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VOL. 125 | NO. 55 | Monday, March 22, 2010

Regional Cuisines Celebrated in Italy's Piedmont

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Lunch at Ristorante Enoteca Regionale di Canelli, where chef Riccardo e Diego Crippa serves typical and contemporary Piedmontese cuisine.
Three classic appetizers of Piedmont (clockwise from top): Veal tartare, cold veal with tuna sauce, marinated veal with egg sauce and truffles.

PIEDMONT, Italy – Regional cuisine forms the backbone of Italy's local cultures as much as the local clay that makes its bricks and the stone that builds its thresholds and hearths. Spend a week eating in one of Italy's regions, as I did recently in Piedmont, and you learn something about habits and customs and the culinary glue that holds a population together.

Whether you dine in a humble trattoria in the village of Barbaresco or a sleek contemporary restaurant in the city of Alba (whose wealth derives from the chocolate industry that gave birth to Nutella), you'll find that the menus are largely the same. Any differences that occur depend primarily on how fanatically or tenderly the kitchen adheres to tradition or how much it is willing to improvise on the seemingly eternal themes of salted cod, veal and lamb; polenta, risotto and the thin egg pasta called tajarin.

It's as if every restaurant in the Mid-South served catfish, fried chicken, smothered pork chops, turnip greens and black-eyed peas, and we judged them on their freshness, authenticity and execution.

Before we dine, however, let's have an aperitif at Hard Café in Asti, the capital of Asti Province and the center of a winemaking area where the barbera grape reigns. Among the many cultural pursuits at which the Italians excel is what Americans call "Happy Hour."

In America, when you belly up to the bar and ask for something to nibble on, thinking perhaps of a bowl of cashews or Goldfish crackers, the bartender is liable to hand you something called the "bar menu" and recommend the grilled quail with baby greens and pumpkin seed vinaigrette at $15.

In Italy – and Hard Café specifically, because that's where my friends and I gathered – the bar is loaded with platters of focaccia; with open-face ham sandwiches and ham sandwiches with slices of hard-boiled egg; with plates laden with local cheeses and salamis; and bowls of potato chips.

All of this is free. Buy a glass of wine or prosecco or a cocktail, and you can stand there as long as you desire, chat with your chums, and chow down to your stomach's content.

I was in Asti tasting and evaluating wines for Barbera Week 2010, an event that naturally involved a great deal of eating and drinking outside of the clinical atmosphere of the tasting room. At an official dinner on March 9, the first course consisted of "ancient manner" veal with tuna sauce, marinated veal with egg sauce and black truffle, and veal tartare.

In other words, veal three ways, two of them raw. I didn't realize at the time that these dishes are classic appetizers in Piedmont, and that we would encounter them at every restaurant in which we dined over the next few days.

The variations in the treatment of such traditional dishes depend on the degree of intention and personal interpretation. One doesn’t expect the sophistication of La Libera, the contemporary restaurant in Alba, at a village trattoria like Rossobarolo, in Barolo, or Antica Torre, in Barbaresco, yet no one would want to weigh the virtues of honest rusticity against the refinement of the city.

Besides, at Rossobarolo, the tiny gnocchi, laved with melted toma Caselmagno cheese, really were as light as feathers.

Tomatoes might as well not exist in Piedmont. The ragu or sauce that inevitably accompanies the fragile ribbons of tarajin pasta typically consists of finely chopped veal, and sometimes pork and rabbit, in a deep reduction. The ubiquitous and oddly named insalata russa or "Russian salad” – in Europe, many foods with a mayonnaise base are called a la russe – may contain a variety of cooked vegetables, such as peas, chopped asparagus, peppers and so on, but no tomatoes that I observed.

While my group experienced a few radical and micro-managed interpretations of the Piedmontese culinary tradition – tiny agnolotti pasta with "bubbles" of Barbera wine, for example – we were mainly impressed by its simplicity and hearty, harmonious flavors.

Restaurants in Piedmont not only serve traditional regional cuisine, they offer only regional wines. When there are vineyards all around, practically within sight of the restaurant's front door, why import wine from other regions, not to mention other countries?

In restaurants in Piedmont, you don't see the wines of Tuscany anymore than you would see, in restaurants in Tuscany, the wines of Piedmont. In both cases that would be a betrayal of local tradition.

After dinner at La Libera, I asked the chef if I could have an amaro, an after-meal digestif, and I named my favorite, the Amaro Nonino, made on the other side of Italy, near Trieste.

One of our group, who has lived in Italy, turned to me and said, "Well, now you've done it. You've insulted him. Of course they won't have Nonino."

And of course they didn't. The chef brought me, instead, a local amaro, and it was just fine.

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