Back to their roots. Italian chefs search out and revive traditional regional dishes
SOME of the best of Italy's restaurants lie in small hamlets and towns - out-of-the-way communities nestled among waterfalls and mountains, surrounded by views of great beauty. Nowhere is this more true than in Piedmont, a mainly mountainous northern province.
Here, chefs and restaurateurs search out old recipes and offer regional specialties on their home turf. Proprietors of country inns have become preservers of a neighborhood culinary style: Produce is locally grown; local cooks prepare it.
A desire to revive the best elements of a very old cuisine is the force behind Italy's current regional food trend.
Cooking methods handed down by grandmother or father or contributed by neighbors, without benefit of written records, are now consciously being adapted for restaurant and inn menus - often at the most stylish establishments.
One such special regional Italian restaurant is La Contea, a beautifully preserved country inn perched on the hilltop village of Neive near Alba. Situated in an ancient building once inhabited by the counts of the city, the inn's huge gate leads to a tiny courtyard and garden.
On a recent visit, around dusk, the owner, Tonino Verro, and his daughter Elise chatted with other guests in the garden. Out-of-sight, chef Claudia Verro prepared regional dishes from old recipes of the Piedmontese cuisine that she and her husband have collected.
Traveling around the Langhe region of the southern Piedmont area, the Verros persuaded people to describe what kind of cooking was done years ago, to recall festivals of older days, and to relate what foods were served and eaten on those occasions. The couple found directions for making many dishes which had seemed to have disappeared but are still an integral part of the daily menus of the Piedmontese.
In the inn's kitchen, huge stock pots simmer on the fire as Claudia shows visitors where her staff of as many as five people works during the dinner period. One cook prepares hare, another brushes loaves of bread with egg wash before baking.
Chefs from locations as diverse as Japan, Germany, and America find their way to Claudia's kitchen to cook and learn. With Giovanni Goria, a leading authority on Italian food, Claudia has also written a small cookbook ``In cucina a quattro mani'' (Turino: Daniela Piazza), with amusing illustrations by Raffaella Ape.
Discussing her philosophy, Claudia says: ``Creativity is very important in cooking, and that comes first. But it is also important that the cooking of the region continue.
``Eating is also most important. From the time we open our eyes in the morning we think about food and cooking and what the menu will be today.''
The town of Neive is something of a preserve of ``old Piedmont'' with narrow streets and small squares, houses and gardens surrounding a church dome and a pinnacled bell tower.
A short walking tour of the small, circular town reveals fine vistas from hilltop to valley, with row on row of vineyards and gardens. Here the pace is unhurried, as it was centuries ago, making La Contea in every way a country inn - relaxed and unassuming with emphasis on good food and tranquility.
Tonino brings an element of festivity to the dining room, where he greets each guest warmly. He enjoys talking about the regional foods and encourages guests to savor each dish. The room is handsome with old panelling, antiques, and soft candlelight.
The richness of Piedmontese cuisine comes from several foods, but perhaps mainly from the famous white truffle, which is overpoweringly aromatic and unique. In season, it is served in many of the region's dishes at restaurants like La Contea - in risotti (rice dishes), tagliolini (fine noodles), and with meats, eggs, and game.
The meats and cheeses have a richness of their own, and local vegetables are especially fresh.
One dinner at La Contea started with an onion custard made with aged Robiola cheese, cream, herbs, and onion. This was followed by a clear vegetable soup, then roast quail with raisins, tiny zucchini, and a carrot pure'e seasoned with basil.
A typically Piedmontese dessert is called Bonet al cioccolato, which when translated means ``cap'' or ``bonnet'' chocolate cake. It is a rich, chocolate version of cr`eme caramel, with a distinctive burnt sugar flavor. A scattering of multi-colored tiny candies sprinkled over the plate was described as ``dessert with sky falling.''
These recipes by Claudia Verro of La Contea were adapted from ``The Gourmet's Tour of Italy'' by Antonio Piccinardi and James M. Johnson (Little, Brown & Co., $29.95):
Tartra o tartr`a (Onion Custard) 2 herb bouquets (1 bay leaf, 3 sage leaves, 3 sprigs parsley, 1 sprig rosemary) 1 3/4 cups cream 1/2 cup milk 3 eggs, separated 1/2 onion, sliced 4 teaspoons butter 1 tablespoon grated aged Robiola (or other soft cow's milk cheese) Nutmeg Salt and pepper
Put 1 herb bouquet in cream and milk and infuse 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Coarsely chop other bouquet and stew in butter with sliced onion, then sieve. Beat yolks until slightly thickened. Beat whites until stiff.
Remove bouquet from cream and add butter, cheese, yolks, and a pinch each salt, pepper and nutmeg. Blend well and fold in egg whites.
Pour mixture into deep, buttered baking dish, place in large pan partly filled with water, bake 30 minutes.
Tagliolini con vitello e pomodore (Fine Noodles With Veal and Tomato) For the pasta: 2 cups white flour 6 egg yolks Salt
For the sauce: 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 ripe tomatoes 1 medium-size onion, chopped 1 celery stalk, chopped 8 basil leaves 1 tablespoon fresh parsley 1 bay leaf 1/4 pound ground veal Salt
Pour flour onto bread board, add egg yolks and pinch of salt and work into a dough, kneading 10 minutes. Let dough rest 30 minutes. With rolling pin, roll into thin sheet. Let dry several minutes, then roll into a tube. Using a sharp knife cut fine slices from tube. Uncurl slices and scatter noodles on board to avoid sticking together.
Lightly brown garlic in oil. Peel, seed, and chop tomatoes and add. Then add onion, celery, carrot, basil leaves, parsley and bay leaf. Salt lightly. Simmer gently 10 minutes, then add ground veal and cook 15 minutes.
Cook noodles in boiling salted water 5 minutes. Drain and dress noodles with sauce.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.