If you have heard of Piemonte’s hilly Langhe you will know Monforte d’Alba, the village in the heart of the Barolo area, famous for its distinct character, where the arts meet gastronomic culture. Many decades ago, before Langhe had its current iconic status Monforte was, and still is, an acclaimed destination for internationally renowned figures: writers, singers, poets and politicians. For the past 43 years, the Horszowsky’s auditorium in Monforte has been hosting the iconic Monfortinjazz festival, bringing together prominent composers and performers, such as Buena Vista Social Club, Ludovico Einaudi, Yann Tiersen and Mick Taylor.
Monforte has its own very particular cultural character; an open-mindedness reflected in the village’s temples: the restaurants. Here tradition is deeply rooted, whilst innovation thrives, creating a harmonious sense of comfort.
Monforte is the place of historical tables and the set for new crossroads, a magical spot for everyone’s expressions, where traditions and innovation coexist and are entrenched to create an inexplicable harmony and comfort: take Nino Rocca, who grew up without a private kitchen and learned the importance of growing up with a Langhetta version of a Proustian madeleine in its family’s restaurant kitchen. You can feel that every plate in Nino’s restaurant is the result of a shared gesture. It is full of the family’s memories: the smell of wine racking reminds Nino of helping his grandfather to bottle Dolcetto, the ravioli roasting directly on the wood stove reminds him of playing with his friends as a child and the veal with vegetables and herbs from the garden reminds him of his beautiful grandmother who prepared it for him as an after-school lunch.
Photography by Letizia Cigliutti
Felicin Restaurant was founded almost 100 years ago by Felicino, Nino’s grandfather. The place remains his dreamland. Here, he grew up with his father, who spoke four languages and had well-known friends such as Gabriel García Márquez. Artists from all over the world came to the restaurant. Nino’s father and his wife Rosina, made Felicin a cultural hub for both foreigners and locals. Today, Nino manages it with the help of his wife Silvia and their sons, who spread their attention between the kitchen and the 16 000 bottles in the wine cellar. Felicin looks like a family country house filled with memories, books and family pictures: its warm tapestries and the natural light make it an intimate space to read, listen and self-reflect.
Nino has a unique personality and a deep intelligence. He is a true creative. As he says: “One day a priest and winemaker from Dogliani told me that his mother taught him that no one can teach you how to prune vines but the vine itself. I believe that sensitivity is something that you can’t teach with words, it’s like a gift. It’s like martial arts masters: they learn the technique and then they forget the basis to let the unconscious and the acquired knowledge perform. Memories from our unconscious help us to be different and to learn from the ingredient, from the source itself”.
Nino is an avid promoter of the importance of educating clients on the symmetry between seasons and ingredients: a book by Frédy Girardet is placed like a trophy in the restaurant’s main room, right next to Nino’s father portrait, as a symbolic ode to the Swiss Chef’s gastronomic philosophy linked to the cleansing of tastes and authentic flavors. To Nino, his conversations between his father and Girardet were a turning point. When doing his research, he is always seeking the purity of a clean design, a respect for raw materials, so as not to distort the food. To taste Cervere’s leek with crispy Jerusalem artichoke (Piedmontese’s topinambur),parmesan “zabajone” and fresh vegetables is like a stroll on Langhe’s soils, one hectar after the other. There is no Felicin without its quintessential “tajarin”, Piedmontese’s iconic handmade pasta rolled out and cut by a knife and made with organic fresh eggs (the number depends on the weather’s humidity and remains a restaurant secret) and fresh flour by the millers from Mulino Sobrino in La Morra. The ragout is made with Fassona veal, Piedmont’s finest lean meat. For the main course, Fassona with the vegetable garden’s perfumes is presented in the pan in which it is cooked so that the heat is better distributed over the meat and you can smell the delightful aromas.
Langhe is Nino Rocca’s cradle. For Pasquale Làera, Monforte has become his canvas. He paints with the colors of cultural crossroads and with childhood memories: “Think of the scent of roasted mandarin peels, it’s inside every Italian’s memory, from North to South”.
Làera has worked in kitchens all over the world, from Cannavacciuolo’s Villa Crespi on Orta lake to Chef Okamoto’s restaurant in Japan. Today, for Pasquale, cooking is a magic combination of ingredients. He talks of gestures in Italian cuisine that recall traditional memories: “When I hit on the taste, the dish makes sense and has a story. The aesthetics fades away in our head, whereas taste remains someplace and ripens like a fresh fruit”. His childhood food education was based on “cucina povera”. He uses ingredients that the mainstream culture sees as “food waste”. Even now, in order to create the tomato extraction for his spaghetti with grilled leeks and eel, he uses tomatoes that no one wants at the market: “The spaghetto is white and when you taste it you also taste the untouched beauty of nature”.
While he prepares the packed lunch for his son Matteo, he uses inspiration from his own memories in kindergarten with the nuns back in Gioia del Colle: “I can still smell the aromas of my lunchbox filled with zampine, Bari’s typical roasted sausage, with a hint of persil and garlic”. When the “avventori”, as Pasquale describes the guests with his elegant Southern eloquence ,get to Borgo Sant’Anna, he expects to surprise them and to infuse the same feelings: “Think about the local products from Langhe, the standard is so high that I can’t get bored. Here in Monforte, both locals and tourists expect a quality meal. Some of them expect to find traditional dishes. Forothers, tradition is to admit that change is a natural part of our behavior”. When ‘avventori’ go to Pasquale’s, they know that they won’t find the average Piedmontese meal. Instead, they will find Apulian’s rituals in the heart of Langhe: the Parmigiana, Apulia’s dish par excellence, encapsulates Pasquale’s attitude, his inclusivity and creativity. And so does his carne cruda (raw beef) which is a typical Piedmontese’s entrée.
In Pasquale’s version, beside raw meat, he adds sea orchids – two perfect ferrous ingredients – and Apulia’s iconic turnip tops, in order to push the bitterness of the dish as well as robiola, one of Asti’s most famous cheeses, appreciated for its rich and satisfying taste.
Balance and conviviality are the key-ingredients that Pasquale focuses on with his team “The magic that allowed us to get here and get our Michelin star a few months ago is the team that lasts over time. This kind of passion comes from discomfort or an avid research for something more. We got there like a relentless and restless orchestra rehearsal”.
Photography by Letizia Cigliutti