We are always in pursuit of excellent dining and drinking experiences, whether it be at the very high-end of fine dining or less elegant food like pizzas, hamburgers and fried chicken (apart from In-N-Out Burgers, we generally stay away from fast food). When upscale chefs decide to make a change and go more casual, we always feel that it’s a lucky bonus for all of us diners. Perhaps the stress of maintaining the stars takes its toll, or decisions to work less grueling hours to focus on family obligations can be another. There have been several instances of it here in the Bay Area: most recently with the news that French Laundry’s Executive Chef Timothy Hollingsworth is leaving at the end of this year and is thinking of opening up a micro taqueria chain. Another instance is where one of our favorite fine dining chefs on the SF Peninsula decided to retire his apron and open a very casual pizza place.
In Piemonte, Chef Maurizio Quaranta and the excellent service by his wife Sabrina brought a prestigious Michelin star to Locanda del Pilone. Due to a “lifestyle change,” which included a child, they left it behind in 2008 to open up the much more casual, but equally ambitious, La Speranza in Farigliano, near Dogliani. We discovered Locanda del Pilone during our first trip to Piemonte, thanks to the concierge in our hotel. Our dining experience was so great that we drove over 250 kilometers for a return visit in 2007, the day after seeing a Tool concert in Lyon.
We have been back a few times to Piemonte since then, but this was our first time to try out La Speranza. First licensed to operate in 1881, La Speranza translates to ‘hope’ in English, and the husband and wife team’s desire is to bring an unforgettable dining experience to all visitors. Chef Quaranta is still cooking some excellent food, and Sabrina is as friendly and efficient as she was at Locanda del Pilone, expertly wheeling her cart around to deliver the food items.
An amuse bouche of mini Bollito alla Piemontese was brought to the table. Topped with a little bit of grainy mustard, it whetted our appetites for more to come:
We had started with aperitivos of sparkling wine. We also ordered this Langhe Nebbiolo from one of our favorite Barolo producers, Luciano Sandrone, to pair with the rest of the meal. ‘Langhe’ is the designation for the vineyards around Alba which are outside of the prized Barolo and Barbaresco regions. In the hands of a top winemaker like Sandrone, Langhe Nebbiolo can offer a tremendous value:
In Piemonte, they are very serious about their antipasti; typically you can order an assortment hot or cold. They generally bring them out on separate plates, one followed by another, but never at the same time. We could easily make a meal of just antipasti, but that is just not the Italian way.
We started with the antipasti misti platter which brought on a succession of 3 plates, Piemontese style. First up was the Vitello Tonnato, which pairs sliced veal with a creamy mayonnaise-based tuna sauce. This is one of our favorite antipasti dishes, and we marvel why it hasn’t become a menu staple at more stateside restaurants:
The next antipasti dish was salt cod served over riced potatoes with an olive oil emulsion. This was a very nice local take on a brandade where the fish and potato are not mixed together:
The last antipasti dish was a sformato of peperoni peppers. It was filled with sunchokes (Jerusalem artichoke) and surrounded by a delicious artistic pool of bagna cauda sauce (Piemontese sauce made with garlic, olive oil, anchovies and butter):
For the pasta course, we went with the Spaghetti alla Chitarra, which featured house-made noodles cut through a box lined with closely placed wires. The creamy sauce included bits of pork cheek (guanciale) and leeks from nearby Cervere:
Our next course came off of their tartufi bianchi (white truffle) menu. The cauliflower flan with fonduta made from cheese from the nearby city, Bra, was a perfect vehicle for the tuber. Sabrina let us select the truffle, and the smallest one they had weighed in at 4.5 grams. Enough to cover the tasty plate, the truffle was much more aromatic than the truffle we had at Il Centro, and it was very reasonable priced at around €18 ($24):
We split the secondi dish, a roasted boneless quail stuffed with veal sausage (salsiccia). Served with a perfectly creamy potato purée and sautéed greens, it was a unique take on this poultry dish:
It was deliciously stuffed with plenty of sausage and expertly deboned and reformed into the bird shape. The only bones left were in the legs and the ratio of beef to bird was just about equal. Similar to the concept of turducken, we tried to come up with our own silly name for this, and all we could come with was ‘qualellone’ or ‘quasiccia:’
As an ending to our excellent meal, we drank an espresso and a macchiatto. Sabrina brought the perfect size dessert for us, a hazelnut mousse:
With a modernized interior and modern, elegant takes on traditional Piemontese cuisine, we can attest that the experience was indeed unforgettable and we will return in future visits.
Note: The BarFlys are vacationing in Italy. SF posts will return soon; in the meantime, please enjoy these travel-related posts.