Certain moments capture the essence of a place perfectly. For my husband and me — taking an epic trip to Italy’s Piedmont region — it came shortly after we motored out of Milan and began navigating toward Turin in our little red Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Slicing into a downhill hairpin turn, the Alfa hugging our narrow lane, the Ducati that had appeared in the rearview mirror moments earlier executed a deft pass. Pinning the throttle, he disappeared ahead of us in what seemed mere microseconds. No sense in trying to keep up, my hubby eased off the gas and we began our leisurely ramble toward the epicenter of the slow food movement.
Michael and Victoria Boomgarden went to Italy to celebrate a special anniversary and enjoyed an epic foodie adventure
Italy has a well-earned reputation of being the birthplace of some of the world’s fastest vehicles — Ferrari, Lamborghini, Ducati, Aprilia and others are, to those who worship at the Altar of Speed, the Holy Grail. These machines, rich with heritage, now embody the bleeding edge of style and technology. It’s an Italian thing ... whether in fashion or in driving, being at the forefront is the only place one should be.
And so we are confronted with one of the marvelous dichotomies of travel — while the Ducatisti and the Ferraristi approach these roads with zeal for guida veloce, the Piedmont (to Italians, the Piemonte) also has a deep appeal for those who appreciate fine food and wine. Italy is, you see, the birthplace of the Slow Food movement. Fast, meet Slow. Local foods, ancient vineyards and traditional methods of preparation, all prepared with more than a nod to local ingredients and slow-paced cooking.
Slow Food, the organization, had its beginnings in 1986, when McDonald’s proposed building one of its restaurants near Rome’s Spanish Steps. Carlo Petrini organized to stop the planned development, and his efforts grew into an organization that promotes the preparation and consumption of naturally grown foods native to a region.
Hot Wheels (above): This little red Alfa Romeo Giulietta was key to the Boomgardens’ fabulous journey through la dolce vita
The credo of Slow Food perhaps took root most strongly in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Or, perhaps, it has always just been that way. In the rough-hewn hills formed by the upheaval of the Cambrian seabed formed many millennia past, the people adhere to cultural and epicurean traditions seemingly as old as the fossil-filled seabeds that now comprise the region’s innumerable vineyards. If you find yourself drinking a Barolo, a Barbaresco, or a Roero wine, you will discover these deep ties … in the terroir that appears in the taste profile and in the rich tradition of winemaking developed over centuries.
Turin was our first stop in the Piedmont. As we pulled up to the Grand Hotel Sitea, we handed the Alfa’s keys over to the bellman and promptly started our ramble through the city. Long known largely as an industrial city, Turin has, in recent years, again become a destination for travelers seeking to rediscover its rich history and formidable architecture. Historic records date the first settlement of Castra Taurinorum to somewhere in the third century B.C., and there are still considerable remnants of early Roman settlement, dating to the first century A.D. The architecture a visitor now sees in Turin is largely the result of the rule of the Savoys and their successors, who declared the city the capital of the Duchy of Savoy. For a period of time in the early 19th century, the city was annexed by the French empire, until the fall of Napoleon. It then became the capital of the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and, subsequently, the first capital of unified Italy. All of which is a preface to explaining that the Turin one sees today is a fascinating blend of ancient Rome, French (particularly Parisian) influences, and the Italian flair for grandeur, perhaps most notably immense piazzas encircled by stately palaces and churches.
It was in Turin that we got our first state of Piemontese dining. As you might expect, the regional cheeses, meats and wines form the foundation of the local food pyramid. There are, though, unique treats to be found only here. With the heavy emphasis on organic foods raised to exacting standards, one surprise was the frequent appearance of raw beef on the menu. Honestly, we approached this with some trepidation, but it proved to be rather delicious, served in small portions and delicately seasoned.
Perhaps bit more easy to approach is a local beverage known as bicerin. Varying somewhat in its presentation from one café to the next, it’s a cup slathered with a thick layer of chocolate on the inside, on top of which a shot of espresso is poured, then all is topped with freshly whipped cream.
Turin, of course, offers a fine array of restaurants for evening dining, but we never made it past the aperitivo experience. Here’s why: As the home to a number of storied brands such as Martini Rosso, Cinzano and Ganci, there’s nothing that Turin likes more than its cocktails. Starting at around 6 p.m. and ending around 9-10 p.m., the aperitivo bars start serving cocktails (mostly in the €6-€8 range), accompanied by a complimentary array of appetizers, that may include cheeses, meats, pizzas, fresh tuna salad, grilled vegetables and much more. Our first brush with the aperitivo experience came in the hotel bar of the Grand Hotel Sitea —a robust offering of cheeses, meats, savory pastries and sweets. It was, astonishingly, a complete meal.
While we were tempted to go back to the bar on our second night, we ventured out, found a beautiful little sidewalk café, ordered up a couple of Aperol spritzes, and repeated the aperitivo experience.
We left Turin after just two days. It’s one of those places where you could spend a lifetime and never fully plumb the depths of the history, culture and cuisine. But, duty called—as did our little red Alfa—and we motored out of the city center just as the open air floral market was coming to life.
Our first culinary adventure after leaving Turin was, in truth, a bit of an accident. Once outside the city, heading toward the rural hills of the Piemonte, the landscape changes quickly and dramatically. Our Alfa guided us deftly to a much-anticipated venue where we planned to enjoy our first Piedmontese lunch. Pulling up to the restaurant, we saw a hand-lettered sign announcing the new owner’s deep regrets that the restaurant was closed, undergoing renovations.
After a bit of on-the-fly research, we determined that Villa Tiboldi, a seemingly reputable establishment, was minutes away. Firing up the Alfa, we navigated a few narrow streets and some precipitous roads and found ourselves in a place you could only describe as magical, which was indeed Villa Tiboldi. We were greeted by Paolo, one of the servers. Paolo explained that they were fully booked, but he would see what he could do. It turned out that what Paolo could do was a lot.
He took us to a table just outside the dining patio, overlooking the vineyards—with a view that extended to what is apparently Heaven—and proceeded to welcome us with one of the owners’ wonderful Arneis Classico wines. A product of the Roero Arneis grape, this elegant white wine served as the perfect entree into the slow food (and drink) of the Piedmont. A half dozen courses later, we determined that we had found, in Villa Tiboldi, the perfect launching point for our next Piedmont sojourn.
Following an introduction such as this, nothing else can compare, right? You might believe that, unless you had a few nights booked at a 12th-century castle owned and operated by a woman who is not only the acknowledged authority on travel within the Barolo region, but who is also a chef of rare talent. When staying at Hotel Castello di Sinio, you do need to be aware of a few things, however — it’s a small place (only 13 rooms) and Denise Pardini, the owner / hotelier/ chef, insists on perfection. You simply cannot arrive before 2:00 p.m.; they just don’t have the space to deal with incoming and departing guests at the same time. However, you may recall that Paolo and his co-conspirators at Villa Tiboldi had taken very good care of us for five and a half hours, so showing up prematurely was not a concern.
Arrival at Castello di Sinio is special affair, involving the parting of iron gates, the presentation of a sparkling wine and a personal greeting by Denise. This is not just a perfunctory “buongiorno.” Wherever she is at the moment — in the kitchen, at her desk, or attending to any of the minutiae of operating a luxury hotel in a structure that’s closing in on its 900th year of existence — Denise makes sure that she greets you personally. What’s immediately clear is that she takes her guests’ well-being very, very seriously. Apart from the normal introduction, Denise has authored a serious tome, replete with maps, addresses, contact information and more, describing the region and how to maximize one’s visit. It’s a miraculous thing, this pamphlet. Like most of Denise’s guests, we kept it with us and constantly referred to it during our visit.
Denise is also a phenomenal chef. Of the many wonderful meals we had in the Piedmont, the two dinners we had at the Castello were, without question, the finest in our two-week visit. For those fortunate enough to snag a room reservation in this unparalleled venue, dining on the premises —preferably under the grape arbor — is a must.
Wherever you venture in the Barolo region, you’ll find Italian perfection. The villages, with their seemingly impossible to navigate little streets, are, transcendent. They are immaculately neat, rivaling the Swiss obsession with cleanliness. It seems that nearly every little nook and cranny is home to a café, a wine bar, or an enoteca (a wine shop featuring local wines). There are a couple of ways to approach dining and wine-tasting. First, you may wish to consult a local expert (such as Denise) to get some help sniffing out the places that are just a little bit exceptional. However, equally attractive, you can just approach it with reckless abandon. What you’ll find is that slow food (lower case, mind you) is simply The Way It Is in the Piedmont; the ingredients and wines are invariably local, as are the preparations.
If one is interested in delving into winemaking in the Piedmont, there are ample opportunities. Enotecas — wine shops — come in a variety of flavors. Some are wholly commercial enterprises, retailing not only local wines, but those from throughout Italy. A few are operated by a single producer and feature only their winery’s products. I’d suggest sniffing out the communal enotecas that are run cooperatively by producers within the region and exist to promote the wineries associated with a particular village. Some offer restaurant service as well, such as the Cantina Comunale, located on the lower level of a castle in Castiglione Falletto. This modest establishment offers simple local dishes served on a terrace with a panoramic view of the two dozen surrounding vineyards whose wines it features.
Many of these places are very small and the rule of thumb is that there is one seating per meal; so your table is yours for the duration but it also means it’s good to call ahead for reservations.
Each village serves up a unique set of culinary, vinicultural and visual delight. It’s impossible to call out any one of them as the best, but the village of Barbaresco stands out. Here, as in most of these small towns, you will find a small number of high quality restaurants serving wonderfully prepared local dishes at very reasonable prices. In Barbaresco, you simply must visit the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco, located in an ancient church. Tastings, at €3 per glass, feature very fine wines. A short walk from the Enoteca Regionale, you’ll find a small, very elegant enoteca operated by Rocche dei Barbari, a small winery that sells its wines only in Italy.
The good news is that you can buy as much as you’d like, either to pack in your baggage or to have shipped back home. Restaurants here are adherents to the slow food tradition. Regionally sourced products prepared according to methods that are sometimes centuries old are the norm. We found that the Piedmont also holds a position of distinction in the world’s culinary pecking order. The most notable local product is the white truffle. While fresh ones are available only during the autumn harvest, the truffle’s distinct flavor is found year-round, preserved in pastes and oils that are added to local dishes.
Local cheeses (Robiola Roccaverano, Toma and Castelmagno, for example) comprise many of the appetizer offerings; there are over 400 varieties produced in the Piedmont. The local chicken and eggs are also rather special; again, ingredients that are part of the historic fiber of the region, as they were often produced by peasant women as a means to sustain their families and produce a modest income. Ditto, rabbit and pigeon.
The Hotel Castello de Sinio is a difficult place to leave. But, these difficult partings are sometimes made easier in the knowledge that more lies ahead. In this instance, “more” was the magnificent Relais San Maurizio, a 17th-century monastery reinvented as a luxury hotel, replete with a medical spa and Michelin-star dining. The hotel sits in a commanding position with views, on a clear day, as far as the Alps. The spa is unique, with water and mineral treatments that cannot be found elsewhere ... and certainly not in a setting such as this. The Michelin-star restaurant, Guido da Costigliole, dates back to the 1950s, before anyone had conjured up the “slow food” catch phrase. The restaurant’s founders, Guido and Lidia Alciati, created the dining experience based on ingredients grown by local farmers. Today, Guido’s son, Andrea, has taken the enterprise a few steps beyond his father’s vision; he curates a wine collection with more than 2,800 individual labels and, with Chef Luca Zecchin, offers dishes that are based on Piemonte tradition with a modern twist. The dining room is located in the cellar of the monastery, an inviting and cozy setting, but when the weather cooperates, the venue shifts to the Monterosa Terrace, where soft warm winds create an unrivaled dining experience.
As our time in the Piedmont drew to a close, we had all but reached our limit of fine dining. Not far from the Relais, we had spotted Trattoria Pizzeria La Piazzetta in the tiny town of Santo Stefano Belbo, so that final evening, we made the short drive to the little restaurant. It was buzzing with locals enjoying a night out and by laborers who stopped by, ordered a pizza and left with their treasures a few minutes later. The chef’s two-year-old little girl was overseeing her mama’s efforts at the wood-fired pizza oven under the watchful eye of her grandmother. Apart from us, the crowd did not consist of a single tourist, but, rather of farmers, local businessmen, and youngsters on Vespas popping in to grab an inexpensive take-out meal.
Relais San Maurizio is a luxury hotel set in a former monastery from the 17th century. Today, it has a medical spa and Michelin-star dining
One might wonder what a pizza joint in a tiny village has to do with luxury travel. Well, this is luxury — experiences comprised not only of meticulously appointed suites and Michelin-star restaurants, but of moments that you create and that will stay with you forever, because it was about as real as you can imagine. The pizza, served from the wood-fired oven was beyond great and, the bill came out to a modest sum, less than one would spend at a chain restaurant in the States.
The next morning signaled the end of our time in the Piedmont, though not the end of our time in Italy. The bookend at the front end of our trip had included a stay at the incomparable Four Seasons Milan and a visit to the charming (and beautiful) Palazzo del Vice Re, on the shore of Lake Como. As we motored away from Relais San Maurizio, we set the GPS for Verona, the city perhaps best known as the setting for Romeo and Juliet. Verona — as with all of the places we visited — could easily serve as one’s base to explore endlessly. It was the perfect final bookend to our trip, a relaxing and romantic counterpoint to Milan’s big city buzz.
Our time in the Piedmont was eye opening. An area that is relatively small in size, it nonetheless has an enormous range of opportunities for taking in stunning scenery, enjoying some of the planet’s best wines (many unknown outside the region), and eating carefully curated foods. It is perhaps the world’s epicenter of slow food, less because of a conscious marketing effort than because it reflects a way of life. It is the perfect place to slow down.
Preferably in a fast car.