You don’t need to look far in Piedmont for a good meal. Between the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato regions, there are a host of famous, well know restaurants that range from the traditional to the gourmet. For some travelers, it seems that the capitol of Piedmont, Turin, is just a stopping off point more than a place to linger. Turin is perhaps overlooked as a food destination. For those do venture into the orderly and somewhat rigid city of design, cars and culture you can be sure that the food is good, sometimes surprisingly so. The regional foods of the Piedmont are slowing making their way onto the menus abroad. Carne cruda is becoming a regular as well as vitello tonnato. The new trend, or movement here it seems though is crafting traditional Piedmontese dishes along with one or two from other regions, normally the south (Calabria, Sicily, Puglia). The concept is to utilize local and seasonal ingredients from Piedmont, to make dishes normally associated with other places. It is an excellent and welcome site when menu fatigue sets in and one is done trying each variation of plin con burro e salvia or tagliatelle al ragù.
On a cool night in autumn, we visited Scannabue Restaurant in Turin. Arriving early, we were politely asked to wait outside under the heat lamps, and if we like, we can order some wine to have before dinner. The wine list, which is heavily reliant on Piedmont for it’s reds and whites, was very reasonable and well conceived. It has a fine representation of the better producers of the Lange, Roero and Monferrato areas, with a few smaller and distinctive producers. Choosing a Nebbiolo from a winery that we had never heard or tried, Cavallotto we settled into the bottle. It was full of the traditional, classical tastes of the area: spice and dried fruits, black cherry, a hint of leather in the nose and the finish. Impressed with the quality, the price, it is a reminder of just how many good wine producers there are in the area. The wine list also gives a nice mention to a few select wineries that are organic or biodynamic, just the right amount to please those looking for these types of production methods. If you were interested in drinking something Tuscan, there are several choices as well. The list of red wines totaled over 100 and was complemented with a nice selection of whites and sparkling wines from Italy and France, paying homage to the neighbor to the North.
Scannabue is a small restaurant, which can feel crowed by the 20 or so diners that fit into the dining room. It is cozy without being plagued by the need to appear too special – it is quiet, reserved and charming. Set on one corner of a four way stop, the windows open up to a beautiful and stately church overlooking the small corner of Turin. It is unassuming on the outside, with nothing more than a name scrolled over the door. The owners, three young entrepreneurs have turned it into a restaurant of distinction for its ability to manage excellent Piedmontese cuisine. During the day it functions as a café and after the kitchen closes at night, it’s a wine bar. This is not only a reflection on the difference between eating in the countryside versus the city, but also the changing face of the traditional osteria catering to late night drinkers as well as those seeking a meal.
The people of Piedmont are quite strict in their dining. Most restaurants serve many of the same dishes. The difference comes in the local variation of the preparation, which doesn’t deviate from the original concept of the dish, but instead lets the chef create one that is unique to each establishment. Scannabue doesn’t hesitate to include on their menu excellent hand pulled tagliatelle, tripe and braised ox cheek in Barolo. I located the pasta con le sarde and made my choice, trying a dish of the south in this northern city. This was, without doubt, prepared in a way that would rival many in Sicily. It was teeming with ingredients at the peak of freshness; cherry tomatoes, fresh pasta and anchovies. For my secondi, ox cheek in Barolo. Here, I realized that the best way to utilize the bread on the table as to soak up the rich and aromatic sauce of Barolo and herbs. Tender enough to eat with a spoon, the cheek is a very fine piece of meat with a perfect combination of fat and muscle.
Dessert is never to be missed in Italy, and in Piedmont especially where you can find classics like panna cotta, pears braised in Dolcetto or torta di nocciole with zabaione. These are all well prepared at Scannabue, but in autumn you often find desserts made of chestnuts. Chestnut cake, dry, but with moistness provided by olive oil is more than excellent. The woody and smoky flavor of the flour gives the cake a unique taste, without being overbearing. But what would a meal here be without cheese. Piedmont is known, at least in Italy, for being an excellent producer of beef and dairy. Some of the best cheese, butter and milk in the country are available here. Scannabue is very keen to showcase some of these cheeses in their menu giving the diner an excellent assortment of high altitude, pasture cheeses from the Alps such as castelmagno, raschera and cevrin.
Piedmont will always represent excellent quality in food and wine. The challenge is keeping menus fresh while still representing the traditions of the region. Not all restaurants are taking on this new way of approaching their menu, with a touch of other regions, opening late as a wine bar or taking advantage of local ingredients in new ways. It is always nice to have a change, or at least an option for change, once in awhile but with the added respect of the traditions and heritage of the region. Scannabue is successful as a Piedmontese restaurant for this reason. Turin is not a town to be overlooked for food. Beyond Scannabue are several other restaurants that are also catering to the traditional and the modern diner.