I've been thinking a lot about Italy and eating, and I'm about to betray decades of my nonna's deliberate brainwashing to say that I do not have a favorite place or region or dish. With 20 regions and hundreds of thousands of towns who each interpret produce, meat, fish and street food dishes uniquely, it would be impossible for me to pinpoint a favorite.
I love them all. I love them with intensity and sincerity like I loved all my ex-boyfriends before we broke up and with the same nostalgia that came after. Bottom line, I can always find something good in each.
... but lately, I'm digging every dish that the Langhe has put in front of me. Langhe [lahn-geh]= verdant area in eastern side of the Piedmont region [think Alba], best known for white truffles, barolo, barbaresco and docletto d'alba wines, robbiola cheese and Nutella is my cornucopia of comfort food during the cold months. There are times when I crave nothing more than bagna cauda [see below] and a glass of Barolo.
Enter: La Piola in Alba.
I've had my eye on La Piola for three reasons: first, a piola is a typical Piemontese osteria, simple food, simple service, simple style-- in other words, my style. Second, Chef Dennis Panzeri, under the supervision of Michelin-starred Chef Enrico Crippa, runs the kitchen and finally, it is owned by the Ceretto family, prodigious vintners who also incredible contemporary art patrons.
In essence, La Piola is the very definition of Piemontese- no frills, no fanfare. Located on the ground level of a palazzo in La Piola in Alba's Piazza Duomo, La Piola seems at first glimpse, like a hipster coffee shop, due in part to its sparse design and handwritten blackboard with its daily food and wine menu. Its vibe is friendly, local and home grown. When I walked in the door, my heart and stomach were on the look out for bagna cauda, a hot fondu-like dish of cooked down garlic, anchovies, olive and butter that takes hours to prepare. Though not on the blackboard, I asked the incredibly thoughtful wait staff who checked to see if there was any left. I was lucky and that began my back-to-back dinner at La Piola.
Three days eating pasta in Alba meant my two evenings were focused on dishes I will never find outside the city walls. Case in point: Bagna Cauda. Not quite light fare, a good bagna cauda is able to trick you with leggerezza, a lightness found in the sublime mix of the cooked down garlic/anchovies and its dipping vegetables like Jerusalem artichoke, aka sunchoke or topinambur, pepper and white turnips, and Valeriana lettuce. The objective, which La Piola achieved, is to be pleasantly piquant, with a delicate anchovy taste best noticed witha a sunchoke. To accompany the bagna cauda and keep it real, I had Vitello Tonnato, thin, cold slices of veal with a tuna-mustard sauce. The next evening's line up was old school- an onion soup, which La Piola makes just as hearty as it is subtle, with melted Raschera cheese, and a cheese sampling of robiola, sandrè, cubiò, matinè, comtè and quatordes from Arbiora (you got it, a Langhe cheese producer).
And just like that heady feeling of bumping into an ex at a market or cinema or on the street, I'm ready for next round.
My food for thought (clockwise): bagna cauda (R), vitello tonnato, local cheese, onion soup.
Here's a nice deviation: in the same palazzo, on the first floor is Palazzo Duomo, Enrico Crippa's Michelin three star restaurant. Though I didn't have the time to dine, I did live out one of my long-held artsy fantasies by standing under the pink frescoes of artist Francesco Clemente in the restaurant's dining room. As I mentioned, the Ceretto family is owner of La Piola as well as Palazzo Duomo, and long-term art patron focusing on bringing living contemporary artists to Alba and the Langhe territory. Most commissions are site-specific and are outdoors as well as indoors.