After ten days of non-stop sight-seeing, walking, eating and drinking, the Beast and I were ready to slow down. Piemonte, which translates roughly to “at the foot of the mountain,” would be a perfect reprise.
Our hosts, P and D (as we affectionately call them) are friends of the Beast’s parents. We spend quite a bit of time with P and D, and their three grown daughters. In fact, we even accompany them on many of their family vacations. Now, it’s not like the Beast or I need surrogate families–our families are simply quite lovely thank-you-very-much–but if I was forced to choose a second family, it would be this one. And it’s not just because they have a wee property in a town called Ameno, just outside of Orta.
Obviously P and D are grown-ups. I am pretty much a grown-up. The Beast is not a grown up. Now, I know what you’re nervously thinking: What did the four of you talk about every night over dinner? Did the Beast behave himself? Let me save you the suspense: We had the time of our lives! We went on mini-road trips; we went grocery shopping; we prepared and cooked dinner together; and we talked about everything that grown-ups talk about, and even some stuff that Beast’s like to talk about, including lardo, Gregorian-chanting nuns, and the global role of the United States. And New Orleans jazz.
We spent five memorable evenings around this dining table.
And we prepared our feasts (and drank a heck of a lot of wine) in this kitchen.
There were also snacks.
Maybe the most exciting meal was sea bass, or branzino, cooked in a salt crust. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but have been far too nervous to do it. P and D prepped the fish.
And I got to do the plating! Off with the heads, tails and out with the bones (most of them.) The Beast must have taken a dozen photos of me in action. (I think it counts as the moment he was most impressed with me on the trip.)
Nearly every night in Ameno the wild boars, or cinghiale, came out and dug up bits of P and D’s lawn. And every night P, D and the Beast woke up to their cries, and got out of bed to try and see one in action. But I didn’t hear a thing. I don’t think I’ve ever slept so soundly. Maybe it was the white cotton bed sheets; or the fresh mountain air; or all the wine we drank with dinner; or maybe it was because I had a bed all to myself and didn’t have to contend with a Beast thrashing next to me.
We worked up an appetite one afternoon by walking with P and D into Orta from Ameno.
We nearly walked around the entire perimeter of Lake Orta, and then stopped for lunch at a spot with a perfect view of the tiny island of St. Giulio.
This Giulio character rid the lake of some serpent-like beast, and then he built a church on the island and then he died and was buried here and then there was a basilica built over his tomb. There is also a Benedictine monastery here too, and lots of kitties.
But this hazy afternoon, Orta had a different sort of Beast to contend with and he’d eyed a piece of lasagna being enjoyed by a patron at Ristorante Venus. So we stopped here for lunch. The sweet server told us that the lasagna was part of a lunch special that also included “stinco” for only 12 euros.
Foodie (to server): Mi scusi, ma no parlo Italiano molto bene. Allora, ah, oh…come si dice “stinco” in Inglese?
Server: Ah! Stinco e bla blah blo ballkk e conemlkdflkdsa;fjdsa;l ljppfftt.
Foodie: Ah!!! Io capisco!
Beast: So what is stinco?
Foodie: I have no idea. But I think it’s meat of some sort. You should order it.
P and D agreed. P ordered the lasagna, without the stinco, D ordered a gorgeous salad, and I ordered another lunch special; fresh taglietelle with porcini mushrooms.
And then, the stinco arrived…
It was lamb shank! (Stinco means shin). I can’t imagine a more fitting lunch for a Beast than stinco, lasagna and roasted potatoes.
My pasta was over-cooked, and I’m not sure I liked the cumin sprinkled all over it either. But the porcini mushrooms themselves were packed with flavour.
After lunch, P and D kept on walking while the Beast and I took the ferry over to the island to visit the basilica. We had the place to ourselves for most of the visit, which was quite beautiful.
Back on the mainland, we had a chance to explore more of picturesque Orta.
It was a lovely day. But the best day of our visit, in my books, was saved for our last 24 hours in the mother country. P and D drove us to “persons-interested-in-food-heaven”: the area in and around Alba. This is the land of white truffles–that strange little stinky fungus that can’t be cultivated; this is the land of the barbara grape, and, get ready for it…the nebbiolo grape–arguably the king of Italian grapes-that gets turned into Barolo and Barbaresco in the towns of…you guessed it: Barolo and Barbaresco.
And we went there! Oh did we go there! Better yet is that D, being, how do you say, “a very important, real-life, no-joke journalist who writes a column for a real-life American newspaper,” arranged for Alba’s director of tourism to take us through the city’s annual truffle festival.
The Beast, P and I followed D and the tourism director around the crowded event where not only truffle hunters gather to sell there wares, but also wine producers, hazelnut growers and cheese makers.
After P and D picked out a truffle to buy (which they planned on sharing with us for dinner later that night), and some freshly made pasta, off we drove to La Morra to taste some wines at a small festival that D had read about. Apparently, Julius Caesar himself stopped here many years ago. He wrote in his memoirs that he very much enjoyed the local wines. I did too, because they were all pretty much Barolos.
We ended the day by driving up a winding road to the town of Barolo itself.
Where we tasted more wines (but not these old ones in the photo.)
It was a perfect day that ended with a perfect meal back home in Ameno. P and I researched a simple pasta and fresh truffle recipe in Italy’s cookbook bible, The Silver Spoon, and decided on topping our tagliatelle with butter, cheese and shavings of our truffle. And because P is obsessed with kitchen gadgets, we even had our own truffle shaver.
The pasta was amazing, although we all agreed that we needed more butter, or olive oil, which is hard to admit after melting cups of it already. I can still recall the smell of truffles now…and I bet P can too because she transported the little expensive bugger in her purse.
Well that about wraps it up folks. We came; we saw; we conquered. And boy did we eat and drink. But you know what? The best part of all that eating and drinking, better than any old stinky truffle, bottle of Barolo, Bistecca Fiorentina, Spaghetti Carbonara, or numerous samplings of gelato, was the very act of gathering around a table and being with good people. We’ve being doing this very thing, that is congregating with food and wine as the focus, for thousands of years. I’m proud to keep the tradition alive. Buona Notte.
Ristorante Venus: **(F) ***(B)
Branzino: ***1/2 (F) *** (B)
Truffle Pasta: **1/2 (F) ** (B)