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Trip Report Lake Como, Piemonte (Piedmont) and Nice

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This report will cover the 13 days, three hotels and 38 meals we (my husband, Val and I) spent in Italy and the French Riviera in Late September/early October of this year.

I started planning at about the same time as Ekscrunchy started planning her trip to the Piemonte area of Italy and was able to coast along on a great deal of her research—thanks, Eks.

To keep things easy to find, I’ll break the report into sections:
Overview
Hotels
Sights—in each of the three areas
Dining—in each of the three areas

Overview

We flew from Ft. Lauderdale to Malpensa/Milan via JFK, rented a car from Europcar arranged through Autoeurope and returned from Nice to Ft. Lauderdale on Delta via JFK again. We congratulated ourselves for snagging exit row seats which afforded lots of legroom, but I’d have to think hard before doing it again. The seats themselves are narrower because they hold the tray tables in between the seats and it’s really cold by the larger windows/door.

Here’s how the time was divided and where we stayed. We felt like the amount of time in each place worked out well and we liked our hotel choices very much—with a couple of caveats.

Lake Como—staying in Varenna at the Hotel du Lac for 4 days
Piemonte—staying at the Villa Marcarini near Neviglie and Treiso for 5 days
Nice—staying at the Goldstar Resort for 4 days

Hotels

Hotel du Lac in Varenna

We’ve stayed here before and have recommended it to others who have also enjoyed it. It is one of three Hotel du Lacs on Lake Como, one each in all three of the towns in the middle of the lake—Varenna, Bellagio and Menaggio. So if you decide you’d like to stay at the Hotel du Lac, be certain you know which one you’re booking. This one is a taxi drive (or a long, uphill walk with luggage) from the ferry dock or a somewhat shorter but still hefty walk from the train station, downhill from the main square of the town where the church stands. It can be a bit hard to find but they do have parking (for 15 euros per day in their garage) so you can leave your car and get around by ferry, steamer or walking all/most of the time you are there.

The place feels like a nice house with a lovely terrace/garden and rooftop patio where you can have drinks, snacks and breakfast as you watch the lake and best of all the sunset over Lake Como and the hills/mountains that surround it. We think the view from the terrace is quite one of the loveliest places on earth, bar none. It’s relaxing and beautiful beyond words. Even if you don’t stay at the hotel, you can stop by the terrace for drinks. I recommend it highly.

Rooms are nicely appointed, some with narrow balconies able to hold a single chair (others with nice wide balconies but in a higher price category) for 187 euros a double. Ours had a bed, desk, and sofa. Everything is very clean and well cared for. Our bathroom had a shower with a seat where you could sit but not an actual tub. The one drawback if you have knee replacements like I do, is that there is no elevator and rooms on two or maybe even three levels, so be sure to check ahead if climbing stairs is a problem for you.

Breakfast is included in the room rate and includes all of the standard offerings, including nice cheeses and cold cuts, and usually a homebaked sweet treat. Service is truly caring and friendly.

We’ve stayed at the Grand Hotel Menaggio and the Grand Hotel Victoria in Menaggio (never in Bellagio) and find the du Lac in Varenna superior as a hotel. Unfortunately, we find Menaggio as a town superior to Varenna, so it’s tough to decide where to stay next time we’re on the Lake but I’m guessing that we won’t be able to resist the tug of the wonderful view at the Hotel du Lac in Varenna once again.

Agriturismo Marcarini --stands by itself in a vineyard owned by the prestigious Marcarini wine family outside of Neviglie and Treiso in Piemonte, about 8 km or so from Alba. I owe Ekscrunchy for this one. She stayed there for one night during her trip and thought highly of it. I loved the pictures on the website and at 100 euros a night (because we were staying 5 nights), I couldn’t pass it up. It was a delight.

The hospitality was genuine. We arrived early and Elisa, the woman who manages the place, apologized that our room was not ready (it was our fault for arriving early, not hers) and poured us glasses of the vineyard’s arneis wine to help us overcome our travel fatigue. She arranged to have a taxi meet us at a standard meeting place in the area and take us to the Alba Truffle festival opening and parade which was—lucky for us—scheduled for that day.

During the course of our stay Elisa performed many other acts of assistance to us, looking up train schedules on the internet, recommending and booking restaurants, all with a sincere interest in having us have the best possible time in Piemonte and at Marcarini. She was a true delight.

The place was exquisite. A lovely villa-like stone structure of two floors, with a beautiful staircase, nice, very clean rooms with large bathrooms in pleasing, muted tones, and nice touches here and there. The breakfast room was on the second floor of another building over a garage-like structure with a nice outside seating area and hot tub available for guest use.

Breakfast was included in the price of our room and while not the best feature of the lodging, perfectly fine with toast, or rolls, meat and cheese, and probably some sweets. The room was rustic but with a very flamboyant glass chandelier, a nice contrast.
Looking out the windows of the room or the bathroom to see the vineyards all around us was an additional and unique treat. I can’t recommend this place highly enough, especially at its incredibly reasonable rates.

But if you book and stay there, be sure to have a working GPS with you. We debated whether to book at an “on its own” agriturismo or at a hotel in a town, and decided that with our handy-dandy Garmin we’d be fine fending for ourselves in the dark on small country roads. And we would have, had the #%*@! thing not quit working on us. Still haven’t figured out whether the problem was the Garmin itself or the car’s cigarette lighter into which it was plugged, but after an hour’s worth of direction old Gretel just up and died on us, leaving us navigating those small, country roads with only a very old, crumbling Michelin map. By the end of our time there we’d become quite proficient at finding our way, but the first couple of days, it was tough going. Lesson learned: Be sure your Garmin works before you drive off the rental car lot
.
Gold Star Resort in Nice--was a fine but sort of quirky hotel. I booked via 1800hotels.com which was questioned on this board, so I was a bit concerned. It turned out just fine. I got a terrific rate, of 177 US, prepaid but including breakfast. This compared very favorably with the 250 euros or so that was posted in the hotel and with rates for similar hotels in the area of Nice where we stayed—a couple of blocks off the Promenade and in the downtown area.

I’m guessing that the hotel is Russian owned, because that’s what the folks at the front desk appeared to be speaking to each other. Russian was also the first language listed among the 4 translations used for signage in the hotel and there is a large Russian population in Nice overall. That assumed, the décor was predominately Asian with full-size terra cotta warriors at various places in the halls and public rooms.

What was really wonderful about the hotel—besides its reasonable price, good location, and overall cleanliness and classy décor—was its rooms. It’s apparently an all suite hotel, with rooms that feature separate living rooms with desk, chair, and sleeper sofa. The toilet and bidet were separate from the tub/shower vanity area and there was even a highly compact little kitchen facility with frig, cooktop, sink and dishwasher (in about a square yard of space, amazingly laid out). Everything was polished marble from the floors to the walls and very streamlined and modern. It was great—and again, at an incredibly reasonable rate.

Buffet breakfast was served in the hotel restaurant space which had small decks holding two tables each where you could take your breakfast while enjoying the lovely Nice climate. The breakfast was ample and included the usual selections we’d had other places plus scrambled eggs and bacon. The restaurant/breakfast room was large but broken up into a couple of areas, showed evidence of sound machines for dancing or just loud music and even had an area with raked sand. Quirky but kind of fun.

There was a pool and sunning area one floor up from the restaurant and probably a workout room. I never checked out any of this but Val assured me it was there. I know they had a computer and wifi for guest use since I used it each day.

The one really problematic thing about the place was its garage. Luckily I got out of the car and attended to the luggage and check in while Val drove down the ramp to park the vehicle. Glad I did or my ears would still be ringing. Just getting down the ramp took him 3 tries for each turn since the ramp was so narrow—as were the actual places to put the vehicle. All that and they charged 25 euros a day. Once we got the beast down there (actually it wasn’t even a large car) we left it for the entire time we were in Nice which cramped our style a bit since I had intended to drive to Tourettes and a few other places during our stay.

So, if you are in Nice and not driving a car, you should consider Gold Star Resort. Except for the parking situation, it’s a wonderful bargain and a really nice hotel.


Sights and activities On and near Lake Como

Arriving at Malpensa/Milan, we drove to Lake Como via Lugano, Switzerland, an incredibly prosperous appearing small city on Lake Lugano with a lovely lakeside promenade with terrific modern outdoor sculpture, beautiful old arcaded buildings surrounding its central piazza and lining its streets. Looks like fabulous upscale shopping as well and a really nice salumeria which has always been one of my favorite food places in town. We had a nice lunch, walked the town a bit and moved on to Menaggio from which we took the car ferry to our home base in Varenna.

From what I could gather reading the boat schedule, the more frequent summer schedule is probably in effect through the end of the weekend that covers the last days of September. Boats run roughly every 30 minutes between Menaggio and Varenna but the last of the night leaves Menaggio for Varenna at 7:30 (important to note for its effect on dinner options). Boats from Bellagio to Varenna leave at 8:30 and sometime around 10 p.m., presumably because they carry only people and not cars.

While staying in Varenna we took trips by boat to Menaggio, Bellagio and Tremezzo.

Menaggio has undergone a real spiffing up since we were last there 3 or 4 years ago. Several of the buildings have gotten new coats of paint including a couple of the churches. Restaurants have improved their décor, the plantings along the waterside promenade have become more profuse and a new and very attractive sculpture dedicated to the women silk weavers of the area installed.

The Menaggio tourist information center is one of the best run anywhere and certainly the best for a town of its size with staff happy to arrange almost anything and enough free pamphlets to take away to start a sizable bonfire. The whole town exudes charm and good grooming and a real interest in capturing the tourist dollar while still preserving to the greatest possible extent the small town atmosphere that makes it basically attractive even without all the fix up.

Several shop windows were filled with pictures of places to buy in the area. Contrary to what is happening elsewhere, a real estate boom seems to be continuing in Menaggio and other Lake Como towns, possibly fueled by the glamour of their famous resident, George Clooney.

It is always delightful to walk about Bellagio if the tourist hordes aren’t swarming. It has more tourist-directed commerce than Varenna or Menaggio which makes window shopping fun. But for my money the big draw here is Villa Melzi, or better put, the grounds of Villa Melzi. Though there are few flowers appearing anywhere on the immense grounds, the trees and shrubbery are incomparably beautiful just on their own. There are wide paths to walk, along the water with fantastic specimens of all manner of trees from places all over the world—surely some among the largest of their kind. There is a sweet family chapel and a lovely gazebo, but I’ve never been into the villa itself and don’t even know if it is ever open to tour. I find the grounds far superior to those at Villa Carlotta which seems to get more (undue IMO) attention than Villa Melzi among those who post on this board.

I should report that the grand old hotel-like structure in Bellagio which you pass enroute to the Villa Melzi and which so captured the imaginations of Fodorites at one point that there erupted on this board something of an ersatz formation of an exploratory effort to purchase and renovate the place as the first Fodorite hotel, is no closer to being renovated by anyone than it ever was. Such a shame. It's a lovely, haunting place that if remodeled (at a cost of multi-millions), could surpass the Villa Serbelloni there.

With 4 days on Lake Como and having been there several times before, I wanted this time to do a longer day trip by train to someplace we’d not been before. We chose Bergamo on the strength of a Rudy Maxa episode filmed there. We enjoyed it thoroughly and I recommend it highly.

It was less than an hour train ride (local, not so fun train, though) from Varenna to the Bergamo train station in the new, lower part of the town followed by a ¾ mile walk to the funicular that takes you to the upper, old part of the city where you will find a lovely square surrounded by nice buildings, many housing very nice restaurants. Nearby is the church of Santa Maria Maggiore with it’s incredibly ornate, Baroque ceiling, much more interesting than the main Duomo of the town, which is not, however, shabby.

One of the streets leading away from the main square is almost completely food shops with old-fashioned décor and great food displays. Perhaps that’s why I was so hooked on Bergamo. It’s a truly worthy day trip if you can tear yourself away from the natural beauty of Lake Como.

We took the ferry to Villa Carlotta for the requisite visit to those gardens about which I’ve already commented above. After stopping there, we walked on down the shore to the village of Tremezzo and had lunch under the arcades of the shops lining the road along the water. If your time in Lake Como is limited, Tremezzo, IMO is one of the places you don’t need to push to get to. Save the time and go sit on the terrace of the Varenna Hotel du Lac, order a drink and watch the sunset over the mountains instead.

Next installment: Dining in and around Lake Como

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    I've been anxious to hear about your impressions of Lake Como, Julie! I am enjoying your trip report very much!

    I have to agree that the gardens at Villa Melzi in Bellagio are magnificant! I remember walking along the paths when suddenly vistas of the lake would open up! It was breath-taking!!! Did you ever stop to imagine what it must have been like to travel & to stay here in the early 1800's?

    Looking forward to more!

    2010

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    Thanks for all your kind words. Hoping to get back to this sometime today. It's competing with my Christmas letter for attention.

    I'm excited about all the interest in Piemonte that we're starting to hear on this board. I've been trying to convince Katie that Fodors should get ahead of this trend and include more info on the region in their guides--actually I think they should get going on a European wine tour guide. I'm ready to call Piemonte the next Tuscany (Umbria having already had its day.)

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    Dining on and near Lake Como and in Bergamo

    In Lugano, we chose Sass Café and Wineria from among the many places lining the main square. What a treat to have the first plate of the trip served to us appear with beautifully folded prosciutto slices arranged in a flower centered by peeled figs with the chartreuse edges encircling their pink seeded centers and topped with fresh red currants and spikes of dark green chives. Absolutely beautiful and very tasty.

    My plate of charcuterie had more variety and great taste but certainly nowhere near the same visual appeal. Nonetheless it too was good as was Val’s fettucini with porcini and my gnocchi with trout and gallerini mushrooms.

    As we dined, exuberant school children were entering the square to whoop and holler after a day’s lessons and some very well-heeled mothers wheeled their expensive baby carriages between the expensive shops. A truly prosperous city and a delight to dine in.

    Nuovo Isole 1169, a new place in Varenna. Little so excites me as the opportunity to try a new place to eat in a destination where we’ve been before, so I was delighted to have this place appear only about 100 yards from the door of our hotel. Cute with nice outdoor seating (though no water view) on a sort of residential square with lovely old trees, the place has been open less than a year and seems to be holding its own with some of the more established places in Varenna.

    We started with smoked salmon toasts and a glass of prosecco, then a double order of risotto with gorgonzola and small bits of porcini—the hit of the meal, and secondis of Lavarello, the local Lake Como fish for Val and roasted goat for me (It’s my favorite meat and if it’s on the menu, I have it.) Both were good and at 15 euros each, very reasonable.

    I wouldn’t go all out to recommend this new place, but for the traveler staying several nights in Varenna with limited options, it’s certainly a welcome, substantive addition to the dining scene.

    Ristorante di Paolo in Menaggio is a place we’ve eaten on previous trips. I mistakenly called it Paolino in one of the reports on this forum—sorry. It is in or shares space with the Hotel Corona right on the main square of Menaggio and we found it serviceable to good when we ate there. We didn’t eat there this time but we did note, that like so much of Menaggio, it’s come in for some spiffing up. New lettering on the windows announces its correct name and a cute bicycle with flowers in a basket sits in front. The interior too has undergone a nice upgrade. While I can’t speak for any changes in the food, (which really didn’t need to change, offering as it did, nice homecooked, family style meals with great mac and cheese, or Quattro fromaggi in Italian, etc.) the place sure seems to merit a meal for anyone staying in Menaggio.

    Our lunch that day was in Bellagio to which we took the steamer after renewing our acquaintance with Menaggio. We had planned to have it on the lakeshore under the wisteria vines of the outdoor space served by the Hotel Florence but alas they had closed a day or so previous for the whole season—important information for people to note who are planning trips to Lake Como. Apparently not only does the ferry schedule change in October, but some places close for the season.

    Anyway, when we were turned away from our intended destination, we walked the area under the arcades across from the ferry stop and perused the menus of the hotels and restaurants there. When I spied pizzochieri on the menu of the one star Suisse Hotel, that was it. We plunked ourselves down in their outdoor seating area and awaited the wonderful buckwheat noodles and bitto cheese dish that is a trademark of the area.

    This turned out to be one of the best meals we had in the Lake Como area. Val started with melon and prosciutto (he has a habit of eating habitually) and moved on to lavarello with onions and olives that he liked so well he made notes about it so we could try to duplicate it when we got home.

    I had beef carpaccio with Dijon vinaigrette and parmesan and some really good, mellow capers of the kind you can never get in jars, and then the piece de resistance or however you say that in Italian—the pizzochieri. It was something of a deconstructed version with thick, homemade buckwheat noodles (which Val described as “meaty”) accompanied by potatoes that had to have been marinating in butter, and the cheese, all under a cape of par-boiled savoy cabbage as a substitute for the more traditional swiss chard. It was rich and wonderful. Two days into the trip and already I’d had goat and pizzochieri. This was shaping up to be a very good trip.

    Dinner that night was in Varenna at the La Contrada Ristorante in the Villa Cipressi. Again, we’d eaten here before and so weren’t expecting great things food-wise, but knew the ambiance would be special—sitting outside next to the lovely villa, looking past the fountains of the garden to the lake on the horizon.

    Food was ok, but not great. I had octopus with potatoes and arugula in oil and veal with a pistachio coating. Val had shrimp with tomatoes and mozzarella and swordfish with a wimpy tomato sauce.

    When I say the food was ok, I mean just that. If you are in Varenna for several nights and want some variety in your dining and can accept ok food with a terrific ambiance, this can be a good choice.

    The following day, after touring the Villa Carlotta gardens we walked to Tremezzo and stopped under the arcades at the Helvetia Ristorante for lunch. Val again had prosciutto and some very sweet melon and I had an assortment of meats. Then he had an anchovy pizza and I had ravioli with pesto. Again, a serviceable place with reasonable prices.

    Dinner was at Vecchia Verenna, on their deck cantilevered over the lake. This place was once quite good and featured in an article Bon Appetit did on Lake Como complete with their recipe for pizzochieri, watered down for American ingredients. It’s no longer so good, but still ok, in the same sense as La Contrada is ok as explained above.

    I had pumpkin gnocchi which was pretty with a touch of orange in butter and parmesan but not a hint of the promised sage. Val had a nice plate of local sausages including his favorite, boar. His spicy fish soup was pretty much just tomato broth with Tabasco. (He should have stayed with the safe sausages.)

    My rabbit was nice and tender but the sauce in which it was served and the accompanying potatoes and ratatouille were not exciting. We were in and out in an hour. The saving grace of the place is that the meal, less wine and espresso, cost less than 50 euros.

    Bergamo appears to be quite a food-centric town, with its streets of food stores and square surrounded by restaurants. I had a few notes from guidebooks telling me which restaurants to look for, but we wound up at a place I had no notes about but looked good—the Trattoria Sant Ambroeus on the main square in the upper city. Seating was in a nice outdoor area on Phillippe Starck type dark plastic chairs which reflected the buildings of the square opposite us—an interesting, if unintended, touch.

    Food here was very good. Val had smoked fish and polenta, then branzino in fennel and cream sauce with black olives. I had baby octopus in tomato sauce over grainy polenta then ravioli stuffed with meat sauce and pancetta and fried in butter and sage—finally, the sage I’d been expecting but gotten cheated out of at the previous night’s dinner. Again, this was one of our better meals in the Como area—though a bit distant to be technically Lake Como.

    Our final dinner in Varenna was at Il Cavatappi, the preferred spot of most foodies staying in the area. Again we’d been there once before and were not as impressed as others who had written about it seemed to have been but were willing to give it another try. It performed better this time than previously but I’m still not sold on the wonderful reviews it is so often given. It is an interesting experience for sure.

    The place is teeny, tiny with a crazy chef and one woman who handles the service for the 5 or so tables and helps him in the kitchen. Timing is the reverse of Vacchia Varenna. This place takes a very long time to serve your dinner.

    We started with salami slices then risotto with crispy porcini (the best dish of the meal) and finished with lamb chops for me and beef with more porcini for Val. My lamb chops were ok. Val pronounced his beef with porcini very good. Price without wine was about the same as at Vecchia Varenna and I must say that this meal was better.

    So, in total, our dining in and around Lake Como was not outstanding. It certainly was not awful. But food is not the primary draw for travel in this area of Italy IMO. (It must be noted that I have not dined at the well-thought of Plinio, as others posting here have --Ekscrunchy, I believe. Nor have I dined at Mistral, the super dupe place in the expensive Villa Serbelloni hotel, raved about in the Wine Spectator article on Lake Como.)

    There is some interesting local cuisine to try—pizzochieri and the local Como fish—but there is nothing in my experience to knock your sox off. Oh oh, even as I say that, I recall that it isn’t true. There is one place that provided me a truly memorable meal. We just didn’t repeat it this time. That’s the multi-course, rustic, three hour meal with fire and story on the Isola Comacina.

    I’ve written about it in previous reports, as have many others here, and someone furnished this link to an article that describes it. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/destinations/italy/article5676207.ece

    I have also found the report my son-in-law (Candert) posted about it here on this forum after our trip with him to Lake Como in 2004. I think he captured the experience well and so I repeat his description below. (NB prices have changed since 2004, but I expect the experience is the same.)

    From Candert’s report:
    Locanda dell'Isola Comacina was my first flag of our trip. I'm far from a foodie, but I'm increasingly enjoying the eating experience, and from what I've heard this was going to be a good one. I was definitely looking forward to it. We had a little difficulty getting to the right boat stop for crossing over to the island. It led to a minor disagreement, but nothing that would tarnish the evening.

    We found the correct boat dock, and sitting there was a little vaporetto fishing boat, like the toy one we bought today. Things are looking up! It was 5E a piece for the ride across. It includes a return after dinner. The sun was just setting as we came over. We had 7pm reservations. Kind of early for Italy, but we didn't want to book too late with it only being our second night. We walked from the dock up to the restaurant. We were greeted by our host and the owner Benvenuto Puricelli. He was quite the character all dressed up in a plaid vest wearing a matching ski hat.

    Upon seating we were given a couple copies of the menu. It's actually more of program than a menu. They have served the same meal since 1947, and I don't think there are plans to change it anytime soon. It's 55E per person for the food and wine.

    We were the second table to be seated that night. After being greeted came a bottle of white wine and the antipasto. It was huge. If this was a sign of things to come they were going to have to roll us out of there. The antipasto was an array of eight large plates; celery, carrots, baked onions, sweet peppers, courgettes, beans, broccoli and french beans. Then came separate plates for each of us with a slab of prosciutto, some kind of salted beef with cucumbers and melon. All very tasty. More people rolled in.

    The second course was local grilled lake trout. It was dressed at the table adding lemon, salt and olive oil. After that came fried chicken which was actually quite tasty, even Liz ate it. Between courses we tried to "secure" a menu that we could abscond with to bring home and frame. Every time we got a hold of one and sort of tucked it away they would come back to the table and find it immediately. They must get a lot of that. By this time the restaurant is packed.

    After our two meat courses they rolled out a huge round of parmigiano reggiano cheese. They scoped out blocks of it and deposited them into our hands. Great, gritty texture and very rich. Dessert was peaches in a banana liqueur served with vanilla gelato. They kept bringing us extra gelato so the other customers who arrived later could finish up their meal. The goal is for everyone to finish at once so Bienvenuto can have his big finale.

    The lights darken and at the sound of a bell Bienvenuto enters the room and starts to burn brandy in a large black pot. He goes through the history of the island while performing the fire ceremony with the brandy. We actually almost left before this all began. The fire ceremony didn't start until 10pm, three hours after we arrived. It was taking all our strength to hang on, but it was certainly worth it.

    We quickly exited after the production to head back to Menaggio and get some rest. We rated the place a 12.5 on our 15 point scale. Bascially 4's across the board, a great experience!


    Me again:
    So there you have it. Reports on meals we ate in the Lake Como area and even one we didn’t eat, at least not on this trip.

    Lake Como is so beautiful that even a dedicated foodie like myself, is willing to make allowances for the less than gourmet food experience overall, to experience the spectacular views and terrific, relaxing ambiance this wonderful place has to offer.


    Next installments: Sights and dining in Piemonte—after I get my Christmas letter written.

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    Hi Julie:

    Another great trip! Once again I am jealous!

    Waiting on Piemonte! And oh by the way..Shhhhhhhhhhhh! Do not say the next Tuscany, lets try to keep this GEM for a bit longer! BTW I do agree, but the secret is leaking out!

    John (Mi Mama Piedmontese from Fontenile!)

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    Since my last post, I not only finished my Christmas letter, but also survived the worst of a miserable cold and I’m now ready to relate my experiences in Piemonte.

    Piemonte Sights and Activities

    Alba Truffle Festival

    We arrived in Alba, as luck (rather than astute planning) would have it, the Saturday of the Grand Parade marking the Alba Truffle Festival. When I learned that we would indeed get there in time for the parade, I corresponded with Elisa, the wonderful director of the Agriturismo Marcarini and got her to arrange a local taxi to take us from the area outside of Alba where we’d be staying to the center of Alba where the festival was—and where I knew there would never be a parking place by the time we arrived.

    Turned out to be the smartest thing I ever did. Val is not a patient man and when we can’t find a place to park the car, he’s been known to skip whole towns and just move on. Getting dropped right at Piazza Savona where a market was already in full swing was perfect. We arranged with our driver to meet us back at the same spot about 4 hours hence and we were free to enjoy the festival with no muss, no fuss, no bother.

    And enjoy it we did. Since we hadn’t had lunch, our first order of business, after exploring the Piazza Savona market area, was to find a restaurant. We did so easily right off the piazza at Caffee Umberto. More about the food later, but the location couldn’t have been better. As we filled our faces, we heard drums and trumpets behind us and realized that the parade of the nobility was passing right behind us.

    Val left his plate (we were seated at the bar and everyone was popping in and out for glimpses of the parade) and ran outside to photo. The costumes were grand and the entire spectacle fantastic and far more intimate than scenes I’ve seen of the Palio parades in Siena where I assume that a glimpse is about all you can get if you’re not seated in the viewing stands. We have pictures of the flag tossers and their flags, the nobility and the peasants, all of it. What fun.

    After viewing all of that and finishing a good lunch, we strolled on down the main street of town, the Via Vittorio Emmanuele ll, intending to find the site of the Palio di Ascini, the donkey races. Along the way we got diverted by two churches (nice interiors to photo), the Palatartufo or Truffle Palace, and another market.

    It’s a good thing that drbb has described the actual palio at length in her wonderful report http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/10-days-in-alba-palio-truffles-and-wine.cfm because we never did make it all the way down the street to see the races. But we were so fascinated by all the displays in the Truffle Palace (and all the wine tasting options) and at the market that we just couldn’t pull ourselves away. Since markets are my favorite things in all of Europe and these were some of the most unique even a donkey race couldn’t compete.

    Watching the truffle vendors in the Palatartufo display their wares in their plexiglass encased display cases was a lot like watching a member of the Tiffany sales staff display a great diamond necklace. There’s love involved –and possibly a little greed. Certainly a lot of interest in the rare.

    But it wasn’t just all truffles in the raw. There was every imaginable auxiliary enterprise—truffle butter, truffle salt, truffle this and truffle that. I even purchased for my granddaughters a children’s book about a small boy and his grandfather and the wonderful truffle hunting dog who leads them out of poverty. What a story!

    Added to the interest of being surrounded by truffles was the usual excitement of a small town fair. There were folks going every which way, eating everything imaginable and purchasing everything they could lay hands on. Great, great fun.

    And I especially liked the neighborhood spirit you could see with each of the respective neighborhoods carrying their neighborhood flags in the parade and flying them from the buildings to mark their territory. After several glasses of wine drunk at our many stops along the way, I was struck by the preposterous thought that we should return to Ft. Lauderdale to float the idea of an Iguana palio and challenge other condos in our area to a race with a parade and flags and festivities as a means of building condo spirit. Such are the machinations brought on by too much vino—another reason the taxi we had arranged was such a good idea.

    If you ever have (or can make for yourself) a chance to attend the Alba Truffle festival, arrange to go for the parade and the palio. You can’t help enjoy it.
    Our other days in Piemonte were not quite as exciting as our first, but they were lovely, filled with beauty, good wine, good food and a great sense of well-being.

    On day two we explored the sweet little hill top town of Neive with its interesting Macedonian Orthodox Church. Who would have expected such a thing in Piemonte.

    We also took in Barbaresco and stopped to sample a 2005 Barolo at the Boffa tasting room, a modern tasting room built onto a house along the main street. There is also a nice outdoor terrace overlooking the vineyards (or winefields as we call them) stretching out below.

    We also watched workmen clean a grape crushing machine on the main street of Barbaresco just across the street from the lovely old tower which is the trademark of the town.

    Additional vistas of winefields were the order of the day as we passed through Neviglie and Mango (alas the regional enotecha in Mango with its Asti wines was closed). Val and I argued about whether the Piemonte vineyard vistas are better than those we’d experienced in Rioja Spain. He said, yes, though I held out for Spain as somehow more dramatic with mountains in the background. But we agreed that both are more exciting and exquisite than those of Sonoma and Napa. As a wine region, Piemonte is quite spectacular.

    We like wine and enjoy drinking it but are not the connoisseurs that drbb and her husband appear to be, so this report will be lacking in information about specific vineyards or vintages. We stopped in to see several of the regional enotechas and did a couple of tastings at individual wineries but did not arrange tours or ship wines home as we had done in Bordeaux and Burgundy on previous trips. We may be getting lazy in our planning and sampling, however, we still enjoyed the wines we drank while there very much.

    When we returned to Neive for dinner on the evening of our second day, we were early for our reservation and so stopped for a drink at a little cantine just across from the main church of the town. A youth group was just letting out and it was interesting to watch a fairly large group of local teens for so small a town and so different from those we see hanging around movie theaters or restaurants, etc. in Ft. Lauderdale and to muse on the many differences in influences and values presented by small town living in Italy from those of big city living in the US.

    On day three we took in Pollenzo with its Slow Food university, Cherasco with its snail obsession, and Monforte d’Alba and Barolo before scrapping the rest of our planned itinerary for a nice nap.

    We liked Pollenzo a lot. We’d considered staying there liking the idea of a small town with a hotel directly in town but were persuaded by ekscrunchy’s good words about Agriturismo Marcarini to be brave and stay in the hinterlands instead. I expect we’d have been perfectly happy at the La Corte Albertina, but we were all but delirious at Marcarini so we’re more than satisfied with our final answer. Nonetheless Pollenzo has a lot to recommend it

    For one thing the Albertina is practically on the campus of the Slow Food University, directly next to the Duomo. The whole complex is a very harmonious blend of old and new in dark red brick. The campus is vast with main buildings and side buildings, a large tower, and lovely green spaces. The brick duomo is a right fanciful pile with spires and buttresses which, however, we were unable to get into at the time or day or somesuch when we were there.

    It’s apparent that the Slow Food university is very much a going concern with plaques identifying their illustrious faculty and a trattoria where those in residence can perfect their craft—by eating or possibly by cooking. It feels very much like a university of higher learning not like a trade school of cooking.

    We also liked Cherasco a lot. It was ekscrunchy’s report http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/le-langhe-and-turin-a-week-in-the-land-of-barolo-bagna-cauda-and-bicerin.cfm wherein I discovered this little gem of a town. Thanks, eks. The town is larger than many of the others we were in. I believe it even had stop lights. It had a couple of wonderful churches, one with a great dome and the most beautiful Baroque ceilings in white, grey and pink.

    Cherasco has nice arcaded streets and squares and some wonderful old shop windows which now feature baked goods—including breads baked into snail shapes. In fact, almost every window you look into in this town has some snails of some sort. It was hard not to seek out a restaurant and order some escargot right on the spot. It sure helps to remember a city when there is one so outstanding a characteristic about it to be seen everywhere.

    I had also thought at one point to try to book a hotel in Monforte d’Alba. There I was glad I didn’t. Although the town was lovely with good restaurants and a nice main street with lots of wine shops, and a really beautiful cathedral with lovely blue ceilings, it also had hills to climb to the hotel I looked at—really big hills, not just hard to climb by foot, but also by car. So we didn’t feel like we’d made a mistake on this one either.

    We moved on to our final stop of the day, Barolo with its regional enotecha and some more wine tasting. Again a nice little town to walk about in and the enotecha was delightful. These regional enotechas are, for my money, a wonderful way to taste the wines of an area without needing to make multiple stops, spend lots of time on a tour and listen to redundant information about how wine is made. We enjoyed them thoroughly and would like to have had the time to do more of them as a great way to explore the area overall.

    On our fourth day, something I’d eaten caught up with me and caused us to take it easy. We returned to Alba to see some of things we’d missed on our day there for the festival. We took in the Duomo and the areas around it. It is a lovely church. It too is dark red brick with an exterior somewhat like that we encountered in Pollenzo but with modern touches on the interior including one of the most interesting baptismal fonts I’ve ever seen—two semi circular seating areas surrounded by a curved wall encircling the area almost like a mother’s arms and a low, very large shallow bowl to be filled with the baptismal water. Very striking and so modern in contrast to the rest of the church which, like that in Monforte, has strikingly blue ceilings.

    We also walked again, the main street of Alba, and saw at a more leisurely pace the wonderful old shops lining it and noted that the palio flags of one neighborhood adorned the buildings on one side of the street while those of another neighborhood were flying from the buildings on the other side.

    I stopped into one of the shops hoping to buy an English language book, having run out of the supply I’d brought from home. It was a sweet little shop so I was prepared for the selections to be a mixture of Barbara Cartland and others of that ilk, but I was surprised to also find among the 6 or 7 selections total, a 1984 paperback by Xaviera Hollander of “Happy Hooker” fame. I didn’t even know she’d written others and couldn’t resist. Wish I had. After a chapter I was again bereft of English reading materials but possessed of something of an antique literary treasure. If anyone has need of “Fiesta of the Flesh” just let me know.

    After lunch we explored La Morra, a disappointment to me, but we may not have given it a proper chance, then Verduno which we found cute enough but very small, and finally Grinzane Cavour which we thought swell, especially enjoying the castle there which houses another regional enotecha on a hill with fantastic views over the surrounding winefields—some of the best views of a trip filled with them.

    And so it was only on our final day that we got to Turin. We caught the train from Neive and immediately took a cab to Eataly, probably the single thing most responsible for us going to Piemonte in the first place, having been featured prominently in an article about Turin after the Olympics which I read in the New York Times.

    It was pretty fantastic--an immense food emporium in a very modern (or modernized) building with two and one half floors of fresh and processed foods, wines, cookbooks and culinary paraphernalia. I was enchanted with the bright, open displays of colorful foods and foodstuffs everywhere and with the multiple places to sit down and try some of those foods right on the spot. It was sort of a cross between the old fashioned Boqueria in Barcelona and the modern, trendy Dean and DeLuca in DC (I don’t remember their flagship in NYC).

    I was, however, a bit put off by the packaged meats, cheeses, and other goods. Somehow it just seemed like everything should be cut fresh. But you have to look around at people marching down the aisles with shopping carts and recognize that for some lucky people this is their grocery store and they probably like the convenience of being able to pick up a prepackaged chunk of cheese rather than having to wait for it to be hand cut and packaged. At any rate, Eataly was fun and a great stop for some beautiful pictures

    After we finished at Eataly, we crossed the street to the remodeled Fiat plant building which is now a shopping mall. It’s interesting to look up at the corkscrew-like ramps between floors and think that they were once used to transport cars. Unfortunately our time was limited and when I wasn’t able to immediately find the Agnelli art gallery within the complex, old Mr. Impatient hurried us on to local transport to get to the main part of the old center of the city.

    We liked Turin for a large city. While it’s hardly Paris, it’s also not Palermo, but rather reminded me most of Bologna in my experience, possibly because of its many arcaded streets. It is, however, more open and lighter with incredibly large piazzas.

    We walked the arcaded via Roma with its many upscale shops, passing a couple of squares before getting to the larger Piazza Carlos, where we stopped for lunch and admired the two nearly identical churches at the entry to the piazza, much like the two churches at the entry to the Piazza del Popolo in Rome.

    The city is possessed of lovely old buildings, some housing lovely old cafes. We’d like to return, something I hadn’t expected to say. There’s much more there than just Eataly. In fact there’s so much in Piemonte to see and explore that we’re sure we’ll go back.

    I’ve urged Katie to tell the folks at Fodors to get ahead of what is bound to become a trend here and include more information about this area of Italy in their guides, perhaps even to make it a large chapter in a guide devoted to wine tourism in Europe. Piemonte is the new Tuscany.

    Next Dining in Piemonte, the highlight of our trip

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    Julie I am only halfway through and absolutely loving this report. So well written, so much detail, and so well organized. I am delighted that you were pleased with Agriturismo Marcarini! I wish that we had had more than the one night there! Will await further word from you!

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    Julie: Me again...I just wanted to say that I thought of you again later this morning. The goat woman at my local farmer's market had some little rib chops and I bought some. this week I will attempt to cook goat meat for the very first time. I fell head over heels with it after trying it for what was probably the first time at La Libera in Alba!



    Do you ever cook it at home?

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    Enjoy. Sounds great. Unfortunately I never got to La Libera though we did walk past on one swing through Alba. If you haven't already seen this article from the NYTimes, check it out. They allege that goat is the meat most eaten in the world. Who knew!! and here I thought I'd practically discovered it. Just goes to show how narrow our perceptions sometimes are. Join the world!

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/01/dining/01goat.html?_r=1

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    Dining in Piemonte

    After “discovering” Piemonte via the NYTimes article on Turin and Eataly and then starting to see more and more about it on this forum, the thing that truly turned me on to it was (what else?!!) the food. Everything I started to see and hear about the area suggested it was gourmet heaven and sure enough it was. I perused my Michelin red guide to Italy and counted 14 stars in about 100 square miles, including 2 one starred restaurants in a town of less than 700 people. Surely these people know how to cook.

    Considering that Piemonte is also the home of the Slow Food movement with little snail insignias appearing not only in Cherasco but just about everywhere, suddenly Piemonte was calling, not in a whisper but with the insistence of a carnival barker.

    The only tough part of eating in the area is choosing which of the many wonderful options you’ll do this time and which you’ll put off until next time—and the time after that and the time after that. The good thing is that I get the feeling that many/most of the restaurants of Piemonte stay put better than those of larger cities and more trendy areas. Many of the places we ate had the feel of being long established temples that you can count on being there when you return.

    Of course, then the old problem of whether to return to the tried and true that you loved on your last trip or to try something different will arise, but once again, it’s not a bad problem to have.

    But I digress. On to the business at hand--where we ate and what we thought of it. First the list, and then the reactions.

    Caffee Umberto on the piazza Savona, Alba
    Locanda San Giorgio in the hills above Neviglie
    Antica Torre, just beyond the tower in Barbaresco
    La Luna nel Pozzo, atop the hill in the old part of Neive
    La Collina on a main square in Monforte d’Alba
    Antine on the main street—via Torino 34, in Barbaresco
    Il Piola in Piazza duomo, technically Piazza Risorgimento 4, Alba
    Osteria del Unione just off the main squares of Treiso on one of the roads out of town
    Torino Ristaurante on the main square of Turin
    La Ciau del Tornavento, Piazza Baracco 7, in Treiso


    As I look back over the list I recognize that a lot of big names are missing. Some of this reflects my efforts to try to be a bit more spontaneous in our choices at least for lunches to allow greater flexibility in our sightseeing. As those of you who might have read my trip report/essay on Paris and reserving for meals vs. not reserving, may remember, this is a big issue between Val and me in our travels.

    Val prefers to just drop into someplace (which he is confident will be fantastic and more importantly immediately available) at the moment he gets hungry. I prefer to have reservations and work our routes of march around them lest we experience (quelle horreur!) a bad meal. In Piemonte we pretty much split the difference and did lunch by the serendipity plan and dinner by reservation, however fate intervened in a couple of instances, requiring a change of plans.

    Ok, ok, I’ll get on with it.

    Caffee Umberto, Alba was our first meal in Piemonte and a great introduction. It was total serendipity. We’d been dropped off at Piazza Savona by our taxi driver on the day of the Truffle Festival parade and palio and after walking about the market there to drool over the cheeses, sausages, truffle extensions, etc, etc, we were more than hungry. We were ravenous.

    Unlike so many of the Piemonte restaurants we were to eat in later in the week, this one appeared very new and trendy with a sort of hip vibe. Even so the food was trendy in an old-fashioned, stick to the standards sort of way. We took seats at the bar (it was sort of a wine bar surrounding an open kitchen with wine bottles lining the walls in little cubby holes.)

    Val had anchovies with a variety of sauces including an excellent dill pesto that I, a non-anchovy lover, found quite fantastic. I had a pork neck slice over beans and potatoes which I judged already the best meal of the trip so far. So much for food from the Lake Como area. I immediately noted a preponderance of butter in their cooking and felt at home.

    That evening we dined at Locanda San Giorgio, near Neviglie a place where I’d made advance reservations with the best of intentions. I presumed Val would be tired from a long day of driving so I wanted a good dinner in a nice place but as close as possible to our Agriturismo Marcarini so he’d not have to drive much further. My extensive research led me to the San Giorgio presumably just a couple of km from our place. Well that must have been measured “as the crow flies” because it took us a while and more than a few km to reach this place—and remember that by this time our trusty Garmin had deserted us.

    It was one of those awful situations where he threatened to give up, turn around and go back and forget dinner entirely, and I kept urging him on with “it must be just over this knoll” all the while being totally unsure if we were even traveling in the right direction. At this point I not only doubted my choice of a dining venue, but even my choice of lodging, featuring us spending night after night endlessly searching the hills on back roads for the places I’d booked.

    Just as I was about to cry “uncle” the lights of a complex that turned out to be the Locanda appeared and we coasted in to the parking lot, made our way through one of several dining rooms filled with happy diners and grumpily (Val) assumed our chairs in the lovely mostly white dining room we’d been led to. Just to make things more challenging, this was one of the few places where none of the wait staff spoke English and the menu had no translations—and I’d left my translation pages back in the room.

    I’m pleased to say that in spite of all of this we had a good if not great meal and finally relaxed and enjoyed ourselves.

    I had my first truffle experience. I ordered a soft-boiled egg with cream. After putting the dish down on the table, the waiter returned with the holy of holies, the white Alba truffle and his little pocket scale, sort of like a culinary Kindle. He set the scale on the table, proceeded to weigh the truffle, then shave some of it into my dish until I said “stop” or halt or held up my hand, whatever, then weigh the truffle again and record the cost of my shavings—15 euros for about 5 or six swipes over the truffle slicing instrument. Quite a production.

    Next came tiny, tasty veal-filled ravioli with sage butter and finally lamb chops with carrots and potatoes. Val meanwhile started with shrimp and crispy prosciutto, then tajarin in tomato sauce and finished off with fried fish in a sort of tempura preparation. All this with a bottle of Barbera pinot nero came to only 115 euros. Everything was nicely presented and the food was good, we just got off on the wrong foot with our journey to the place. So much for trying to plan ahead. BTW we returned to the Marcarini with nary a problem though I spent most of the meal more or less dreading the trip back every time I thought of it.

    Lunch on our second day was one of those wonderful combinations of planning and serendipity. We found ourselves in Barbaresco when we got hungry and I knew where all the likely good places to eat were. It helped that we got to our selection, Antica Torre, early though because by the time we finished our lunch the outdoor area was completely filled so that, had we come later, my efforts at planned serendipity might have come to naught.

    This was a delightful lunch in a very unpretentious spot with a nice bustle about it. When we arrived early we were treated to the extra touch of one of the older, grandmotherly ladies of the crew seated at a table outdoors shucking peas. Doesn’t get any fresher or more authentic than that.

    We started with salami and Barberesco Langhe, then I had a great ravioli with butter and sage—even better than that I’d had at the two previous meals, and then shiny, glistening rabbit with herbs and colorful carrots. Val was very happy with his two mushroom meal—cold chicken and pickled mushroom salad, then porcini fried with polenta coating.

    To prevent further problems like we’d experienced getting to Locanda San Giorgio the previous night, we had “pre-found” our restaurant for dinner that night—La Luna nel Pozzo in Neive. In fact I hadn’t made advance reservations but rather scouted the place out while walking about the town, and stopped in to make the reservation for that evening while we were there. This gave us two assurances—one that we liked the look of the place and the menu, and two that we would be able to find it without problems.

    I knew we’d like it when the owner of the Mom and Pop place (Pop, as it were) was sweeping the small outdoor patio himself, and stopped to welcome me and take my reservation. The place is a throw back to the 60’s or so with tres elegant roses floating in bulbous wine glasses, dark blue candles in silver holders with plastic drip catchers, nice artwork on the walls, and very caring service, solicitous even.

    Eschewing the 110 euro truffle menu, we opted for the 55 euro degustation and found excellent value. We started with beef or veal tartare/carne crudo, then rabbit galantine with black truffle garnish, then tagliatelle with shrimp and thin shreds of veggies, and finally two thick lamb chops (making this my third lamb chop dinner in a row, I’ll admit) with potato and spinach purees on the side as well as a baked tomato.

    We skipped dessert, as we usually do, but had espresso which they accompanied with an assortment of sweets. We accompanied all of this with arneis by the glass then a bottle of nebbiola selected by Pop for a mere 18 euros. While there was no single outstanding dish the meal in total was very good and the atmosphere and service combined to make it a wonderful dining experience.

    More to follow

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    La Collina in Monforte d’Alba was an excellent serendipitous pick when da Felicin which tortured us with its incredible smells and beautiful patio proved not to be serving lunch that day. I’d given thought to staying here also but concluded that the town was not as well positioned as it should be for minimal day trip driving to the places we wanted to see within the area. After getting ekscrunchy’s recommendation to consider it and then seeing it for myself, I’d certainly recommend it to anyone considering that area of the Langhe as a place to stay and to eat.

    It’s darling, has a wonderful outdoor dining area and the cooking smells alone were enough to convince me that the food must be good, really good.

    So it was with a heavy heart that we tromped on to see what else might be open in town for lunch that day. I was pleasantly surprised when an apparently new place trying desperately to be trendy and situated in an unfortunately center-of-traffic spot, turned out to have excellent food.

    We had bagna cauda for the first time ever and promptly pronounced it one of our new favorite dishes of all time. It was beautifully presented in an oval bowl in the middle of a plate where it was surrounded by strips of red and yellow peppers, carrots, tomatoes, celery, fennel, leeks, radishes and boiled potatoes. I can’t imagine why we’ve never ordered it before, or at least why Val, the great anchovy lover, hasn’t, but whatever, as soon as I learn how to prepare it at home it will become the new vehicle to get veggies into his diet without coaxing.

    Val followed with tajarin with a great tomato sauce and a smattering of black truffle, and I with gnocchi smothered in a local cheese sauce and then we both had the most delicious pork sausage and pork neck meat over yellow and red peppers, all with a chardonnay (unlike those in the US, thank goodness) by the glass and a bottle of Barolo.

    The bagna cauda, the gnocchi and the pork sausage made the list of top dishes of the trip. Whoda thunk?!! Especially from an unlisted place with ditzy looking young waitresses selected as a second choice. Just goes to show.

    Dinner that evening was back in Barbaresco at Antine, and drbb, I’m sorry to say, a disappointment to us.

    They open at 8 and not a second sooner. After having a glass of wine in a little shop nearby to pass the time, we waited with another couple, our noses pressed to the window, while we got the impression the folks inside were counting down the seconds to the magic hour when they’d spring the doors open and deign to admit us. Another couple approached with the audacity to ask for admittance without reservations and were quickly disabused of any thought that they might get in even though we were one of only four occupied tables that evening—unless the custom there is to dine very late.

    The contrast between Antine and La Luna nel Pozzo of the previous night was striking. At the latter, everything was sincere desire to please with overtones of conviviality, though the place was surely not raucous. At Antine everything was hushed tones and formality and to my mind spoke of taking themselves too seriously. At one point a lone diner having the expensive all truffle menu, dropped a knife on the floor which seemed to send reverberations throughout the tiny, u-shaped dining room. I almost expected the waitress to come out and admonish him to take care and be quiet rather than simply present him another knife.

    Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps we were just at the satiation point where we start to doubt the rationality of it all. Whatever, our impressions of the place were just not of a warm and caring establishment. Understand, I don’t need to be coddled when I dine, but I do like to feel comfortable and here I did not. It’s also seldom that I find service and atmosphere to overshadow food as my reason for liking or not liking a restaurant, but again, here I did—although the food was very good and included two of the best dishes of the trip.

    One of those was the first course of sliced veal tongue with itty bitty hand chopped veggies and parsley sauce. It was beautiful, had great texture and tasted delicious. It followed an amuse of unctuous slices of sausage with a hint of allspice in a smooth-as-silk chick pea sauce. After the first course, Val had porcini soup with potatoes in it while I had tajarin with veal sauce, one of the best tajarins of the trip. His final course was duck, again with porcinis, and I had the snails I’d been longing for since our time in Cherasco, and the other dish I considered among the best of the trip.

    The snails came in butter, cream and herbs en cocotte and were the most tender I’ve ever eaten but I could only eat about half the dish since it was too much and too rich after all that had passed before. We finished with espresso and no dessert and amazingly a tab of only 142 euros including a nice bottle of barbaresco, making the place not only good for food, but also good value. Too bad about the service.

    Drbb, I’d be interested to get your take on the service atmosphere I’m speaking of. Did you notice it at all, or was it just me? I remember from your report that you felt your meal there was one of the best you had and that you, too, had a very reasonable tab. Perhaps I am being too harsh.

    Our third day in Piemonte got off to a bad start when I slept until 9:00 or so having been up ill most of the night (most likely not the fault of Antine but rather of the market sausage I’d snacked on, or of the appetizers I’d had at the little wine shop while awaiting our dinner at Antine). Whatever, we got off to an inauspicious start and when I still wasn’t feeling all that well by lunchtime I didn’t much care where we ate.

    We happened to be on the Piazza Duomo/Risorgimento in Alba where we found Il Piola, a place I’d noted from a Chowhound post or somesuch. Perhaps because our expectations were low, we found it acceptable, contrary to drbb’s experience which if I recall correctly, she pronounced the worst of her trip. The differences may also have something to do with the fact that she ate there for dinner and we only for lunch.

    I started with a salad of shaved red cabbage, greens and local cheese with super thing, almost transparent slices of veal head cheese with balsamic vinegar. Pretty and fairly tasty. Val had an appetizer plate of cured veggies, veal tartare, and Russian salad, then another dish of tajarin with veal in tomato sauce—the staple of Piemontese cooking. Nothing outstanding, but acceptable.

    Dinner that evening was supposed to be back in Alba where I’d reserved at Osteria dell Arco but an accident caused the local police to set up a roadblock making it impossible for us to follow the route we intended so we stopped in Treiso to which we’d been rerouted.

    I was secretly kind of glad since I knew that Treiso was the location of Profumo di Vino that ekscrunchy had written about so lovingly, that friends of ours who own a restaurant in Minneapolis (where veal meatballs with fois gras is a signature dish of the highly rated 112 Eatery) had enjoyed when they’d been there a few week before us and raved about the same veal meatballs and egg dish that eks had so enjoyed, and that had created an exchange of some heat when Sampaguita had dined at the same place and found it quite lacking.

    I figured I’d get to weigh in on the controversy but it was not to be. Although we were parked practically beneath Profumo in the main square, it must not have been lit up or I must not have had my wits about me or something, but I couldn’t see it and so opted for another place I could see and that was also on my list of places to try in Treiso—Osteria del Unione, possibly our only representation from the many Slow Food places in the region.

    Our dinner there was quintessential Piemonte fare. They served only one menu to all guests. At 30 euros per person it was an incredible bargain. They were kindly willing to call dell Arco to inform them of our inability to keep our reservations with them and seemed not to begrudge our making them second choice.

    They served the antipasto in 4 waves--starting with a plate of salami, proscuitto and some wonderful thin sausage of what seemed like raw meat with truffles (about the circumference of a cheap beef jerky stick and terrific tasting.) This was another standout dish of the whole trip. Next came vitello tonnata with the veal slices forming a flower on the plate and slathered in creamy yellow tuna/mayo sauce from the center to about 2 inches from the edges, carrying out the flower look. This was my first ever exposure to vitello tonnata since I've never thought I'd like the flavor combination. I was wrong. Then they (she cooks, he waits tables) brought out a plate of sort of thin, 3" round egg omelets with spinach and finally a vegetable tureen with stinky gruyere-like cheese sauce. We were off to a good start.

    The pasta was the ubiquitous tajarin with a tomato sauce--a very good example. The secondi was rabbit in a red pepper and clove studded braising sauce, good but by this point we were pretty full. All payment was cash only.
    The place was small, seating probably less than 25 total at about 6 or seven tables, some, like ours for only 2 people. The bathroom facilities could only be reached by going outside and around the corner of the restaurant seating area. By the time we had finished our several antipasta plates, the place was full and they were turning folks away.

    It was a good, down to earth meal, and it sounds from drbb’s experience like we were lucky to have eaten there rather than at our intended selection-- dell Arco. Nonetheless, I felt both a little foolish and a little cheated when we left the restaurant and walked to our car with the lights of Profumo shining overhead and realized that, had I just spent a little more time looking around, I might have had those meatballs, the eggs with truffle and joined in the argument. Oh well, next time for sure.

    Our sole meal in Turin was nothing special but still good. We didn’t want to spend a lot of time dining with so little time to see the city on a day only side trip. And we’d half expected to eat at Eataly though we had to scrap that plan when we wound up going there first and being done early in the morning, well before lunchtime. So we simply strolled around the main square of town, Piazza San Carlos, looked at all the adjoining restaurants and picked the one with the best looking menu—in short what most tourists do.

    The choice was Torino Ristorante, a place with pretty much standard Italian fare for which we were pretty much ready having had so much Piemontese tajarin up to that point. We dined outside in the square itself with other tables occupied by what appeared to me to be local or visiting business people and ladies who shop. Everything was business and shopping respectable and we were quite happy with our choices—proscuitto with melon, risotto with seafood including surprise razor clams, and a trenette alla Genovese, with a hint of cream.

    Little did we know that we’d saved our best meal for last. In fact we hadn’t saved it at all. I had not made a prior reservation for dinner that evening but had a list of several I’d seen recommended in the area near the agriturismo which I provided the helpful Elisa asking her to reserve for us. When some places turned out not to be available (either full or closed for the evening) she used her discretion and booked us back in Treiso at La Ciau del Tornavento.

    I’d, of course, reviewed it previously myself and for some unknown reason not thought to book there so I’m eternally grateful to Elisa for her excellent discretion, even though I admit that I had harbored thoughts of canceling and rebooking myself at Profumo to be able to taste and review the food there that I’d missed on the previous night. Glad I didn’t.

    For starters the place is gorgeous. Drbb has described it well (again I commend you to her report, link above). We arrived fairly early and you could still see a bit of the view from the full length windows. It must be fantastic in the sunlight. The things I found most ingenious and stunning about the décor were the perfect use of small spotlights to highlight the greenery throughout as well as the lovely flowers and glassware on the tables.

    The greenery was large and exuberant as it could be in the large, expansive dining room (a renovated and enlarged school house I was told when I asked). Palms, cycades and columns were judiciously placed so as to provide separation among tables in the vast—but pretty much filled—dining area. It was wholly pleasing.

    With so large a space, it would have been easy to have felt a bit small and unattended had the welcome and the service not have been so kind and attentive. The hostess welcomed us with a handshake, shook our hands again as we left and gave us a nice postcard with a picture of the restaurant interior as a memento of our visit.

    Val insisted on ordering the wine he wanted rather than putting ourselves in the hands of the sommelier as drbb and Mike so wisely did, causing us not to get quite as special a treatment from him as they did, but he was attentive to our glasses and responded to my request for info about the provenance of the restaurant.

    This is plainly a special occasion restaurant and folks were more dressed up than we saw them at other dining venues. It is also apparently a smart place for folks to wine and dine visiting business people since two of the tables the night we were there were filled with business people, one a mixed group another of about twelve men, both appearing to be completely immersed not in conversation about business but about the food and wine they were consuming. We entered the restaurant just ahead of a party of three Americans, a perfectly behaved young lady of about 12 and her parents. The rest were 2, 3 and 4 tops, all appearing to enjoy themselves as we were.

    Our meals included 4 of the best dishes of the trip—the most at any single restaurant. From drbb’s description of her meal, it seems likely that we had three of the same dishes they had—the stuffed onion, the zuppa with porcini and truffle and the duck.

    The amuses included a red pepper encasing tuna mousse, black truffle over fois gras on a tiny toast round and my picture shows a sort of lollipop thing that I can’t recall and didn’t write about in my log. Hmmm. But the most outstanding amuse was a separate plate for each of us of two perfectly pink veal slices with adjoining dollops of tuna, a shard of deep maroon radicchio and a sprinkling of ruby red pomegranate seeds-–the chef’s take on vitello tonnata, and a study in shades of red, absolutely arresting.

    Val had the “soup” of porcini slices, poached egg and mushroom cream covered with black truffle slices, at 18 euros a real steal and one of his favorite dishes of the trip. Meanwhile I was rhapsodizing about my whole baked onion—one of my favorite dishes of the trip. It had been baked skin on, with the top cut off and some of the onion scooped out to make room for sausage from Bra and smothered with a local cheese sauce (fonduto) which puddled on the plate and was oddly but tastily studded with tiny chunks of amaretto cookie, giving it a sweet touch and good texture.

    Both of us chose the same pasta course, another favorite dish of the trip—Plin, a tiny, handmade ravioli stuffed with green cabbage and three different kinds of meat. I often find that the secondi provides the least interesting dishes of any Italian meal, so it wasn’t unexpected to find that neither of ours made the favorite dishes of the trip list, but they were surely good and provided us some of our favorite secondi offerings.

    Val had the wild duck and I had the kid prepared two ways—roasted and fried in a light crust of polenta, as were the mushrooms and apples that accompanied it. The roasted part had excellent skin and it was a bonus to be able to have goat at all, my favorite meat. So, eks, I did get goat on the trip.

    We finished with double espressos and the house sweets—tiny cookies and jells, most notable for being served on a diminutive square cookie sheet complete with little turned up sides and set on legs. As with this “course” overall, this was interesting more for its appearance and cuteness than for its tastes, though the jells provided a nice sweet ending.

    Our wines came to 60 euros of our 200 euro total but considering the enjoyment we got from the food and the wine as well as the ambiance and service, it was certainly “worth it”—for whatever that’s worth. It was the most memorable meal of the trip. Perhaps next time we’ll break down and opt for the truffle extravaganza even if it is 200 euros a person. You only live once.

    So we left Piemonte with tighter clothing and good memories to drive to Nice for some wonderful scenery and experiences but the starved pavements of not such good food. So that’s what’s up next--but probably not until tomorrow after I rest my weary fingers.

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    Ok, I rest my case on the caring service of La Luna nel Pozzo. I just opened my in box to find the nicest Christmas wishes from them to us and "to every persons you have in your heart." Now how sweet is that?!!! This is a mom and pop place with good food, real caring, and someone in the family who recognizes the value of technology. You gotta love it.

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    “Drbb, I’d be interested to get your take on the service atmosphere I’m speaking of. Did you notice it at all, or was it just me? I remember from your report that you felt your meal there was one of the best you had and that you, too, had a very reasonable tab. Perhaps I am being too harsh.”

    I know exactly what you are talking about – Antine is very quiet and very reserved. I mentioned that we only saw one person on the staff the entire evening, and she was dressed all in black and not much for chit chat, shall we say. Yet, Mike and I really don’t find this type of atmosphere to be uncomfortable in any way. We are equally relaxed in the neighborhood trattoria as in the hushed quiet of a “serious” restaurant. It sounds like your food was very good though.

    And I loved hearing about Ciau. It was indeed a highlight for us. Your experience at del Unione sounded fantastic.

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    Wonderful report! Glad to hear about Bergamo-it's another one on our list. And, yes, the Russian presence in Nice is interesting. Your hotel there sounded wonderful. Such food in Turin and around!

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