Met Elio and Lucia for dinner on Friday at the Trattoria del Bivio in the hamlet of Cavallotti outside Cerreto Langhe. New experience for me – I had only driven through this town, never stopped, but both the Altares said it was one of their favorite restaurants in the region. I’ve never spent much time in the Alta Langha, or High Langhe – this is too high for most grapevines (too much cold and snow late into spring) and so the dominant activites are cheesemaking (Robiola is from this region) and hazelnuts.
Amazing how much cooler it is up here: whereas at the Sandrone winery it was beastly hot and the air still, up here it is cool enough for a sweater and there is a fabulous breeze going. Not even Monforte, known for its constant winds and gusts, was this fresh. Barolo is the oven, Cavallotti is the fridge.
Waiting for the Altares outside on the terrace, I wish I’d brought a sweater. I pass the time with a book and a glass of wine. Originally we had said 8, then they had called to push it back to 8.30 … which means closer to 9 around here. It is still light when they arrive and we head inside.
Chef Massimo is ably assisted by Selia in the dining room. The place is bright, but homey. (A digression on Italian restaurant lighting: It’s always too bright by half, at least compared to what we are accustomed to in the US. I suspect this is an old custom of letting your customers see what they are eating – in effect, to make sure that people can see that the braised rabbit on the menu is actually rabbit and not artfully cut donkey. So the lights are usually up at full brightness in many restaurants, much to the irritation of someone looking for some “atmosphere.”) Menu is traditional, straightforward and unsurprising, with two verbal additions – this last part is a rarity. The concept of the “daily special” is not universal.
The wine list is a wonder, though. For a place out in the middle of nowhere (ok, only 16 kms from Monforte, but over narrow, windy roads) there is a great selection of wines not just from the region but also from Veneto, Alto Adige, Toscana and even other parts of the world. The champagne list is deep and I want to dive in but there are only three of us … I will come back.
The meals are lovely: my tajarin with porcini is lovely and subtle – the egginess of the hand-cut noodles setting the earthiness of the noodles off beautifully. Lucia’s rabbit salad looks amazing. Elio starts with tiny hand-formed gnocchi with a sauce of castelmagno, a piedmontese cheese. Main courses are equally lovely: my roast suckling pig is delicious, with a crunchy skin and cut-with-a-fork tender inside. Lucia has baccala (salt cod) with fresh tomatoes and potato puree, but the star is a whole Merluzza (Mediterranean Sea Bass) that Elio orders: the chef has completely deboned the fish before cooking without cutting it apart … so the whole fish that shows up at the table, with a gorgeous crispy skin still on, is entirely without bones. Wow. And Delicious!
We enjoy a bottle of Bruno Gottardi’s outstanding 2007 Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir) Mazzon from the Alto Adige. This tiny producer is barely exported to the US, but should be a rock star: the wine is an amazing balancing act, all its elements precisely focused and wound together with skillful harmony. It is a deceptively quaffable wine – it is so shimmeringly silky that it’s entirely possible to miss the underlying complexity and nuance.
Elio and Lucia tell me about their new project: rehabilitating a tiny hamlet in the Castelmagno area. They and three other partners bought this hamlet, abandoned since the late 1940s, and want to restore the village, underwrite the return of a few dairy farmers and renovate the houses into an isolated but comfortable place for getaways, meetings and vacations. At about 1500 meters above sea level, it has just been out of the snow for about 6-7 weeks, so they doubt that many will want to live there full-time. But as a summer residence, it would be heavenly. Elio claims to be mostly retired by now (I will respectfully hold my tongue) and says this is his dream retirement project. If he can bring it to fruition, it will be amazing.
A few desserts to finish up with a glass of Paolo Saracco’s most excellent Moscato (more on Paolo here); kudos to Massimo and Selia for the excellent work they do here. This is a lovely restaurant, and away from the madding crowds in the Barolo. As much as I love the Barolo, it has changed with the influx of tourists over the last decade – there are far more indifferent and even downright bad restaurants in the zone. Proprietors know they will be full during the season and see no reason to improve. Too bad, as many locals complain that the restaurants have generally gotten worse, and they only go out to support the restaurants who buy their wine. Interestingly, many of the same locals drive out of the zone for eating out, as the food is an order of magnitude better 5-10 kms away. Go figure! Other great places outside the Barolo zone: the Marsupino in Briaglia, Il Verso del Ghiottone (the sound of the Glutton) in Dogliani, and La Cochinella in Serravalle Langhe. All worth repeated visits.
Finally, the windy drive back to Monforte for me, where I have a last glass of wine in my apartment while reading “The World as I Found it,” Bruce Duffy’s marvelous fictionalization of the life of Wittgenstein.