Eat, Drink, Repeat – Enjoying Italy’s Best in the Piedmont

Eat, Drink, Repeat – Enjoying Italy’s Best in the Piedmont

The leaves had turned. The air was cool and crisp so a fall road trip in the Piedmont to the villages and towns of the Langhe-Roero and Monferrato regions made a lot of sense.

Any time of the year, well-paved highways are an easy way to travel between cities in the Piedmont, to explore hilltop villages, do wine tasting and visit off-the-beaten path destinations. Because the region has a bounty of Barbera, Barolo and Nebbiolo wines, I was happy to be traveling by car so I could carry back wines to share when I returned home.

Surrounded by mountains on three sides, the Piedmont shares borders with Switzerland and France. The second largest region in Italy after Sicily, the Piedmont has a great range of landscapes, from tall peaks to rice-growing lowlands.

One of Italy’s most important wine growing areas, the Langhe-Roero and Monferrato regions were honored in 2014 as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Located in the southern part of the Piedmont, they have been an important center for grape cultivation and wine production since the Roman Empire.

My trip took me through what UNESCO called a “cultural landscape,” notable for its “combined action between man and nature.” With so much awareness these days about balancing human needs and protecting the environment, it was that positive relationship I wanted to see.

Before I saw how humans engaged with nature, I began with nature itself.

Cella Monte

Secrets of the deep - infernot

In the hilltop village of Cella Monte in Alessandria Province, I looked down on a wide valley that stretched to the horizon. That was evidence of an inland sea that disappeared millions of years ago. For my adventure in Monferrato, Mirella Maestri was the able guide who sketched out the details of the area’s history.

For millennia, Mirella explained, when the small creatures that swarmed in these waters died, their bodies settled onto the bottom of the sea. Each generation’s fragile skeletons pressed down on the previous generations until billions upon billions had been compressed before the first human beings visited the area. By the time the waters disappeared, the bottom of the sea had become encrusted with a hard packed sediment.

Mirella pointed out the distinctive yellow houses in Cella Monte that were built out of that super-dense material called “Pietra da Cantoni.” But the sandstone was important to the region in another way.

The narrow asphalt road cut through vineyards that hugged tightly to the sloping hillsides. We stopped in front of a tiny, three-hundred-year old church, the Madonna of the Graces (Madonna delle Grazie). But I wasn’t here to pray, I was in search of what locals call an infernot.

Literally meaning “infernal” or “hell,” an infernot is a room dug into the dense limestone.  Because the temperature underground was a constant 55 F all year round, infernot were used originally for food storage and later as wine cellars. Mirella led the way down narrow stairs, the marks made by pick axes and chisels still evident on the walls. “Watch your head,” she said, as I ducked just in time to avoid colliding with the low ceiling.

After we descended the narrow staircase, we entered a large room with electric bulbs that cast a harsh light on the stone walls. Mirella showed me the deep shelves where produce, meat and wine were once stored. She pointed out that, of course, when the farmers labored here, they used candles and oil lamps.

Infernot beneath Madonna

The history of the infernot was a testament to human ingenuity. Because farmers could not work their fields in cold weather, instead of wasting the time, they used the winter months to dig into the dense stone. This particular infernot was built before Columbus discovered the New World. Imagine, rock so strong, the walls and ceilings were as sturdy today as when they were constructed six hundred years ago.

To learn more about the geology and history, we stopped at the Infernot Museum (Ecomuseo della Pietra da Cantoni). Once again we descended a narrow staircase before we entered a spacious room, this one with a giant table carved out of the rock and wide shelves built into the walls.

Enrica Pugno, the museum’s guide, explained that infernot were a male sanctuary, a place to relax with relatives and friends, eat charcuterie and drink wine from their vineyards. With all those creature comforts, perhaps their wives complained that they spent too much time in the infernot. But they didn’t have to worry. With no ventilation, when the flames flickered, the men knew the oxygen was running out and they had to leave their man-caves.

big bench

Big Benches, Big Vistas and Sacred Mountains

Just outside the Madonna of the Graces, we walked past grape vines matted with sundried leaves and grapes shriveled into rock-hard raisins.  We followed the trellised vines to the ridge of the hill where there was an unexpected sight.

A giant red bench.

Like Gulliver in the land of the Brobdingnag giants, I needed a step stool to climb onto the wooden bench. Once seated, I felt like a child with my legs stretched in front of me. I looked out to the vista below. I had an awesome view of the entire area. Clouds hung in the sky above the valley floor. Vineyards stretched to the horizon. In the distance I could see villages perched on the tops of hills.

To date, eighty-nine Big Benches have been built throughout the region. The benches are a collaboration between local communities and artists Chris and Catherine Bangle who live in Clavesana where they built the first Big Bench.  The U.S. born Chris Bangle was Chief of Design for BMW. After almost two decades in Germany, working in a high powered job, he made a clean break and moved to rural Piedmont.

He turned his design expertise to a new effort. To appreciate the lovely Piedmont countryside, the Big Bench Project created benches that made you feel “as if you were a child again,” to slow down and appreciate the moment. It certainly worked for me. I lingered on the bench, enjoying the silence and watching clouds drift across the valley.

A map on the Big Bench Community Project website notes the location of all the benches.

Half an hour from Cella Monte, we drove up a steep hillside road to one of Piedmont’s most impressive destinations. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sacro Monte di Crea (Sacred Mount of Crea) was one of nine sacred mounts in Piedmont and Lombardy.

Sacro Monte di Crea hiking trail

Sacro Monte di Crea was appealing on many levels. A beautiful, natural landscape on the tallest mountain in Monferrato, the parklands could be enjoyed for a nature hike in spring and fall or a picnic in the sheltering woods on a hot summer day.

As the name suggested, Sacro Monte di Crea was also a spiritual site.

Originally developed in the 16th century, the chapels were created with diorama inside that illustrated the drama of Mary’s story and the Stations of the Cross. In each chapel, life-sized terracotta sculptures of men, women, children and angels were caught in a moment of spiritual devotion. The sculptures were rich with drama and human emotion.

Having fallen into disrepair, the chapels were restored in the 19th century. In Chapel XVI, the Climb to Calvary, Leonardo Bistolfi (1859-1933), a renowned artist from Casale Monferrato, used statues and frescos to bring an ancient story to life. As Jesus struggled with the heavy cross on his shoulder, people along the rocky path suffered with him, feeling his pain as it was said he felt theirs. Observing the human drama were angels, their wings out furled, their somber faces showing no emotion because they knew this tragic story had a happy ending.

Sacro Monte di Crea diorama

The uphill trail around the twenty-three chapels took about an hour, allowing time to appreciate each diorama and the beauty of the mountain. After the strenuous walk, I was happy the park had an espresso bar, an impressive retail shop selling local products, baked goods and sweets and the charming Ristorante di Crea.

I enjoyed lunch in the light and airy restaurant with a view of the park. Typical of the Piedmont, the meal began with a bubbling hot, garlicy-anchovy bagna cauda served with thin slices of raw vegetables and beef before moving on to a generous serving of agnolottt, filled with braised veal cheek and served with a rustic polenta. The wines, including a Tenuta Tenaglia Barbera del Monferrato Cappella III (2018), were provided by La Grignolinoteca, the onsite wine store. This was the hearty food of Northern Italy, designed for cold weather and perfect on a day when wet mists hung heavily on the mountain.

On the drive to Alba, we stopped at one of the area’s many castles, the Castle of Serralunga d’Alba (il Castello di Serralunga d’Alba). Located in the Lange, an area renowned for wine, hazelnuts and truffles, the castle was originally built in the 14th century, then rebuilt and expanded over several centuries. The tower and castle dominated the valley then as today.

To provide a defense, a double stone wall and moat once protected the castle from invaders, of which there were many during Italy’s turbulent history. Today the walls and moat were long gone. Instead, neat houses were packed together below the castle to make up the lovely village of Serralunga d’Alba.

To see the view, no Big Bench was needed here. Standing on a high point of the castle, it was easy to see why Serralunga d’Alba was included as a UNESCO Heritage site in 2014. For centuries the land had been tended with love that yielded quality wines, notably Barolo and Barbaresco, and agricultural products, especially hazelnuts.

Looking down from the castle, I could see the flat areas neatly planted with hazelnut trees and the terraced vineyards that followed the contours of the gently rolling hills. When I visited in the fall, the air had a crisp bite and snow dusted the vineyards. The castle guide, Massimiliano Romanelli, explained that in early November, the hills were covered with leaves ablaze with color. I had arrived two weeks too late to enjoy the best of the fall foliage.

Romanelli pointed west to Monviso, the mountain on the other side of the valley. That, he said, was the model for the Paramount Pictures logo. If I squinted, I could imagine the sharp-tipped peak surrounded by stars. Later, a quick internet search suggested that the inspiration for the logo could have been a mountain in Utah, but I liked the idea of Monviso as the image on the Paramount Pictures logo.

Piedmont building

Romanelli pointed to the south toward the coast and Genoa. The hazelnuts from Serralunga d’Alba in the Upper Langhe were said to have special qualities. Always harvested by hand, Romanelli said that the hazelnuts benefited from the ocean breezes that gave them their naturally salty flavor.

A short walk down the hill from the castle proved why the Piedmont was a wonderful destination for those who enjoy culinary pleasures. Inside L’Infernot del Castel (the Infernot of the Castle), the cozy market was stocked with local products. The shelves were filled with local red and white wines, grappa, charcuterie, cheeses, freshly baked breads, biscuits, fresh pasta, jars of local products including mushrooms, fruit jams, savory sauces and desserts, including cakes made with hazelnuts from the local trees.

Home cooking and fine dining

Eating in a variety of settings, from a home kitchen to a Michelin-starred restaurant, I discovered that the cooks of the Piedmont used less olive oil, more butter and fewer tomatoes than other areas of Italy. In a week’s time, I enjoyed meals that featured the rustic appetizer bagna cauda, a hot anchovy-garlic dip served with vegetables and/or carpaccio, braised veal cheek and bonét, a cake made with Amaretti, cocoa powder, liquor and crumbled hazelnuts that had a texture similar to a flourless chocolate cake.

In the village of Solonghello, east of Turin, at Locanda dell’Arte Ristorante, server Emanuele Buso paired local dishes with his favorite wines from the region. With a creamy, light-as-pillows gnocchi made with Castelmagno cheese from Cuneo to the south, Emanuele poured a spicy Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese, Angelini Paolo “Arbian” (2018). With roasted pork in a honey sauce, he offered a glass of the dark, rich Tenuta Tenaglia Barbera del Monferrato Cappella III (2018) that I enjoyed at Ristorante di Crea. Dessert was bonét, the chocolate dessert that appeared on so many Piedmont menus.

In the city of Isola d’Asti, located half-way between Asti and Alba, Chef Walter Ferretto and his brother, Sommelier Roberto Ferretto created the elegant, Michelin-starred Il Cascinale Nuovo Restaurant.

Inside the main dining room, at lunch light flooded in from windows facing the street in front and corn fields in back. Michelin-starred restaurants can be formal, not so Cascinale Nuovo. The atmosphere was relaxed. The friendly servers moved quietly between tables.

Cascinale Nuovo truffles

Because this was truffle season, a plate of large white Alba truffles took center stage on a table at the entrance to the room.

Ferretto began the meal with taste treats from the region, a basket of freshly baked focaccia, slices of bread and pencil-thin bread sticks. Server Roberto Pasqualini poured a glass of sparkling Cuvage made with Nebbiolo d’ Alba, a refreshingly dry, fun, white Rosé Brut. A plate of amuse bouche arrived with quarter-sized pieces of gorgonzola cheese dusted with chickpea flour and then fried, a small salami cotta sandwich and a demitasse cup of porcini mushroom soup with anise.

Next was an antipasto grandly described as Autumn in Piedmont (L’Autunno in Piemonte). A perfectly white plate was the background for a colorful garden of local produce, fresh, fried and dehydrated. Pumpkin slices, parsnips, cardoon leaves, mushrooms, radicchio, celeriac leaves, pomegranate seeds, almonds and more were layered in a delicious jumble of textures and flavors. For vegans, there was a delicate sauce made with celeriac leaves pureed into velvety creaminess. For an earthier sauce, Ferretto made a robust salad dressing out of anchovies.

Pulling from local wineries, all excellent, one of the best was the Tenuta Garetto Nizza Barbera d’Asti “Favà” 2015, a rich, smooth Barbera that went well with the vegetable antipasto and the braised veal in a Barbera d’Asti wine sauce served with polenta and vegetables (Sottopaletta di razza piemontese alla Barbera d’Asti).

Cascinale Nuovo monk fish

Other dishes followed. A simple and elegant tajarin pasta with butter and a plate of monk fish with paper-thin artichokes fried into an ephemeral crispness were delicious.

For dessert, another local wine, Mongioia, 2018 Moscato d’Asti Canelli “Belb” accompanied Ferretto’s celebration of the fall with a bonét chocolate pudding cake, ice cream, panna cotta and gelato with walnuts.

In the hills of the Alta Langhe, south of Alba, on the way to Monforte d'Alba, the narrow, twisting two-lane road led through neatly planted hazelnut tree orchards. We passed tall maple trees, their delicate leaves turned a brilliant yellow by the chill air, and vineyards, bare of leaves, with an inch of snow on the ground.

We arrived at a restaurant and B&B located on the top of a hill with a view of the valley below. Ristorante Borgo Sant’Anna was a passion project of Chef Pasquale Laera and restaurant manager Fabio Mirici Cappa with the able assistance of Laera’s wife Carmilla Cosentino.

Ristorante Borgo Sant’Anna chefs

Before the meal, I walked outside on the wide terrace. I could see terraced vineyards following the contours of the hills, hazelnut orchards and houses scattered on the crests of hills in the distance. Classic Piedmont.

Hitting all the high points of a fine dining meal, Laera began with two amuse bouche. Ideal for vegans, there were light-as-air crackers made with buckwheat and soya sauce. I could have eaten a basket. They were that delicious. And, an in-the-shell, gently cooked egg with fresh herbs that was creamy and full of flavor.

The wine was from the region, a lovely Marco Porello Langhe Nebbiolo 2018, dark red and robust, perfect with the fresh anchovy filets in a green sauce made with parsley, garlic and oil. The main was a hearty dish of braised veal with cabbage, creamy potatoes and pickled red cabbage. Laera used local ingredients, including veal from free-range Fassona Piemontese cows, well-known for their tender meat.

Dessert was a playful mix of textures with creamy sabayon, hazelnut cake and poached pears. As if those were not enough to complete the meal, Laera served a plate of small taste treats that varied in flavor and sweetness.

Ristorante Borgo Sant’Anna exceled in service and culinary skills, qualities that will undoubtedly result in recognition by Michelin.

wine tasting

Wine tasting

A light rain began in late afternoon as we drove on a narrow street in Cella Monte, barely wide enough for one car. We turned off the steeply inclined hill into the spacious courtyard of Cinque Quinti.

With a great many quality wineries to choose from in the Piedmont, I was delighted to visit two that had historical legacies.

Originally a castle, the house and the agricultural land have been in the Arditi family since 1750. In the early twentieth century, Mario Arditi planted vineyards so he could sell grapes to wineries. In 2015, his grandchildren, Fabrizio, Martina, Michele, Francesca and Mario, the five siblings or five fifths, “cinque quinti,” decided to use a portion of their crop to create their own winery. Their small production in 2019 of 22,000 bottles was only sold locally so I was happy to be invited into their home, which was also a tasting room.

Usually a sampling of their wines is accompanied with snacks of bread and cheese. Because the Cinque Quinti wines were designed to be enjoyed with a meal and because this was a private tasting, their mother, Manuela, cooked a typical Piedmont lunch.

We had a lovely garbanzo bean soup (zuppa di ceci), which she said was “vegetarian except for a little piece of pork.” There was meat a plenty on the table, with local charcuterie and homemade agnolotti filled with pork sausage, beef and rabbit in a clear sauce.

One of my favorite dishes was the most colorful. Large pieces of charred red peppers were laid on a plate topped with large anchovy filets from Sicily. The combination of the peppers and salty filets was so ideal, I am now making the dish at home to the delight of our friends.

As the dishes arrived at the table, so too did a sampling of Cinque Quinti wines. Tasting several wines, they were all delicious. The Carisa 2017 made with 100% Barbera grapes was my favorite. It was the perfect accompaniment to the agnolotti.

Marchesi Alfieri

An hour southwest from Cella Monte, we stopped in San Martino at a winery also owned continuously for centuries by one family. Marchesi Alfieri has been in the Alfieri family since 1616. The winery was founded half a century later in 1696.

Samantha Panfilio and winemaker Mario Olivero were the guides for a walk around the expansive property. We began in an elegant and cozy sunroom. Light poured in from the ceiling-to-floor windows that had a view of the exquisite main house where the family lives.

A 19th century English garden by Xavier Kurten (1769-1840) framed the space between the two buildings. Open to the public by appointment, the park featured massive trees, including a Lebanon cedar more than 200 years old. In the fall, truffle hunters and their dogs roam the grounds in search of black and white truffles hidden around the park’s linden, oak and hazelnut trees.

For a tasting, Mario served a young Barbera, “La Tota,” which he said paired well with cheese, pasta, meats or just about anything we were in the mood to eat.  Another 100% Barbera wine, “Alfiera,” had an earthy flavor and a deep red color. We finished with a 100% Nebbiolo, “Costa Quaglia,” aged over two years. Mario recommended serving the Nebbiolo with pasta or poached eggs topped with white truffles. Tasting the wines and listening to Mario made me very hungry.

Afterwards, we continued walking around the estate, enjoying the last light from the setting sun. The lights of the house and sunroom cast a romantic amber color onto the deep green lawn. From the far side of the house, we looked down into the valley curtained with mist, a view that extended to the horizon.

Wine Bank

The Wine Bank

One of the most exciting stops on the road trip was the Wine Bank (La Banca del Vino) in the village of Pollenzo, south of Turin and west of Alba. The Wine Bank was part of a complex that also housed the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Università degli Studi di scienze gastronomiche) known popularly as the Slow Food University.

The retail shop offered daily tastings of thirty-two wines from the Wine Bank’s cellar which contained wines from hundreds of Italian wine producers. For my wine tasting, no bartenders or wine stewards waited on me. The experience was high-tech and I set my own pace.

The system worked easily. Upon entry, I was given a credit card-sized wine card. The wines for the tasting that day were available in dispensing machines. The Italian WineEmotion dispensers used inert argon gas to protect the organoleptic qualities of each wine.

After I chose the wine and quantity of the pour, a swipe of my card dispensed the wine. At the end of the tasting, a quick tally of the card and I paid for what I drank. A very rewarding and efficient process.

In the retail lobby, besides the WineEmotion dispensers, bottles of wine for sale were arranged by region, whether they were white or red or if they were from organic, small production vineyards, which earned them a Triple A designation. Without having to travel from winery to winery, in one room I experienced a wide range of Italian wines.  Since the thirty-two wines changed frequently, if I booked a room next door at the comfortable hotel Albergo Dell’Agenzia, the adventure could continue for as many days as I liked.

Most of the 100,000 bottles of wines in the vault were for sale, but not all. A black or a red stamp meant they were. A blue stamp indicated that they were not.

Ileana Chiola from the hospitality department led the tour of the vault. Designed to look like medieval catacombs with arched, brick-lined ceilings, each room displayed wines from a particular region. The largest selection of wines was, of course, from the Piedmont, but all the regions in Italy were represented with a sampling of wineries and wines typical for that region.

Besides the blue stamped wines, a few hundred bottles were also not for sale. Secured behind locked gates in the “museum,” those wines were part of the historical collection from modern wineries as long ago as the 1950s.

As a way to visualize the idea of terroir, the vault created a “tableau.” Next to each wine bottle on display there was a sample of the dirt from the vineyard along with an informational card with the name of the wine growing region, the winery, when the winery was founded, the number of acres under cultivation, the number of bottles produced, the wine produced, the grapes used, a UPC code and the web address.

As befits a wine cellar that was next door to the Slow Food University, placards throughout the vault gave explanations about Italy’s wine growing regions, the origins of particular wines, the differences between wines, sparkling, white and red, methods of vinification and even the history of corks.

For a deeper dive into Italian wines, the Wine Bank offered entertaining choices of fun games to challenge your knowledge of wine, workshops for individuals or groups for an hour or a full day to explore the differences between wines and what food pairings work best with which wines. Guided tours of nearby wineries were also available.

Mercato Coperto di Asti

Truffles and the Alba White Truffle World Market

The first thing guide Silvia Orione said about truffles was that white truffles were valued far above black truffles. The second thing she explained was that truffles and mushrooms were related. The major difference between them, besides flavor, was that a mushroom grows largely above ground and the truffle always stays hidden underground.

Truffles grow in close proximity to specific trees, forming a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the linden, willow, hazelnut, oak and popular trees. In the Piedmont, white truffles were harvested from the end of September to the end of January. Even though humans cannot see the location of truffles, animals with exceptionally acute olfactory abilities can find truffles because of their distinctive, earthy aroma. Historically, pigs were used, but these days dogs were preferred because they are easier to train and transport.

Black truffles can be cultivated by inoculating host trees with spores collected from truffles but white truffles only grow in the wild. Truffle hunters have favorite trees where truffles reliably grow. In the Truffle Hunters (2020) documentary, truffle hunters talk about not revealing their secret places, even taking those locations to the grave.

white truffles

The best place to see a great number of quality truffles was at the Alba White Truffle World Market (Mercato Mondiale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba). In 2020, an additional weekend will be added, with the fair running from October 9 to December 8.

We passed the giant Nutella factory on the outskirts of Alba and arrived as the sun was setting. Long shadows settled over the 12th century Alba Cathedral (Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, Duomo di Alba).

Even though we were blocks away from the truffle market, the city was alive with excitement. The scene in the cathedral square looked positively Medieval. Under yellow tenting with smoke rising from open braziers, sellers called out the qualities of their sausages, hazelnuts, wine and cheese. Only the bare electric bulbs illuminating the stalls marked this as happening in the 21st century.

Fighting the temptation to stop, I pressed on, carried along with the crowds on narrow streets past retail stores, open late to tempt fair goers. No need to ask directions, everyone was walking to the fair.

Once past the crush at the fair’s entrance, inside the main exhibition space, booths were filled with vendors selling local agricultural products. For anyone who enjoys quality food, the market was a delight. There were displays of cheeses, wines, hazelnuts from Piedmont, chestnuts from Cuneo Provence, olive oils, spirits, cookies and, of course, the featured player, the truffle.

Besides truffle oil, truffles in cheese and jars of preserved truffles, there were freshly harvested white truffles on display. Laid out on colorful plaid tablecloths or placed under heavy bell jars to emphasize their luxury value, white truffles were treated with reverence.

Before setting up a booth at the fair, each truffle trader, called a trifulau, signed a code of conduct, confirmed the quality of their product and agreed to a “Safe Purchase” guarantee. If a buyer was unsatisfied with the truffle, within a 48-hour period, before using it, of course, the trifulau agreed to refund the purchase price.

To help buyers make the best choices, judges (Giudice di Analisi Sensoriale) from the National Truffle Study Center were available at no cost to confirm the qualities and price of any truffles at the fair. The friendly and mustached Natale Romagnolo was on duty when I visited. Even after fifty years as a trifulau, he still loved the excitement of the market.

I watched as Romagnolo evaluated a white truffle the size of a small tangerine. He checked the aroma, looking for a pleasant quality. A smile indicated that this was a good one. He examined the outside texture to confirm that there were no obvious areas of deterioration. With a nod he confirmed that this truffle was worth the asking price.

Truffles are very perishable. Their best qualities begin to fade within a few days of being removed from their sanctuaries in the ground. As valuable as these truffles were, the clock was running to find buyers before their value decreased.

In Italy, truffle hunters are licensed. A truffle hunting dog is worth its weight in gold. There is even a truffle dog university in Roddi, Alba, established in 1880. I hoped to meet a truffle dog at the fair, but no luck in that regard.

Truffle hunter Rinaldi Angelo was at the fair. He expected his 630 gram white truffle would sell for 600 €. By profession, a farmer, Rinaldi had been truffle hunting in his family’s woods since he was a teenager, some 25 years ago.

Like Natale Romagnolo, Rinaldi enjoyed being a truffle hunter for the excitement. He never knew what he would find. He might find the totally unexpected, a treasure, or nothing.

And, he enjoyed being alone with his dogs in the quiet of the pre-dawn night and the early morning. That was the best time to hunt for truffles, because the dogs weren’t distracted. Which explains why there were no truffle dogs at the fair. The crowds, noise, bright lights and tables full of truffles would be an unpleasant overload for them.

For an additional fee during the fair, chefs from Piedmont and all over Italy offered Slow Food cooking demonstrations of their signature dishes. At a demonstration I attended, a chef from Laveno-Mombello invented a pasta made with a complex of textures and flavors. All of which, he explained, were designed to be enhanced by the addition of a shaving of white truffles. To add truffles to his dish was an additional 30 € ($33.00 US).

Enoclub Restaurant

After the fair, it was time to eat. Seeing all those truffles made me very hungry. I had dinner at Caffé Umberto Enoclub Restaurant, a collaboration between Chef Luca Boffa and his wife Daniela Giovanni Boffa. The dinner featured two of Piedmont’s best gastronomic products, white Alba truffles and wine.

A Pertinace Barbaresco 2016 from Nebbiolo grapes was paired with a Fontina cheese fondue risotto, topped with a dozen truffle slices that floated down from chef Luca’s truffle slicer like fall leaves. The other was a simple dish, one known to bring out the best in a truffle.

Eggs in coquette was luxurious in its custard-texture, the result of carefully preparing the eggs. First the egg whites were mixed with Parmesan cheese before being topped with custardy yolks. Baked and served hot, chef Luca generously topped the dish with paper thin slices of white truffle.

Given the richness of both dishes, the acidity of the Barbaresco was an ideal companion. Each was a pleasure in its own way. Combined, they were the height of gastronomic delight.

Because the fair offered a great many gastronomic programs over a period of several months, a good time to visit the region is during October through early December. With tickets booked for events on the weekends, the weekdays could be used to explore the city of Alba and the areas nearby in the Monferrato and Langhe-Roero regions.

Casale Monferrato rooftops

WHEN YOU GO:

The websites for the region provide travel itineraries and essential facts. Information about the area is available on the websites for MonferratoLanghe-Roero and Asti. Consult the comprehensive Itinera website for information about the Piedmont Region, including suggestions about guided tours, contact either by phone +39 0173 363480 or email itinera@piemonteitinera.net. Licensed tour guides are also available in the Monferrato region.

Easily reached by airplane or train to Milan and Turin, rental cars can be booked online before arrival. Insurance is required. If you are using car insurance provided by your credit card, confirm that car rentals in Italy are covered. A small car is preferable if your itinerary will take you to hilltop villages with narrow streets.

Alba

Alba White Truffle World Market (Mercato Mondiale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba), Via Vittorio Emanuele 19, Museo Federico Eusebio, 12051, Alba CN, +39 0173 361051, info@fieradeltartufo.org. The program for the 90th edition of the fair in 2020 is not yet available, but the dates are confirmed as October 9 – December 8, 2020.  Check the website also for special programs at the market, including children’s activity games, tastings and cooking demonstrations as well as events which are available in Alba that are as varied as museum visits, concerts and special historical entertainments.

Caffé Umberto Enoclub Restaurant, Piazza Michele Ferrero, 4, 12051 Alba CN, +39 0173 33994, info@caffeumberto.it. Dedicated to the pleasures of the vine, the restaurant is decorated as an upscale wine cellar grotto, with arched brick ceilings, subdued lighting and walls lined with wine bottles. Chef Luca Boffa and Daniela Giovanni Boffa created a friendly space to enjoy local dishes, the wines of the region and quality products from throughout Europe.

Asti

Mercato Coperto di Asti, Piazza Libertà 10, 14100, Asti AT. Facebook page only in Italian. Close to the Piazza Vittorio Alfieri, the vendors at the Mercato sell quality local products, including fresh produce, meats, poultry and fish, cheese, chocolates and fresh pasta.

Palazzo Mazzetti, Corso Vittorio Alfieri, 357, 14100 Asti AT, +39 0141 530503, info@fondazioneastimusei.it. Some web pages are available only in Italian. For centuries the home of the Mazzetti family, the residence and museum offer an encounter with the Baroque architecture of a wealthy, powerful family. When you walk through the galleries, which were originally the family’s rooms, look up at the ceiling and examine the walls, which are as artfully crafted as the art on display. Today, the Palazzo is operated by the city and commune of Asti. Consult the website for hours and special exhibitions. When I visited, besides the permanent collection, there was a well-curated special exhibit documenting the relationship between the Impressionists and the Normandy coast.

Pasticceria Giordanino cakes

Pasticceria Giordanino Corso Vittorio Alfieri, (Giordanino’s Pastry Shop), Corso Alfieri, 254, 14100 Asti AT, +39 0141 593802. On Facebook in Italian only. Located on the main shopping street, Pasticceria Giordanino sells classic local pastries. Cookies, cakes, baked goods, chocolates, candies, wine and all manner of treats are for sale to delight children and adults of any age. They are perfect to enjoy while you are walking around Asti or to bring home to share a sampling of Piedmont’s culinary treats.

Bra - Pollenzo

Albergo dell’Agenzia, Via Fossano, 21, 12042 Bra – Pollenzo CN, +39 0172 458600.  A comfortable, affordable hotel next door to the Wine Bank and the University of Gastronomic Sciences (Università degli Studi di scienze gastronomiche), also known as the Slow Food University (UNISG).

University of Gastronomic Sciences (Università degli Studi di scienze gastronomiche), Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, 9, 12042 Pollenzo, Bra CN, +39 0172 458511. Also known as the Slow Food University or UNISG, founded in 2000 (with classes first offered in 2004), what began as the Slow Food movement, celebrating local products and foods prepared, well, “slowly,” has become a world-renowned institution devoted to everything related to gastronomy. Which includes not only the consumption of food but the agricultural practices that produce what we eat. Located on the grounds is the convenient and comfortable hotel Albergo dell’Agenzia, Pollenzo, the Wine Bank (La Banca del Vino) and San Vittore Church.

Wine Bank – Agenzia di Pollenzo (La Banca del Vino), Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, 13, Pollenzo, 12042 Bra CN, +39 0172.458418, info@bancadelvino.it. Check the website for hours, programs of games for wine lovers, workshops and winery partners. For those who want a self-guided experience without a tasting, there is no entrance fee. The wines displayed in the wine tasting lobby and in the wine vault are stored at 80% humidity and around 60 F, the ideal temperature to protect each wine’s qualities.

Casale Monferrato

Casale Monferrato, website in Italian only. East of Turin, on a bend of the Po River, the city was often attacked because of its strategic location close to France. As a result, the city was heavily fortified with defensive castles and moats.

City Tower (Torre Civica), Saint Stefano Civic Tower, Via Aurelio Saffi, 7, 15033 Casale Monferrato AL, +39 0142 444411. For a bird’s eye view of the Old City and the 16th-century star-shaped castle on a bend of the Po River, climb the 170 steps to the top. Hours vary depending on the time of day, day of the week and season.

Krumiri Rossi, Via Giovanni Lanza, 17, 15033 Casale Monferrato AL, +39 0142 453030. A must-stop when you are in Casale Monferrato. The aroma of Krumiri cookies baking in the factory store was intoxicating. The mixture of all-natural ingredients, “00” floor, eggs, sugar, butter and vanilla, produced a delightfully crunchy cookie said to be shaped like a moustache. Eaten as a cookie or dipped into coffee, tea, liqueurs or wine or eaten with custards, the cookies are sold sealed in airtight packaging that keeps them fresh for up to six months.

Cella Monte

Cinque Quinti, Via Dante Barbano, 46, Cella Monte AL, support@cinquequinti.com,  +39 339 108 3799/333 458 7383. The name means “five fifths” or “five siblings” because the children of the family wanted to make wine. Fabrizio, Martina, Michele, Francesca and Mario Arditi share responsibilities running the vineyards and the winery. During warm months, tastings are held outside in the courtyard. In colder months, tastings are inside the family home. Consult the website for a list of available wines and times to visit the winery.

The Infernot Ecomuseum (Ecomuseo della Pietra da Cantoni), Piazza Vallino, Via Circonvallazione, 15034, Cella Monte AL, +39 0142 488161. Website in Italian only. No longer used for food and wine storage, many infernot have been preserved as part of the region’s historical heritage. On the ground floor, stretching through many rooms, displays in English and Italian explain the history, geology and use of infernot in the region. Entry into the infernot beneath the museum is in the back corner of the meeting room where presentations are given.

Ristorante di Crea,  Sacro Monte di Crea Park, Piazza Santuario, 7, 15020 Serralunga di Crea AL,  +39 0142 940108. Website in Italian only.

Sacro Monte di Crea Park, 15020 Serralunga di Crea, AL. Website in Italian only. In the park there is a restaurant, il Restorante di Crea, an espresso bar, a gift shop with a selection of local crafts and food products and La Grignolinoteca, a wine cellar carrying local wines. Ristorante di Crea, Sacro Monte di Crea Park, Piazza Santuario, 7, 15020 Serralunga di Crea, AL,  +39 0142 940108.

Isola d’ Asti

Il Cascinale Nuovo Restaurant, SS231, 14057 Isola d’Asti AT, 0141 958166. A Michelin-starred restaurant in a suburban setting created by Chef Walter Ferratto and his brother Sommelier Roberto Ferretto. In addition to the restaurant, there are fifteen rooms on the property. Consult the website for details and availability.

Monforte d’Alba

Ristorante Borgo Sant’Anna, Località S. Anna, 84, 12065 Monforte d'Alba CN, +39 0173 195 0332, info@borgosantanna.it. The under-construction website is in Italian only. Open for lunch and dinner. In addition to the spacious, airy dining rooms, in warm weather, meals are served outside on the patio with views of the surrounding vineyard-covered hills.

Rosignano Monferrato

Big Bench Community Project by artists Chris and Catherine Bangle. An online map shows the location of all the benches.

Madonna of the Graces (Madonna delle Grazie Church), Strada Madonna delle Grazie, 6, 15030 Rosignano Monferrato. An appointment to visit the interior of the church and the infernot underneath can be made by calling +39 0142 489 009 or emailing info@comune.rosignanomonferrato.al.it. The church is across the street from an above-ground cemetery (Cimitero di Rosignano Monferrato), next door to the Vicara Winery and a short hike from a Big Bench, one of the giant benches created by the Big Bench Community Project.

San Martino Alfieri

Marchesi Alfieri Winery and La Locanda B&B

Piazza Vittorio Alfieri, 28, 14010 San Martino Alfieri AT, +30 0141 976015. Founded in 1696, the winery has been owned by the Alfieri family ever since. Surrounding the winery is a 60 acre park with ancient trees and lawns, open to the public by appointment. During the season, truffle hunting dogs come on the property to search out truffles hidden in the roots of the linden, oak and hazelnut trees. Seven rooms in La Locanda B&B are available on the elegant property. Additional rooms are available in La Margherita. Tours of the property and bookings for the B&B can be arranged online.

Serralunga d'Alba

Serralunga d’Alba

Castle of Serralunga d’Alba (il Castello di Serralunga d’Alba), Via Castello, 12060 Serralunga d’Alba CN, +39  0173 613358. There is no charge to walk around the grounds. The castle interior can be visited when accompanied with a guide for which there is a nominal charge. Consult the website for details. If you enjoy fall foliage, arrive in early November when the trees on the hills surrounding the castle change colors.

Il Boscareto Resort & Spa, Via Roddino, 21, 12050 Serralunga d'Alba CN, +39 0173 613036. A 5-Star hotel. Situated on a hilltop, the resort and wellness spa has views of the surrounding vineyards.

L’Infernot del Castel (Infernot of the Castle), Via Roma, 2, 12050 Serralunga d’Alba, CN, +39 338 4628689. In the hilltop village of Serralunga d’Alba, located down the hill from the Castle of Serralunga d’Alba, L’Infernot del Castel sells quality local products, everything from charcuterie and cheese to wines, hazelnuts, fresh pasta and grappa.

Solonghello

Locanda dell’Arte, Via Asilo Manacorda, 3, 15020 Solonghello, AL, +39 0142 944 470. Next door to Saint Andreas Church, located on a steep hill with views of the valley below from the garden and courtyard in back. A comfortable 4-Star boutique hotel, with sauna and steam rooms, 15 rooms and Ristorante Locanda dell’Arte, an excellent, casual fine dining restaurant. Some of the rooms have efficiency kitchens.