26 September 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: osteria la salita, monforte d'alba

I had been concerned, when agreeing to vacation in Italy in August, that we'd encounter nothing but summer closures wherever we went. My general take on August is that it is the month Europeans use to cleverly evade neighboring cultures, by abandoning their native capital and visiting the capitals of other nations, whose native populations have simultaneously decamped, like a large-scale apartment swap. Paris shuts resolutely in August; by and large the only things left open during this time are mercenary tourist traps.

It didn't bode well that the acclaimed restaurant linked with the hotel / residence where we stayed, Da Felicin, was closed during our stay. Upon arrival we had a slightly grim noncommunicative interaction with the older fellow at the desk at Da Felicin, brightened only at the end by the unrequested receipt of several of his endorsements of good restaurants open in Monforte in August. In the end we wound up visiting all his recommendations that week, less because so much was closed than because Monforte is a very small town.

The first place, Osteria La Salita, was all of twenty paces from our doorstep, and it was in any final reckoning probably the best. The cuisine was fresh, and the wine, like almost everywhere we went, was magnificent and cheap - but it was the buoyant, over-the-top hospitality that pretty much gilded the entire meal. It was evidently infectious: towards the end of our meal, an adjacent table of visiting Ligurians spontaneously presented us with a fresh black truffle, and then another, when they saw how delighted we were with the first one.

Our terrific server - the proprietress' husband, an engineer who only helps out part time - noticed the gift and offered to have the kitchen fix us some eggs to grate the truffle over. We happily accepted. Black truffles unearthed in late August - summer truffles - don't possess the flavor or command the price of their autumn counterparts, let alone the white ones, but they remain smokey and seductive enough to impress amateurs like myself. Particularly when they're free.

The staff had impressed us from the get-go, when after passing a visibly full terrace on the way into the restaurant, we asked for a terrace table and were not laughed out of town. We went to have an Aperol spritz at a terraced bar called Grappolo d'Oro in the town's main square, and when upon our return there were still no terrace tables available, the La Salita staff said they could seat us upstairs and then move us as soon as one became free. To our astonishment, they actually followed through with this. (Ordinarily I would have just waved them off, having already sat down, but I forgot to mention that the week we spent in Monforte was apparently the hottest week of the summer. The air was thicker than panna cotta.)

Upstairs the meal began with a curiously Piemontese amusé of vinegar-marinated fried chicken in shotglasses.

No, it wasn't very delicious, nor was the other strange Piemontese amusé I'd previously had, which had been on a consultancy trip through Turin and which had consisted of old bits of toma cheese marinated in vinegar. If I ever open a Piemontese restaurant, I'm going to have a dandy of a time serving strange inappropriate things like thimbles and granola bars, all marinated in vinegar. Actually I'm sure there are restaurants that get this tradition right, but having never been to one, I'm willing to give places a pass that screw up the strange traditional Piemontese vinegar amusé thing.

Throughout the car ride from Ivrea that day J and I had been talking up our intention to drink some good Pelaverga in Piemonte, so that was what we ordered first at La Salita. The sweet and low-down Pelaverga grape, beyond possessing a name that gets uproarious hoots and hollers when you explain it to any Spanish-speaking busser staff in the states,* is also notable for being one of precious few Piemontese reds that are appealing to drink during the hottest week of the year. Grignolino, mostly grown some ways away in Asti, is the other one. (In a pinch some very light cheap Nebbiolos can't hurt. But the great majority of Piemontese reds are unthinkable in real heat. Barolo and Barbaresco are too tannic, Barbera too hugely fruity, and Dolcetto too counterintuitively dense and Syrah-like.**)

The 2010 Bel Colle Pelaverga will win no awards for bottle design. Given the strange sexual connotations of the the varietal name (see first footnote below) it seems an unwise idea to choose a dazzling sex-shop pink for the detail, as though this were a bottle that might improve an unhappy love life.

The wine itself was mostly correct, the low-toned spice and drinkability both identifiably Pelaverga-n, but a slight chemical sheen on the finish testified to some very modern winemaking. I can find no total hectare figures for Bel Colle, a Verduno-based estate founded in 1976, but the fact that they produce a rather large range of wines, including relatively far-flung (from Verduno) appellations like Roero and Barbaresco, implies a less-than-sophisticated, shotgun-style marketing effort I don't associate with handcrafted wines. (If the label weren't enough already.)

An insalata russa stood out among the appetizers for being insensibly lovely.

Ordinarily this dish is just the Italian equivalent of the French macedoine des legumes, a cholesterolic pseudosalad of overcooked chopped vegetables suspended in mayo. The folks at La Salita elevated it to a fine-grained, feather-light wonder, almost desserty in texture.

With pasta and main courses we shared a bottle of cult La Morra producer Roberto Voerzio's 2007 Langhe Nebbiolo.

I haven't tasted through the rest of Voerzio's much-lauded range, but on the basis of this bottle I have no great desire to. There was perhaps a bit over that same 2007 overripeness that I first perceived during the visit to Luigi Ferrando earlier that day, but I suspect the dense, squashed-tasting richness of this Langhe Nebbiolo derived mostly from Voerzio's thoroughly modernist, barrique-influenced winemaking. J summed it up best, explaining that his main takeaway from tasting the Voerzio line-up once in Paris had been that the wines taste expensive, and are expensive. I understand there's a huge market for Nebbiolo made like this, but to me it's too much like chewing on a wallet.

Happily, we'd only ordered it because it seemed anomalously underpriced on La Salita's list. And nothing else about the place had the same lawyery airs as that wine.

Before we left we stopped inside to thank the proprietress, and she invited us to come check out the cave. Physically unable to drink any more, we drank it in with our eyes, anticipating what the rest of the week in Monforte would bring.

* I am informed it translates roughly to 'hairy penis.'

** Dolcetto is always a hard sell, for this reason. It's famously the "little sweet one," the uncomplicated baby varietal of the Piemontese red triptych. In practice I find most bottles are not appreciably lighter or softer than many Barberas; the fruit and tannins are merely different, and less complex.

Osteria La Salita
via Marcone 2/A
12065 Monforte d'Alba (CN)
Tel: +39 0173 787196

Related Links:

N.D.P. in Piemonte: Solativo Vinosteria, Ivrea
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Luigi Ferrando, Ivrea

N.D.P. en Suisse: Chateau de Villa, Sierre

A trip to Rome, April 2011:
N.D.P. in Roma: Obikà
N.D.P. in Roma: Da Enzo
N.D.P. in Roma: Freni e Frizioni
N.D.P. in Roma: Roscioli Restaurant
N.D.P. in Roma: Roscioli Bakery
N.D.P. in Roma: The Jerry Thomas Project
N.D.P. in Roma: Maccheroni

A profile of Roberto Voerzio @ VendemmiaInternationalWines
A 2002 piece on Roberto Voerzio @ Wine-Pages
A seemingly kind of starstruck 2009 piece on Roberto Voerzio @ TheGrandCrew
An older, somewhat uncritical piece on Roberto Voerzio @ WineAnorak

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