Saturday, April 28, 2007

Piedmont, pt. 4: You call this lunch???

Will the madness ever end? We just got back from lunch with Gianluca Grasso and his beautiful wife Francesca, which turned out to be another four hour marathon of food, wine, and espresso. Lunch as in four bottles of wine, four courses, full to bursting stomachs, and w looking at me pleadingly with her "you have got to stop this food insanity" face. No pictures, but trust me, it’s all true!!

Gianluca and Francesca showed up at our hotel a little after noon and announced he was taking us to one of his favorite restaurants in the Piedmont. We piled into the biz is just fine at the Grasso's I assume....and drove into the hills to the alta Langhe area, about twenty kilometers from Monforte. We turned one last corner and pulled into the driveway of the prettily situated Locanda dell’Arco. We entered the place, where Gianluca and Francesca were greeted like old friends by the owner, which I have to selfishly say always excites me, because you just know the owner will give extra attention to our food. I know, very self serving, but we are talking food here. So we’re seated in this who-knows-how-old dining room, the vaulted, brick lined ceilings apparently unchanged for the last couple of hundred years, and Gianluca orders some wine while the owner gets down to some serious food business. The first course, washed down with a really lovely ‘05 Grasso Chardonnay, consisted of three antipasti per person. And not small little bites. These were portions that at a regular American joint would be shared by two or three. Again, how do they do it?
First out was a beautifully presented rabbit terrine on a bed of frisee with a balsamic-olive oil dressing. This was terrific, a beautifully balanced plate of food. Following this up was yet another version of carne cruda, which I think I am becoming obsessed about. Other than most of America’s irrational fear of food, why isn’t this staple of the Italian diet on more U.S. restaurant menus? Then came an essential sign of spring, a plate of perfectly cooked asparagus topped with a light cheese sauce. The asparagus, not the cheese sauce, being the sign of spring in the previous sentence.

As we ordered our primis, of course tajarin with wild mushrooms for w and I and gnocchi for Gianluca and Francesca, a bottle of ‘03 Cogno Dolcetto appeared, bursting with fruit and vibrantly fresh. Our tajarins were nothing less than lovely, the woodsy, earthy mushrooms that had been sauteed in olive oil and a bit of butter complimenting the melt in your mouth tajarin, which was the best version yet on this trip. I had a bite of Gianluca’s gnocchi, and they were pillowy perfection, lightly sauced, and something I could have shamelessly eaten several dozen of given the chance. Each couple ordered one secondi to share, and as Francesca was looking over the wine list for another bottle of red, she suddenly got a mischievous glint in her eye that could only mean something special was about to happen. She casually asked if we might perhaps like to try a 1989 Grasso “Chiniera” Barolo. Now I don’t now how to say “hell yes” in Italian, but I think my jumping up and down in my seat got the message across. I’m not sure why, but there’s just something about 17 year old single-vineyard Barolo that always sounds right. I’ve gotta tell you, this wine didn’t disappoint. It had been in the restaurants cellar since its release in 1993, and was still so young, like it could have gone on for another 20 years. We had it open for over an hour in a decanter, and it just kept getting better and better. Huge wow moment! The secondis were okay, perhaps the only somewhat weak moment, and w and I were of the opinion that my braised beef in Barolo is much tastier than their version. The beef was a bit overcooked, the sauce pedestrian. But what the hell, when you’re busy slurping down ‘89 Barolo, it’s silly to complain about anything.

Finally, we got our just desserts, with w and I having a sharing moment with a lusciously creamy vanilla gelato with fresh strawberries, while G and F went the distance, she with the gelato, and he with a sampling of tiramisu (okay) and panna cotta (yummy!). The owner insisted, without any argument from us, on comping a bottle of bouncy, fizzy Moscato d’Asti, which if it isn’t the perfect way to end any meal then I don’t know what is. Unless you’re Gianluca and Francesca of course, which meant a round of espressos for all, and after four hours at a midday lunch probably is a better way to end. We drove back to Monforte most happily, and were dropped at the hotel with fond goodbyes to Gianluca and Francesca. Grazie mille G & F!

Another day, another several hour meal filled with great food, fucking unbelievable wine, and conversation. If this is madness, call me crazy!

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