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.
Murazzano was one of the few areas of Italy to form a resistance to the Fascist rule during WWII. Today in this proud area artisan cheese-maker and owner of Murazzano Penta raises sheep and goat for fresh local cheese and charcuterie including the famous Tuma of Murazzano DOP near the village of Cuneo. Sold at local markets throughout the region this labor of love for the daughter of a local shepherd combines modern ideas with traditional practices, making products that are unique and yet representative of the culture and tradition of the area. Every product they create from the famous washed rind Murazzano Tuma to other cheeses like well aged Gorgonzola and fresh ricotta to the charcuterie and pancetta tastes like the air and flavor of the region, filled grassy, herbal notes and simply delicious with the Ricossa Barbera.
The city of Alba is best known for the exquisite white truffle that are found in their hills every winter, perhaps the greatest aroma and flavor combination, perfect when simply shaved over a piece of crusty bread with sweet, salted butter.
It is also a bustling town filled with dozens of outdoor bistros and restaurants welcoming crowds coming from work in the evening, to couples enjoying a first date, to families. It is common to see guests arrive early in the evening and pop around from place to place, enjoying an aperitif of Aperol, Cinzano or Negroni with a few bites of focaccia or hazelnuts or olives, and then move on to another spot for a glass of Barbera or Barbaresco and a bite of charcuterie or roasted artichokes or eggplants, and end the night at another spot with a Ricossa Moscato or grappa and a bit of fruit, chocolate or cheese. The night starts early in the evening and keeps going until early morning, entertaining everyone from college students to grandparents.
From the former capital city of Turin, where the Shroud of Turin is still located; to Alba, the city of 1000 towers; to the heart of Italy’s king of red wines in Barolo, the region of Piedmont will excite the wine lover, food aficionado and historian in you.
Though the time was too short, as any escape to Italy will always be, enjoying a bottle of approachable Ricossa wine will transport any wine lover directly to gorgeous landscapes filled with red tiled roofs, fruit orchards, hazelnut groves and of course, miles and miles of vines making some of the best wine in the world. If you can’t make it over, or need an excuse to take your palate back, enjoy any of the approachable options Ricossa makes with a plate of fresh pasta with veal ragu or fresh vegetables, roasted game, pancetta and sweet Italian sausage, or Nutella and chocolate based sweets. If you need more inspiration there is a recently released e-cookbook by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca, “Not the Same Old Spaghetti Sauce” detailing updated recipes for the Italian food lover using seasonal ingredients, with a bit of a twist.
Ricossa wines are sold exclusively through Centennial in Texas. If your local Centennial store doesn’t have one of the wines noted above they can special order it for you.