderate in tannin with flavors of ripe fruit and herbs. If you’ve ever had an Italian Merlot, you know it is quite different than Washington or California Merlot. The fruit does not hit you with a big wham – it’s there, but much more
natural and subtle. It seemed a bit peppery and we wondered if that was the Nero d’Avola grape. My Italian is not good enough to discuss why a wine tastes like it
does. I even have trouble describing the wine in Italian terms. For our second wine, we ordered a bottle of local Barbera D’Asti for $9.00. It was a very pleasant wine, very typical of Barbera, with no noticeable tannins, but good acid and fruit. It
strikes me that it would be interesting to have a Barbera tasking with the various Barberas - Barbera D’Asti, Barbera D’Alba, Barbera D’Monferrato.
Oh yes, the food! Our first plate held 4 thin slices of Sopressata, a black pepper
Italian salami. It went so well with the apperitivo! Next was Smoked Duck Breast,
served on endive with “tipico” Giardiniere. Every area has its own style of
Giardiniere. Interestingly, this is very similar to what my mother makes – a mixture
of vegetables in a tomato, vinegar sauce (very smooth sauce, not chunky) – usually
celery, carrots, cauliflower, olives, peperoncini, green beans and tuna. Goose liver pate, wrapped in a piece of very thin (carpaccio style) slice of raw veal on a bed of fresh green pea pureé was a winner. We weren’t expecting something so elegant and refined. But the next dish was equally so – a Sformato or flan of vegetables
with carrot pureé.
We really enjoy eating this way – very small portions to share many different things. We were beginning to get full when we were offered Potato Ravioli with Boragio (a
mint like herb). Naturally, we couldn’t resist, but ordered “mezza” or half an order.
So glad we did. It was wonderfully thin pasta, filled with the lightest potato and borage filling and tossed in a little butter with Parmigiano cheese – my mouth
waters just thinking about it.
Our wine bottle was empty and we were about to ask for a check when I spotted the table next to us having Fiori di Zucchini (fried zucchini flowers). Well, I
couldn’t leave without having some. And, of course, we needed a little wine to wash them down. We ordered a glass of Barbera and Sangiovese blend – again, nothing
we’ve ever seen at home. So, what’s wrong with fried zucchini flowers and red wine
This was a great recommendation and a good first dinner in Piemonte – local food,
wine and Piemontese people! Total cost of this meal, including wine, was about $42.00!!
22 maggio 2001
We returned to Asti this day to wander around the Campo del Palio, the Piazza della
, and the Piazza Alfieri, adjacent squares in the center of town. On Liberta
Wednesday and Saturday, this square is filled with vendors of all kinds of food, seeds, flowers, and just about anything one could want to buy. The main attraction for us, however, is it’s covered market, Mercato Coperto. Compared with other
covered markets in many towns in Italy, this is relatively small. But the food is beautifully displayed. There were meats and cheeses, prepared foods, produce, fresh pasta and more! If only we had access to such products in Seattle. The
locals hang out having coffee or a glass of wine at the two bars in the building, adding some fun local color. It is all very high energy, noisy and soooo Italian.
There were several interesting restaurants to choose from for lunch in Asti. As we walked, we checked out their menus and, when possible, poked our heads in for a peek. Luckily, we chose L’Angelo Del Beato, which will be one of the most
memorable of the trip. This is the restaurant where we met the Italiani that
provided the candy for my son Scott’s wedding (story in last newsletter). But besides that, let me describe the entire experience to you.
We arrived early (what else is new, vacation or not) and waited around for a couple of minutes until the owner showed up, unlocked the door and invited us in. He spoke English very well and made us feel very welcome. We could already feel that this was going to be fun and laid back. Although there was a menu, he basically asked us what we wanted to eat. It was our usual line – pasta and salad, please. We asked
him to recommend a local wine for us and he chose a Grignolino D’Asti for about
$10.00. Grignolino is rarely found outside Piemonte. The wine is fairly light-bodied
but tannic with delicate flavors of tart red fruits and what is described as a “pleasantly bitterish after-taste” in the official regulations. These regulations state the way a wine should taste, although the official taste descriptions are loose with lots of room for interpretation.
I didn’t convince the owner that we wanted a small lunch and the antipasto arrived –
family style. There was Insalata Russo (an Italian potato salad), their version of
Giardiniere, Tonno Coniglio (rabbit with tuna sauce), Salami, Roasted Pepper Bagna
Caôda, and Fiori d’Zucchini stuffed with Fontina cheese. All delicious, but we hardly made a dent in it. Then came the pasta. Terry’s was Tagliolini with Duck Sauce. It
was very unusual – more like ground duck, herbs and stock. There was no tomato, which is common in northern Italy. Mine was a very simple Tagliolini with Broccolini,
olive oil, garlic, red pepper. We ended with a big Insalata Mista. The owner asked
us if we had ever had Barolo Chinato. No, we had not. He brought over one glass
for us to try. It is a digestivo, something you drink after your meal. It is made
with Barolo, quinine bark, rhubarb stems, ginger, cardamom seeds and other aromatic spices. I can’t say it’s something I would want to drink often, but it is
always fun to try new things and learn more about what the people who live here eat and drink. It has an enticingly bitter flavor and, we are told, Italian winemakers would not be without it in their own homes.
We thanked the owner and headed off to the candy factory to pick up our Torroncini (the candy for Scott’s wedding). Then we took a long walk around town.
There were a surprising number of nice shops and we picked up a few gifts,
including a new ravioli cutter for my mother before saying good-bye to Asti for this trip.
This is the night we planned to eat at our hotel. The dining room is interestingly modern, with pale wood and gray and white walls and large white dinner plates. Not what I would expect in Piemonte and we hoped that the food would be more
traditionally based than the decor.
In looking over the wine list, we did not see any real bargains and elected to have a Bruno Giacosa 1990 Barbaresco Riserva Asili, which we knew to be an excellent wine.
We are served a stuzzichini (the complimentary starter from the chef) – a
gorgonzola, ricotta flan on a celery pureé. It is very light and delicate and melts in our mouths. The flat bread on the table looks like it was rolled in a pasta machine. It is very thin and crisp and difficult not to eat too much of it. Our real appetizers are Insalata di Polpo e Patate, an octopus and potato salad with tomatoes, lemon,
olive oil and herbs and Terrina di Melanzane, an eggplant and tomato terrine with
Robiola cheese, diced roasted peppers and olive oil. I am happy to see the emphasis on lighter preparations since Piemontese food can be very rich and a bit heavy.
We shared (uno per due) an order of Tagliolini (the wonderful thin egg pasta of
Piemonte) with a veal and pork ragout – light, flavorful and delicious. Egg pasta in
Piemonte is an unbelievable deep, yellow color because the egg yolks used to make it are practically orange. Chef Holly Smith (Café Juanita) just returned from Piemonte and we joked about if only you could bring some of those chickens home with you. Picture it; we get off the plane with a crate of squawking chickens in each hand! You remember the “crates” you see in pictures, slatted with handles that all the women carried with them. We know why. Those chickens are very valuable! Seriously, they affect the texture and taste of the pasta as much as the color.
Terry’s main course was Faraona or squab, very simply roasted in it’s own jus and I
enjoyed Lamb with White Wine and Battuta. It was similar to a lamb shank, braised
in white wine - a nice change from red, albeit a bit surprising given that we are in Piemonte! The battuta is a sauté of onions, garlic, celery, carrots and parsley and is used to flavor the sauce.
We ended our meal with Casata, which is not like the Sicilian one that I make,
spelled with two t’s, but rather a semi-fredo with candied fruit, chocolate bits, and
pine nuts, and a glass of Breganze Torcolato from Maculan. The wine is aged in
small barrels until it’s golden-colored, with intense aromas and flavors of honey and dried fruit, particularly apricots. We also tried a Moscato di Pantalleria. This
grape comes from the volcanic island of Pantelleria, 25 miles southwest of the main
island of Sicily. It is actually closer to Tunisia in North Africa. There, the Muscat grape is called Zibibbo and it is very hardy, making a rich, peachy-tasting dessert wine that some consider to be one of Italy’s best. It seemed very sweet to us and we preferred the Torcolato.
This was not one of our favorite experiences. The food was very good and definitely prepared in a lighter style. We found the ambiance too modern and almost cold feeling. And Roberto did not have the personality we have come to love and expect in the Italian people and in their restaurants. But it was nice to be able to walk up the stairs to our room after dinner!
We went to bed on an excited note because our plan for tomorrow is to spend the day in the Barbaresco region, driving through the vineyards and visiting the small towns along the way.
23 maggio 2001
Although we have a book, “Touring in Wine Country, Northwest Italy”, it seems impossible to follow a given route through almost any wine region in Italy. The directions are not clear, the roads are not necessarily marked and it really doesn’t
matter unless you have an appointment at a particular winery, which we do not. So, book in hand, we head out, knowing we will take a scenic route which inevitably leads to no more than a cluster of buildings before dying out in a narrow, rutted track.
Barbaresco, made from Nebbiolo grapes, produces only about a third of the wine of its neighbor, Barolo. The estates are smaller and the view comes and goes with the curves of the hills, rather than being ever-present. That makes the impact of their beauty even more powerful.
The village of Barbaresco is tiny and well cared for. The Enoteca Regionale is
housed in a deconsecrated church. There is a small collection of wines and a good selection of bottles open for tasting. Close by is a little restaurant, Rabayá, where
we hoped to have lunch. A woman about my age, clearly the owner/chef, greeted us when we arrived (no English spoken here). We were the first customers. Eventually, a single gentleman in a suit and another middle-aged couple also came for a meal.
We looked over the wine list and then asked our waitperson (the same woman who seated us) which of the wines we picked she would recommend. We settled on a 1989 Marchesi Di Gresy Martinengna Barbaresco – this is why we are here. To be
able to drink these older wines that are unavailable at home for such a reasonable price is very special. This particular wine is getting “bricky” in color but has a wonderful nose and tastes delicious.
The ambiance at Rabayá is of someone’s home. I’m sure the owners live here also. The restaurant has a “cute” menu with little caricatures on it, giving the impression of a fun, non-pretentious place. It was very reasonably priced – entrees were $6 to
$7.50. A “piccolo” menu with 3 tipi di antipasti (3 appetizers), Tajarin al sugo di
(thin egg pasta with meat sauce), Cognilio (Rabbit) with Barbaresco, dessert carne
and coffee or grappa is about $25.00. But, we stuck to our plan to have a light lunch.
The “one woman show” brought us a salad of thinly sliced cold duck breast on arugula with Balsamic vinegar and wild strawberries. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was so delicious! I remember thinking this was her idea of antipasti
and insalate in one course. For pasta, we decided to have the regional specialty, Plin.
Plin is a very small filled pasta – not the shape of ravioli or Agnolotti but very tiny, filled with veal and usually served with a butter sage sauce. I also wanted to try the Gnocchi with Smoked Tomato Sauce. Everything was so good and was a perfect
match with our Barbaresco – a sign of an excellent regional ristorante!
After lunch, I had a very nice conversation with the chef. I asked her if she did it all –hostess, waitperson, sommelier, chef, dishwasher??? She told me her daughter usually helped in the dining room for dinner. But, yes, she handled lunches by herself. I also found out how to make Plin (not that I ever will). But, she showed
me how to fold and pinch the dough into the little pillows. Such an enjoyable meal.
Leaving Barbaresco you descend into some of the most beautiful countryside the area has to offer. The road is narrow and full of tight bends. It twists down to lowland and back up again, through the most prized and most densely planted land of Barbaresco.
Our plans for dinner were to return to one of the most renowned restaurants not only in Piemonte, but maybe all of Italy. We discovered Ristorante Guido on our
last trip and vowed to return for more than one meal. We purposely stayed in Isole di’Asti because it was close to the restaurant and would not be a problem to get safely home after a long night of food and wine. The wine list at Guido’s is not only
one of the finest in Piemonte, but extremely reasonably priced. Their philosophy is that you should be able to drink fine wines with fine food and they encourage that by their pricing.
This is a family owned and operated restaurant. The eldest son, Piero, is in charge of the dining room and the wine list. Another son assists in the dining room. In the kitchen, you will find his 82-year-old Mama and another son.
The restaurant is located in a funny little strip mall, for lack of a better description. It is quite elegantly decorated with antiques and oriental carpets, but feels quite comfortable.
Before any discussion of food, we discussed wine and told Piero what style of wine we like. He told us what is drinking well, which wines he considers to be a good value and we somehow narrowed our selection to two or three wines. Ultimately, we drank the Pelissero Barbaresco Vanotou 1990, which is a wine we are very familiar
with. Of course, it cost about 1/3 the price we would pay in Seattle.
You will not find a written menu here. Instead, dining is prix fix, but offering certain choices. Piero suggested an apperitivo, a local Roero Arneis 2000. It was
medium-bodied and dry, with aromas of fresh grass and flowers. We don’t drink much Arneis at home, so we enjoyed having something a bit different. He then described the three appetizers that will be served – no choice involved in this
except to decline any of them. The first, a Torta di Verdura – lots of spinach and
zucchini in layers and bound with eggs and Parmesan cheese and finished with a light vinaigrette. Next, a Vitello Tonnato or roasted veal, thinly sliced served with
a typical tuna sauce of this region. This was garnished with tiny green sprouts, olive oil and capers. And, my favorite, Fiori di Zucchini – stuffed with rice, vegetables
and sausage, sautéed and served on a pureé of peas and carrots. Piero told me the pureé is simply vegetables, water and a bit of salt. As we know, when you start with such delicious, organic fresh vegetables, that’s all you need.
Piero offered us our choice of three pastas. I chose a Tortoloni filled with
potatoes and leeks served with a Fonduta Sauce (fontina cheese sauce), while Terry
preferred Duck Ravioli in a sauce of duck, sausage and pieces of pumpkin. Neither of us did justice to these courses – the flavors were wonderful but both were very
rich. And we still had our main courses coming.
There are decisions to be made again when we were given the entrée choices. At this point, I was looking for the lighter of the choices and enjoyed a rabbit dish that had been cooked, boned and formed in a ramekin. It was removed from the ramekin and served on a sweet fennel sauce with tiny artichokes, accompanied by white bean pureé, red cabbage and julienne of carrots, green beans and fennel. WOW, was this good. Terry had a roasted baby lamb with the same
accompaniments. It actually was a very simple dish - it had no sauce but was served with the natural roasting pan juices. Our meal includes dessert or cheese, but we just didn’t have room for one more bite. And besides, we planned to return in two
days for another feast.
Before we left, we told Piero that we hade another reservation in two days. He said he would plan a special menu just for us (the menu we had is their weekly menu and he didn’t want us to have the same things again). How’s that for service? Aren’t we lucky?
24 maggio 2001
Our destination this day was Acqui Terme, which is almost on the border between
Liguria and Piemonte. It’s a pretty route, quite open, with gentle slopes, mostly vine
covered. It is very restful scenery and Terry seemed quite relaxed on this drive, which took about 2 hours.
Liguria is one of my favorite food places because of the lightness of the food with the emphasis on fish and vegetables. We hoped to find a simple little place, with Ligurian influences for lunch.
This was our first trip to Acqui Terme and we were delightfully surprised. It is a
small spa town, one of the first from the 1950’s. The main street is neatly cobbled, with a fountain-shaped design picked out on the stones showing the way to the water source. This source, known as the bollente, is a permanently steaming
fountain in a small square. Acqui Terme also has a spacious, well-stocked Enoteca
The town is very clean and well kept, with a lot of construction (just outside the main square) and renovation occurring. Some of the old hotels are being updated and we are told there are plans to revive this sleepy spa town. There are some very high-end shops here and I enjoyed wandering through them as Terry sat in the shade. Being further south, it was quite warm. We had hoped for an espresso at the famous Bar Pasticceria Voglino, which “is like stepping back into history.” Sadly, it was closed the day we visited. Acqui Terme is known for its pastries –
particularly Amaretti that are made here with both sweet and bitter almonds and I couldn’t leave without trying one. We ventured into a Pasticceria and I made a b-
line to the restroom. On my way back, I passed the kitchen and poked my head in. There on the cooling rack were trays of WARM Amaretti. The baker saw me
drooling and came over and handed me one to eat. It was the best Amaretti I’ve
ever had. Of course, I’ve never had an Amaretti in Italy, let alone just out of the
oven! I’m used to the ones in the States that are in cans or boxes, wrapped in little papers and are hard as rocks.
We found a local hangout for lunch, the Enoteca Curia, and it was just what we
wanted. A carafe of local wine, some local peppers roasted and served with goat cheese and Ligurian olive oil, a little pasta with fish and a nice insalata. We also had