Vail Daily travel feature: A center of Piemonte gastronomy
September 20, 2014
Whoever concocted the Italian proverb — Mangiare per vivere e non vivere per mangiare (eat to live and not live to eat) — obviously never dined at Ristorante il Centro in Priocca d'Alba, Italy. Had that survivalist visited the decades-old temple to Piemontese cuisine, they definitely would have wanted "to live to eat" at chef and co-owner Elide Cordero's table!
Elide and Enrico Cordero's restaurant is in the heart of Piemonte, the large, agriculturally rich region in northwest Italy. Priocca lies north of the Tanaro River in Roero, approximately 20 minutes east of Alba. From Alba, adventurous diners can enjoy a visual antipasto — a lovely drive through Roero's rolling countryside to the hilltop town. The pot of gastronomic gold lying at journey's end draws epicureans from across the globe.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Enrico Cordero's chef-father Pierin bought il Centro in April 1956. For 100 years before and for three decades after Pierin purchased the establishment, it was a bar with food served primarily on weekends.
In the late 1980s, the transformation from bar to world-class Michelin star restaurant began. A room next to the kitchen that once housed a pool table is now a private dining room with soft lighting under the original vaulted brick ceiling, creating for guests a feeling of renaissance dining. The elegant, but non-pretentious main dining room is bright and airy with pale yellow walls and stately white molding.
Today, Elide, Enrico and son Giampiero work together for lunch and dinner. Elide's realm is the kitchen. Enrico and Giampiero run the front of the house and oversee the restaurant's lauded 6,500-bottle wine cellar housing approximately 600 different labels.
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The older Cordero sibling, journalist and wine consultant Valentina Cordero, resides in New York City. On her visits home, Valentina aids her parents and brother in the restaurant, helping in the kitchen and serving guests. It's a labor of love she began at 14 and still cherishes over 15 years later.
BUILDING BLOCKS OF MODERN TRADITIONAL CUISINE
Il Centro's kitchen is a short commute from the family's home above the restaurant. Here, Elide lovingly creates her interpretations of classic Piemontese cucina, never straying far from centuries-old techniques.
Growing up on a flatland farm south of Torino instilled in Elide a keen passion for the origins of food. She intuitively weaves that passion into her dishes. Her childhood kitchen was steps away from fruits, vegetables and meat her grandmother and mother used in their cooking. Today, Elide searches Piemonte's artisan farms to find building blocks of her sought-after cuisine.
Central to Elide's culinary beliefs is finding the "soul of food" through comprehending all aspects of ingredients, such as the seasonality of crops and what the animals she uses are fed. These bits of information help her design recipes that best express a product's flavors and textures.
Without having to rely on intermediaries, Elide meets farmers at their aziende agricole (farms) to discuss their farming techniques and choose her own animals. Over time, she's developed trusting relationships with farmers whose own passion for quality — a dwindling approach to farming in today's industrialized food industry — equals hers. Needless to say, chemical laden products never cross her kitchen's threshold.
Elide's dedication to quality comes with a hefty price of time, effort and expense for sourcing and recipe experimentation and development. The results, as diners quickly discover, are worth it.
A NUTTY WAY TO RAISE BEEF
Il Centro's ever-changing menu features Piemonte's seasonal bounty. When asked what dishes are most in demand, Elide answered, "Pasta, fritto misto and a variety of meats."
Her simple dishes of Piemonte's famous beef — bovine di razza piemontese — make gustatory magic when paired with wines from the region's noble Nebbiolo grape, particularly Barolo and Barbaresco. Piemontese cattle are prized for its tender meat of high nutritional value, low fat content (approximately 8 percent of that of American beef) and superb flavor.
When available, Elide serves the bovine equivalent of Alba's cherished white truffles — Vicciola veal. Giuseppe Puglisi, of Torino's Marcelleria Pino, spent two decades of intense, costly research to develop his trademarked brand of Piemontese cattle. Puglisi's prized cattle are raised exclusively at Azienda Agricola di Rossetti Giovanni near Saluzzo on corn, bran, hay and another Piemontese agrarian treasure, hazelnuts. The yield is low — on average 100 head a year — but the quality is high.
The hazelnut diet elevates Piemontese beef to an even higher level of taste, texture and nutritional value. The end result is bovine meat of transcendental delicate flavor and soft, light texture. Nutritionally, Vicciola is lean and low in cholesterol — even lower than sea bass.
When available, Elide uses Vicciola veal for her Codone — a simple preparation of a loin steak sprinkled with salt, seared in a hot, dry pan and served rare with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. The explosion of the meat's pure, natural flavors renders embellishments superfluous. Anything other than a companion vegetable such as steamed green beans would be a sinful adulteration of this naturally flavorful meat.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Centuries of agrarian living created a "waste not, want not" philosophy evident in one of Piemonte's classic dishes — fritto misto alla Piemontese. This Italian "culinary rite" is not unique to Piemonte, but to many, Elide Cordero's version is worth weeks on the waiting list.
Fritto misto's origins are rooted in the celebratory meal following the slaughter of farm animals. Nothing was wasted. Small pieces of organ meats, sweetbreads, testicles, brains, lungs, meats, vegetables, fruits and other morsels were cooked as part of a celebration meal once the hard work was finished.
Elide's fritto misto is her highly sought-after signature dish, available only in January, February and March. Lucky diners who reserve well in advance can enjoy fritto misto at other times of the year.
Key to Elide's fritto misto is the pan. Only cast iron pans used for at least three years are suitable for her fritto misto. Elide, whose most cherished fritto misto pan is older than the restaurant, claims "New metal modifies the flavor of the olive oil." The variety of morsels Elide uses in her fritto misto varies, depending on availability.
From the mixture of hot olive and seed oil, the piping hot morsels are plated on brown paper and whisked to the table. It's a dish not to be eaten at room temperature.
FINDING IL CENTRO
Those are but two of the many traditional dishes in Elide's culinary repertoire. Hopefully that was catnip to food loving readers who will journey to Piemonte to experience il Centro.
Knowing il Centro's exact address — via Umberto I, No. 5 — isn't necessary since it's on Priocca's main street, steps from the landmark early 20th century church of Santo Stefano. The church's neogothic spires and bell tower soaring 132 feet above the piazza below are easy to locate from any approach into town, even after sunset thanks to spotlights that bathe the spires in ethereal light. Find the church and you'll find this corner of culinary heaven.
Simple cursive words — "Ristorante il Centro" — written on the pale mustard yellow facade informs guests they've arrived. Ring the doorbell. Enrico and Giampiero will welcome you to begin your gastronomic adventure.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blog is http://www.winefamilies.com.