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Culinary Travel in Italy

The Traditional Cooking of the Langhe

Vineyards and villages in the Langue, the center of production for some of Italy's greatest wines--and the food that goes with them. (Photo by Clay Hubbs)

After several trips to Italy using the French Michelin red guide to Italian hotels and restaurants as our authority, some Italian acquaintances in the Piedmonte directed us to a place called Albaretto della Torre, a tiny village in the Langhe, the center of the regions greatest wines. The restaurant they recommended was simply called De Ceasare, after its owner Ceasare Giaccone, “the genius of the Langue.”

Just ask around in the village, we were told. Everyone knows Ceasare.

When we finally found the village, there was no sign of a restaurant—just several ancient farmhouses on either side of the small road which followed the spine of a high hill; vineyards rolled out in all directions.

A kindly old lady led us back to the entrance of the village to what looked like an American-style ranch house, set back off the road. There was no sign.

“Just ring the bell,” she said.

The door opened to reveal an elegantly turned out waiter. Behind a huge fireplace, where a whole goat was slowly roasting, was Ceasare’s kitchen.

After a wonderful meal of traditional local specialties, Signor Giaccone explained that he was not at all interested in cooking for people who simply consulted restaurant guides. In fact he had declined the honor of being listed in the Michelin and cooked only for those who made the effort to search him out. He had dedicated his life to finding the best ingredients of his region and turning them into “an epiphany” of Langue cuisine as it had been taught to him by his mother. The guests were invited to appreciate the ingredients and the effort—or stay away.

We told Ceasare we had no place to spend the night, so he gave us a room in the old house in the village where he was born (we slept next to his cradle). The next morning he invited us to come back to the restaurant for breakfast and a tour of his wine cellar.

After this, we felt we were beginning to understand and appreciate traditional Italian cooking. Subsequent trips to Italy have focused on searching out little-known trattorias—in many cases only a few tables at the back of a bar or the cook’s home—where the best food of Italy is served along with the local wines. Our searches have been aided enormously by those who have gone before.

Remembering the memory of our dinner at Da Ceasare, we went this summer on a tour of le Langue and the adjacent, less known Monferrato, which lie not far from Torino and Milan but still retain a medieval aura. Tiny villages surmounted by tall church steeples and imposing castles top off each of its hundred of small hills.

Before setting out on this year’s search for cooking as it used to be, we drove to the ancient town of Bra, the home of the Slow Food organization which is attempting to bring back and preserve the original ingredients and the traditional methods in cooking and at the same time save the countryside—and the world—from the culturally destructive effects of industrial farming and industrial foods (see below).

In Monferrato we settled in at the Agriturismo Dré Castè in a 17th century cardinal’s villa at the edge of the lovely village of Vignale Monferrato. The agriturismo is a branch of the Azienda Agricola “Il Mongetto,” which produces its now famous peperoncini or cherry peppers stuffed with capers, anchovies, and spices and preserved in olive oil and wine (see below).

Our first stop was in the tiny village of Serralunga d’Alba and the Tratteria del Castello. A local wine producer had led us here because, he said, the cooking was “as good as mama’s.”

Set in the center of the vineyards of Grizzano Cavour, the trattoria, under the shadow of the castle of Serralunga, was filled with workers from the vineyards eating lunch. The owner, Signor Zunino, a Falstaff-like figure, began by reciting the long list of dishes which constitute the traditional meal of this region.

Trattoria del Castello, Italy
Signor Zunino, owner of the Trattoria del Castello, serves only his own farm products and wines from surrounding hills.

We began with five antipasti or appetizers ranging from prosciutto and melone to carne cruda or thinly-sliced raw meat from the famous Piedmontese cattle call Fasson—an ancient breed, now protected by law. (Here as in most such family-run trattoria, there is no menu. You simply sit and eat what you are served.)

The pasta was the traditional hand-made tajarin or egg noodles cut into the thinnest possible ribbons and served with a sauce of tomatoes, carrots, celery, and tiny meatballs of chicken, veal, and pork—flavored with cinnamon and cloves.

The meat course was rabbit in a puree of peppers and a stracottoof beef in Barolo wine. To end the meal we were offered the traditional bunet or pannacotta (reduced cream).

Pierluigi Zunino, whose wife cooks and whose son serves, uses only his own farm products and local wines. He is particularly concerned that customers no longer understand wine—a complaint heard from every cook and small winemaker we encountered.

The traditional ways of aging local wines have been transformed by foreign market demands. Angelio Gaia, whose Barolos and Rubescos fetch a fortune, is blamed for introducing the aging of wine in small oak French barrels or “barriques,” not at all in the local tradition and a threat to small-time farmers.

For a day off from food, we decided to go to Asti, the wine capital of the region. The Slow Food people had recommended a tiny wine bar, the Enoteca Tacabanda, in the heart of the city, for a taste of the best wines.

To go with our tasting the very knowledgeable Lucca Piccinino served us a platter of salame al Barolo (pork and veal sausage marinated in wine) a salamin d’la Duja or a soft salami preserved in lard with a slight taste of clove; peperoncini made in the same manner as those of Il Mongetto; and the best grissini we had ever tasted, light as air and crisp, from the small (and unmarked) bakery/alimentaria in the little village of Montegardino called the Paneficio Penna. (We stopped there to pick up a suitcase full of fresh grissini before leaving the region.)

While Piccinino poured us glasses of a fantastic Barbaresco (Martinenga, Marchesi di Gresy, 1995), he, like Signor Zunino the day before, deplored the introduction of oak barriques for aging. He also insisted, when he learned we were in search of the best traditional cooking, that we eat at the great Langue restaurant, Guido—a recommendation also made by our Slow Food friends. “According to me,” Signor Piccinino said, “it is the best cooking in the region.”

To get closer to Costigliole d’Asti and to Ristorante Guido we moved from our agriurismo to a more appropriate hotel, the recently opened Castello di Villa, located in a meticulously renovated 17th century palazzo in the tiny hilltop village of Villa, next to Isola d’Asti.

We were served by Andrea and Piero, the sons of the great chef Lidia Alciati, who runs the kitchen with a third son, Ugo. While Signora Alciati bases all her cooking on traditional methods, she has also modernized them a bit by using less butter and cream. The tastes remain authentic.

We began the appetizers with a torta di verdura or a lasagne-like layering of zucchini and carrots flavored with a herb called San Pietro. This was followed by a vitello tonnato, the classic antipasto of the region made to such perfection that one could have stopped the meal then and there. When we asked Andrea about the use of anchovies in an inland area, he told us that anchovies were used to smuggle the taxed salt into the Piedmonte by being placed in layers on top of the salt barrels to make it appear as though they only contained fish.

Veal-stuffed zucchini flowers were accompanied by delicate purees of peas, peppers, and carrots.

The agnolotti were flawless, but the delicate spinach ravioli stuffed with potatoes and leeks accompanied by ty cubes of beets in a butter sauce were surprising and delicious—and also, of course—traditional.

This was followed by duck breasts in a creamy saffron sauce accompanied by fennel and carrots; a boned rabbit rolled in herbs and served in a pepper puree; and a veal roast with a wonderful Barolo sauce.

The cheese course allowed us to sample three famous cheeses of the region: robiolo, a goat cheese served both fresh and aged, with a flavor of thyme and other alpine herbs; Castelmagno, a very strong cow cheese which goes back to the middle ages and is produced in small quantities from cows that graze in high mountains; and, finally, a local Gorgonzola.

After a plate of “piccola pasticceria” came the dolce: a pannacotta with fresh sliced figs and strawberries dipped in hot syrup and a granita of frutta di bosco (berries from the woods) with whole berries to accompany it.

Andrea was concerned that we chose the right wine—again not those that were barrique aged. He poured us a fruity and full-flavored Roero Arneis, Mauro Sebasto 1999, a white wine not as well known as the famed Barolo and Barbaresco. The red wine he chose for us was a Barbera d’Asti, Vigna del Noce 1994 from the neighboring village of Agliano Terme.

We had ended our trip on a very high note (read expensive). At Guido the general theme—or melody—of the Langue/ Monferrato had not been lost. It has been refined.

Where to Stay and Eat in the Langhe

Azienda Agricola Il Mongetto, via Piave, 2, 15049 Vignale Monferrato AL; www.mongetto.it.

The Agriturismo Dré Castè offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner by reservation; Tel./fax 011-390-142-933442 or 011-390-142-933469. Two of the doubles have kitchenettes.

Trattoria del Castello offers great food and a fine hotel; www.ristoranteserralunga.it/welcome_eng.lasso.

Enoteca Tacabanda, via al Teatro Alfieri, 5, 14100 Asti; 011-390-141-530999.

Ristorante Guido, Piazza Umberto, 1, 27-14055, Costigliole D’asti, AL 14055; Tel./fax 011-390-141-96-60-12, reservations only.

And also...

Ristorante Universo, via Bergamachino, 19, Vignale Monferatto 15049 (AL); 011-390-142-933052. This restaurant from the 1800s in the center of Vignale serves only traditional local specialties (reservations required).

Ristorante Amarotto, via Stazione, 1, Serralunga di Crea 15020 (AL); 011-390-142-940125, fax 011-390-142-940581; amorroto@plurinet.it. Another village restuarant in the Monferatto where you can get traditional sausage but also dishes which reflect the French influence from the centuries when the region

JOANNA HUBBS is Professor of Russian Cultural History at Hampshire College and the author of Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture (now available in a Japanese translation).