I had three nights in Piemonte, and chose to spend them in Alba. It really is the capital of truffles - every other shop was a food store with truffles in the window, and the air heavy with their scent.
I know everyone recommends getting a car and driving around, but I was by myself, my trip was short and I didn't fancy driving on the right hand side of the road. Instead, I took the train or pullmans (coach buses) to neighbouring towns and to and from Turin, , which was a good way to see the landscape and surrounding villages. So even if you don't have a car, the area is navigable and certainly worth the visit.
I found it quite busy at the moment, but mainly with older French and German couples, who weren't at all noisy or otherwise objectionable in the way tourists unfortunately can be. I was there in the week, so I imagine it was quieter than the weekends, when the truffle festival is underway.
I feel that with all the truffle celebrations, other local specialties get forgotten in the excitement. Porcini, hazelnuts, artichokes, cardoons all abound, and were a total delight to eat.
I stayed at Minihotel Ai Portici, , Via Roma 6, 017 329 3307. It is a budget hotel, but clean recently renovated and a rarity in Alba, relatively cheap (E50/night). It's up two flights of stairs, but it's in a great location, just off Piazza Savona.
LA PIOLA, Piazza Risorgimento 4, 017 3442800
Same piazza at the very good tourism office. Open for lunch and dinner, and alos opens at the unfashionable but sometimes helpful hour of 19.30. This was my favourite restaurant; lovely simple but bright atmosphere (think: modern Italian bistro), a chalkboard menu, flawless service. I ate there twice.
White truffles available at E4.50/gram, at least 4grams recommended per portion. Although it wasn't on the menu, I saw a german couple order fried eggs with truffles, which looked lovely. Couldn't afford E4.50/gram myself, but was very content with gnocchi alla cacciatore (ragu with porcini, seriously light gnocchi, E10.50), antipasto plate (vitello tonnato, ham and verdure al giardiniera, carne cruda, russian salad, acchiughe al verde and a local soft cheese, E10.50). The panna cotta (E4.50) was superb but very rich. And the breadsticks were out of this world - I'd return just for the breadsticks!
three courses: E23
OSTERIA DELL'ARCO, Piazza Savona
Slow Food's celebrated restaurant. Very good, but not one of my top-ten Italian meals ever.
I really enjoyed an appetiser of cardoons with a local melted cheese (E8.50), and had very good pumpkin ravioli (E11). However, to my surprise the advertised black truffles that accompanied it were shaed over the top raw, rather than cooked with the dish. I noticed several other dishes with black truffles, all with them shaved raw over the top. Traditionally, white truffles are served raw, and black truffles cooked, and now having tasted them raw, I must agree with tradition. I couldn't really taste them raw. I was surprised to see them treated thus at this restaurant. Is this common in this part of Italy?
I found the dessert a bit disappointing - a parfait alla grappa which was a bit grainy and heavy, and the 'caramelised grapes' were actually raw grapes sitting in a pool of caramel sauce. E6. Looking at other tables, the cipolla gratinata looked great - half a roasted onion, still in its skin, filled with melted cheese!
Sitting right next to the kitchen, I found it interesting but lovely that all the cooks were women, and most of them very young. I was interested to see that they had and used a microwave (thawing my parfait, heating small amounts of sauce). I personally think microwaves are very useful energy-saving devices, but I know many of my fellow slow fooders think they are 'cheating', so was amused to see it in use in a Slow Food kitchen!
AKASH LOUNGE BAR, Via Emmanuele II
Inside a little shopping centre in the middle of this popular road, I found this little place a godsend. While I enjoyed my restaurant experiences, the traditional food is very heavy, and something lighter for lunch, in a comfy location, was very welcome. This is a modern but comfy cafe, that wouldn't be out of place in Greenwich Village, or Seattle's cafe culture. Lots of wine and artisan beers, but most attractively, a light lunch menu with toasted panini, and some interesting salads - farro with prawns (US shrimp) and zucchini, couscous with tomatoes and mint, superb looking salads and even burgers.
Although I didnt eat there, I did pass Boccondivino when travelling through Bra, and it looked amazing. And full - remember to book!