September 29, 2010 by Guest Contributor of Good Food Stories
If you haven’t guessed by now, being Italian is a big deal to both Good. Food. Stories. editors, and it’s no surprise that our families feel the same way about our tasty heritage. In that vein, today’s guest post is a treat from all-around GFS cheerleaders and (extremely) frequent commenters: Casey’s dad and stepmom, Jim and Carol Barber.
We didn’t expect to fall in love with Piedmont. We had been to other Italian wine regions in the past, including Tuscany and Umbria, and had the “seen one, seen ’em all” attitude. How many times can you spit in a bucket, right? After patting ourselves on the back for choosing two great regions to start our trip (Cinque Terre and Lake Maggiore/Lake Como), we were reluctant to leave the water and the mountains and head inland. It was ridiculously hot and we felt that maybe we made a mistake, going in mid-summer.
Putting our misgivings aside, we piled into our rented Fiat 500 (which had already been laughed at in Bellagio–I don’t think we were even charged to take the ferry from one side of Lake Como to the other because it took up no space on the boat) toward Il Vigneto, a restaurant and country house with just six guest rooms in the heart of the Langhe. The converted farmhouse sits on a hill overlooking nothing but vineyards and ancient towns in the distance.
Il Vigneto’s outdoor terrace was packed with locals—not a non-Italian in sight—when we pulled in. Rossano Allochis, the co-manager and brother of the chef, Manolo Allochis, immediately steered us to a lunch that started with raw veal meat (as they call it), a terrine of grilled aubergines with fresh tomato and basil, and a blanched and peeled tomato, stem still on, stuffed with mozzarella cheese and baked just enough to get the breadcrumbs toasted.
I should note at this point what kind of travelers we are. We hate tourists. We hate being reminded that we are tourists. We won’t even say the c-word (the dreaded boat trip that rhymes with booze). Our favorite moments are when we are the only visitors in town. In Cinque Terre and Lake Maggiore, we managed to duck the crowds and get just enough socialization with a few friendly travelers.
After a post-lunch drive through the towns of La Morra, Serralunga and Barolo—home to some of Piedmont’s best wines, and all within five kilometers of Il Vigneto—we headed back for dinner. Once again, the restaurant was filled with people. At this point, it became clear that Il Vigneto was very well respected by the locals and expertly managed and staffed by a group of young men living in a kind of foodie frat house, except there was no fooling around. The brothers have a playful, wicked sense of humor, but when it came to their job, they were all business.
While Chef Manolo didn’t speak English and kept a low profile in the kitchen, his brother Rossano, having spent 18 months in Florida working at Epcot, spoke excellent English and took very good care of us. With full lunch and dinner crowds, several special events and a wild party of over 200 guests on our last night, he still managed to schedule winery visits, scenic drives and even an introduction to two crazy twin brothers who owned the local FedEx store so we could mail wine back home.
Rossano handled the bed and breakfast, the restaurant, private events, and even cut the grass on his day off. He closed at night and was there with breakfast in the morning. He might have even cleaned the rooms for all we knew, but still took the time to listen to our stories after putting a drink in our hand when we returned each night.
The meals that followed over the next few nights passed in a blur of barely contained excess: tonnato hen over greens, offal stew, pheasant with mustard and cognac served with pears and white polenta, cacao ravioli stuffed with gorgonzola, tagliolini with zucchini and saffron sauce, and an endless parade of fruity housemade sorbets.
We became immersed in Piedmont’s inhabitants of farmers, wine merchants and fantastic cooks. There was a moment when we needed to run into someone who spoke a little English and knew the area (we had some misguided directions trying to find a winery) but there was no one around! We know this all changes in the fall when the harvest and truffle season begins, so we’re thinking we came at the perfect time.
On a day trip to Torino, it hit us like a mattone how much Il Vigneto was quickly affecting our worldview: all the cigarette smoke traffic, crowds, ugh! We just wanted to go back “home” to sit and stare off at the vineyards.
After a blowout party on our last night—at which Manolo and Rossano served individual bowls of seafood risotto to over 200 people!—we finally had to call it a night at 3:30 am. By morning when we said our good-byes, the place was totally cleaned up and the frat boys were already preparing for the lunch crowd.