Piedmont’s capital, Torino, is better-known as an "industry" town than as a place to visit for great food, wine, art, and architecture. Torino-along with neaby Milan-was the epicenter of Italy's industrial revolution in the 1950s, home in particular to the country's largest auto-maker, Fiat. But thanks in large part to the prosperity created by its industry, Torino is an elegant, clean city that may be one of the more underrated food towns in northern Italy. Pastry and coffee are particular specialties, and the city is known for its grand, often very ornate coffee bars. Torino is also home to the annual Salone del Gusto, a specialty-foods smorgasbord organized by Italy’s Slow Food Organization.
But for the hard-core wine-and-food fanatic, Torino is simply a place to get started before heading to the vine-draped hills of Alba.
In the region of Piemonte there are at least 20 great towns drenched with the culture of food and wine that are specific to each of the hills or valleys that they are situated on or in. But the one that to me says the most about the spectacular and yet simple "vera cucina piemontese" is the small hamlet of Alba.
Asti has the more beautiful market and Barolo has the name, but it is in Alba where the white truffle achieves its maximum exposure. This is clear most obviously on Saturdays in prime truffle season throughout October, November and December in the Mercato del Tartufo, where truffles are sold over a long square table to tourists from Germany and Switzerland as well as the odd gastro tourist from anywhere else. I have always preferred the regular daily truffle business, often reminiscent of the daily weed exchanges in Washington Square park, where old guys in hats stand around the piazza around 9 or 10 in the morning, except Saturday or Sunday, and chat with the local restaurant guys or merchants from the neighboring towns, occasionally pulling a brown bag out of their pocket to show a prospective client the stash and then haggling over the price. It is a true market economy with the price fluctuating from day to day depending on the size of the take and the perceived demand.
Truffles have never been successfully cultivated and are born of the climactic conditions of the spring and summer before their season in from October thru January. The quality (size) of the harvest is dependant on many things, the most important of which is the presence of enough moisture in the soil, derived from a nice and moist late spring and summer, combined with a not too windy or desiccating September that could dry the soil too quickly for the noble swollen root to expand. With great conditions, it is still an uncertain science and truffles are never cheap.
The truffles are served shaved raw, sliced paper thin with a mandolino, over every type of dish, most often onto the simplest of pastas, eggs, polenta or delicate braised meats, so as to maximize the intense fragrant and yet evanescent perfume of the king of tubers. A plate of local tajarin and butter with truffles can easily cost around 100 smackers so buyer beware when they offer truffles at the table without discussing the price tag, local restaurateurs assume that everyone knows the price of the rare soil borne diamonds.
In Alba proper, my favorite restaurants are Il Vicoletto, Via Bertero, 6 (tel 0173363196) 35 seats just about perfect in every way
Osteria dell'Arco, piazza Savona, 5 (tel 0173363974) 70 seats classic cooking with a magnificent wine service
La Libera, via Elvio Pertinace, 24 (tel 0173293155) 45 seats, more an osteria with a penchant for killer wines with food than vice versa
Porta San Martino, via Luigi Einaudi, 5 (tel 0173362335) 55 seats
Keep in mind that there are literally 20 great restaurants within a hours drive, my faves are:
- In Albaretto della Torre, Da Cesare
In Asti, Gener Neuv and L'Angolo del Beato
In Barolo, Borgo Antico
In La Morra, Belvedere
In Neive, La Contea
In Canelli, San Marco