Driving a rental car through the northern Italian countryside for 36 hours is about as relaxing as a root canal.
Speed limits seem to be a light suggestion, and those sloping verdant peaks that look so serene as you approach from the nearest city turn out to be full of hairpin turns, rife for harrowing tailgating incidents with truck drivers who have all apparently just remembered they have urgent appointments. (That perfect linen dress you found for sale at a thrift shop on your block—the one you think makes you look just like Sophia Loren? It won’t save you.)
Which is to say, when you get to wherever your destination may be, you’re going to want to put a lot of things in your mouth. The sort of cheesy or gently inebriating things that make you forget that moments earlier, you were screaming with full-lung capacity at your even-keeled boyfriend, who had benevolently taken the wheel, “I DIDN’T WANT TO GO LIKE THIS. IF YOU SURVIVE, PLEASE BURY ME IN FLATTERING PANTS.”
Fortunately for all parties, the Piedmont region—to the west of Lombardy, north of Liguria, and abutting both Switzerland and France—is full of excellent food and wine. It’s widely considered the birthplace of the world’s “Slow Food Movement,” which promotes traditional culinary preparations using locally sourced ingredients. (Maybe not so incidentally, as of 2019, Piedmont claims 45 Michelin-starred restaurants.) Its trattoria and agriturismo-scene is full of white truffles, egg-based pastas, inky red wines, and newer-wave fare to boot.
There are very few ways to eat a path across Piedmont and not enjoy it—and you could totally follow the Michelin breadcrumbs if that’s your thing. Many people choose to stay right in the heart of Barolo country (southwest of Alba), and if you’re a Nebbiolo-fiend, I wouldn’t argue against it.
But to those with a more flexible agenda, I’d pitch a stay about 40 minutes northeast, in one of the Monopoly board–sized hilltop towns around Mombaruzzo. The terrain looks like something you’ll want to file away for your next subway-outage panic attack, tourists are fewer and further between, lodging is a bit less pricey, and it’ll put you squarely near the areas producing my favorite local Barbera variety, Nizza. (The subzone of Barbera-producing regions making Nizza only recently received their own separate DOCG distinction, in 2014.)
To get there, fly into Turin, Piedmont’s capital city, and rent a car for the two-ish-hour drive. (Flat and mellow, until it’s not.) Turin, with its own gaggle of impressive restaurants and café seats rife for aperitivo (vermouth was invented there), makes a wonderful place to spend a day on either side of your road trip. If you need convincing, just Google “bicerin,” and “gianduja” (both involve copious chocolate). You could also fly into Milan, about two hours by car.
You’re going to want to head straight to Olim Bauda, to taste Barberas. It’s a family-run vineyard that turns out Barbera d’Asti so velvety and wonderful, it’ll make you feel like you’re wrapped in an impossibly soft blanket, looking out over a sprawling valley, no matter what time of year it is or when you last encountered a patio. Olim Bauda is just 10 minutes from Nizza Monferrato, and produces one of the best Nizzas around. Another two pros: The views are sweeping, and the kind man who runs the joint will make zero disparaging comments if you eat an inappropriate number of the salted crackers scattered around the tasting table.
From there, jam a few crackers into your pocket when no one’s looking and make the 15-minute drive to i Bologna, where you wisely called ahead for a lunch reservation. It’s the very sort of trattoria you pictured when you impulse-bought cheap round-trip tickets to Italy nine months ago. The kitchen’s run by its founding family’s third generation (a man called Beppe, for crying out loud). I Bologna occupies an old farmhouse with a big backyard in Rocchetta Tanaro, and to enter, you have to ring a doorbell, which elicits entrance to a foyer that whisper-screams, “You’re going to have a nice time here.”
The menu changes daily—of course it does—and features lots of local classics, with a few twists (once, a killer eggplant Parm!). If you see it, order the vitello tonnato, which, despite looking like the absolute worst dish in the world, is actually the absolute best dish in the world. If you must know in advance, it’s thin slices of cold veal, which are somehow basically gray, topped with an almost foamy sauce of tuna, aioli, capers, lemon, and anchovies. But get it! And then order a couple Piemontese pastas, like whatever taglierini (also called tajarin) they’re proferring. Taglierini is a thinner take on tagliatelle, made with an eggy dough, and its long, webby noodles provide lots of opportunity for ostentatious twirling.
The wine list at i Bologna is spot on, and you should solicit a staff recommendation. Here and anywhere in the region, in addition to Barberas and Nebbiolos, be sure to try any deeply endorsed Dolcettos (not sweet, despite the name), and on the white side, look for Arneis, Erbaluces, Moscatos Bianco (sparkling!), and Gavis, which are made from Cortese grapes.
After lunch, you’ll probably need a nap, though if you’re sprightlier than I, you could arrange to go truffle hunting, or hit up a second winemaker. Michele Chiarlo, 20 minutes south in Calamandrana, has a broad selection. You could also swing through Mombaruzzo, where the top notch amaretti cookies are made with ground apricot stones in the batter.
For dinner, a left-field suggestion: If you’re into food history, clench your teeth for the short drive to a sleepy trattoria called Dei Tacconotti, in Frascaro. There you’ll find old-school Piemontese dishes, like bagna cauda—a warm dipping sauce made from garlic, anchovies, and olive oil—and brasato al barolo, which is essentially a pot roast braised in...Barolo (!). Try the agnolotti del plin, a regional specialty. The name means, roughly, “pinched agnolotti,” because of how these little guys are folded. They’re a Platonic-ideal stuffed pasta, with the structure of ravioli and the elfin-ness of tortellini. You’ll also find the sort of dream-haunting focaccia you encounter only once or twice in life, thanks to a chef with Ligurian culinary experience. Don’t leave before they bring around the jewel-y bottles of homemade digestivi, labeled with blue marker on what looks to be spare name tags.
The next morning, take yourself promptly to one of the roving markets, for which you can find a schedule here. If it happens to be Tuesday, that means Canelli, where there are lots of places for a leisurely post-market lunch. But, first: Roam the stalls in pursuit of cured meats, cheeses, and whatever’s in season, and break only for a glass of Asti Spumante, another local sparkling wine. Pop into Pasticceria Sergio Bosca or Panetteria Pasticceria Pistone Alessandro for baci di dama, cookies sandwiches in which two hazelnut biscuits swaddle dark chocolate filling. (Their name literally means “lady's kisses,” fortunately for their pursed lip–like appearance and not as a descriptor of their preparation.)
Splurge on the five-course lunch at Ristorante Enoteca di Canelli down the street if you dare, or settle for a few dishes a la carte. (The duck breast with Moscato would be well worth your stomach space.) The wine menu commands a deep dive, too—Enoteca di Canelli’s headquartered in the cellar of a 19th-century palazzo, and its walls remain lined with bottles. Order whichever one’s recommended, silence your cellphone, and consider that, if you sort of blur your peripheral vision such that all of the lunch meetings taking place around you turn to colorful mush, you may very well be in northern Italy in the late 1800s. Strain to remember the political implications, ask your flabbergasted dining partner to fill in the details you can’t recall, and when he hastily excuses himself for a fictional restroom visit, finish his wine, too.
At the end of this 36-hour feat, if you can make it out of your chair, pause for a few moments. Not just to congratulate yourself on the sheer volume of pasta you’ve consumed, but because—brace yourself—you’ll have to climb a few flights of stairs to get back to street level. Where, just beyond the quiet streets that were filled with market stalls hours before, you’ve parked that car you forgot about.
And it’ll be a long, winding drive to get out of there.