While traveling through the Piedmont region of Italy as a guest of Ricossa Winery, producers of affordable, delicious, varietally correct wine of Piedmont, it was hard not to have a few pinch me moments. Piedmont is one of the most beautiful regions of the world. Dotted from one end to the other with vineyards and hazelnut trees, surrounding ornate palaces and summer castles that date back to the 1400’s, including the palace in Turin, Italy’s first capital city.
Each of these summer castles are lovely with unique and intricate paintings decorating their interior beauty, while enhancing the lush vineyard dotted landscapes just outside floor to ceiling windows.
In the village of Magliano Alfieri I took a cooking class from Chef Stefano Paganni at his restaurant, Ristorante Stefano Paganni, inside one of these castles. A rising star in the area, known most for his unconventionalal use of local and seasonal ingredients, influenced by his time cooking abroad in Japan developing a deep love for sushi as well as his native Piedmontese cuisine.
His signature dish combines his take on beef tartar with sushi, cutting very fresh, Piedmont veal into bite size squares and pairing them with raw shrimp from Liguria, known for its briny sweet flavors, then adding ripe berries, zucchini ribbons and an apricot puree. Yes, interesting, but the combination of sweet and savory, juicy and briny works, especially with the Ricossa Gavi, a white wine made from 100% Cortese, revealing clean flavors of bright citrus, herbal and mineral notes.
Chef Stefano leases the castle space from the italian government and is refurbishing each room, while using the space as his dining room and kitchen. Refurbishment is a long process due to the permit requirements, with only 3 rooms completed since he opened his restaurant a few years ago. There is no central heat or air, as it would disrupt the integrity of the building, making cooking in the hot kitchen on a 90 degree day challenging. The upside for Stefano…his restaurant is in a castle. For a chef who is fiercely passionate about his heritage and promoting the use of local ingredients in his cuisine it is worth it.
Piedmont has more Michelin starred restaurants within the region than any other region in the world. I had a chance to experience two, with the standout being Ristorante Il Centro in the tiny village of Priocca, the town that Mondo del Vino’s production facility is located. Completely charming and understated, with an intricate series of rooms leading you inside and out of candle lit dining rooms, a respectful but not fancy kitchen and one of the best cellars I have seen, filled with a huge selection of Barolo and Barbaresco that date back to before the restaurant opened over 60 years ago.
With a focus on elegant, fresh dishes presented simply, without heavy sauces highlighting clean flavors of the region for an exciting and refreshing experience for the palate. The multicolored meal was filled with dishes that were impeccably presented and maintained regionalism with seasonality, pairing beautifully with the Ricossa portfolio of wine, and all crafted by a female chef, Rita Cordero, wife to owner Enrico Cordero, who together have owned Il Centro since its opening and entertain everyone from locals celebrating happy occasions, to special friends stopping by, like Chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli in Spain who was there the night before our visit.
Freshly made, eggy tagliatelle pasta simply tossed with fresh tomatoes, asparagus, fava beans and Parmesan with just a touch of olive oil and lots of black pepper paired easily with the acidic Ricossa Barbera D’Asti. As did sautéd porchini mushrooms, found everywhere in the region along with its white truffle sister, simply layered into puff pastry with a porchini cream. Both dishes married richness with clean flavors; the acidity in the Barbera cut through some of the richness while enhancing the spice and freshness of the dishes. Gamey roasted rabbit brought earthiness to Ricossa’s youthful and elegant Barolo.
A simple desert of fresh berries with cream balanced the sweetness of the Ricossa Casorzo, an off-dry red frizzante wine that shines with desserts filled with blackberries, strawberries, cherries and dried fruits with ripe fruit flavors, a touch of spice and low alcohol level, perfect to enjoy anytime of the day.
The Casorzo was also an ideal accompaniment to the hazelnut based desserts that fill menus throughout the region. Driving through the Piedmont countryside you can physically see the line designating where flourishing grape vines mingling with fig, peach and apricot trees, yield to hazelnuts, most easily identified as you head into higher altitudes and more mountainous terrain where the slope of the land and cool temperatures make grape growing difficult.
La Corte di Canobbio Pasticceria, a 50+ year old family owned bakery in the region, specializing in all things hazelnut. From Baci cookies to Norta di Nocciole cakes to Nocciole Zuccherate, simply roasted hazelnuts dusted with powdered sugar, these artisans know how to make the bitter hazelnut shine with just a touch of sugar. Though I am not a sweets person, but these were delicious, especially the supremely silky, smooth hazelnut gelato. Besides the finesse and elegance of the wine, that incredible Il Centro pasta with tomatoes and fava, this gelato was the best bite of the trip.