FOUR DAYS IN PIEMONTE
Not wanting to fly, we narrowed down our list of places to visit during our 4-day 4th of July weekend. Cinque Terre? Amalfi? Sicily? Milan? No, all of them would probably be bombarded with crowds because summertime is high tourist season. Most places south of Rome would be hotter than what we already considered to be unbearable in Rome. So we decided on Piemonte, one of Italy’s famous wine regions recognized by UNESCO that’s a 6.5-hour drive from Rome. We were used to making our monthly 6-hour trips from San Diego to our hometown, were excited to see more of the country, and knew we’d want to bring back wine, so we opted to rent a car instead of taking the train. What we didn’t realize was that the Smart ForTwo car we rented couldn’t handle long drives up and down mountains and it left us without air conditioning every 3 hours for about an hour each time. We were both sweaty messes in the 95°F humid heat, but we finally made it to our air-conditioned hotel in Torino. If you’ve visited Rome, you may have noticed how unlawful the driving is. Roman driving is not representative of all Italy and that was made evident to us in Torino when Jaime drifted out of his lane and cars honked at him.
We arrived to Torino in the early evening, checked into our hotel room, freshened up, and then headed to the metro stop right outside our hotel to head to dinner. When we looked for a hotel, we looked for a location that had on-site parking and was close to a metro station. The requirement of having on-site parking meant that we weren’t able to stay in the center of town, but since it was only a few stops away on the metro it was a non-issue. We decided to stay in Torino and drive out to the more rural areas of Piemonte to visit smaller towns and wineries. We stayed at the Hotel Smeraldo where the staff was friendly, accommodating, professional, and spoke multiple languages. The hotel rooms were all equipped with air conditioning (a MUST when traveling during the humid summer) and ours had a small terrace. The shower and bathroom were a bit small, but we’ve found that to be normal when staying at B&Bs or smaller hotels.
In the same palazzo as the hotel is the Carducci metro stop. From there you’re able to easily travel to all the popular areas of Torino (historic center, nightlife, restaurants, etc.) in less than 10 minutes. We purchased our tickets for the day and headed to Ristorante Molo 16, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant. We started the night with a bottle of La Colombera Derthona and an octopus appetizer with tomato confit and asparagus purée. Jaime ended the night with pesto pasta with fish and pecorino cheese and I had the gnocchetti (baby gnocchi) with shrimp, lobster, and tomatoes.
Friday morning we took the metro back into the historic center and stopped at Caffè Al Bicerin. The original shop of Caffè Al Bicerin was built in 1763, but the current building was designed by the architect Carlo Promis and constructed in 1856. The tables, marble counter, boiserie, wooden floors, doors, and windows in cast iron are original elements that document the atmosphere of the 19th-century chocolate shops in Torino. Bicerin is a traditional hot drink of Torino made of espresso, chocolate, and whole milk. It’s served layered and I was instructed to drink it as is, no mixing. In the states, it’s not that uncommon to pay more than $5 for a coffee whether from an artisan coffee shop or Starbucks, but I had become so accustomed to paying no more than €1,00 for espresso and €1,50 for a cappuccino that I was surprised the bicerin rang up at €6,50. While the drink was well worth it and a part of the history and culture in Torino, it’s not something I could justify drinking every day of the trip. It’s funny how living somewhere new changes your perspective on things you never used to think twice about. I can only imagine how Italians feel when they visit the states and can’t find espresso or cappuccino for less than $2.00.
We walked aimlessly around the city after our coffee and because every Italian city is so beautiful it really doesn’t matter where you walk. The one thing we forgot back in Rome was body sunscreen. If you’re in need of sunscreen on your trip and aren’t sure where to find it (because drug and convenience stores don’t exist here like they do in the states), stop by the farmacia and ask for protezione solare (sun protection). After purchasing sunscreen and lathering up, we continued our journey around town. We walked over to Mole Antonelliana for a panoramic view of the city and visited the cinema museum. The Mole Antonelliana is a major landmark in Torino and is named after the architect, Alessandro Antonelli. A mole in Italian is a building of monumental proportions. It took 26 years to build, starting in 1863 and finishing in 1889 after the architect’s death. Unless you hate cinema, we highly recommend the cinema museum to people who enjoy the simple pleasure of watching TV and those in the industry. The museum housed original pieces and thoroughly documented the history of the cinema industry with a lot of interactive exhibits.
After exploring town for a few hours, we walked back to the hotel and headed out to Canelli, a town little over an hour from Torino. Canelli is famous for sparkling wines and moscato and in 1850 the city of Canelli made the first Italian sparkling wine, which we know as moscato champagne. Because of the hills in Canelli, majority of the wine cellars are not underground in the sense that they are below the winery, the cellars are underground because they live nestled in the hills. We visited Coppo Winery to learn more about their underground wine cellars that are UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are part of the Underground Cathedrals (no religious association) that spans over 20,000 sqm (over 215,000 sqft), 5,000 sqm (over 16,400 sqft) belonging to Coppo.
Founded in 1892, Coppo’s core business was sparkling wine. Their core business now is Barbera. They produce 400,000 bottles of wine a year with 60% of their production being sold in Italy and the remaining 40% being sold abroad. Although Coppo is considered a very strong brand in Italy, it is still a family business run by the fourth generation made up of four brothers. While 40% may seem like a high export percentage, many Italin wine companies actually export 80-90% of their wine. Three fun facts about Coppo: (1) their moscato wine can be found at Disney World, (2) it’s very popular in Switzerland and Germany, and (3) they sell a lot of their wine with screw tops solely because of the US market. In Italy it’s hard to sell wine with a screw top because Italians are old fashioned; Italy is part of the old world. We were told that there really is no difference in the quality of wine between using a cork and a screw top and that new technology actually allows for a controlled amount of oxygen when using a screw top. So don’t be too quick to dismiss wine with a screw top next time you’re at the grocery store.
At Coppo they use only French Oak to age their Barbera, producing about 200,000 bottles a year. Each barrel is used for five years. The brand new barrels are used for their Barbera d’Asti DOCG Pomorosso and then are reused for their other Barberas. Each French Oak barrel costs €1,000, a significant yearly investment in their wine. Even though Coppo Winery and their vineyards are not in the Barolo area, they are still able to produce and sell Barolo under the Coppo label because they’re grandfathered into the DOCG rules. Talk about the perks of an old family business. They purchase grapes from the Barolo area and only produce 5 barrels, about 5,000 bottles a year. In their cellars, you’ll find water on the floor and that is from a natural process due to the cellar being at a consistent 60°F with humidity that has no human control.
During our tour of the cellars, we were able to see the process of making sparkling wine. Wine bottles are placed upside down on a triangle-shaped shelf. It’s done this way to remove the waste from the second fermentation inside the bottle. Sparkling wines are produced the same way as champagne; there are always two fermentations. Prosecco can be made in 3 months, while other types of sparkling wine need about 2.5 years. The difference with prosecco is that the second fermentation can be done in the steel tank. The second fermentation for sparkling wine is done in individual bottles. Coppo’s sparkling wine bottles are stored upside down for a minimum of 24 months for the waste to gather and be removed. Two people come to their cellars every day for a month and turn every single bottle. When all the waste is at the neck of the bottle, a machine freezes the neck, the top is removed, and the pressure built up in the bottle pops out the ice and the waste. Coppo produces about 60,000 bottles of sparkling wine a year.
One of the coolest parts of their cellars was seeing wine that has been saved over the 4 generations. The wines are still drinkable and considered the family’s treasures.
They also produce Chardonnay. How many bottles of Chardonnay do you think are in the picture below? If you guessed 13,000, then you win (you win nothing, unfortunately, just the satisfaction of being right)! Imagine being the person responsible for stacking these 13,000 bottles. It honestly sounds more terrifying than any of my college finals. Coppo produces a few other wine varietals and you can read more about them here.
We had no concrete plans after our time in Canelli, so on the recommendation of our sommelier, we drove over to Neive for the views. We arrived shortly after lunch so most places were closed, but the views alone were worth the trip. Neive sits on top of a hill and gives you a view over some of the Piemonte region, looking almost too beautiful to be real.
We headed back to the Torino and freshened up for dinner. We had dinner at Solferino Ristorante Torino. If you’ve learned anything from reading the blog or following us on social media, you know Jaime generally only eats three things: margherita pizza, cacio e pepe, or some type of pasta al pomodoro (pasta with tomato sauce). He enjoyed spaghetti with a spicy tomato sauce and I inhaled my homemade tiny ravioli with butter and truffle. Anyone else on the truffle love train? I’m obsessed. The food was great, but not realizing how humid it would remain throughout the night we opted to sit outside. By the end of dinner, both of us were uncomfortably sweaty. We only had two nights left in Torino, so we spent the rest of the evening walking around exploring the city.
We had no real plans for Sunday other than exploring the countryside and visiting the city of Barolo. Technically, we did visit the area of Barolo, but we were never able to visit the actual city because all weekend there was a hard rock music concert taking place and tickets were required for entry into the city. Unlike wine tasting in California, not all wineries offer tastings or visits and the ones that do almost always require reservations. Because we came to Barolo with no real plans other than to explore and have lunch in the city, we weren’t able to stop by any wineries around the area.
We continued driving and exploring the countryside of Piemonte and stopped in Alba, a small town of 30,000 people, for lunch at Osteria dell’Arco. We enjoyed a lunch of calamari in a puréed potato and coconut milk sauce with smoked paprika, Jaime had his usual spaghetti in a spicy tomato sauce, I had homemade tiny ravioli with meat in a butter sauce, and then we ended the lunch with happy and full bellies with homemade tiramisù and panna cotta with strawberries. Being in Piemonte, we wouldn’t have a meal without wine and in memory of the wine we tried but failed to have in Barolo we shared a bottle of a 2013 Ettore Germano Barolo.
The ability to stuff your stomach full of great-tasting, non-processed, local ingredient foods is easy to do in Italy at an extremely affordable price, but there’s also something to be said for luxurious foods and experiences unique to Michelin starred restaurants. While not cheap, a Michelin star restaurant experience in Italy tends to be less expensive than in the United States. So when we have the chance to visit one, we take advantage. We ended our last night in Torino at Del Cambio. The restaurant has been in Torino and in the same place, Piazza Carignano, since 1757. We both selected the “Nel Tempo” tasting menu which presents a traditional dish with a new twist. Each dish was served two ways, the traditional take and a new modern take. The dishes were made with the same ingredients, but different preparations resulting in very different flavors. Along with the bread to start, we were served chips made of flour, rice, and vegetables.
In the collages below, you’ll find six of the dishes we tried with their new and old-world takes:
- Squid in a green sauce
- Traditional: squid tossed with a sauce made of egg, oil, and parsley
- New: boiled egg whites to look like calamari in combination with the squid
- Traditional: shrimp nestled in a leaf of lettuce topped with a sauce similar to Thousand Island over a bed of ice
- New: wasabi and tabasco were added to the egg yolk sauce and served deconstructed
- Traditional: a standard tomato sauce with stewed vegetables
- New: vegetables and the tomato stew sauce were cooked down, puréed, gelled, and molded into the shape of the vegetable with the addition of tuna
- Wild mushroom crepes
- Traditional: bechamel and mushrooms were inside the crepes
- New: bechamel and mushrooms were mixed in the dough
- Traditional: red mullet was cooked in a bed of salt
- New: red mullet was cooked on a slab of caramel and salt
- Traditional: traditional preparation of veal escalope in a meat sauce
- New: lettuce fried in a meat sauce
If it fits in your budget, you really can’t go wrong with a dining experience at a Michelin starred restaurant. Both Del Cambio in Torino and Vespasia in Norcia have been memorable experiences and we would recommend both to future visitors.
Thanks to a quick Google search of Barolo wineries that don’t require reservations, we were able to visit Ceretto Winery for a few tastings on our way back to Rome. Ceretto Winery was founded in 1993 and remains a family run business now managed by the third generation. Ceretto is well known for their Barolos and has a beautiful property overlooking Barolo, but wow were they expensive coming in at $5-$20 for a single tasting. Because their wines are fairly expensive and they don’t go through an entire bottle a day with their tastings, they use a device called Coravin to pour their wines. Coravin uses argon gas and has a tiny needle that penetrates through the cork to extract the wine. Because the cork is expandable, it allows you to try wine without opening the bottle. No air enters the bottle when using a Coravin, so it’s great if you have an expensive vintage you don’t want to drink at once or are aging wine and want to taste your bottles over the years to taste the progress of it aging. They start off at €200 and go all the way up to €999, so it’s definitely not a tool used by the everyday wine drinker. After tasting a few of their wines, we purchased a bottle of their 2006 Barolo Prapo to commemorate the year we started dating and luckily our wine tastings were waived.
Of course, our travels didn’t go without any hiccups. We headed home to Rome on a Sunday, which meant that almost all the gas stations were self-service. We stopped at a gas station before hopping on the autostrada and after the machine failed to authorize three of our cards, we opted for cash and put €40 in the machine. Based on our track record at gas stations in Italy, we should’ve known something would go wrong. After the machine accepted our €40, it refused to pump any gas. When something like this happens and you don’t use all the money you put in the machine, a receipt prints out notating a credit to be used for your next visit. Piemonte is not close to Rome and there wasn’t a chance we’d be back before the credit expired, so off we went to the next gas station with €40 lost in the trials and tribulations of gas stations in Italy.
We had a wonderful time in Piemonte, the wine was great, the food was amazing, and the views were breathtaking. During our 4-day trip here, we barely scraped the surface of wines to drink and towns to visit. There are so many places to visit in Italy, but we definitely plan to return to Piemonte for another visit. Until next time!