Below is my report from a great lunch at Piazza Duomo in Alba last month. This place was a very pleasant surprise for me. The pictures (and a couple of videos), if you're at all curious, are here: http://www.alifewortheating.com/italy... . Enjoy!...
I see some similarities between food writing and sports commentary. One of the most famous and least insightful commentators when I was growing up was a portly fellow by the name of John Madden. He had a remarkable gift for pointing out the blatantly obvious (”When you’re talkin’ about 4th down situations, this is what you’re talkin’ about”) and spitting out catch phrases like “Boom!” when a simple comma, period, or question mark would have done the trick. Food writers undoubtedly fall into similar traps, and I’m not going to lie — I’ve done it myself time and again. How many soufflés have I had that were “light and airy”, how many foie gras dishes that were “rich” or “delicious”?
It’s not just about expanding one’s vocabulary or avoiding clichés. Our immediate reaction to food is visceral, and when you first set pen to pad or fingertips to keyboard, these unfiltered thoughts are often what come out. Food is a basic comfort mechanism, and comfort is good. But I wonder why it’s so easy to have too much of a good thing, why it’s so easy to find restaurants that feed you to the point of submission and smile while doing it. Precious few in the world of fine dining don’t coddle or cuddle. Fewer still have real finesse and achieve a sense of luxury without largesse.
Piazza Duomo in Alba was, I’m happy to say, one such place. Enrico Crippa’s dishes were graceful and balanced, never overwrought or overwhelming. And to think, the whole experience started in a pink dining room with a piece of toast.
The pink dining room I’ve chosen to wipe from my memory. Let us never speak of it again. The toast, on the other hand, had rabbit liver paté on top, and it was one of about 10 Canapés. The small mound of coarsely ground liver was plopped unglamorously on one side of the toast and dusted in a small flurry of salt. It tasted of iron and sweetness, and it made friends quickly with the Aubry 2002 Ivoire et ébène Brut Champagne we were drinking. A puffed-up little croquette was filled with a local cheese called Testun. It had the shape of a fluffed pillow but the texture of Indian papadum, thin and brittle. The nearly-liquid filling flooded my mouth once I cracked the shell. There was a disconcertingly hollow, crispy baguette wrapped in lardo and dabbed with honey; a fried wonton sheet crinkled like a candy wrapper around an herbaceous purée; and countless other fried, dried, creamy and crumbly bites.
Filling out the table were long grissini and three types of bread — white, multi-grain and olive — of which the first was dry but the last surprisingly good. It quickly earned my loyalty and I stuck with olive for the rest of the meal.
My friend asked for an ample tasting menu, and that’s exactly what we got. Ample as in seventeen courses, the first of which was Asparagi viola d’Albenga e tartufo “Nero Piemonte”. Knobs of purple asparagus from a little town in Liguria stood like Easter Island statues getting rained on by a black truffle sauce and julienne strips of Madernassa pear. The sweet pears vied with the earthy (but not particularly aromatic) sauce for the taste buds’ attention, while their slightly mealy crunch jostled with the fork-tenderness of the asparagus. Meanwhile the first bottle of champagne mysteriously disappeared, so we got another. This time, some Delamotte NV Brut Rosé.
The uovo di quaglia e zucchine in carpione brought a runny poached quail egg that oozed down over boiled, dried, and then marinated slices of courgette. In carpione meant the squash had been marinated in a mixture of vinegar and wine, but it seemed to me to have gotten a bit too comfortable in there. I understand the dish’s intent — for the rich yolk to balance out the tangy vegetable beneath — but the end result left me less than enthusiastic.
I was quite enthusiastic, however, about the Insalata 21, 31, 41…. I’ve since considered erecting a small sculpture of it in my home, or perhaps naming my future children 21, 31, and 41, respectively. Between all the different herbs, flowers, seeds and leaves, sesame was the most pervasive flavor. But the wide range of taste stimuli treated the tongue like a pinball machine, lighting up different parts of the tongue and making new sound effects with every bite.
My only specific request (at first) was the Gambero di Sanremo al naturale… zucca… arachidi e spuma di gingerino Recoaro. I’ve not been to the Italian Riviera myself, but I’ve always tried to do my part to boost the local economy by eating as many of its shrimp as I can. These translucent little lovelies were served raw on a streak of pumpkin cream and doused in a light peanut cream and a foam of Gingerino, a slightly bitter non-alcoholic aperitivo. A few pumpkin seeds interrupted the creamy and smooth with a bit of crunch, while an intense lobster reduction gave the dish unexpected depth. It was a game of contrasting flavors and textures, all dancing around the exceptionally tender and naturally sweet shrimp.
Merluzzo… broccoli e mozzarella was a simply titled dish that turned out to be the most successful, and ultimately representative, dish of the meal. It’s the reason I want to go back this instant. Fresh cod was put under salt for half an hour, sliced like sashimi, and flanked by skinny branches of broccolini and little globs of a mozzarella so soft and milky we couldn’t believe it wasn’t burrata. Four rigatoni were scattered on the plate, making pasta merely an ingredient of this dish rather than its focus. Underneath all this ran colorful streams of broccolini cream, olive sauce and raisin sauce. Each element of this dish either challenged or enhanced each of the others. Everything was there for a reason. Crippa had created a precisely calibrated range of flavors, temperatures, and textures.
Come un “tonno” di coniglio… toni di colore was less exciting. A 12-hour sous vide bath at 60 °C yielded rabbit shoulder with a texture like tuna for this classic Piemontese dish. The beet sauce, pumpkin gelatin, and olive sauce were perhaps not such classic accompaniments. But I admired the chef’s ability to make a beet sauce with only a subtle earthiness. And like many of his dishes, this was vibrant and pleasing to the eye. My disappointment was in finding the meat relatively flavorless, perhaps simply lacking salt.
I don’t want to write about the Crema di patate d’Alta Langa… uovo di quaglia alla “coque”… affumicato al Lapsang Souchong. I just want to eat it again. And no, I won’t share. Hiding in a sea of potato purée was a quail egg, and on top was a line of smoked tea. It sounds simple, and it was. But the potatoes absolutely smashed Robuchon’s. Were they liquid? Were they solid? Were human hands even responsible for such heavenly work? Was the subtle smoke, rich creaminess, and spoon-coating sexiness of this dish really necessary? Definitely not.
For me, that was a tough act to follow. But the Gnocchi di patate… seirass del fen held their own. These plump pillows were bursting with nearly liquefied cheese, and topped with courgette slices and a few green leaves of chard. Adam commented that the gnocchi were too soft, which to me was a testament of how well-made they were.
The Tempura di rossetti, salsa di agrumi was a school of tiny deep-fried fish that seemed to swim across the plate. Holding the fish in place were little dots of a slightly gelled citrus sauce. Tiny cubes of bottarga and an orange and fennel powder provided sharp intermittent hits of salt and citrus. The flavors were clear and precise; the plating, minimalistic and beautiful.
They poured a glass of Bricco Asili 1999 Barbaresco Bernadot from the Ceretto family estate when the Piccione di Sante arrosto, spinaci novelli e mais arrived. The man responsible for providing Crippa and a few other lucky Italian chefs with some of the tastiest pigeon in the country is Sante Marcantoni, a farmer who believes in playing classical music to his birds to improve their texture. Mozart must have done his magic, too, because this was meaty. The spinach leaves, spinach purée and corn sauce were all nice, but the pigeon and its wonderful jus were the center of attention here, and rightfully so.
I’m essentially unable to leave any restaurant in the Piemonte serving veal tartare without trying it, so I asked for the Carne cruda… fragole e cagliata even though it was a bit out of the program. Then again, maybe it wasn’t so out of place, because it functioned beautifully as a transition between meats and sweets. Somehow the clean, subtle flavor of the raw veal wasn’t lost among the sweet strawberry coulis and tangy, creamy goat curd. I’ll be the first to point out that this sounded like a ghastly combination, but also the first to argue that it was a resounding success.
Our pre-dessert, or rather pre-cheese, course was the Croccante di semi di zucca… malghesino… lamponi disidratati. Two thin caramelized pumpkin seed tuiles sandwiched little pellets of a mild and creamy gorgonzola made near Lodi. Also hiding on the inside were dehydrated raspberries, which to me had an almost effervescent feel on the tongue like Pop Rocks. Maybe that tingling was just the natural sourness of raspberries, but whatever the case, the crunchy (perhaps freeze-dried?) bits of fruit were a great addition.
I got some stares when I asked to take a look at the cheese cart after so many courses. Oddly, the stares came from the people sitting at my table. I saw nothing wrong with a Selezione di formaggi piemontesi at this point. I just wanted a little bit of everything. The castelmagno, testun, and testun alle vinacce were all well-chosen but the last was particularly remarkable. Rubbed with grape pomace, it had a sweet-tart crunch that was addictive if perhaps mildly dangerous for the teeth. A complex Piemontese condiment called cugnà also kept these cheeses company.
My only complaint about the Minestrone di frutta e verdura… adesso is that our photos don’t do it an ounce of justice. This chunky soup of fruits and vegetables in a clear broth was so cool and refreshing and sweet and sour and earthy and I don’t even know what else, that I just did not want to stop eating it. Adesso means now, confirming that this was a dish not just of the season, but of the moment. And a very happy moment it was.
Two of us got the minestrone while the other two got the Sorbetto al cioccolato… salsa verde and the inferiority complex that came with it. The chocolate sorbet and the parsley sauce on the plate stood about as close as boys and girls at a middle school dance, and I can see why. That flavor combination didn’t make me want to do the Macarena either. (Granted, I don’t think anything could.) The little salad of herbs and edible flowers on top of the parsley sauce was pretty, at least.
I think I jumped slightly when I saw Una spugna al gusto di nocciola… gelato alla nocciola. Jumped for joy, that is. They can call it a hazelnut “sponge” all they want, but I know Sicilian briosce con gelato when I see it. That fateful meeting of buttery, eggy bread and creamy gelato always feels so right that it can’t possibly be wrong. I chose to forsake the fork, lifting the “sponge” with my hands to discover, happily, a mound of hazelnut gelato buried below. Everything on this plate, save the thick smear of coffee marmalade, had the unmistakable flavor of the tonda gentile hazelnut grown in this area, which is to say it was damn good.
Il muro alla violetta, the “violet wall”, recalled how the beautiful little flowers burst spontaneously through the stone walls in this region in the springtime. Brittle blocks of violet-flavored meringue made the bricks and a thick icing-like cream, the mortar. The violet ice cream playing Humpty-Dumpty was stupendous. The concept, the dish, and the taste were beautiful.
I won’t even get into the Piccola pasticceria, or petits fours, except to tell you that there were white chocolate-dipped pork rinds, and yes, they were quite tasty. We killed off the rest of the treats and downed a demitasse of Jamaica Blue Mountain espresso. We had apparently killed off the rest of the diners as well, because it was now 6:30pm. Time to go home. And you know what’s funny? During the car ride back home, our post-game wrap-up included the same word over and over again — equilibrium. Maybe if this whole food writing thing doesn’t work out, I’ve got a future in television.