Beyond Tuscany: another culinary hot spot

Tucked between France and Switzerland, Italy's Piedmont region cooks up fine fare

Dark and shuttered, the two-story corner restaurant looked deserted, hardly ready to entertain an evening of guests.

We huddled under a bus shelter across the street, on a stormy October night in northern Italy. With no sign of life just 15 minutes before our reservation time, my husband and I concluded that Locanda nel Borgo Antico must have closed unexpectedly.

Two other couples arrived and, hopeful, we joined the gathering. At exactly 8 p.m., an entry light came on. Our subdued host opened the front door and, with a touch of formality, ushered in the waiting guests.

This lack of fanfare is typical of Piedmont, tucked into a pocket of Italy between France and Switzerland. Subtle and unpretentious, two areas of the Piedmont region - Langhe and Monferrato - have quietly acquired reputations as culinary centers. But few tourists, even seasoned travelers, venture to Piedmont, which is too often overshadowed by the country's cooking star, Tuscany.

Besides fine food, a gastronomic tour of the Langhe and Monferrato areas offers the added attraction of a fairy-tale setting: green rolling hills covered with a patchwork of vineyards and thousand-year-old castles overlooking pretty little villages.

Begin a culinary tour of this region with one of Langhe's most enchanting villages, Barolo, the site of our restaurant, Locanda nel Borgo Antico. Despite our low-key introduction to this eatery, it offers a superb example of the simple, flavorful food of Piedmont - and Italian portions.

Meals here consist of an antipasto or appetizer; primo piatto, first course; secondo piatto, second course; a selection of formaggi, cheese; dolce, dessert; and caffe. By American standards, the portions are much smaller, and you seldom leave the table stuffed.

For our appetizers, we selected an omelet of cardi, edible thistles, topped with fonduta, a local version of fondue using Fontina cheese; and fresh porcini mushrooms drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Next, my husband requested a dish off the menu - pasta with butter and slivers of black truffle. Its counterpart, the prized white truffle, grows in the Langhe region; it's a delicacy celebrated each year during autumn festivals.

I opted for the gnochetti verdi, green potato dumplings, prepared with a local aged mountain cheese called Castelmagno. The taste was smooth and delicate. Rather than sweets, we sampled the cheese from a cart featuring more than a dozen choices.

On the way back to the village piazza, we browsed through Il Bacco, a delightful shop run by Franco and Caterina Cravero that sells regional items from grissini, breadsticks, to pan nocciola, a hazelnut bread and Piedmont specialty.

The two-lane roads winding through Langhe are notoriously confusing, so settle into the slower pace and enjoy the breathtaking scenery. The next stop is the castle of Grinzane Cavour, less than seven miles away.

After working up an appetite sightseeing one Sunday afternoon, my husband and I opted for a traditional meal at La Salinera, conveniently located at the bottom of the driveway leading to the Grinzane Cavour castle.

Many Piedmont restaurants feature degustazioni, an ideal way to try a medley of local dishes. Our nine samples, each consisting of no more than three or four bites, were wholesome fare.

Piedmontese cuisine relies heavily on meat. Our tastings included raw beef with Parmesan shavings and lemon; boiled veal accompanied by a flavorful mayonnaise dressing; pork sausages with porcini mushrooms, and a tangy sauce of onions, carrots, and olive oil; and rabbit in wine sauce. I was relieved when a plate of plin, a local pasta dish filled with beef, arrived followed by a helping of tagliatelle - long, flat pasta - in a meat stew or ragout.

We finished our meal with mini-dessert portions. A sweet staple in Piedmont is bonet, a mixture of cocoa powder and coffee blended into a pudding with a lady fingers-type crust and almonds. One of my favorite local desserts is panna cotta, cooked milk custard.

Food preparation, though, is only half the recipe in Piedmont cuisine. Considered equally important is how the meal is consumed. Not surprisingly, the region is home to Slow Food, an international organization dedicated to the pursuit of leisurely dining.

To experience more of the laid-back dining pleasure touted by the Slow Food group, head to the Monferrato area of Piedmont and the charming town of Acqui Terme.

Making our way to Via Alla Bollente, we peered through the wrought-iron fence surrounding the restaurant La Curia. A portly waiter led us to the last free table, where he enthusiastically recited the day's offerings. Striving for freshness, Piedmont restaurants often prepare only several dishes daily.

Our choices for the antipasti included crespelle, crepes, filled with pears and melted blue cheese, and cured beef with a fig and dollop of marmalade in the center.

To prepare two pounds of fresh pasta, the chef at La Curia uses only flour and 15 eggs - no water. To adorn our pasta, we chose an uncomplicated sauce, burratta, consisting of a local cheese similar to mozzarella, combined with fresh basil and tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil. Strudel with fresh figs topped off our Sunday lunch.

As the late-afternoon sun dipped lower, we shifted our table umbrella and settled comfortably back into our chairs. The meal had stretched lazily over three hours, a chance to relish each course and savor our taste of Piedmont's slow food.

Chicken With Bell Peppers

2 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 roasting chicken, cut into 8 pieces

1 bay leaf

1-1/2 cups hot chicken stock

4 green or yellow bell peppers

10 anchovy fillets canned in oil, mashed

2 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly crushed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

Place half the butter and all of the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat. Add the rosemary and, after a minute, the chicken and bay leaf.

Increase the heat slightly and fry the chicken pieces for 10 to 12 minutes, turning them frequently to brown evenly.

Add half the stock, lower heat to simmer, and cover. Cook for about 25 minutes or until done, adding more hot stock as necessary.

While the chicken is cooking, slice the bell peppers into 3/4-inch-wide strips.

Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan. Stir in the anchovies, crushing them so that they dissolve into the butter. Add the bell peppers, anchovies, and garlic to the chicken; season with a little salt and plenty of pepper; add the vinegar.

Simmer uncovered for another 20 minutes, and add any remaining stock as necessary. Remove the bay leaf.

Serve hot with Italian bread.

Serves 4.

- Recipe adapted from 'Flavors of Italy: Piedmont,' by Maria Paola Dettore and Gabreilla Ganugi (Time Life)

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