Indulgence and Luxury in Piemonte at Il Centro

One of our favorite regions in Italy is Piemonte, mainly because of the food, the aromatic white truffles (tartufi bianchi) and their excellent Barolo and Barbaresco wine made from the noble Nebbiolo grape. As one of the most affluent areas through the ages, the traditional food here is very rich and indulgent. The tajarin pasta here is made purely with egg yolk for example. Not sure what they do with the leftover egg whites, our first thought was they use it for the Torrone (hazelnut nougat). But then we discovered that egg whites, along with milk, are what they use to feed their special white Vitellone breed of cow, the Sanato Piemontese.

Possibly another sign of indulgence, the Vitellone here aren’t quite as young as veal, but they are not full grown either – they are typically slaughtered at 18-20 months old. The resulting meat is a very bright pinkish-red which can be served raw as a dish called battuta, garnished with olive oil and sometimes lemon. What can be more indulgent than also having some white truffle shavings to add more flavor to the regional food? The aromatic tuber is paired best with eggs, the egg-yolk pasta and battuta (and some Nebbiolo wine of course).

Tartufi bianchi are generally available only for a short time – starting from late October through early December at best. They cannot be domestically cultivated and require specially trained pigs or dogs to find their secret hiding places in the forest. Selling up to $5000 per pound, it costs more than most luxury food. Restaurants in Piemonte typically sell 1-2 grams of shavings for €10 ($13). Some restaurants will show before and after weights on a digital scale, while others say that the servers are so experienced, they know the weight by feel.

A few words on the Barolo and Barbaresco wines made from the Nebbiolo grape. With as much complexity and nuance as the best Burgundy wine, the slightly orange tinged wine has an acidic quality that complements food perfectly. Like the prized Culatello that requires fog to make it great, Nebbiolo grapes also thrive under foggy conditions which sets in during harvest time in October. Post-harvest, the mist works its way down to the roots of the vines. The Italian word for fog is nebbia, from which the Nebbiolo grape derives its name.

Il Centro, a restaurant run by the Cordero family since 1956, is Michelin-starred and was highly recommended by Shelly Lindgren, owner of A16 and SPQR in San Francisco, in her new book SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine. Service is friendly and a nice touch is that the father comes to each table to orally recite the menu, describe the dishes and take the order.

The amuse-bouche was a cream of chestnut soup served with mini-brioche croutons:

They have quite an extensive wine cellar in the basement of the restaurant which was reflected in their wine list. It always astounds us when we come here to Piemonte to find pages and pages of their list dedicated to Barolo and Barbaresco wines, something that we don’t normally get in San Francisco. Prices are also quite reasonable as compared to what we are used to in the United States, so we get to indulge a little in ordering an aged bottle when we come here.

During our last trip to Piemonte, we recalled that 2006 was a good year for Barbaresco, so we ordered the Prunotto to drink with our meal:

As is traditional at this time of the year, we ordered the battuta with white truffle. The bounty of white truffles this year was much less than in previous years, making it a much rarer commodity. Although the tuber was a nice experience, this truffle didn’t have the same quality and aroma that we remember from the past. The raw vitellone meat itself was very good and perfectly minced:

We also ordered the Parmigiana cream and quail egg fonduta with more of the truffle shavings. Festooned with a couple of cardoons, this dish was a great starter. The truffle used in this dish was slightly more aromatic:

For the pasta course, we went with the egg-yolk tagiolini with Piemontese ragù made with a mixture of pork and beef:

Our other pasta selection was the agnolotti with rabbit’s liver and sausage:

The typical fritto misto (mixed fry) of Piemonte is made with offal parts from beef. It included very tender sweetbreads, brain, and a calf fry (testicle) which turned out to be very tasty. It was served with a tomato-based sauce and a salsa verde. In addition, 2 sweet items were also included: a lemon zest flavored semolina cake and what seemed like a spiced cookie:

The braised vitellone came with a potato purée and caramelized fig. The overall dish was too sweet for our taste, but the beef itself was very tender:

Lastly, a plate of of Petite Fours arrived which included several different pastries. We did have room leftover to eat some, but not all of the sweets:

It was a good start for our gastronomic journey in Piemonte. We have to admit that although we were aware that truffle shavings are expensive (ignorant of the what they charged at the time of ordering), we still suffered a little bit of sticker shock in the end. The 2 portions of truffle savings cost more than the actual meal itself and made up almost half the bill, including the Barbaresco. It is indeed all about indulgence.

Note: The BarFlys are vacationing in Italy. SF posts will return soon; in the meantime, please enjoy these travel-related posts.

http://www.ristoranteilcentro.com

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