It was a warm September afternoon when I first visited Piemonte. Paolo Volpara and I were still in the exploration stage of the partnership that would eventually become Convito Italiano. We had yet to decide how to accomplish our goal of introducing Chicagoans to the diversity and pleasures of regional Italian food and wine, but were convinced that the city was ripe for a market that had already begun to take root on the east and west coast of the U.S. Chicago’s Italian wine selection seemed shallow to us; cheap Chiantis and Frascatis too old to drink dominated liquor store shelves and we intended to change that.
Paolo’s mother, Wanda, arranged a meeting with a winemaker friend of hers in Ovada, a village in the Monferrato area of Piemonte about an hour and a half from Milan.
Mother and son picked me up at my hotel just after lunch. Anxiously anticipating our first official business meeting as well as my introduction to Wanda, I spent a good portion of the morning obsessing over how to dress for the occasion. Stylish but not outrageously trendy, maybe a bit on the conservative side I thought. Italian women were known for their impeccable fashion sense so I wanted to hit the right note. I finally decided upon a chic yet subtle camel and burgundy silk print dress, the right blend of traditional and chic.
They arrived on time, the embodiment of Italian sophistication. Wanda sat in the back seat of Paolo’s Fiat clad in a classic navy blue suit and pewter silk blouse looking more like Paolo’s sister than his mother. As usual the details of where we were going and what we were doing were not at all clear. Paolo’s plans were almost always shrouded in mystery. Locking in specifics, I suspected, stripped him of a certain kind of power. I grew to anticipate Paolo’s vague and ever-changing agendas but never warmed to them.
Wanda shared her son’s intensity but hers was more of the kinetic variety. She spoke no English and I no Italian but to Wanda that fact was insignificant. Language never got in her way. Over the years I was constantly astounded by her ability to communicate with people who didn’t understand a word she said. Hand gestures, facial expressions and a big warm smile won over everyone she met and immediately erased any language barrier. All the way to Ovada Wanda asked me a series of rapid-fire questions. Some Paolo translated, some he didn’t. By the time we arrived it was clear that Wanda was genuinely enthusiastic about the possibilities of this new venture and most curious about the woman who might make it happen.
Our drive was surreal. I was sitting in the middle of an Italian opera with two people I barely knew speaking a language I couldn’t understand and doing so with a bravado and fervor that was in enormous contrast to what I had grown accustomed to in the English countryside where I had been living for the past three years. Proper and conservative, England was anything but this.
The daughter of a Midwestern High School principal, I am a practical, tie-up-the-loose-ends, planning kind of person – much more English in nature than southern European. But I was strangely exhilarated about the prospect of a completely new project in my life – something challenging and wildly unfamiliar. I was not interested in going back to teaching history and English nor did I want to be chairwoman of anything. I was volunteered out. My children were growing up and needed me less and less. It was time to change direction.
A few hours later, my head ringing with Italian conversations that were still mostly a mystery to me, we arrived at a winery tucked into the hillside of Italy’s legendary Piemonte region. Though surrounded by vineyards in every direction, the winery itself was very small. Alberto, the owner, ushered us into the dining room where he, Paolo and Wanda spoke for about an hour occasionally attempting to include me. I was clueless. Paolo’s earlier advice – to present myself as a tough and serious American businesswoman – remained clear in my mind. “Look stern,” he said.
After a brief tour of the winery and a walk through one of the vineyards where workers were in the first stages of their grape harvest, we adjourned to a local restaurant for an early dinner. Following Alberto through Monferrato’s winding vine-clad hills, we arrived at a quaint little inn tucked into the side of the road. On our way, Paolo took me aside for what I assumed would be a quick update on what I had missed back at the winery and perhaps even a little advance word on what to expect at dinner. Instead he suggested I needed to lighten up. Apparently what I imagined to be my best American businesswoman’s’ “stern expression” was coming off as more “bitchy” than serious.
I took his advice, relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the evening, tasting many outstanding Piemontese wines and attempting to participate in the conversation. After the second glass of wine, I was certain I understood more of what was being said and each attempt I made at using an Italian word was met with genuine enthusiasm and raised glasses. Italians are so appreciative of anyone who at least tries to speak their language that even my rudimentary vocabulary was a reason for celebration.
Alberto insisted we begin our meal with Bagna Cauda, a classic Piemonte dish meaning “hot bath”. Made with olive oil, garlic and anchovies, it is a glorious dipping sauce. The waiter delivered this robust combination of ingredients in a rustic ceramic pot and placed it over a small candle in the middle of the table. Small baskets filled with a lovely assortment of seasonal raw vegetables came next. Much in the fashion of fondue, we began dipping slices of the vegetables into the sauce. Not only was it delicious but the ceremony and communal nature of the dish set a happy tone for the evening.
Inspired by Bagna Cauda, I developed a first course dish combining it with another Piemonte favorite – roasted red peppers. In addition to being a delicious first course, it makes an excellent side dish with grilled sausage
Roasted Red & Yellow Peppers with Anchovy Sauce
2 pounds red bell peppers
2 pounds yellow bell peppers
Eight ½ inch crosswise slices French baguette or Italian bread
¼ cup olive oil plus additional for serving, divided
One 14.5-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, drained & roughly chopped
4 fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
6 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry, and finely chopped
2 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
Preheat the broiler. Place the peppers on the broiler pan. Broil the peppers 2 – 3 inches from the heat. Turn the peppers with tongs until they are completely blackened on all sides. Using tongs, transfer the peppers to a plastic bag and seal it well. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees for bread toasting. Let the peppers steam in the bag for approximately 10 minutes, then remove them and peel off the skin. Cut the peppers in half and remove the stems, seeds and membranes. Cut lengthwise into strips ½ inch wide. Reserve.
Arrange the baguette slices on a baking sheet. Toast the bread until the slices turn light brown, about 5 minutes. Turn the slices over and briefly toast the other side, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and reserve.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper. Simmer over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes. Put through a food mill or puree in a blender or food processor. Reserve.
In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and add the anchovies. Stir well with a wooden spoon. Return the pan to low heat and continue cooking, stirring until the anchovies have dissolved into a paste, 1 to 2 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Set out 8 small (6 ounce) ramekins or small gratin dishes. Place 1 toasted bread slice in the center of each. Spread 1 tablespoon of the tomato sauce on each of the slices. Cover with the pepper strips, alternating red and yellow, ending by wrapping the strips around the outside of the slice. Cover each with another tablespoon of the tomato sauce. Top this with 1 tablespoon of the anchovy mixture. Sprinkle each with capers. Bake until heated through, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven. Top with the parsley, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, and serve immediately.
As we savored our Bagna Cauda I learned it was early in the truffle season in Piemonte (even a primitive Italian speaker is well-served by familiarity with tartufi, Italian for truffle). Paolo ordered risotto for our next course with what we were told was the first of the truffles coming from the nearby town of Alba, the white truffle center of Italy. The waiter came to the table with what looked to be an ancient cheese grater in one hand and a round, warty irregular shaped truffle in the other. He began shaving the truffle over my risotto, the finely curved shavings piling up on the rice. The powerful, earthy pungent odor was like nothing I had ever smelled before. Mesmerized, our waiters knuckles getting closer and closer to the blade, I let him continue shaving away learning only later that each “shave” dramatically escalated the price of the risotto. Again I had betrayed my newness to Italian regional culture, but this time at least the error turned out to be a delicious – if expensive – one.
White Truffle Risotto
Serves 4 – 6
If you are lucky enough to come across a real white truffle usually found in the late fall in an upscale market in an urban area like New York City, make the below recipe without the truffle oil. But for those of us who are not likely to find them, truffle oil is the next best thing – expensive but not nearly as expensive as the real thing.
The best-known and most popular variety of Italian rice used for risotto is Arborio rice. Arborio’s uniform pearly kernels hold their shape, and their high starch content creates a delectable creamy consistency. Some chefs say the creamiest risotto is achieved when using another Italian rice variety, carnaroli. The starch content of this grain is even higher, and the end result is a luscious, plump risotto.
Because of its last minute preparation, risotto can be a difficult dish to serve. However, making a good risotto requires more attention than concentration. My solution is to prepare this dish for good friends who will enjoy sharing a glass of wine and some simple antipasti with the cook while she tends to the ceremonial stirring of the risotto.
5 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1-½ cups arborio or carnaroli rice
½ cup dry white wine
1-tablespoon white truffle oil
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt & freshly grated pepper to taste
In a saucepan bring the chicken broth to a steady simmer.
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat. Add the onion and cook until soft. Add the rice and cook for approximately 2 – 3 minutes stirring constantly. Add the white wine. Stir into the rice until incorporated. Add ½ cup of the simmering broth. After the rice has absorbed the broth, continue adding the broth, 1’2 cup at a time. Continue stirring over medium heat, making certain the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan and being careful not to add too much broth at one time. Continue adding the broth. The rice is finished when it is firm but tender. This process will take approximately 20 to 25 minutes. If you run out of broth, use water. Remove from the heat. Stir in the white truffle oil and the Parmesan cheese, salt & pepper. Serve in individual bowls.
If using a REAL white truffle, use approximately 2 ounces for the 6 servings. Shave over each individual portion of risotto.
Over dinner what had been offhanded conversations about Chicago’s lack of Italian gastronomy and wine gave way to more concrete discussions of the real possibilities of importing Italian wines. We might even include unique specialty items like the grolla pot. Paolo suggested publishing a regional newsletter describing wines and foods of the area with accompanying recipes (what would eventually become Convito’s original Capitolos). He also wanted somehow to integrate Wanda’s legendary cooking skills into our business plan. We came up with the concept of a club where each member would receive a regional publication and at least three wines from the particular region we were describing. Still in the “pie-in-the sky” stage of our partnership, we were only just beginning to define our concept.
The sun slipped behind the Piemontese hills long before we left the restaurant. Without the residual glow of city lights, the country darkness was deep and complete. We carefully picked our way to the car, said our goodbyes to our host Alberto and began the drive back to Milan. Silence prevailed this time, each of us tired from a productive but intense evening.
After this first visit to Piemonte, I left sated by the region’s food, enraptured by its wine and energized by our dreams, but without a strong sense of the region’s underlying character. I had so much to learn – what was the proper behavior for an American businesswoman, how many shaves of a truffle was one short of too many – and of course, there was the language.
I would return to this region frequently with Paolo as my partner and long after with Convito staff, friends and family. I would come to know it well and consider it one of my favorite regions. I was comfortable here. It felt familiar. I felt at home.