All’ Enoteca – Piedmont, Italy
April 30, 2009
After peeking for only a few hours the day before, the sun decides to make a full appearance on our last full day in Piedmont. It’s much too glorious a day to stay inside musty historic buildings, so despite the fact that we have not seen the Shroud of Turin nor the Egyptian Museum, we opt for the Messer Tulipano Festival at the Castello di Pralormo.
Sadly, it’s the tail end of the season (and the last day of the festival), so most of the tulip heads are now bare or sport dry withering petals. Aluminum buckets with freshly cut flowers are inconspicuously placed amidst the remaining leaves in an attempt to augment the tulip beds. You may not notice if you don’t look closely.
We while away the next hour and a half touring the castle grounds which also feature a culinary fair and an outdoor exhibit called Pioggia di Tazze (Rain of Teacups) comprised of teacups hanging from trees and strewn on the grass.
Of course, our real objective today is lunch at All’ Enoteca, only twelve miles away in Canale. At some point during the drive over, it’s as if we’ve entered the twilight zone. A tunnel appears out of nowhere and sucks us into darkness for a moment. When we get out on the other side, we’re off the GPS grid (again!) and feel like we’ve just stepped into a BMW commercial. A gentle curving road winds through one of the prettiest scenery we’ve seen so far on this trip, patchwork quilts of vineyards on the hillside slopes.
All’ Enoteca lives on the second floor of a compound that also accommodates a tasting room underneath for the wines of the Roero region. The dining room itself is dressed down and spartan today. The red drapery and colorful area rug seen on its website are nowhere to be found. All that remains are white walls and polished black wood floors, white table cloths and glossy black chairs.
After some debate on how much food we wanted to consume for lunch, we decide on the Menu Sorpresa, a nine course unwritten tasting menu that leaves your meal up to the man in the kitchen. To go with this, we each try a glass of wine indigenous to the region — a Barbero di Alba (Marco Porello) for my husband and a Roero Arneis (Matteo Corregia) for me. A few minutes later, we are quite surprised to see the chef, Davide Palluda, come out to meet us. Contrary to the impression that his “power” pose on All’ Enoteca’s website evokes, he’s very down to earth and friendly. He asks us if there is anything we don’t like. Keeping in mind our little mishap at Boccondivino, I respond with no carne cruda please. But what about seafood, he counters, adding that he has some sweet shrimp flown in from Liguria, a coastal province adjacent to Piedmont. I’m fine with that since I do like ama-ebi, the Japanese delicacy also typically eaten raw. In the end, he promises a menu that’s a mix of both traditional and modern.
After he disappears back into the kitchen, the procession of dishes commences.
First are rice crackers and parmesan grissini. I normally don’t go to this level of detail with bread, but I like the rice crackers. They’re not oily nor oversalted, a far cry from the ones that normally accompany fried pigeon in Cantonese restaurants. I recall the water-logged rice fields we saw on the train ride up from Cuneo to Torino and realize that my cracker might have started its life there.
Then comes a duo of cold and hot aperitivi — vitello tonnato and fried breaded sardines. Unlike the usual presentation of vitello tonnato, where the tuna mayonnaise is slathered on top of the veal, here it is hidden within the folds of the meat. The sauce is much subtler than the one we had at Trattoria Marsupino, and the meat still looks rather pink (probably a few notches above cruda). The sardines are fat, deboned and stuffed with herbs in the middle. They are gone in two bites.
Scampi, oli extravergine, gambero e melograno. The shrimp sits gracefully on top of more raw chopped shellfish like a mermaid on a rock. It lives up to my expectation as a sweet shrimp, but meatier than the ones I’ve had in the past. The pomegranate sauce could be more acerbic, but what puts me off is the texture of the translucent squiggles underneath. The first thing that comes to my mind is squishy. This is not my favorite.
Baccala sfogliata, carciofi e pomodoro. Why is it that when I reconstitute bacalao at home, it still ends up partly stringy whereas this one is moist, plump and tastes like it was just pulled from the sea? The artichoke puree underneath provides a nutty base while the tomato punctuates the dish with a burst of sweet and sour.
Capesante, animelle, pompelmo e sedano. An elegant surf and turf of scallop and sweetbread with just a trickle of grapefruit in the jus and a piece of candied celery on top. It’s accompanied by another spring vegetable, fava beans. Although the scallop is perfectly cooked, the sweetbread is better by far, dense and firm with just a touch of salt.
Asparagi e piselli, peas, roccaverano e nocciole. Spring’s bounty of peas and asparagus with a smear of hazelnut butter and a gob of robiola, a soft Italian goat cheese. I know that my peas have just been plucked off the vine because they’re sweet and slightly crunchy.
Fegato grosso d’oca, cipolle caramelite, gelatina di acqua di pomodoro. A good-size chunk of nicely seared goose liver foie gras sits on top of almost-too-sweet caramelized onions. The gelatin of tomato water melts quickly into a watery pool on the plate. I’m not really sure of its purpose.
Tortelli al pesto liquido. This reminds me of a soup dumpling. As I cut into one of the tortelli, a liquid filling of olive oil and fragrant basil pesto oozes out and flavors the potato puree underneath.
L’uovo in pasta oli bacon. The dish arrives as one mass of smoked bacon foam, but underneath is a ravioli containing ricotta and a runny egg yolk. It is an interesting take on bacon and eggs that I quite like (had something similar at Corton’s in NYC, minus the ravioli). The yolk is a lovely orange gold color and it glides down the throat like oil.
As our last main course is served, Chef Davide comes out to chat. We talk about sundry things like the weather, how much rain Piedmont has gotten this year and how it snowed only last week. The conversation turns to swine flu (how prescient, since we’re about to be served pork) and segues onto the pig. Chef tells us it would be devastating for this to happen in Italy because they make use of every part of the pig. He laments the fact that pigs these days are grown so fast and so cheaply that a kilo costs less than a newspaper.
I ask him about his opinion of the Slow Food movement that originated in Piedmont. He shrugs matter-of-factly and tells us that it’s nothing new for local chefs. One thing is clear. He’s passionate about how important it is to know everything about the food he serves. He knows who raises them. He knows when they were born or harvested; in fact, he gets his chickens and rabbits from a woman living 3 km away who grows them for him in a pen yay big.
Maialino croccante, puntarelle e mele cotogno. Chef Davide explains that the pork belly is slow-cooked like a confit and the skin is crisped up later. As I’m eating it, all I can think of is how impossibly thin the skin is. The puree of quince on either side of the meat is sweet and tart, cutting a little of the richness of the pork. What intrigues me the most about this dish are the three shoots surrounding the meat. At first I think they’re the tips of very fat asparagus. Chef Davide is quick to correct me and calls them something else in Italian that I couldn’t quite understand. I later find out they’re puntarelle, an Italian chicory also known as catalogna. They bear no resemblance to the puntarelle I’ve seen at the 14th St. Greenmarket, which are mostly all leaves. In any case, the shoots are delicious and taste like a cross between asparagus and beans.
Primavera. How apt that our dessert is simply known as Spring. In Piedmont, strawberries herald the arrival of the season and we get first dibs. They come with meringue shaped like tiny Hershey kisses and a cannoli filled with mascarpone. This suits me just fine since I’ve never been one for an elaborate chocolate dessert.
All’ Enoteca may not be authentically traditional as Marsupino or far-out experimental as Combal Zero, but for me, it occupies a nice sweet spot in between, striving to reinvent and be interesting while remaining tethered to Piedmont and its seasons.
After lunch, Chef Davide presents us with a handwritten menu as a souvenir. And what started out as a thought that was executed into a meal is now committed to memory.