The variety of flavors and biodiversity abundant in Italy is mind-blowing, with seasonality and local produce as the standout traits of its regional cuisine. Each region, province and down to the smallest village in Italy shines thanks to its own proprietary dishes. Think Rome and its rich pecorino, pepper and guanciale-laced pastas; or the myriad Sicilian pastries influenced by medieval Arab and Germanic dominations; polenta up north; and the staggering array of seafood preparations proper of the entire peninsula.
Today we put under the magnifying lens a region we love and whose cuisine is among the finest in Italy. Piemonte is often overlooked by travelers who flock to more popular destinations. But food and wine lovers do themselves a disservice by not visiting Piemonte! Wine, truffles, cheeses, hazelnuts, chocolate… There are so many stars in the Piemonte universe. To get your salivation going, we will start by sharing insight into the abundance and marvel that are the Antipasti Piemontesi.
I’m a sucker for a fine appetizer. It tickles the palate and prepares bellies for the joyous succession of plates to come. Antipasto literally means ‘before the meal’ – when they are plural, antipasti are an assortment of dishes that open the repast and provide some of the most delicious moments at the Italian table.
Piemonte is a landlocked region bordered by France, the Swiss Alps, Liguria, Valle d’Aosta, Lombardy and a little corner of Emilia-Romagna. While the overall influence in both language and kitchen is primarily French, Piemonte has over the centuries developed a very personal cuisine made of interesting cultural cross-pollination and unusual flavor combinations. Where these unique characteristics emerge the most is in the vast choice of antipasti.
When reading the menu in Piemonte, travelers will soon understand that the choice cannot be isolated to just one dish to start the meal. The antipasti piemontesi are multiple, and usually enjoyed in sampler mode, dotting a large plate with many small bites.
Why taste one when you can have them all? Here is a shortlist of the antipasti piemontesi we have fallen in love with and that gourmands should absolutely not overlook.
Born in Piemonte, vitello tonnato is somewhat of an oddity, with origins in the early 18th century. It’s a chilled antipasto that combines veal meat and tuna fish. The rump cut intended for this uniquely Piemontese antipasto must be seared and then braised gently until pink, it must be carved paper thin, and must be topped with tufts of whipped “salsa tonnata,” garnished with a brined caper berry: simply perfect.
Roasted peppers with bagna càuda
This has officially become my new favorite antipasto. Bagna càuda is a winter staple in the region of Piemonte, but why give up its punchy assertive taste because it’s 90 degrees out? You don’t! Do as the piemontesi do: smear it chilled over roasted sweet peppers and dig in. You’ll be in for a treat and a fantastic flavor combination.
Steamed and finely chopped carrots, peas and potatoes seasoned with a light, homemade mayonnaise, canned tuna, sliced hard-boiled eggs and finely chopped pickled gherkins. While in the rest of Italy this is mostly a holiday appetizer, in Piemonte it’s enjoyed year round, to open the dances, paired with a silky bubble, or a dry still white wine.
Carne cruda all’albese
Piemonte boasts some of the best bovine meat in Italy. It should therefore be no surprise that in the Alba province, the antipasto par excellence is raw beef tenderloin from the Fassona Piemontese breed. The meat is minced with a very sharp knife, allowing it to be cut very fine without compromising its texture. Once chopped, the meat is dressed with only a splash of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. The serving platter is rubbed with a clove of garlic for a hint of flavor minus the punch. Carne cruda all’albese can be served with just a teaspoon of piquant mustard on the side, or in the more international version alongside finely chopped red onion, capers and a raw egg yolk, to be mixed and seasoned at one’s own desire.
Salsiccia di Bra
When in Piemonte, do try the typical raw sausage of Bra, a small village in the middle of the Roero, halfway between Turin and Cuneo. Nothing to do with undergarments. When I first tried it, salsiccia di Bra was totally foreign to me, and I confess, I was a little wary of tasting it. This local specialty is a sausage made of ground beef mixed with pork belly fat. But in the past sautissa ëd Bra (Bra sausage in Piemontese dialect) was made exclusively with ground veal, and was mainly destined for the nearby town of Cherasco where there was a large Jewish community. The flavor is sweet and complex, thanks to the assortment of spices added in the mixture that cut through the fattiness: cinnamon, cloves, pimento, nutmeg, macis, cumin, salt and pepper.
Carpione alla piemontese
This curious recipe dates back probably to the Middle Ages or ancient Rome. Using a vinegar marinade was a common practice to ensure that food –– particularly fried food –– would keep for as long as possible.The classic carpione alla piemontese is a dish that uses that same ancient method: steamed zucchini, a fried egg, and a fried veal schnitzel-type cutlet steeped in a vinegar marinade. Served chilled, it is a refreshing summer staple as much as vitello tonnato.
These are small frittatas (don’t call them crêpes!) filled with sauteed leeks and potatoes. The friciulin are then daubed with a local cheese fondue, like Castelmagno or Toma.
Speaking of cheese…
There is always some form of dairy delight at the beginning of the meal (to entertain the palate) and at the end of the meal (to aid digestion). In this case the antipasto of choice is usually a young goaty number like robiola, or even frachét (think the best cream cheese in the universe) that’s whipped, shaped into a log and then rolled in ground local hazelnuts.
Are you salivating yet? Email us to inquire about our food & culture tours, vineyard visits and truffle hunts in Piemonte.