Between the Vineyards

Italy's Piedmont region has much more to offer the visitor than wine and truffles.





PIEDMONT means truffles and Barolo to most food- and Italy-lovers. In fact, it means this to almost anyone who has heard of the region, including Italians. Apart from wine connoisseurs eager to visit cellars and late-fall pilgrims seeking the increasingly rare white truffle, few people go out of their way to visit Italy's northwest corner. Truffle hunters usually leave feeling vaguely disappointed, for good reason. Synthesized "truffle" oils and flavored foodstuffs have raised demand for an item that was always rare and expensive, and have colorized people's expectations of what the flavor of a truffle should be. In its unenhanced state a white truffle is earthy and pungent, yes, but not a garlic-and-chemical bazooka.

That leaves wine, and the wine of the Piedmont is not disappointing. The region produces Italy's biggest-flavored and best-known red wines and also some of its best whites. Anyone who has experienced the full power of a Barolo -- a wine that, I think, can almost be a main course by itself -- or the gentle sweetness of a true moscato d'Asti, light in alcohol and irresistibly effervescent, will understand the urge to visit a region that can produce such different and wholly satisfying wines in a compact area.

Happily, there's a good deal more than seeking out rare fungi and great wines to keep a traveler contented in Piedmont. Cyclists know it for its abundance of beautiful bike routes, and gourmets know it as the source of the world's finest-flavored hazelnuts and some of its best chocolates. The cooking of the region, strongly influenced by neighboring France but recognizable as Italian, is itself worth a trip -- preferably not during the crowded autumnal truffle season. Truffles, says Faith Heller Willinger, the author of (1998), are only a "distraction" from what she thinks of as Italy's most elegant cuisine.

The best place to discover the good, workaday wines of Piedmont as well as powerhouse Barolos is at one of the many regional enotecas, which offer a thorough selection of Piedmont's wines and also books, brochures, and maps of wine zones. The vineyards are beautiful, but few receive visitors without appointments. I propose a tour of the Barolo-Barbaresco zone, in the Langhe hills around the cities of Alba and Asti, focusing not on grape varieties or wineries but on chapels and churches. This will lead you along many of the loveliest and most panoramic roads -- the ones the winemakers themselves travel.

The chapels I discovered on several recent visits are unique to this part of Piedmont yet little known even there; they are set in the middle of the countryside, not in villages, and they are small, fully realized buildings, not roadside shrines. Many delineate routes from towns to important churches, with fourteen chapels -- one for each Station of the Cross -- set ten recited Hail Marys apart. A late-summer trek from chapel to chapel will let you experience the landscape at its lushest, when vines are laden with grapes about to be picked. Visiting at this time also avoids the mid-October truffle stampede (truffles are at their best in mid to late December, anyway).

My own quests are ever for sweets, seasonal produce cooked in tasty and traditional ways, and artisan-made cheeses (in that order). I found them all at a new agricultural-cooperative market and restaurant whose organizer, Elena Rovera, a former schoolteacher I think of as the Alice Waters of Italy, is gambling her savings on a scheme to allow like-minded farmers to adhere to tradition. She, and the seasonally changing landscape around those chapels, are more than enough to bring me back to Piedmont soon.

MUCH of Piedmont has a lost-in-time feel, even if the region is one of Italy's most industrially advanced (Fiat began in Turin, its capital, a century ago) and is less than two hours by car from Malpensa, the Milan airport that is now the destination of most international flights to Italy. The hills of Piedmont are surmounted by crenelated castles that give it a fairy-tale air. Geography accounts for the feudal rivalries that left such picturesque remnants. Piedmont is strategically located between Northern and Southern Europe, and so has been contested territory for many centuries. A full 40 percent of the region is covered by mountains, which explains the multitude of fiefdoms and probably explains why the Piedmontese character is direct, open, and hardworking -- or so I have found it to be. Other Italians sometimes call the Piedmont manner "false and courteous," a reputation that may stem from Piedmont's courtly history: the region was long the seat of the House of Savoy, the monarchy that ruled Italy when it was united, in 1861.

The town I would make my base for red-wine exploration exemplifies this lost-in-time atmosphere. Cherasco was luckily spared the development and reconstruction inflicted elsewhere in Piedmont during the industrial boom of the sixties, and so its small city center, with covered arcades and perfectly rectilinear streets, looks as if it could be from the 1930s and 1940s, judging by the storefronts, or from the 1500s through the 1800s, judging by the architecture. Just behind the main street are palaces with gates through which you can glimpse secret gardens; several of the palaces, handsomely restored, are open for tours. The large piazza houses art and antique-book shows and the largest antiques fair (650 exhibitors) in the region; lovers of high-toned flea markets may wish to schedule a trip around the next one, which will take place on Sunday, September 17.

That weekend it may be hard to stay at the hotel I would like to call home for an extended period: Al Cardinal Mazzarino (telephone 011-39-0172-488-364, e-mail Here Nucci and Flavio Russo have installed just two guest suites in a historic small palace with all I desire in an Italian habitation: views into a hidden garden, modem jacks behind antique desks, and little local treats in the downstairs salon, such as chocolate-covered hazelnuts, cookies, tea, and Barolo Chinato -- Barolo in which medicinal herbs have been steeped to make a digestive liqueur. The room adjoining the salon is Flavio's library, a private retreat so full of tempting curiosities (old games, books, wooden dancing acrobats) that the couple obliges guests by always leaving the door open. The Russos love imparting local history and shepherding visitors to their favorite restaurant, the simple, welcoming, brightly lit Osteria della Rosa Rossa.

Cherasco has an unusual number of good restaurants and wine bars for a town of only about 6,500, perhaps because of the fairs that draw visitors even from other countries. Across from the Rosa Rossa is the larger and more formal Lumaca, in an atmospheric wine cellar. Lumaca means "snail," the symbol of the city (and also of the international movement Slow Food, whose headquarters are in the neighboring city of Bra). Cherasco, improbably, is an international center of snail farming, so snail dishes -- not all of them garlic-laden -- figure on local menus.

The Russos and the proprietors of the Rosa Rossa are two of three Cherasco couples I met who have decided to live in both the present and the past, restoring and managing historic locales. The third couple are Giancarlo and Carla Torta, who several years ago moved from Turin to take ownership of the Pasticceria Barbero, which makes the only chocolates I find addictive -- baci di Cherasco, roughly chopped dark-roasted hazelnuts in mysteriously potent bitter chocolate. A visit in April to the beautiful nineteenth-century premises revealed that the couple hand-sorts the hazelnuts when they are fresh out of a wood-fired oven and enrobes them in chocolate while they are barely cool and at their most fragrant, so that the volatile, slightly smoke-tinged flavors will permeate the chocolate. Ilearned little more of a technical nature on my visit. Four years ago the childless Barbero sisters, Luciana and Lidia, retired in their late sixties (young in Piedmont) because they could no longer do all the work themselves and refused to reveal the closely held family secrets to an assistant. Their designated heirs, the Tortas, have a child to raise and need an assistant; they hired an Egyptian, because, they told me, he speaks only rudimentary Italian and has promised not to make his career in Italy.

Cherasco is near the Langhe hills, dense with medieval castles atop valuable vineyards. It's a convenient base for day trips by car or bike (the Russos can direct you to bike-rental shops, and will also generously recommend other inns if they don't have a room free). One of the most picturesque and dramatically situated castles is in Barolo itself -- a very small village for a very famous name. The castle, with views of vineyards all around, conveniently houses an enoteca, and a long visit will satisfy an urge to taste storied wines and give a sense of why the land is so precious. If you want to take or ship bottles home, I suggest a visit to Carosso, a gourmet and wine shop in the wine-truffle nexus of Alba, the city to which most Langhe roads lead (it is five miles from Barolo and twelve miles from Cherasco); Walter Carosso, the exceptionally helpful proprietor, tries valiantly to sort through U.S. laws governing alcohol shipments. Initial thirst and curiosity satisfied, you can wander the zone following my unconventional organizing principle.

WHAT is doubtless the most spectacular chapel in Piedmont commands views of much of the Barolo-Barbaresco zone; it sits near the top of a prize Barolo vineyard that is owned by the Ceretto winery, which has done much to help and promote Piedmont. (Grappa-lovers should note that the chapel is a few steps down a hill from the Ceretto distillery; although many wineries send their grape stalks to be made into grappa, Ceretto is the only one to have its own distillery.) Inspired by the Matisse Chapel, at Vence, Bruno Ceretto, who runs the winery with his brother Marcello and their children, had the idea of commissioning modern artists to decorate this chapel, which was built in 1914 of plain design and never consecrated. Three years ago Ceretto invited David Tremlett, an English artist who had worked and exhibited in Piedmont, to restore and decorate the chapel, and Tremlett in turn invited his friend and colleague Sol LeWitt to cover the exterior with one of the wall-filling designs for which he has become celebrated late in his long career. The two artists washed the chapel with bright colors in strong geometric patterns. The Missoni knitwear family wove vestments according to Tremlett's plan; the Murano glassworks, in Venice, executed his window designs. Last fall the chapel was dedicated and opened daily to visitors.

Equally out of the ordinary -- deeply eccentric, in fact -- are the fourteen chapels in the nearby town of Dogliani, just a few miles from Barolo along vineyard-lined roads, designed by Giovan Battista Schellino, an architect whose mid-nineteenth-century designs in the eclectic style draw heavily on medieval, Gothic, and Baroque elements. (Dogliani is in the heart of dolcetto and Barbaresco country and in cheese country, too: Giuseppe Occelli, one of Italy's most respected food artisans, makes exceptional cheese and butter in the next-door village of Farigliano.) Dogliani, Schellino's native town, has the greatest concentration of his works and shows his facility at restoring medieval castles and putting neoclassical façades on churches; he even designed a medieval-themed water tower. The devout architect donated a series of visionary designs to the Church, including a monumental entrance to the Dogliani cemetery (built from 1855 to 1867). The intense faith evident in its dreamlike forms -- spiky Gothic mixed with Moorish and incipient Art Nouveau -- gives the entrance the fascination of early Gaudí. The fourteen chapels, which lead from the cemetery to a modest church Schellino built, draw on different components of the styles he almost eerily mastered. The grandness of vision makes each seem to be a model for a much larger building.

If you thread several more miles through vineyard country, you will come upon another Via Dolorosa of chapels, these roughly identical and perfectly neoclassical. This circuit is from the cathedral in the hilltop bishopric of Mondovì to the startling sanctuary of Vicoforte in the plains below. Mondovì, fifteen miles from Dogliani and ten from Barolo, is a lively agricultural center with covered shopping arcades and thriving cafés and bars, appealing for its bustle and lack of self-consciousness. The cathedral is in the high, original part of the city, Mondovì Piazza, which also has a handsome Baroque town hall faced in the quietly sumptuous patterned brick that is characteristic of Piedmont. (A well-run enoteca, with sweeping views, also sits in the piazza.) I longed to follow this route on a bike -- starting at the cathedral, that is, because the ride to Vicoforte is straight downhill.

The vast cupola of the sanctuary rises like an apparition over a squat, square Baroque brick-faced church. The unlikely site is said to be where a hunter mistakenly shot an image of the Virgin painted on a rustic pillar; noble Savoys decided that this was a miraculous site and one worthy to house their tombs (ultimately most Savoy tombs were placed instead in Turin). The cupola, built in the early 1700s, is the largest elliptical dome in the world. Simply to experience its 240-foot height from the church below, which it entirely dominates, is memorable, and nothing in Piedmont matches the surprise of seeing the dome come into view in the middle of the plains.

Visiting both Dogliani and Mondovì would make a very full day's trip from Cherasco, and visiting either town and its surrounding countryside could easily take up a day. I also recommend an excursion into the mountainous landscape that so strongly influences the Piedmontese character. The small city of Cortemilia, which spans the Bormida River, is twenty high and winding miles from Cherasco. On the main street of this quiet medieval town is the Pasticceria Canobbio, which draws hazelnut lovers from afar: Cortemilia is known to have the finest hazelnuts in a region famous for them. Giuseppe Canobbio, the burly and friendly owner, told me that he talks to the hazelnuts as he peels them, because "they have things to tell you." Canobbio has listened well. Hazelnut torte, which in other hands is often buttery to the point of leadenness, is in his hands light in texture but heavy in flavor, and his brutti ma buoni -- crunchy hazelnut meringue cookies -- will reset your standards for hazelnuts.

Oh, the church: Madonna della Pieve, less than a mile outside town, is a perfectly preserved twelfth-century gray-fieldstone church and abbey, surrounded by dry walls with blind arches that rise into the vineyards they protect like Towers of Babel in a Brueghel painting. In other regions this would be a well-known and well-guarded monument. Here it's a lonely wonder.

PEOPLE come from abroad to dine at Piedmont's big-deal restaurants. Chief among these is Da Guido, often called the best restaurant in Italy, in the basement of a remarkably dreary 1960s mini-mall in the otherwise pretty town of Costigliole d'Asti. I always visit, out of affection and esteem for the owners, the Alciati family, and to taste again the tajarin -- Piedmont's very rich, very lightweight tagliarini, of which Da Guido serves the gold standard. Costigliole also merits a stop for the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, a beautifully equipped cooking school in the imposing Costigliole castle. Although geared to professionals, the school offers tours of the premises, short courses, and culinary tours of the region which include simple but comfortable accommodation (www.icif. com). For information on noteworthy restaurants, hotels, and inns, consult my Italy lodestars, the authors Fred Plotkin () and Faith Heller Willinger, and also the Web site of Gambero Rosso, publishers of the best-informed Italian guides (, available in English).

My preference is always for rustic simplicity. In Piedmont, I found it at Cascina del Cornale, a converted stucco farmhouse on the main road between Alba and Asti, where Elena Rovera has installed a market and restaurant featuring many of the region's best artisan-made products and organic produce. Rovera, an animated woman in her late forties, told me that the idea evolved as she saw her husband forced to sell at a loss his annual crop of apples and pears -- old and low-yielding but especially good-tasting varieties that he refused to abandon. Unlikely as it seems, farmers' markets hardly exist in Italy, and the cooperative the couple has formed hopes to make a profit on its labor-intensive goods by selling direct. Cascina del Cornale can supply picnics of cheese, homemade goose sausage, bread with real flavor (surprisingly hard to find), cocoa hazelnut cookies, and nougat. And traveling cooks without access to stoves can overcome their frustration in the comfortable and casual restaurant, which serves very simple local soups, pasta dishes, stews, and desserts.

Rovera spoke long and passionately of seeking out young farmers and finding rare varieties of pigs and lambs, of trying to rescue the one remaining traditional producer of the mountain cheese Castelmagno (Piedmont's best-known variety), and of trying to avoid becoming a "zoo" where people will taste wonderful and endangered foods without understanding and participating in the economic struggle necessary to preserve them for future generations. As I listened, I tasted the best minestrone I'd ever had, made with heirloom beans and cabbage, and helped myself to rare cheeses and an opened bottle of a little-known dolcetto. (This is the sort of place that encourages diners to point to other people's plates and say, "I want that.") "Barolo and Barbaresco, they'll survive," Rovera told me. "The whole world knows them and is willing to pay. It's the rest I'm worried about."

The restaurant opened just a few months ago, keeping long and flexible hours so that tourists and truck drivers can have a snack or a meal when they like. But its future is uncertain. Rovera frets late into the night that she and the cooperative's members lack the resources to keep the cascina running until it turns a profit. She doesn't want to be a noble failure ahead of her time: she has not only ideals but also fellow farmers to support. "I'd rather win this bet," she told me, as I cut a second strip of tart made with her husband's apples. I want so much for her to succeed I can taste it.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of

The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; Between the Vineyards - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 25-29.