David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Weekend in the Piemonte, Italy

Lunch in Alba...

Lunch at Felicin

The Piemonte Countryside, with snow-capped Alps

Our hotel, Castello di Sinio:

We picked up Marie and Anne at about 10 AM on Saturday and headed up to the Piedmont area of Italy. We were extraordinarily lucky in our choice of weekend: after several days of depressing rain, the weather had turned warm (70's) and sunny. We arrived in Alba at 1:30 and quickly looked for a place to eat. We chose Vineria dell'Umberto on Piazza Savone, recommended by Fred Plotkin in his book "Italy for the Gourmet Traveler", always a good guide. After a bit of trouble seating us (an Austrian family came and took two tables without putting their names in), we were seated at a sunny table on the terrace. We ordered a bottle of Nebbiolo which was superb; David and I each had the pasta with sausage, Marie had the pasta with porcini, and Anne had a polpe (squid) salad. For dessert we had the local Martina pears poached in Barolo (there were 3 on the plate but our dear waiter brought another since there were 4 of us); with it we had a bottle of Moscato d'Asti which everyone loved. We had a fun time talking with the two charming Italian girls next to us, Tiziana and her friend from Rome.

The countryside is beautiful, even more than Tuscany. The area is surrounded about 288 degrees by snow-capped mountains with views of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn! But the valley has its own micro-climate which is warmer and sunnier. We had picked the perfect weekend with golden sun shining on the red and gold trees and vines.

We headed to our hotel, the Castello di Sinio, built in the late 1400's for the Marquis Francesquino. It was a little tricky to find but we finally succeeded. We were poorly welcomed by the German manager, Claudia, who sort of threw a half glass of Prosecco at us and showed us to our rooms. The rooms were smallish but with high beamed ceilings and high double beds and nice bathrooms (showers only) and gorgeous bed-linens and lots of pillows. We settled in and agreed to meet in a couple of hours in the lobby for a drink. We had a devil of a time trying to find a restaurant for the next day that could take us - every place was booked! But finally we found one and hoped it would be good.

When we met downstairs we really felt in the way as the staff was very busy serving a formal dinner. Instead, we decided to walk down the hilly roads to a pizzeria in the village - staff looked relieved when we left! How bad could this pizzeria be? We were in for a real treat. The wine list told a lot about the place, with at least 15 Barolos and many other local wines. When Marie pointed to one of the less expensive Barolos and asked, "Is this a good Barolo?", the waitress replied "Tutte Barolo e buono!" The owner/hostess came to decant the wine. We loved the tradition of that. We ordered one pizza - asparagus - and a salad of celery, cheese, and walnuts. It was plenty for all of us. The pizza was among the best I've ever had with a fresh tomato sauce and lots of good Parmagiana on top. For dessert we shared a semi-freddo (sort of ice cream) with chocolate and nuts. Then we climbed back to the hotel and fell into bed.

Sunday morning we met Denise, the hotel owner who completely made up for Claudia, very friendly and informative. The four of us met in the charming breakfast room with its stone walls and red drapery. The buffet was large and inviting but we didn't eat much since we had the reservation for 12:30 so that we would be able to get back for the truffle hunt at 3 PM.

We drove to Monforte d'Alba past colorful vineyards and sweet towns and rolling hills with the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The countryside reminded me a bit of the southwest of France, with a castle on every hilltop! We noted the restaurant in Monforte and then continued on to Barolo. There we found an antique VW show and a Sunday market. We roamed the streets, visited the castle and churches, bought olive oil, cheese, and such, and just enjoyed the gorgeous day. Then back to Monforte for lunch at Felicin.

Nino greeted us at the door of the restaurant and told us he really couldn't take us until 1 PM. Oh, dear, what would we do? WE couldn't do justice to such a meal in a hour and a half! We went to the piazza to have an Aperol (aperitif of orange-y liqueur with prosecco and dressed with a slice of orange - very colorful and delicious) and think things through. Well, we would see. We were back at the resto at 1 PM and seated at a lovely table near a window with a view of the hills; nice linens and Concord grapes and a vase of red chilies dressed the table. Nino offered a white wine to start and we drank a couple of glasses of this with the bouche amuse of cured ham and the three (!) appetizers. All the menus included the three, so we could have those and then decide if we wanted both a first and second plate or only one.

The first appetizer was marinated hake served on a pancake made of ceci (garbanzo beans) and topped with a tomato relish. The second was a slice of chicken on a bed of pureed fagioli (beans) topped with an onion jam. The third was vegetables - Brussel sprouts, radicchio, broccoli, and so on - topped with zabaglione and tiny, home-made potato chips. It was impossible to decide which was the most delicious! Each was outstanding.

By then we knew that we would never make it back for the truffle hunt at 3. WE called Denise and told her and she contacted Beppe who was understanding. It would be an insult to our hosts and an insult to this meal if we hurried through it. We would sit and enjoy every bite and every sip.

For the main course the darling wine-steward ("What a charming man and what a great arse!) guided us to a Barbera d'Alba from the Giuseppe Mascarello e Figlio Winery, which we decided we would have to find. It was exceptional. Anne had a vegetarian plate with cheese, DAvid had the wild boar, and Marie and I had the "Stinko di Vitello" (Veal shanks) done in Barolo and served on pureed potatoes. Again, everything was delicious. (I'm running out of adjectives).

Then on to the dessert. We decided to order two of the Dolce Misti (mixed desserts) which included panna cotta, a chocolate cake, ice cream on top of another cake with chocolate sauce, and hazelnut ice cream which I thought was the best. David and I each had a glass of a Moscato-like dessert wine and Marie and Anne had their coffee. With the coffee came even more sweets - macaroons and chocolates and white chocolates with nuts and orange peel. When we raved to Nino about how much we had enjoyed the meal, he said, "Oh, you were lucky!"

We checked out the rooms above the restaurant - this would be a very nice place and a very nice town to stay in for the next time. Then we walked around the town and up in to the Old Town that gave wonderful views over the countryside. An idyllic day.

Back to the hotel - no one could even think of eating a bite that night. We were all early to bed. Monday we all met in the breakfast room and did justice to the terrific buffet of scrambled eggs in a pastry cup, a vegetable "flan", French toast, ham and cheese, cereal and lots of fresh cut-up fruits, breads and cakes. With coffee, cappucino, or hot chocolate, this was a feast. We finally checked out and had a long chat with Denise, exclaiming over the wonderful time we had had.

We drove through more charming villages, stopping for an aperitif in Castiglione Falletto on a terrace overlooking the countryside with vines below us and castles in the distance. We finally found the Mascarello Winery - not at all the beautiful place we were expecting, but a very utilitarian place for processing the grapes. And no one was there! We went for lunch at a store-front bar which turned out really fine - no one here does "ordinary"; we had a bottle of Dolcetto with salads for Marie, Anne, and David, and sandwiches for me. Then Massimo brought us desserts, including his own peach/amaretto cake made with his own peaches, his own eggs, his own flour. He was so proud of it and it was delicious. He even called over to the winery to be sure someone was there. Mauro Mascarello told us his wife would be there in a half hour so we waited and tasted and bought.

Then the long, long drive home in the dark, arriving at Nice at about 8 PM. Everyone should have weekends like this. So refreshing.