On an early summer evening we made dinner for friends, who brought dessert. They were flying in a few days to visit some of the very same parts of northern Italy J and I did a few years ago. Just hearing “Piemonte,” “Alba,” “Barolo,” “Liguria,” filled my heart. I started talking in that enthusiastic tone of someone who has just gotten back from a trip and still feels close enough to touch it. That experience was essentially the force behind this blog.
She’s Italian and grew up in Turin (widely-claimed home of aperitivo); keeps a place on the Ligurian coast in Sanremo (or San Remo). Fly into Nice and it’s a short drive across the French-Italian border, on the Riviera di Ponente, Coast of the Sunset. (I stayed on the other side of Genoa, the Riviera di Levante, Coast of the Sunrise.) We had homemade tiramisu for dessert and homemade limoncello for our digestivo. A drink of grain alcohol, lemon rinds, and sugar, it burned the back of my throat. The limoncello was poured mercifully into tiny shot glasses. The rest is now hanging out in our freezer. I admit to being a little afraid to bring it out.
So, I’m going back to Italy with maybe a few new posts and have split my very first post – written just over a year ago – into two. I’m finally heeding (somewhat) my teenage niece’s comment that my blog posts can be too long.
I hiked to the home of the pelaverga grape, Verduno, in the Piedmont region of Italy, to have lunch at a trattoria with a sense of fun (just catch their wall mural of two dancing dudes – a server and chef – with oversized heads). And try the wine from this uncommon grape. J and I had left our mid-morning stop, Cantina Stroppiana, and had wound our way to Verduno through vineyards heavy with grapes ready for harvest. Off a quiet side road, we walked into the small gravel courtyard of Trattoria dai Bercau, and were waved over to seats, on a covered patio, with wooden tables and white tablecloths.
J and I joined a few others making the most of the sun and series of courses on the set menu. Four were enjoying what looked like the last of their lucky work day lunch in button down shirts and pants, blazers hanging off the backs of chairs. A longer table behind us was crowded with the plates and glasses and wine bottles of a visiting family (and their small dog) leisurely enjoying their meal.
Once the pelaverga wine was ordered, plates started arriving at our table with carne cruda (ground raw beef with (as I remember it) lemon, olive oil, and garlic) then vitello tonnato (thin slices of veal with tuna sauce). Having veal wasn’t surprising, but the tuna sauce was an unexpected Piedmontese specialty, to me, in these hills below the Alps. By the time thin, flat ribbons of tajarinpasta showed up – black truffles shaved tableside – we had comfortably settled in to the warm sun and the ease of the afternoon. A reward and necessity before finishing the hilly loop that was the hike back to our home base in La Morra.
Get This Wine…Verduno Pelaverga
Complementing Trattoria dai Bercau’s meal was the pelavarga. The grape produced a bright red wine that’s slightly fruity but surprisingly, definitely peppery at the finish. Plagued, yet again, by the reality that we-only-packed-carry-ons-so-can’t-take-wine-back, we sought it out online once back in the US. I’m coveting a few bottles from Comm.G.B. Burlotto– Verduno Pelaverga 2015, and the 2016 Fratelli Alessandria– Verduno Pelaverga. I found them here and here.
Hiking the hills of the Piedmont began with a stop at the tourist office in La Morra. Opening hours were reliably sporadic. It was, after all, early September – in Italy – just after a sleepy summer break and just before white truffle hunting season. A few impromptu reconnaissance trips got J and I to the office as it opened one morning, and we were rewarded with a well laid out hiking map and helpful guidance from the woman behind the counter. Tiny historic La Morra is the highest point in this commune in the Piedmont region of Italy, and hikes from here spread throughout the vineyard clad hills to other villages and towns in the Province of Cuneo. The map encouragingly displayed the names and phone numbers of hundreds of wineries dotted along the hiking trails that run through vineyards and down narrow roads. Map in hand, J and I started down a route that would lead us into the town of Verduno, just to the north of La Morra.
Along the way we took advantage of that helpful list of wineries and phone numbers and called Cantina Stroppiana, a small winery in the hamlet of Rivalta, to ask if they had time for us to tour and taste. The family in this family-owned business was busy pressing grapes. Extreme cold and severe heat over the last year meant that grapes were being harvested early, in September, not October. But despite the amount of work going on, Stefania graciously welcomed us in our hiking gear and Leonardo, her son, showed us around an open area of stainless steel tanks where his father Dario was in the process of turning the harvested dolcetto grape into its wine (sort of the red table wine of this region).
We sat down in the simple tasting room for a Piedmont wine education from Stefania and leisurely tasted about 10 of Stroppiana’s wines from rich red barolos, to light, white and new (to us) nascetta. There was a barolo and barbera named Leonardo and Altea, respectively, after her son and daughter, and one called San Giacomo, for the saint of the namesake 18thcentury church where the winery now stands. Dario joined us at the table and we lamented the high cost of shipping to the US. Which, in the end, didn’t dissuade us from ordering a case. Several hours later, their time and hospitality left us energized for the next leg of our hike and a late lunch further up the road in Verduno.
Le Vigne Bio, in the town of La Morra in the Piedmont region of Italy showcases wines from winemakers using biodynamic and organic processes. The wine bar’s temporary, raised outdoor patio (reminiscent of a small music stage) was across the street and abutting the face of the La Morra town hall, which is just about to the top of the hill where the via San Martino meets the Parrocchia di San Martino. The wines by the glass, including several sparkling options, were written in chalk on a blackboard leaning against the town hall wall. Several small tables and chairs were arranged and two sets occupied by a visiting German family on this cool late afternoon in early September. It was a perfect time for J and I to sit down for an aperitivo on our first day in La Morra.
Eyeing the sparkling, I went with the na Punta (2012) an Extra Brut produced by Franco Conterno, based in Monforte d’Alba just across the hills. What a find! The pale gold color of the na Punta delivered a dry smoky taste that was so unexpected from a sparkling. Made from 100 percent Nebbiolo grape (the grape of this, the Piedmont region of Italy), na Punta had a heft I hadn’t tasted before in a sparkling. I sipped mine while nibbling on a selection of salumi, the aperitivo food complement to our glasses of wine.
I was wracking my brain trying to think of ways to carry back some na Punta despite only traveling with small, international-size carry-on bags. Was the na Punta worth investing in a large hard-sided suitcase? Would we be crazy to pay more outrageous shipping fees to the US and buy a case to be shipped from Le Vigne Bio’s friendly owner, Severino Oberto? In the end, sensibility won out, but we took a photo of the bottle just in case we might find it back home. We didn’t. Franco Conterno distributes some of their wines, but not the sparkling na Punta, in the US. J surprised me, though, and for Christmas, he ordered a half case from the winery and we enjoyed na Punta on a twinkling Christmas Eve on Hilton Head Island. Most appropriately, with elegant Poached Oysters, light and tangy with Pickled Cucumber and Caviar.
I try to seek out coffee shops in the neighborhoods where I’m staying in each place I travel. In La Morra, that experience was at the charming Bar Nuova Italia on the lower level below our rented apartment on via San Martino. Every corner and surface of the cafe held cellophane bags of pasta or chocolates or candies or bottles of wine or water or was covered in Italian newspaper or magazine articles highlighted and underlined so that your senses were filled and eyes flitted and jumped over one and to the next, not being able to rest on one object or one clipping. It’s the place on the street you go to for that little something. My cappuccino was presented by signora Silvana with a dusting of chocolate and a light biscuit. She enthusiastically greeted each local who came in for a shot of espresso at the small front bar, or a coffee and newspaper at one of the round tables scattered around. Young mothers with babies in strollers and older rugged workers in hard hats.
Back in our AirBnb apartment, making my own coffee on the stove in a Bialetti wasn’t quite the same as Silvana’s espresso. But stepping out our front door, still pajama-clad, onto the narrow landing and into one of the wooden folding chairs, legs out and feet pressed against the railing, bowl of coffee in hand, I could gaze out at a soft pink morning sky rising over the undulating green vine-lined hills of the Piedmont. A coffee experience worthy of not having a proper latte.