Ciao! This week we finish up our amazing trip to Italy as we tour Italy's second largest region, Piemonte, and its capital, Torino. We left off last week after a four-hour feast in the hills of Torino. I thought that was long meal, but as you'll soon see, that was nothin'. If you're into innovative food, some of the world's best wine, cutting-edge museums, a behind-the-scenes tour of a chocolate factory and truffle hunting, then read on. Or at least click the 100-plus pictures.
What's amazing is that the meal I mentioned in last week's was so large that in the morning I didn't even take my usual advantage of the American-style free hotel buffet. Instead of getting my money's worth and eating everything they offered -- including scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, pastries . . . -- I settled on fresh fruit (including some of which might have been just garnish). In fact, I did that every morning. That's how unbelievable our dinners were.
Fortunately, every day we had a driver. Usually it was Franco, who picked me up at Milano's Malpensa Airport. What's great about Italians is that they treat everyone with respect -- including the drivers. In America, a driver stays in the car while everyone else goes in to a restaurant to eat. But our drivers went every place we did -- and sat at the same table. What's even more amazing is that for the most part these were very expensive restaurants. How cool is that?
Franco was not only a cool dude, but an amazing driver too. I always felt very safe with him -- probably because he spent 20 years test driving cars. I definitely recommend him (but not the other guy who drove us). The limousine company Franco works for is called C.A.A.R.P. (www.caarp.it) tel. 011.39.2472072. You can also try him on his cell (340-3536-953). But if you don't speak Italian or French, it will be a short conversation.
Peyrano Chocolate Tour
It didn't take me long to learn that Torino is a chocolate lover's paradise. In fact, on the plane I read a popular travel guide that rated Torino as one of the best European chocolate makers. It noted that Torino has more master chocolatiers than all of Belgium and France combined. If I had known that, I would've visited a long time ago.
We were lucky to get a rare behind-the-scenes tour of one of the most coveted chocolatiers in Torino: Peyrano Fabbrica di Cioccolato. Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of going on one of these tours. It wasn't as cool as Willy Wonka's Factory, but still it was awesome. Before we went in we put on protective clothing (basically a paper jumpsuit and hat). I felt like Lucy and Ethel, but I looked more like a painter. My colleague resembled a white rapper. We changed in the break room, where a couple of friendly workers were enjoying espressos.
Inside the main room, it was difficult for me to act like a serious journalist. All I wanted was to run around screaming while dipping my finger (or tongue) in the fountains of chocolate. Our guide, Antonio Peyrano, is a great-nephew of the founder by the same name, who started the business in 1915. Antonio showed us the entire chocolate-making process. It begins with cocoa beans. Some come from throughout South America, Africa and Indonesia, but Antonio said the best are from Venezuela. That was interesting, but I wanted to go right to the production line. But I had to wait, and hear how those cocoa beans are turned into huge bland bars of chocolate. They are then stored for three to eight months, before workers add sugar, vanilla bean, cocoa butter and other products. I can't remember what else, because my ADD kicked in. All I wanted was to jump mouth first into the tub of melted chocolate that I not only saw, but smelled vividly.
We finally walked over to the production line. Antonio picked up a tray filled with the region's most popular flavor, Gianduiotto (a blend of chocolate and hazelnuts). It was just seconds away from being wrapped and boxed. When he offered a sample, I charged from the back row, swiped the entire platter from him and ran into the corner. Actually, that didn't happen -- but I wanted it to. Instead I pretended to maintain control, and sampled just one (okay, four) of those delicious bits of ecstasy. Although Gianduiotto might not seem familiar, you probably have heard of Nutella. It's made just down the road in Alba -- our next stop. Cioccolato Peyrano Torino, Corso Moncalieri, 47, Tornio; tel. 011.39.6602202.
There are many chocolate shops around this region, so you don't have to go out of your way to find Peyrano (though I do recommend stopping at one of their stores). You could be like me and sample a few different chocolate stores. That's easy to do, because they are as common there as McDonald's in America. One of my favorites is Stratta on Via Roma. It could be the most elegant chocolate store I've ever seen. Walking in, you see that everything is presented so nicely you don't want to touch anything -- it's almost like a museum. But then you take a big whiff of the aroma, and you open up your wallet like the place is on sale. It's too bad that's not true, because you definitely pay for what you get. Fine chocolates mean high prices: One little fingertip-size chocolate cost me $2.30. Ouch! But ummm ummm! For more info on Piemonte's Chocolates, click here.
Our next stop was Alba. It's in Cuneo, one of Piemonte's eight provinces (the others are Torino, Asti, Alessandria, Biella, Verbania, Novara and Vercelli). To get there from Torino takes about an hour but it's well worth the drive. We stopped in this quaint little town so the ladies could shop (they did a lot of that, and said it was great). I didn't buy anything, but I did check out more chocolate shops, and others that interested me (mostly food stores). Not many people spoke English, but they were all very kind. They didn't care if I bought anything or not. I also went into a pharmacy and asked if they sold Ventolin (asthma inhalers) over the counter. They did -- and they cost only $5 (if you've got a prescription, the price is half that). It's a lot cheaper than what I pay in the U.S.
If you want a better feel for this place, check out this 30-second video I made. Most of it is Alba.
The Piemonte region is famous for wines. You probably have heard of Barolo, Barbaresco and Asti Spumante. Wine lovers won't want to miss this area. Even in early spring it is jaw-dropping. I can't imagine how beautiful it must be in the fall, when everything is full of color and life. We drove by winery after winery until we reached Gagliardo Winery in La Morra, for lunch and a tour. Walking into this restaurant -- which felt more like a home -- brought back the days when my grandmother was alive and had us all over for Sunday dinner. The food at Gagliardo was much different from my grandmother's -- she was from southern Italy -- but the building made me feel like I was in her house. It looked nothing like hers, but my senses brought me back to those wonderful days. I didn't think about it when I was younger, but now I appreciate those Sundays very, very much.
Our lunch was made up of a variety of salami, cheeses and a dish called plin (pronounced Pleen). That translates to "pinch," which is what the cooks do with their fingers to make it. It's like ravioli, but much smaller. Like every restaurant around there the table was loaded with bread, bread sticks, flat and gas bottled water, and of course fine local wines. After dessert and a double shot of espresso (I was so wound up my teeth were chattering), we toured the factory. It was just like the Sideways tour I took in Santa Barbara County a couple of months ago. Interestingly, the owner of Gagliardo saw "Sideways" (the movie). He really enjoyed it, and said it has helped (especially the Pinot Noirs), even in Italy. Gagliardo Winery, Serra Dei Turchi, 88, 12064 La Morra -- CN -- Italy
Quick Stop in Montforte
Castello di Barolo
We didn't have time to visit all the wineries, but we did tour one of the most popular: Barolo, near the Castello di Barolo. That means "Castle of Barolo" -- see, you do understand Italian! The castle was built 1100 years ago. Around 1400 it became a residence. Inside the castle today is the regional wine cellar. Tickets: 4.50 (adults). After that we toured the Marchesi di Barolo wine cellar. Falletti Castle, 12060 Barolo (Wedge), Italy; tel. 011.39.0173.56277.
La Morra and Colorful Church
If you're in Langhe Hills, check out views of the rolling hill La Morra. Just a 10-minute drive down back roads, in the middle of nowhere, is a colorful church. Called Cappella della Brunate, it was built by a local farmer in 1914 as both a little church and a shelter for vineyard workers during severe rain or hailstorms. It was restored by the Cerreto winery, which now owns the land, and was painted by artists David Tremlett and Sol LeWitt. The chapel is open to the public. Ceretto, Aziende Vitivinicole srl, Loc. San Cassiano 34, 12051 ALBA CN; tel. 39- 0173-282582.
Dinner in the Roman Quarter
That night back in Torino, we had dinner at one of the best places in town: Tre Galli Restaurant in the Roman Quarter. This place was great. It wasn't fancy, and definitely not stuffy. But it was filled with fine local wines, lively customers and fun workers. They are probably attracted by the chef. He's a real character, and cooks very well. We were served creamed sformatto, it's a regional specialty, like a flan, made with different vegetables and cheese. It didn't look that good but tasted unreal. He also served us asparagus with eggs on top, then salad and veal. I don't eat veal, so he made me two types of al dente pasta: one with marinara sauce, the other pesto. Both were equally good. Then he fired me up some chicken breast. Dessert was even tastier (if possible): lavender crÂ¿me brulee, panna cotta, and a chocolate lava cake. Tre Galli, Via S. Agostino, 25, 10122 Torino; tel. 011.521.60.27.
No Smoking in Italy
First California, then New York (plus seven other states), Norway and Ireland. Now, as of January, Italy has banned smoking in public places. Who would have guessed Italy would be one of the first countries to ban smoking? Not I. But it's so great to walk into restaurants and bars, and not suffocate from smoke. Other smoke-free countries include Uganda, Bhutan and New Zealand. Sweden is next, in July. For more on a smoke-free world.
The next day I went to the Porta Palazzo Market. It's open every morning, and all day Saturday. I was told this is the largest outdoor market in Europe, which it very well could be -- especially on Saturdays, when there is an adjacent flea market. You will definitely want to bring walking shoes. They sell every food you could possibly want: pasta, meats, sauces, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, honey . . . you name it. But the non-food sellers seemed to hawk only cheap goods, which looked like junk to me. Then again, one man's junk is another man's treasure. Before the market, I was warned to watch out for pickpockets (this waist bag is an excellent protector). I won't be coming back to this market not because of the pickpockets, but for the disturbing things I saw. If you are an animal lover, think twice before reading on. The first thing I saw in the market was a large duck in a tiny cage. In retrospect, I should have bought it just so I could have let it go. The same cruel seller also had hundreds of crates of live chickens, and invited customers to pick out the fowl they felt would make the best meal. The worst experience, though, was in the indoor market. It was like a horror movie, because I am not used to seeing heads still on dead chickens, rabbits, pigs and lambs. I still can't get their blank stares out of my mind. I don't recommend going down there unless you want to be disturbed, or made into a vegetarian.
Castello di Rivoli
Later that day we dressed up and went to Rivoli, 30 minutes away. Before an unforgettable dinner we visited the newly restored Castello de Rivoli. It's now home to Italy's first Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in 1984. It was very cool to see such an ancient and old fashioned-city boast a cutting-edge museum. You can tell it will be cool because jutting from the top of the building is a 10-foot glass walkway, which makes a wicked observation point. Inside visitors can choose to take a floating stairway or glass elevator up to the exhibits. They feature exceptional art, including key international talents like Maurizio Cattelan and Rebecca Horn. The entrance fee is $8.50; the museum is closed Mondays. Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, Piazza Mafalda di Savoia, 10098 Rivoli (Torino); tel. 011-39-9565222.
We were all dressed up because we had reservations at arguably the city's top restaurant (and one of the world's most innovative): Combal.Zero in Castello di Rivoli. Like its counterpart the museum, this place also featured a modern design. We were the first reservation to arrive, and I wondered why no one else was there. Then I remembered that in Europe, 8 p.m. is early to dine. An hour later, the place quickly filled up. What's nice about eating in Italy is that restaurants don't try to rush you, just so they can turn your table over. At Combal.Zero, a table is yours for the night.
We were there from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. We stayed two hours longer than most diners, to chat with the chef. We enjoyed a 14 -- that's right, 14 -- course meal that came out blindly, so every item was a surprise. Customers choose either a creative or classic menu. We had a bit of both. I don't eat fish or veal, so I had a slightly different meal than my colleagues.
My first dish was a tall plastic glass filled with chilled green pea soup, with croutons in a separate plastic cup on top. It was delicious. Dish number two was called the ham book. The waitress carried what appeared to be a mini-bookshelf with plastic cases the size of a small book. The outside label read "ham book"; the inside was filled with lean prosciutto and and a melon paste. It was weird, but quite tasty. I passed on the next two dishes: veal with tuna, and foie gras with passion fruit filling and buttered toast. The foie gras was everyone's favorite.
Next up was over-easy quail eggs on potato chips and fried lettuce, with a peanut sauce. Another odd concoction, but again the same delicious result. While my colleagues had a colorful codfish soup, I had hot tomato cappuccino served with a mini-croissant.
By this point my belly was ready to call it quits -- but we were only beginning. Next up was risotto and truffles. Then came a dish called cyber eggs: caviar, egg yolk and scallions, served with Swedish vodka. I didn't eat the veal meatball with mashed potatoes, but I did have the rabbit with polenta and peppers. I pretended it was chicken, but my colleagues reminded me it was not by joking, "I guess there won't be any more deliveries of Easter chocolates."
When the waiter brought out a boxed plate filled with 6 glasses of different types of food we said we couldn't take any more -- except, of course, dessert (a chocolate cube, cookies, and tea or espresso). But there was still more: shots in plastic balls, accompanied with miniature Smarties (like M&M's) and a helium balloon meant to be sucked (not brought home to the kids). As you can see, this was NOT a stuffy restaurant. Guests enjoy a true experience. That's why chef Davide Scabin likes to use plastic, and many different colors. People play with their food, and talk about it -- both are which are Davide's goals. The price is steep, at 140 euros ($180) for the creative menu, but combined with a trip to the museum next door you'll have a night you won't forget. Combal.Zero Ristorante, Piazza Mafalda di Savoia,10098 Rivoli (Torino), Presso il Castello di Rivoli; tel. 011-39-956-5225
My last full day in Piemonte. If you will be in town for only a couple of days and shopping is important, make to avoid Sunday and Monday. That's when most (if not all) shops are closed. They reopen at 3:30 p.m. on Monday. Another FYI: Most museums are open Sunday, but not Monday.
The National Museum of Cinema
There are over 300 museums in this area (including the Egyptian Museum, with one of the world's most extensive collections of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo). We couldn't visit them all, but I think we visited the best: the National Museum of Cinema Association. It is located inside the Mole Antonelliana, which was originally conceived as a synagogue. I am surprised the building is not as famous as the Leaning Tower of Pisa or Eiffel Tower. This is the coolest museum -- perhaps even the coolest building -- I have ever seen. The highlight is a glass elevator that speeds nine visitors at a time to a lookout point, which is designed like a Greek temple and is 85 meters (279 feet) high. On top of that is a needle that reaches into the sky, making the museum the tallest in the world (167 meters, or 548 feet). I have a slight fear of heights, so on the 59-second ride my palms were sweating bullets!
The actual museum is located on the lower floors (no elevator required). Visitors learn that Torino was the center of the Italian film industry, until Mussolini moved it to Rome (he hated the anti-fascist city of Torino). The collection includes over 300,000 movie posters, playbills and advertising material, from the early days to modern films. There is even a shark used in "Jaws." The National Museum of Cinema; Fondazione Maria Adriana Prolo, Via Montebello, 20, 10124 Torino, Italy; tel. 011-39 Â¿11-81-25-658; fax: 011-39-11-81-25-738. Closed Mondays. I made a short video to give you a good feel.
Lunch at Trattoria nelle Vigne
For lunch we drove back out to Langhe to dine at a hilltop eatery called Trattoria nelle Vigne (Langhe) in Diano D'Alba. Chef Sabrina Farioli makes a mean Sunday meal. I really enjoyed the setting, atmosphere and food. Each Sunday features a different set meal. The eatery does not serve a la carte because they are not a restaurant; they are a trattoria. Trattoria's typically don't have menus . . . and serve the chef's choice. The menu is very reasonable: five appetizers (anchovies in hazelnut sauce, fried dough with lard [I don't understand that dish], chicken salad, peppers with Tuna, quiche with leeks); two first courses (risotto and pasta), two main courses (rabbit and oxtail) and dessert -- all for only $27 per person. Of course, no one leaves hungry -- nor do they eat again for the rest of the day.
Speaking of risotto: Italy produces 1.3 million tons of rice every year. That's only 0.25 percent of the world's output -- but almost 42 percent of the European total. Trattoria nelle Vigne, Via S. Croce, 17, Diano D'Alba (CN); tel. 39-0173-468503.
No trip to Piemonte is complete without truffles. This region is famous for them -- in fact, many people come for truffles alone. How better to learn about the underground fungus than from a family of experts? The Romagnolo family has hunted truffles for five generations -- since 1850. We searched for these popular but elusive treasures with brothers Giorgio and Natale (one of them reminded me of Giacomo from "Pinocchio"). They started taking visitors truffle hunting as a hobby three years ago. Now it's a full time business, and they been written up in major newspapers, including the New York Times.
On the three-hour tour we learned there are two types of truffles, white and black. White truffles are the most sought after. They are found only in Italy. They are also the most expensive (100 grams of white truffles costs $250-$650). The white truffle season lasts from September to December. Black truffles cost 10 times less than white truffles, but are still in high demand. Truffles grow near the roots of willow, oak, lime, polar and hazelnut trees. They are found by dogs in Italy (pigs in France), and are best eaten right after picking. White truffles are good for a week to 10 days after being unearthed, while black truffles last three to four weeks. Truffles are 80 percent water, and allegedly have aphrodisiac power (that's why everyone wants them!). They definitely have a distinctive smell. After hunting in the woods with walking sticks and dogs, the Romagnolos' sister cooks a traditional Northern Italian meal, and visitors enjoy their truffles over cheese. La Casa del Trifulua; Frazione Burio, 1, 14055 Costigliole d'Asti; tel. 011-0141-96-65-68. For more info on Truffles click here.
Next week we fly back to the U.S. for another adventure, in a place that's perfect for the entire family.
Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!
- Cioccolato Peyrano Torino
- Gagliardo Winery
- Barola Wines
- smoke-free world
- Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art
- Combal.Zero Ristorante
- The National Museum of Cinema
- La Casa del Trifulau
- Sacred Blood, Sacred Image: The Sudarium of Oviedo, New Evidence for the Authenticity of the Shroud of Turin
- The Shroud of Turin: The Most Up-To-Date Analysis of All the Facts Regarding the Church's Controversial Relic
- Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin
- Milan and Turin: A Complete Guide to the Two Largest Cities in Northern Italy and Their Surrounding Regions
- Touring In Wine Country: Northwest Italy
- A Passion for Piedmont: Italy's Most Glorious Regional Table
- Italian Riviera & Piemonte,
- Cooking in Piedmont
- The Food of North Italy: Authentic Recipes from Piedmont, Lombardy, and Valle D'Aosta
- Frommer's Italy 2005
- Italian in 10 Minutes a Day
- Streetwise Rome Map
John E. DiScala (aka Johnny Jet), is the founder of www.JohnnyJet.com, the ultimate travel website and weekly newsletter. He logs over 150,000 miles a year, has been featured in over 400 articles (including Frommers.com, USA Today, Time, Fortune, the New York Times, CNBC and MSNBC), and has published the book, You Are Here Traveling With JohnnyJet.com.