Italy’s culture, once the inspiration for generations of poets, is in danger of becoming homogenized by the rest of the Western world. Indeed, the Chianti region of Tuscany has been nicknamed “Chiantishire” to acknowledge the many English who have relocated there, and mass tourism has stripped Venice, Florence, and Rome of most of their senses of tradition and authenticity. However, in Piedmont, which translates to the “foot of the mountain,” a heritage of distinctive cuisine, fine wine, and tight-knit community has been preserved.
The vast territory, which borders Switzerland to the north and France to the west, is home to the great Barolo and Barberesco wines, the prized white truffles of Alba, and fassano beef from a rare breed of cattle. No matter where you go in Piedmont, you are bound to come across memorable cuisine. Take Belvedere, for example, a restaurant located in La Morra, where you can view the vineyards cresting over the hills as you dine. The setting is a bit of unspoiled heaven where gustatory offerings include deeply satisfying homemade pasta dishes and braised meats, such as veal shanks cooked in Belvedere Barolo. A splendid cheese cart fills the air with aromas of castelmagno, robiola, and gorgonzola.
While Gianfranco Bovio has been running the Belvedere restaurant and vineyard for 40 years, Trattoria della Posta has been in existence for 125 years, although last year it moved from the center of Monforte to a renovated farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Originally a pit stop for horse-drawn coaches, the trattoria has been owned by the same family for decades. The food is prepared by 35-year-old chef Gianfranco Massolino, and his girlfriend, Claudia Garza, runs the front of the house. Together they create a dining experience that is so genuinely welcoming that you feel as though you are part of their family. “We have a friend, Giuseppe Barbero, who has a huge garden,” says Claudia. “He usually gives us his best vegetables as a present because he and Gianfranco are such old friends. Sometimes he even sends a few rabbits.”
Real Castello in Verduno is another family establishment. Three sisters and their four daughters manage the hotel and restaurant, the cooking school, and the vineyard. “The main house is a 16th-century structure,” says Alessandra Buglione di Monale, one of the daughters, “but we’re renovating new property now and expanding the cooking school. We teach people not only how to cook authentic Piedmontese dishes, but also how to put on what I like to call dinner performances: the style, concept, and presentation of the dinner.”
The main building of Real Castello has a mirror in the parlor where members of the House of Savoy engraved their names decades ago. “This was an estate of the Savoys,” explains Ms. Buglione di Monale. “The royal family bought it to have the cellars to store their wine. My great-great-grandfather purchased it from them.”
Although the centuries-old influence of the House of Savoy is evident in the region’s rich cuisine and architecture, indigenous Piedmontese culture remains in its original quirky state. It is no coincidence that the international Slow Food movement, which aims to protect traditional and artisanal production of food and wine, is based in Bra, a village of 28,000 inhabitants. “Slow Food was born here, where the food and wine traditions are ancient and still very important to the life of the people,” says Slow Food President Carlo Petrini. “If we moved to Milan or Rome we would be closer to the media and political power, but we would lose our roots.”
Attached to those roots are some idiosyncrasies that define some of the restaurants of the region, including the one in the village of Roddino run by Gemma Boeri. To eat at her restaurant, you must be a member of an association—un circolo recreativo—which you join by paying her 15,000 lire upon your first visit. After you seat yourself, Gemma arrives at your table to decide what you will eat. “You will have the raw beef,” the diminutive cook says, “and after that the tajarin [tagliolini] with porcini. Finally, the rabbit stew.” Before you can utter a word, she returns to the kitchen.
When the meal ends, there is no check. Gemma tells you what to pay. “That table had the same meal,” you might say, “and they are paying less.” She will only shrug. Dining at her restaurant is not unlike having dinner in the home of an Italian grandmother whose theatricality is as much a part of the meal as the delicious homemade pasta and stews.
Drama is also evident at La Contea in Neive, where Tonino Verro and his wife, Claudia, host the show. For years, Tonino has been an international culinary star, the subject of many articles in European and U.S. publications. In the evening, La Contea’s waiters wear colorful 19th-century outfits complete with ruffled white shirts and white serving gloves. And if Tonino, a very large man, takes a liking to you, be prepared for a hug. The restaurant is a bit past its prime, but when the kitchen is on, you will enjoy authentic Piedmontese dishes such as veal braised in Barberesco and tajarin with shredded local cheese. Mr. Verro’s love for Piedmont can be tasted in the truffle dishes prepared in season. It is best to dine at La Contea and sleep elsewhere—at the elegant Villa Beccaris in Monforte or Castello di Santa Vittoria d’Alba—because the restaurant’s attached inn, with its cramped rooms, is reminiscent of a boarding house in dire need of renovations.
Romano Levi, a friend of Mr. Verro’s who also resides in Neive, is another character with an international reputation. The subject of three different biographies (by authors Luigi Veronelli, Markus Boden, and Reinhard Hund), Mr. Levi is a notorious curmudgeon who has grown more reclusive with age. He distills a grappa so powerful that it will produce hallucinations if handled improperly. It tastes like liquid fire, and just a sip is enough to warm you for hours. Mr. Levi is famous, too, for drawing on the label of each bottle a beautiful, childlike picture that is accompanied by an inscription about women. One of the most famous of his lines reads “Donna selvatica che scavalica le colline” or “To the wild woman who roams the hills.” Produced in small batches, Mr. Levi’s grappa is difficult to find, but worth the search.
If your preference is wine rather than spirits, Giacomo Conterno, Antonio Gaja, and Bruno Ceretto are three other first-rate craftsmen worth visiting. Mr. Conterno is a standard-bearer. He produces a classic Barolo with structure and tannin such that some of his wines are at their peak decades after bottling. Mr. Gaja is known for his Barberesco, which has no equal, but he also makes a Chardonnay that is now gaining the sophisticated audience it deserves.
Mr. Ceretto’s Bricco Rocche Barolo has the depth associated with single-vineyard production. It is packed with fruit, yet traditional and structured, a perfect accompaniment for the local gastronomy.
One of the best of the younger generation of winemakers is Roberto Voerzio, whose extremely low-yield production of Nebbiolo grapes has created topflight Barolo wines. After three hours of walking with Mr. Voerzio through his vineyards and barrel tasting in his cellars, it is obvious that his is a loving, artistic endeavor. Mr. Voerzio’s Barolo Brunate 1997 sells for $150 a bottle, and only 50 of the 275 cases produced that year were exported to the United States. “I cut each bunch of grapes [on the vine] in half,” he explains, “and I toss that away even though they are healthy. Why does the wine taste better as a result? It’s like a mother with fewer children to love: The vine has more to give to the grapes.”
Just as Piedmont, unlike other Italian destinations that have become overrun with tourists, has more to give to the knowing few who visit.
Belvedere, Piazza Castello 5, La Morra, +73.50190
La Contea, Piazza Cocito, 812057 Neive, +73.677558, www.la-contea.it
Real Castello, Via Umberto I, 9, 12060 Verduno, +72.470125, www.castellodiverduno.com
Slow Food, www.slowfood.com
Trattoria della Posta, Loc. S. Anna, 87, Monforte, +73.78120
Villa Beccaris, Via Bava Beccaris, 1, Monforte, +73.78158, www.villabeccaris.it