The allure of Italian culture and especially its food and wine is undeniable. For eaters, operators and chefs alike, “Italian” is the go-to menu magician even in the most trend-bending times. From carefree antipasti to refined Brunello, or fun aperitivo to humble pasta marinara, there is something for everyone and every time.
Meanwhile, regionality is ramping up in culture, food, wine, travel, art and other pleasurable pursuits. Growing emphasis is paid to a specific locale’s unique characteristics and flavors. And Italy’s easy entry fare and distinct districts naturally lend themselves to a “taste of place.”
Perhaps no nation takes its provincial ethnography as seriously as Italy. And though it is thought by many to be the originator and epicenter of micro-regional food—with 20 distinct, diverse and very proud regions, each divided into even more provinces—we’ve paid little heed. Aside from a passing nod to Tuscan wine or Southern Italian red sauce, American restaurants rarely distinguish between Italy’s varied regions.
Italy’s food and drink uniquely postmarks a time and place. The food, the simplicity, the slowness, the local heritage and the style of eating more small meals at more times of the day are deeply rooted in culture and tradition. It is that fundamental distinction that caused Carlo Petrini to celebrate culinary authenticity in the forming of Slow Food International in the late 1980s. Now a global, grassroots organization with more than 2,000 food communities in 150 countries and some 150,000 members, it has been as pivotal to the world’s food culture as it has to Italy’s. The heart of Slow Food is located in the bosom of Italy’s Piedmont region: Bra.
Piedmont (or Piemonte) is the second largest of Italy’s 20 regions. Surrounded on three sides by the Alps, it borders France, Switzerland and Italy’s Lombardy, Liguria, Aosta Valley and Emilia-Romagna regions, with the Po river running through. More than 70 percent of Piedmont is alpine; these areas give rise to its renowned DOC (Controlled Designation of Origin) wines and cheeses. The remaining lowland is an agriculturally fertile area for grains, nuts and produce. Livestock accounts for half of the region’s agricultural production—which explains why Piedmont is famous for beef, cheese and other dairy products (with an equal reliance on butter and olive oil).
Numerous rural and urban gastronomic centers dot the hills and valleys, all with their agricultural traditions. Southernmost Cuneo province is land of the Castagna di Cuneo—queen of the chestnuts; in Cevere it is the leek; in Cherasco, the iconic snail; in Acqui Terme, the ancient art of the chickpea pancake called farinata. Alba and Asti provinces enjoy world prominence for tartufo bianco (white truffles), wines, being the axis of Slow Food, and for Ferrero chocolate production. Piedmont’s age-old Nizza Monferrato hunchback cardoon (cardo gobbo) is a giant celery-looking, artichoke-flavored vegetable stalk that’s the main flavoring agent for Cynar—it’s now gaining popularity in the United States.
Further north, the hillsides feature the world-renowned vineyards of Barolo, Barbaresco and Dolcetto, plus cheeses, earthy porcini, nut and tree groves and the alpine herbs used for amari. Piemontese beef reigns supreme, though pork, rabbit and game meats are prevalent. Rich dairy products, woodsy mushrooms and fragrant hazelnuts populate home and restaurant kitchens. Like the famous truffles and wine, the food is most often earthy, ingredient-driven and modestly prepared, yet the flavors are somehow intricate, complex and elegant.
Piedmont’s capital, Turin (or Torino), is a food and beverage wellspring—it’s the birthplace of vermouth, chocolate specialties like bicerin (drinking chocolate layered with espresso and cream), and the choco-hazelnut concoction Gianduiotto, mother to Nutella.
On the heels of hosting the 2006 Olympics, Turin has also built its own epicurean dynasty. Eataly (which opened its first marketplace in Turin, and now has U.S. outposts in Manhattan, Chicago and more soon to come) is a mecca of micro-regionally representative foods, beverages, ingredients, techniques and tastes. This October, Turin hosts the Slow Food Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto, a meeting of artisan food- and beverage-producing communities from around the world.
Along with beloved Piemontese products such as wine, cheese, chocolate and truffles are the many dishes and drinks found in the enotecas, trattorias, piola (Piemontese osteria), bars and cafés that are quintessential to the region. Though eating and drinking seems like a casual celebration in Italy, wining and dining culture, manners and course order is prescriptive, with protocol. In that spirit, let’s roam through the Piedmont by the course:
Both the concept and word aperitivo (derived from the Latin word for “opener”) accounts for the beverages, the vitals and the rituals enjoyed between lunch and later dinner; it’s meant to both open and stave the appetite—essentially our happy hour. In 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano of Turin invented Italian vermouth Punt e Mes from white wine added to an infusion of herbs and spices (that original vermouth facility now houses Eataly). Vermouth bars and later regional botanical beverages like Campari established Turin as the epicenter of the aperitivo ritual.
Aperitivo beverages are usually relatively low in alcohol, dry and astringent. In addition to vermouth, they include wine, Prosecco, lighter amari, tart soft drinks, lighter spirits and the cocktails that combine them. Classics like Negroni, Americano, Aperol Spritz and variations are all typical aperitivo cocktails.
Drinks are accompanied by stuzzichini (small bites) such as: grissini (thin breadsticks); nuts or olives; plates of formaggi and salumi; and grand buffets with hot and cold dishes. There are stuffed tramezzini (tea sandwiches), little fried items like hyper-regional meat-stuffed olives (olive all’Ascolana), friciule (little fried dough bites), eggy tortas and baked tarts. In the Piedmont region these snacks are reserved for their own daypart at a bar aperitivo or the enoteca.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not a big salad but the food before the food to come. It is often skipped if one has enjoyed earlier aperitivo. It similarly includes meats, cheeses and vegetable garnishes, but also includes more elaborate hot and cold appetizers like tortas, frittata, filled pastry or vegetables, and dressed meats and produce.
VITELLO TONNATO—Chilled roast veal thinly sliced and sauced with a tuna-based mayonnaise sauce, this is served as antipasti or as a summer entrée or second course.
FIORI DI ZUCCA RIPIENI OR CAPONET—Fried squash, zucchini or pumpkin flowers are stuffed with cheeses like local Seirass ricotta, indigenous roasted and cured meats and other vegetables.
CARNE CRUDA BATTUTA AL COLTELLO E SALSICCIA DI BRA—Traditional Piemontese beef (veal), a local delicacy of Bra, is chopped as sausage in the tartar style and generally garnished with olive oil, lemon, local cheese and/or truffles.
FILETTO BACIATO—Salumi is supreme here. One favorite is filetto baciato, a prosciutto made from pork tenderloin marinated in white wine, smeared with salami paste, then cased and aged for six months.
Primi, or first courses, are primarily starchy and grain based, such as Piemontese pasta—most often made fresh in several shapes and filled and dressed in different combinations. The region is known more for broth (brodo) and butter rather than marinara and olive oil; meat, mushrooms and whole herbs are less saucy and more often lightly napped or filled. Long cuts like hyper-local tajarin or tagliolini are rich, eggy and commonly need little more than herby or nutty butter (buttera), a bit of roasted meat or a few truffle shavings. Meanwhile, cheese-, vegetable- or meat-filled pastas—in this area called agnolotti—are a full package without much embellishment. Rice is a main crop of these provinces, as are grain varieties like farro, spelt, enkir and buckwheat for making simply adorned yet complex risotto-like dishes and gnocchi.
AGNOLOTTI DEL PLIN—Plin is “pinched,” and these usually meat-filled ravioli shaped like hats are emblematic of the local cuisine, often served in their own meat broth or with a bit of butter and sage and perhaps a dusting of cheese.
PANISSA—This is a typical Piemontese dish cooked in the style of risotto sautéed with aromatic vegetables, but with bacon or lard, in local red wine rather than white. When made with wheat or farro, it is called farrotto. It often includes local borlotti beans and may have a smattering of cheese.
NECI CON PORCINI—This non-pasta first course uses several regional specialties like local cheese, chestnuts and mushrooms. Chestnut flour crespelle are like crêpes, filled with porcini and cheese or other savory stuffing—even sweetly filled for breakfast or dessert. Chickpea flour is also often used.
SECONDI AND CONTORNI
Second or main dishes embody both the peasant and the progressive that mark the area’s cuisine, with beautiful ingredients cooked simply. These are the dishes that resemble American meat-and-potato entrées but are more nose-to-tail and come in smaller portions: roasted and braised meats, pork, rabbit, and especially the acclaimed Piemontese beef. Contorni (side and vegetable dishes and salads) are often served after the secondi, but that does not reduce their status in the meal.
BOLLITO MISTO—A one-pot “mixed boil” typically of brisket, capon, tongue, local cotechino sausage, potatoes and vegetables, this is similar to our boiled dinner but more celebratory. It’s a humble dish, but it’s served in elaborate style from a cart where the meats are carved to order and served with a bit of broth and the spicy-sweet fruit mustard, mostarda, and green parsley sauce, salsa verde.
LUMACHE AL BARBERA—Cuneo-grown Cherasco snails are sautéed in olive oil with lardo, onions or leeks and finished with Barbera and a smattering of native nuts for crunch.
FRITTO MISTO—A rich combo plate of sweet and salty flavors, this includes multiple meats and offal, vegetables, mushrooms, fruits and even amaretti cookies battered, semolina-breaded and fried in olive oil.
BAGNA CÀUDA—Raw, boiled or roasted vegetables like peppers, cardoon or artichoke, fennel and cauliflower are bathed or dipped like fondue in a warm dip or sauce of olive oil flavored with butter, garlic, anchovies and sometimes herbs, mushrooms, truffles or nuts.
CHEESE, CONFECTIONARY, CHOCOLATE AND COFFEE
Cheese is often eaten before or instead of a main course or dessert, and the Piedmont is no slacker when it comes to its cheese. The region is also well regarded for its pastry traditions.Desserts showcase riches like Langhe hazelnuts, Cuneo chestnuts, Roero strawberries, aromatized wines and, of course, the area’s famous chocolate-hazelnut spread, gianduja. The superlative espresso ordered after noon in Italy never includes milk.
BONET—A traditional chocolate pudding cake made with amaretti cookies, bonet dates back to the noble banquets of the 13th century.
BIGNOLE—A kind of beignet or choux, bignole are often filled with native pasta gianduja, chestnut cream or seasonal and preserved fruits.
KRUMIRI—Cookies shaped like handlebars (in honor of the extravagantly mustachioed Italian king, Victor Emmanuel II) are eaten dunked in espresso or, better yet, Barolo Chinato.
BAROLO CHINATO—This aromatized Barolo-based digestif is lightly bittered with quinine—perfect with chocolate desserts.
Piedmont’s indigenous grape varieties include Barbera, Dolcetto, Freisa, Grignolino and Brachetto and of course the noble Nebbiolo, which produces big Barbarescos and bold Barolos, many among Italy’s best wines. The region is host to numerous other designated DOC, DOCG and fine wines, some just starting their meteoric rise in North America.
Barolo is one of the world’s great wines, from Nebbiolo grapes grown in the south-facing Apennines. Barolo looks light and tastes heavy, with tannin and a bawdy minimum 13 percent alcohol. Best as reserve (aged 5+ years), it’s a wine for pungent truffles and gamey meats and big sauces.
Barbaresco is also from Nebbiolo grapes—slightly more approachable and generally lighter on the tannin, alcohol and forward flavors, making it a terrific pairing for Piemontese beef and stronger cheeses and sauces.
Barbera is the most-planted red grape variety in Piedmont. It’s dark in color and tastes of black cherry, anise and dried herbs—much like Pinot Noir—complementing lighter foods and a favorite with bagna càuda.
Dolcetto means “little sweet one,” though it is neither sweet nor little. High in tannins, Dolcetto is inky with dark fruit, blackberry, licorice and tobacco flavors.
Moscato/Muscat—In dry, sweet or sparkling versions, the highly fragrant ancient Muscat grapes have honeyed, ripe fruit-and-floral aromas. Moscato is ideal with hard-to-pair foods and as a gentle aperitif. Moscato Passito, a sticky after-dinner wine made with late-harvested grapes that smell of orange blossoms, pairs nicely with Gorgonzola or Castelmagno cheeses. Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante are known for their sweet peachy flavors. Moscato d’Asti is barely bubbly and quite sweet for only 5 percent alcohol, versus Spumante’s bigger bubbles and double the buzz. Both are lovely with local chestnut or hazelnut cake.
Nebbiolo (sometimes known as Spanna) as its own wine, produced in several provinces and communes, is less aged, softer and lighter, making it a good choice for lunch, simply grilled meats, fowl and medium cheeses.
Ruché—A unique DOCG wine from Monferrato with black cherry, rose, pepper, brown spice notes and highish tannin—lovely for sipping.
Grignolino—Higher tannin but balanced with big strawberry fruit flavors; a new favorite for cheese pairing and increasingly exported to the United States.
Bonarda—Inky, with bold fruit flavors and tannin; commonly used for blending but increasingly made as its own varietal.
Pelaverga—An easier-drinking light red with lots of cherry-berry fruit; doesn’t require food and is nice chilled. Pelaverga is also growing in popularity in America.
Arneis—The white wine of Roero DOCG, Arneis is a medium-bodied grassy wine reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes with a bright, bitter almond note that makes a nice pairing with most primi, rabbit and poultry.
Favorita—Much like Arneis but a bit drier and crisper, Favorita shows green pear and a slightly citrus finish. The name originated from its easy drinking character.
Cortese/Gavi—These dry, refreshing whites are known for their zippy lemony citrus flavors and tingly, sometimes frizzante acidity that makes Pinot Grigio drinkers swoon. Ideal as aperitivo or matched with fritto misto.
Brachetto d’Acqui—A deliciously sweet-and-floral bright red sparkler tasting of strawberries; excellent for pairing with dessert and blue cheese.
Freisa—A delicate, red-tinged frizzante wine with spicy, cherry-berry notes dry enough to drink or mix for aperitivo.
Malvasia di Schierano—A highly musky, aromatic, off-sweet bubbly that makes a not-too-sweet dessert wine.
The wide variety of cheeses produced in Piedmont derive mainly from cow’s milk, though sheep and goats make their way into both mixed and single milk cheeses. The animals graze the alpine and meadow region for most of the year, making the cheeses redolent of the herbaceous terroir.
The most famous Piedmont cheese is surely Gorgonzola DOP. Dating back to the 13th century, this sweetish blue is one of Italy’s most legendary. Piedmont’s other excellent fresh and aged cheeses are too numerous to count, but one place to start is with the other DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) varieties:
Formaggio Bra, characteristic of its terroir, is a firm cow’s milk cheese that is milky and smooth, but gains increased flavors of nuts, herbs and hay with age. It’s eaten much the way we eat good cheddar.
Castelmagno’s Valle Grana alpine pasture production is limited to only one cheesemaker. Its rusty rind reveals slightly grainy but firm straw; the best-ripened versions have blue-green veins or marbling and are perfect for pairing with aged reds of the region and sweet or herbal spirits.
Grana Padano, produced since the 12th century, is a hard slicing or grating cheese made from grass-fed cow’s milk. Long-aged, creamy, granular and salty, it’s used in place of Parmesan or at the table with balsamic vinegar, preserved or fresh fruit, or Moscato.
Murazzano is an Alta Langa sheep’s milk variant of Toma. Full-fat, white, springy, nutty and often considered sweet, it’s used extensively in recipes of the area as a table cheese, traditionally drizzled with honey or served with Piedmont’s special chutney, cugnà, made with vegetables and grape juice.
Raschera is the name of an alpine hut in Magliano Alpi, Cuneo. Three mixed skim milks create the firm-pressed cheese with heightened goat and sheep acidity. Its square shape made it easier to be stacked in the saddle-packs of the mules used to carry it down to the valley. Best with beer and enjoyed simply on its own.
Robiola di Roccaverano is a young, creamy cheese often of mixed milk (cow, goat and sheep) eaten fairly fresh, sometimes preserved in olive oil when young or developing a slightly bloomy rind. Best eaten out of hand with fresh fruit or fruity white or red sparkling wines or Italian lagers.
Toma Piemontese is a family of mountain Toma cheeses made primarily of cow’s milk, firm with a classic gray, brined rind and intense earthy taste with traces of hay and stable, sometimes with a bitter flavor. Delicious with Dolcetto, classically served with honey or as adornment in a recipe.