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Off the beaten – Piemonte

12 Oct
Leaving Le Marche and moving across the country, we took three trains to reach Bra in the Piemonte. No, it is not named for a feminine underthing. That word in Italian is reggiseno. There was, however, a bra thief that struck there.

Kitty has a view…of trains. Tromp l’oeil in Bra.

Many people have heard of Asti and Alba, but Bra is a smaller town with less than 30,000 people, famous as being the place the Slow Food movement started. For such a tiny place it had amazing restaurants. Two out of our three dinners there were truly stellar.
Boccondivino was the first restaurant to be opened by the Slow Food Movement in the 1980s. We found the food to be inspired without being pretentious, and prices unbelievable for the quality. It is Michelin-listed; no stars, but still! Even excellent Piemontese wine was available by the glass for €3-5 per glass. Our total bill was only €70 including a shared antipasto (a roasted yellow pepper wrapped around tuna pate), two secondi (rabbit for Ric that was perhaps the most beautifully prepared rabbit we’ve ever seen, and roasted guinea fowl for me), a shared dessert, four glasses of wine, a grappa, and caffè. We so appreciated the impeccable-but-not-stuffy service and fair pricing to go along with memorable food. Unfortunately, I was so caught up in the moment, I did not even take any food photos. That is a good thing.
We so enjoyed Boccondivino that we wanted to go back on our third evening. But I did not call until lunchtime Friday and they were completely booked. I sought out something completely different: a seafood restaurant in land-locked Piemonte. Ristorante La Bula serves only seafood and the reviews were terrific so we reserved a table. It may be landlocked, but this part of the region is quite close to Liguria where seafood is a religion.
I think I woke up the owner when I called to make the reservation in the mid-afternoon and we were the first to arrive half-an-hour after they opened. They did not look like they expected a big crowd. It is a lovely space, tucked back under the portico of a very old building, but modern and chic.
I am happy to say a few more dinners arrived and we had an amazing dinner! It was the best seafood dinner we have had since leaving Roma. We started with calamari alla griglia con crema di ceci (grilled calamari with creamed chickpeas, much like a soft hummus), then shared tagliatelle con ragu di polpo (pasta with octopus ragu). Ric had the fried Mediterranean goodness of fritto misto, while I enjoyed the branzino alla griglia con verdure (sea bass with vegetables). The wine list included many regional wines, but we snuck across the border to Liguria for one of our favorites, Vermentino. A lovely grappa capped off the dinner. I might not have reason to return to Bra, but if we are ever within 50 miles, I would detour to eat here.
Boccondivino night 1, La Bula night 3. Where did we eat on night 2 in this food capital? It was not so much where as when: we ate in the 1950s. Our B&B recommended Badellino and on the strength of that recommendation (after all, he also recommended Boccondivino) we made a reservation. We were first to arrive, but the restaurant quickly filled, mostly with locals, it seemed. The menu was uninspired, the presentation and preparation even less so. There was an antipasto cart where for €13.00 per person the woman in charge of the dining room would load a plate for you with beef tartar, the local bra sausage served raw, insalata russie (I abhor insalata russie!), guinea fowl salad (no doubt made from last night’s leftovers), and a few other rather unsavory looking items that had been sitting at room temperature. Can you say ptomaine? As a primo we chose a pasta which was pretty good, made from the local sausage that was mercifully cooked. My main course was roast beef Barolo, which was, in fact, a tender piece of beef in a Barolo sauce, but it was so lonely on the plate, just a slab slathered in the gravy, no side dish, no color, not even a sprig of parsley. It looked like something served in a church basement in the Midwest when I was growing up. Neither of the servers spoke any English, which was odd in a destination that attracts an international wine crowd, and the décor of this 100-year-old establishment might last have been spruced up in 1959. We paid the same here as we did at Boccondivino! At least they had grappa and the wine was a good value.
So what did we do besides eat? This is an amazing wine region after all. We took two daytrips: Alba and Cuneo.
We enjoyed traveling some by Regionale, the not-so-fast workaday trains of the Trenitalia system. Trains that are taken more by Italians commuting to work or to shop, and by students from middle school through University. There is a lot of commuting between cities like Torino and Bra and Bra and Alba. Every day we encountered swarms of students: out in the morning, returning mid-afternoon. 
We also saw a wide variety of agricultural landscapes, quite different from other regions of Italy. Corn fields dominated where we expected grapes, and small vineyards clung to hillsides. There were more hazelnut (filbert ) trees than in the Willamette Valley! In Alba, vacuum-packed bags of dried and roasted nocciole (hazelnuts) were in nearly every shop and a hazelnut torta was a featured dessert.
Bra is not really in the hills where they produce wine. It is rather on the edge, whereas Alba is right in the Langhe. In Alba, we found an immensely attractive town, very focused on the upcoming La Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba (white truffle festival). We are not truffle fans (you either are a fan, or are not, IMO) so I am glad we missed those crowds. We also found that Alba is the home of Ric’s favorite grappa, Sibona. We dithered for about five minutes before deciding to ship a winter supply home. You cannot buy this stuff in the U.S. 
In a small world moment, the little cafe we chose for lunch had a slight Oregon connection: the owner’s sister-in-law is in the wine business and knows Ponzi.
Now a departure for a few fashion photos. As anywhere in Italy, style is important and even in these little towns of rural Piemonte there were some interesting trends that caught my eye. 
We also ventured to Cuneo, capital of the province that encompasses Alba and Bra. This is an amazingly beautiful city, very busy and a delight to wander. There are no tourists, it seems. True, no big “sights” or “sites” but that is what off-the-beaten-path is about: Seeing places that do not attract the hordes. We only had a few hours, but could easily have stayed a few days. It is nestled up against the Maritime Alps. I would love to see it in winter when the peaks are snowy.

 

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Off the beaten – Le Marche

11 Oct
We decided to veer away from our original plan of going to Roma. As our son said, “You lived there almost five years! Why are you going back already?” On reflection, we realized we were mostly going there to eat at our favorite places, and to see our friend Eleonora. Sorry Ele, but Derek made sense: we decided to go to one region we’d never visited — Le Marche — and to Piemonte, where we have only visited Torino. Rome will have to wait.

The view from our room. The beach was never any busier than this.

For Le Marche it is difficult to pick one base. It is a region with such geographic diversity that it is time-consuming to get around only by train and bus. With a thought to visiting Urbino (famous Renaissance city) and Ravenna (for the Byzantine mosaics I have been wanting to see for years) I booked us into a very nice hotel in Pesaro (say it PAYZ-a-row).
Pesaro is an Italian beach town which in July or August would be swarming with bronzed bodies. In late September many hotels were boarded up for the season and the beach was deserted. No doubt the reasonable price for our room in the five-star Hotel Excelsior was due to the season. While in Oregon people still swarm to the coast in the fall, in Italy the season is over, no matter how nice the weather.
Offseason made for easy, if long, day trips to Urbino and Ravenna, with quiet walks and dining in Pesaro in the evening. Then there was the up-close view of the Adriatic from our balcony.
We really enjoyed walking around Ravenna and ogling the magnificent mosaics. Having dabbled in mosaics myself, I am in awe of the work done centuries ago. We had perfect weather and lucked into a fine lunch at Il Paiolo. Since Ravenna is in Emilia-Romagna, home of the piadina, we were able to get piadine made by people who really know what they are doing. It may seem simple, but a great piadina is not common. Mediocre ones are.
Urbino was interesting but it is a city of hardscape without much green to relieve it. We toured the Palazzo Ducale and were suitably impressed, but overall, we prefer quainter, less severe towns and more drama in our scenery. The Le Marche landscape surrounding it is lush and begs exploration with a car. It was a long bus trip made interesting by the other passengers and the little rural towns we passed through showing a slice of small-town Italian life.

These people are buying fish. I was amused by the view. The awning is down because the kiosk faces the morning sun. Wouldn’t you think they’d orient the kiosk the other way?

We were less-than-thrilled with seafood in Pesaro. I expected better from an Adriatic town. It wasn’t that the product was poor: it was in fact very fresh. But the preparation was uninspired. Simple grilling would have been best. There was often too much breading and a propensity to fry. With little seasoning, everything tasted the same. Even vegetable options were limited to potatoes and the ever-present insalata verde. Italians do not do great salads, which is a shame given the amazing ingredients available. Prices were not bad, but for similar prices in Lincoln City, we eat far better seafood. And I have had far better in Roma.

Pesaro is a working port and fresh fish is available on the docks.

After trying two seafood restaurants that were right on the beach (the scenery surpassed the food), we turned our attention to a little osteria in the centro storico, Osteria Pasqualon. We were warmly welcomed and served a simple but excellent meal of vitello alla limone, patatine fritte, erbe di campagnolo, melanzane parmigiana, and spiedini misti. (Veal scaloppini, French fries, sautéed field greens, eggplant parmesan, and mixed grilled kabob.) No fish. The price for all of this, with wine, was about €37.00. And that is another wonder of getting off the beaten path: you can find amazing food in Italy at an unbelievable price.
Pesaro was relaxing after Venezia – maybe too much for some people who feel they have to fill every day to the brim. We had had four busy weeks since we left home and more to come. We saw some places from this base that I am happy we got to see. And it was a great opportunity to practice my Italian as outside of the Hotel Excelsior the available English was limited. We liked having a base and not having to spend a series of one-and-two night stays to see some small towns.
P.S. – We are in Paris now. I am trying to catch up with blogging, but we are rather busy enjoying ourselves. Part II about Piemonte coming up soon!

 

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