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Piedmont (Le Langhe)

Piedmont (Le Langhe)

If you're a white truffle fancier, consider planning a trip to the Piedmont area of Italy. There, from October through November, truffle hunters, accompanied by their faithful (and highly skilled) dogs, arise early before dawn to search across the mist-laden hills for this precious, rare commodity. The town of Alba is home to the famed truffle market. There, hunters set up shop, selling these "jewels" to restaurateurs, shop owners and gourmands from all over Italy and Europe as well. In the market, it's possible to arrange to arrange to accompany a truffle hunter on his appointed rounds for a modest fee. We did, and it was a memorable morning. Yours can be, too.

The Fall is a beautiful time to visit the Piedmont, not only for the truffle, but to sample the best of the vineyards of Barolo and Barbaresco, among Italy's most highly prized wines. You'll arrive after the harvest, but the autumnal colors of the vineyards set against the hills and sky of Piedmont will take your breath away.

And, as is always true of Italy, you're in for your share of fascinating culture, including wonderful art, as well as fabulous dining.

You can fly to Milan, rent a car and find yourself in the Piedmont region in 2 1/2 hours. Or, if you'd like to fly to Nice on the Cote d'Azur for a few days on the Mediterranean, you can drive in 3 plus hours to Turin and commence your visit there.

You'll need at least three or four days to relax and enjoy a visit to the Piedmont region and its enchanting hill towns. You can drive directly from Milan to Alba, the 12th century capital of Le Langhe, or consider one night at Locanda de Sant'Uffizio, a resort country inn with an outstanding kitchen. It's located in Cioccaro di Penango, in the countryside, not far from Asti. The Locanda's grounds are lovely, surrounded by its own beautiful vineyards, lemon trees, roses climbing the walls. The Firato family takes pride in their establishment. The locanda has a swimming pool and a gym so that you can maintain your fitness program. The rooms are pleasant. We were served a glass of asti spumante, low-alcohol and pleasantly refreshing as an "aperitivo". We were ushered into a lively dining room amd caught the aroma of the truffles in the air. Once seated, we struck up a conversation with a Swiss couple who came each year at truffle season.

The white wine was a 1994 Gavi, the inn's own production - and a good accompaniment to a salad with mushrooms and white truffles. Grilled fresh anchovies with parsley and potatoes and a grilled vegetable dish (celeriac and fennel) were good, not great. The piece de resistance were the pastas - gnocchi with thin slices of white truffle(tartuffo bianchi) generously applied - four stars - and tagliatelle with black truffle (tartuffo nero)-three stars. Rabbit (dark meat) in barolo sauce with polenta and a rack of veal with carrots and polenta concluded the meal. We sampled a 1990 Barbaresco from the local producers. Excellent. The desserts (dolce) were mango, grapes with grappa and a chocolate dish, accompanied by a sip of Moscata d'alba, a sweet wine. Most pleasant.

Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, it's a mere half hour drive to Alba. You can use Alba as your base for touring the hill towns and vineyards - the Hotel Savona is perfect, reasonably priced and full convenience. Or, use lodgings in the countryside and visit Alba. You'll know when you're in Alba without a map. Your nose will be your guide. The air is redolent with the marvelous, earthy, sensual aroma of truffles. Early to mid-October marks the beginning of truffle season - we went later in October, just to be sure. Every Saturday and Sunday morning through December, the small city hosts the world famous and important truffle market. The truffle hunters have tables set up under a white tent in the center of town and they proudly display their "jewels" which range in size from a marble to a pool ball - and occasionally a softball. For the first two weeks, the market is open daily. Call the Hotel Savona to check for the opening date (phone number listed below). There is some variation from year to year.

You can't bring truffles back into the United States, but there are a variety of truffle products in tubes, tins and jars which are permitted by Customs. While at the market, if you're a bit adventurous, fit, and have brought a good pair of hiking shoes, arrange with a truffle hunter to accompany him and his dog on his early morning search in the countryside. You'll enjoy it enormously.

Wherever you stay, in or out of town be sure to plan on dining at Da Cesare, in Alboretto della Torre. Several years ago, Patricia Wells made a round-the-world tour to find the "Ten Best Restaurants" in the world, and lo and behold, Da Cesare was named one of them. At night, there's a good chance of fog in this region of Italy, so you would be wise to budget the extra cost and hire a driver to find this restaurant, located in a tiny town possessing no more than two dozen stone houses. And, of course, reserve well in advance. The word is out.

At the entrance to this warm, country restaurant, fireplace roaring, we were greeted by a friendly waiter and a beautiful sculpture by our good friend Ron Mehlman dedicated to Cesare. Ron, and his wife, Janice, a superbly talented photographer (responsible for the photograph gracing our main page) live in Brooklyn and Pietrasanta, as well. They recommended Da Cesare to us, for which we are forever grateful.

We started with a San Michele white wine, new to us, and superb. The autumn surprise consisted of artichokes with white truffles and our second antipasti was porcini mushrooms with peaches and fonduta. Then, onto risotto with truffles, a four star dish. Taglierini with a ragout of game gave us a chance to sample a second pasta dish. The 1985 Barolo by Bruno Giacosa was merely one of the greatest wines we had ever drunk, and a bargain. A kid had been turning on a spit in the fireplace and we ordered this is a main course, along with a galette of chicken, over which white truffles were generously apportioned. We found ourselves, mmm'ing throughout the meal, a sure sign of a splendid dining experience. The grand total, $150, a bargain for an incredible meal at one of the world's great restaurants. Make the detour. You won't regret it.

You won't want to miss the towns of Bra, Cherasco, Barolo, Monforte d'Alba, Barbaresco, Castiglione di Falletto (some of the finest Barolos) and Serralunga d'Alba. The latter town is perched on a hilltop and guarded by a 14th century fortress. You can taste products like grappa made from the nebbiolo grape or Barolo Chinato, touted by locals for its medicinal effects, infused with quinine. Leisurely drives along picturesque roads lined with sloping vineyards take you from village to village. The landscapes are stunning, the autumn afternoon sky a palette of lavender, pink and blue. The people are friendly, the food good and better. If you decide to stay outside of Alba, consider the Giardino da Felicin, in Monforte d'Alba. Giorgio Rocca, your host and chef, is one of the great chefs of the Langhe.

A cautionary note. The Castello di Verduno in Verduno is a splendid place to stay - but from our experience - not in October. It is unheated and it was cold. The sisters Burlotto, who run it, are warm and friendly, and, in fact, helped us to relocate when we could not tolerate the cold in the room. Stay there in summer, even into September, but if you do so in late October, bring your long johns.

If your route takes you to Turin, the capital of Piemonte (we flew out of Turin to Paris at the tail end of the trip), and you're a museum buff, be prepared for a treat. The Egyptian Museum is second only to Cairo; a new modern art museum has been created in the Palazzo Bricherasio. We saw a super exhibition of "Kandinsky, Malevich and the Russian Avant-Garde of 1905-1925." Then, there is Galleria Civic d'Arte Moderna and Contemporanea on Via Magenta, where we saw a Man Ray retrospective. A museum of Automobiles for the kids, a museum of armor and a dozen other small and interesting museums. Shopping is abundant in this lively city. We recommend the Turin Palace Hotel as the best in town, but there are several others which are comfortable and well-located. The concierge at the Turin Palace will recommend one of the many excellent restaurants in the city. We liked Vecchia Lanterna.

You should know that the great vintages for Barolo are 1964, 1971, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1989 and 1990.

Don't Miss while Touring this Region

In Alba:
Beppe Scavino's shop on the Piazza Savona, not far from the Hotel Savona. His bonbons, called I Goffi, are a fabulous creation for the chocolate lover. They are made of bittersweet chocolate, toasted and pralined hazelnuts (the hazelnuts are known as nocciola and are a regional treasure), and cocoa butter. You'll bring some home, we're sure.
Enoteca Peccati di Gola, 11 Via Cavour, for wines of the region at good prices.
Giordano: prepared foods, tastings, wines, pastas. 6 Piazza Savona.

In Cherasco:
Pasticceria Lidia Barbero, 72 Via Vittorio Emanuele, is a must-see. Know for Baci di Cherasco, "Cherasco Kisses," hazelnuts in bittersweet chocolate. It is a charming, turn-of-the-century shop, worth a taste and a photo.
La Lumaca, 8 Via Cavour, for regional products and wine.

In Verduno:
Castello di Verduno, 9 via Umberto I. Tel:39-172-470284, fax 39-172-470298. Charming garden for summer dining.

To arrange to go on a truffle hunt: fax or phone the great white truffle hunter, Paolo Cerruti. From the U.S. telephone, 011-39-173/975455, or fax Paolo at 011-39-173-976269. His shop, Dal Trifule, is well-stocked with truffles and truffle products and truffle-hunting has been in the family for generations. He is located 16 km. out of Alba on the road to Turin.

If you missed out on purchasing food products to take home, stop in at Sapori di Campagna, 5 via Cavour, for another chance at porcini and truffle products.

Hotels and Restaurants:

Locanda del Sant'Uffizio, Cioccaro di Penango, 35 rooms, Tel: 39-141-91-72-71. Rooms include breakfast and dinner for two.
Giardino da Felicin, 18 Via Vallada, Monforte d'Alba, Tel. or Fax: 39- 173-78225. Good accommodations. Superb cuisine.
Hotel Savona, 1 Via Roma, Alba. Tel: 39-173-440440 Fax: 39-173-364312. Good accommodations. Helpful staff. Reservation includes breakfast.
Osteria dell'Arco, 5 Piazza Savona for lunch or dinner. Reasonably priced.
Da Cesare, Alboretto della Torre. 9 via San Bernardo, Albaretto della Torre. Tel. 39-173-520141, fax 39-173-520147. No credit cards.
Turin Palace Hotel. 8 via Sacchi. Turin. 39-11-5625511 or fax 39-11-5612187.

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