Story by Barbara and Manos Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
Let us have wine and women
mirth and laughter,
sermons and soda water the day after.
This journey took place prior to the COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Piedmont (or Piemonte in Italian) is one of Italy’s best kept secrets.
Everyone wants to visit Rome, Naples, Florence, Verona or Venice. We can thank Shakespeare, Hemingway, Sofia Loren and Perry Como for that. But how many tourists wish to visit Torino (Turin), the capital of Piemonte? People think that with the exception of the famous shroud that might or might not be Jesus’ burial cloth and the FIAT factory, there is very little reason for a traveler to spend time there.
It is their loss, because Piedmont has many pleasures to offer. Torino, the main city, is renovating magnificent historic buildings instead of knocking them down and building new steel and glass monstrosities. Bravo to the local government.
First, let’s talk about a little geography and history. Piedmont is in the northwest corner of Italy and covers the Italian (eastern, sunny) side of the Alps, while France and Switzerland share the western (shady) side. The Po River is its major waterway; the villagers of the Po Valley were immortalized by Giovanni Guareschi in a series of hilarious stories involving the struggles, antagonism but also odd friendship between a Catholic village priest, Don Camillo, and his nemesis, the Communist Mayor Peppone, in the years immediately following World War II. The stories eventually became an extremely successful television series and if you wish to really understand the Piemontese, look for “The Little World of Don Camillo” a collection of the Guareschi stories; it can still be bought used on-line.
Torino was Italy’s first capital and the seat of power of the House of Savoy, the royal Italian family until WWII. Magnificent House of Savoy residences, hunting lodges and castles dot the landscape in and around Torino. After the war, the city became a major manufacturing and business center with most of the major Italian automotive manufacturers being located in the city or nearby, including Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lancia and of course the largest, Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, which is known to the rest of the world by its initials FIAT. The FIAT Lingoto building has been divided now into two hotels, a 5-star and a 4-star, and is the only building that I know with an auto racetrack on the roof.
We were invited to visit Piedmont to sample their famous cuisine and world class wines. It was with great anticipation that we accepted this invitation from the Regione Piemonte, as we have long admired the local wines and were anxious to experience their unique cuisine up close and personal.
Turin, is not at first sight as pretty a town as I had imagined it would be, given its proximity to the imposing Alps and its long history as the fabulously wealthy seat of the House of Savoy. However, hidden amongst the massive nondescript edifices of downtown Torino are majestic buildings, some that contain world class museums, and in many cases are works of art in themselves. Torino has maintained its distance from the tourist onslaught that most of the rest of Italy’s ancient cities have embraced and is now opening its doors to greet the world. The region has refurbished and restored stately buildings that have languished for decades.
For instance, the 17th century La Venaria Reale, the huge Baroque “Hunting Lodge” complex of the Savoy dynasty that was built to rival the Palace of Versailles is, I believe, the largest restoration project being undertaken in all of Europe. The old stables are housing an art and antiques restoration school, part of the University of Torino, whose faculty and students are entrusted with the restoration and preservation of Piedmont's patrimony.
Torino, like many ancient cities, is integrating the old with the new, in cuisine, in architecture, in design and with a juxtaposition of style and materials melding 17th century brick arches with open elevator shafts housing silent glass elevators. Such a building is the unmistakable Mole Antonelliana with its majestic spire rising above the city below.
Originally built to be a synagogue in 1863 by Alessandro Antonelli, it was never consecrated by the Jewish community and was eventually taken over by the municipality and completed in 1889. The interior has been completely refurbished to house the unique Museo Nazionale Del Cinema. A glass elevator whisks you to the top observation platform in 56 seconds for a breathtaking 360 degree view of the city and its surrounding mountains. But for a truly mind blowing experience, take the time to go through the museum with its 21st century special effects. In an informative and fun way not only does this museum explore the history of the moving image, it does so by creating vignettes and environmental areas that involve the viewer in the films they are viewing.
Another example of artistic diversity is the Castello Di Rivoli, another Baroque Savoy palatial residence on the hills overlooking the city and current home of the Galleria d‘Arte Moderna e Contemporanea or GAM. These restored buildings explore contemporary installation art in a sublime setting with an incomparable view, and is also home to the extraordinary restaurant Combal.Zero, the love child of master chef Davide Scabin. Davide Scabin was one of the first chefs to offer fine dining in one of the regions where tradition has its deepest roots and shows minimal inclination for innovation. For a review see Combal dot Zero. If you decide to explore this restaurant's unique offerings when it re-opens, take along your sense of adventure and your wallet, for culinary game playing can get expensive.
A little known fact is that Torino houses the second most important collection of Egyptian antiquities, the first of course being the Museums of Cairo, Egypt. We visited the Egyptian Museum, which is located in the center of Turin; the collection is simply stupendous, though the physical plant is a bit rundown. Hopefully, this building will also be soon restored.
There are literally miles of shops offering all levels of name brands and willing and helpful multi-lingual sales people to assist in size conversions. Of course a visit to Torino would be incomplete without a stop at a chocolate store for candy to eat on the spot or to take home, or a patisserie for glorious pastries, or a pot of hot chocolate for a pick-me-up. The locals have "una passione per il caffé e la cioccolata".
Being a chocoholic I was thrilled to meet with Antonio Peyrano, the latest in a long line of chocolatiers, who took us on a tour of the Peyrano manufacturing facility located behind one of their Torino stores, at Corso Moncalieri 47. The making of fine chocolates is a serious art and one the Peyrano family has developed over the years.
And from the sublime to the even more sublime, we visited the Romagnolo brothers to engage in a little truffle hunt. The area around Alba, just some 45 minutes from Torino, is famous for its fine white truffles. Although we were out of season for the white truffle (season is September to January), we made a valiant effort. With the trifulau (the truffle hunter) and his dogs we set out and were rewarded with finding the less fragrant but still quite pungent summer truffle known as Scorzone. Afterwards, we were offered a small repast of air-cured salami, excellent white goat’s cheese drizzled with truffle-infused olive oil and covered with shavings of black truffles, and freshly baked bread and grissini, all to be chased by tumblers of an excellent local red wine. It is a fun experience not to be missed.
The towns in the foothills of the Alps surrounding Torino are lovely and well worth a visit for wine tasting or for a meal; in fact many of them have Michelin-starred restaurants. There are numerous wineries - everyone has a small vineyard near or on their farm to make wine for the family; whatever grapes are not used are sold to the local cooperative. There is also a number of boutique and larger wineries that export their wines around the world. During our visit we stopped at the Gagliardo Winery, located at S. Maria - Serra dei Turchi - La Mora, for a visit of the cellar, lunch and a taste of their outstanding wines, and the same afternoon we also visited the Marchesi di Barolo cellars in Barolo. Three days later we had a small vertical tasting of their superb flagship wine “Cannubi” at a home in Torino.
At the Osteria del Paluch, they served traditional dishes that Marina Ramasso, the top toque, has resurrected traditional dishes and added to our meal an exquisite Gattinara Reserva from the vineyard of the late Giancarlo Travaglini, now managed by Cristina and Cinzia, his daughters.
The town of Alba is especially charming. In medieval times there was hundreds of towers built as a sort of poor man’s fortress for people during times of attack. There are only about 20 left but they still give the city a unique skyline.
There were numerous restaurants that we tried both in Torino and in the nearby region. During our entire stay we did not have a bad meal whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner; except for one instance where the food looked exceptionally good but had little taste. Even at the little whole-in-the-wall bar with a half-dozen tables in the back room where we stopped for lunch one day while waiting for the Shroud Museum to open up from siesta. We shared fresh deep-fried bait-fish (smelts) that smelled of the sea, and a side dish of sautéed dandelions, broccoli rabe and garlic cloves, bathed in extra virgin olive oil and plenty of lemon juice that reminded us of meal at a Greek taverna.
The waiter understood the few words from our very limited Italian word repertory, vino and caffé espresso. We pointed to what neighboring tables had for the rest; it made for a tasty lunch indeed.
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