Loosely translated, Piedmont (Piemonte) means "at the foot of the mountains." Those mountains, of course, are the Alps, which define the region and are part of Italy's northern and western borders. These dramatic peaks are visible in much of the province, most of which rises and rolls over fertile foothills that produce a bounty that is as rich as the region is green. Piedmont is a land of cheeses, truffles, plump fruit, and, of course, wine -- among which are some of Italy's most powerful, complex, and delicious reds, including Barolo and Barbaresco, lighter reds Barbera and Dolcetto, and Italy's top sparkling white, Asti Spumanti.
Not that all of Piedmont is rural, of course. Turin, Italy's car town, is the region's capital. But within its ring of industrialized suburbs, rather than an Italian Detroit lies an elegant city of mannerly squares, baroque palaces, and stunning art collections. Torinese and their neighbors from other parts of Italy often retreat to the Valle d'Aosta, the smallest and most mountainous of Italian provinces.
Regional Cuisine -- Given such vast geographic diversity, it's not surprising that the region's cuisine varies according to the topography. In the southern stretches of Piedmont, the palate turns primarily to those magnificent red wines from the wine villages around Asti and Alba. Barbaresco, Barbera, Barolo, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo -- the names are legendary, and they often appear on the table to accompany meat dishes stewed in red wine; one of the most favored of these is brasato al barolo (beef or veal braised in Barolo).
The way to begin a meal here, but usually available in winter only, is with bagna cauda, literally, "hot sauce," a plate of raw vegetables that are dipped into a steaming sauce of olive oil, garlic, and anchovies. The Piemontese pasta is tajarin, and it is often topped with sauces made with walnuts or, for a special occasion, what is perhaps the region's greatest contribution to Italian cuisine, white truffles. As the land climbs higher toward the Valle d'Aosta, local mountain fare (a rib-sticking variant on Piemontese), called Valdostana, takes over -- polenta is a popular primo (first course), stews are thick with beef and red wine (carbonada is the most common stew like this), and buttery fontina is the preferred cheese.