02 September 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: Turin's Culinary Gold

TURIN, Italy – With the sky still an early morning pink, crates of dark green artichokes, yellow pears and fragrant fennel are stacked wily nily, cluttering the streets as fruit and vegetable vendors at Turin’s great food market, Porta Palazzo set up their market stalls for the day. Nearby, brawny butchers in white coats and blood stained aprons, pull large beef hindquarters and pork carcasses from the back of rumbling refrigerated trucks and hang them on large hooks behind their counters in the immense glass and wrought iron market building.

Porto Palazzo Market

But even before the butchers start to sharpen their knives and price cards are stuck into the produce boxes, local chefs are on the prowl, menu ideas running through their minds. How many crates of Swiss chard do you have? Never mind, how about these beets, will you have more tomorrow? The day’s menu depends on what they choose. The only thing certain is that the food they’ll prepare is unlike any you have ever eaten in Italy.

Just ask Turin native Chef Roberto Donna of Washington, D.C.’s four-star Galileo restaurant (more about Chef Donna in the March 11, 2010 Auntie Pasta: Bruciolo) He knows first-hand how creative the chefs in his hometown can be. He’ll also tell you that with such incredibly voluptuous and seductive ingredients as white truffles, porcini mushrooms, Piedmont beef, fresh brook trout, and an abundance of game, no one is ever really surprised when first time visitors can barely keep from swooning at the dinner table.

The Vast Selection Boggles the Mind
In part it’s the luck of the location. Turin is in the extreme northwest corner of Italy, in the province of Piedmont. But while Piedmont, home of the Slow Food movement, has become a Mecca for food lovers, Turin seems to hover below the radar line. As gourmands track elusive white truffles in Alba and frolic through the vineyards of Montferrato, the tables of Turin are largely ignored.

Turinese cuisine is not like the food in any other part of Italy. For one, chefs tend to reach for butter and lard rather than olive oil. Olive oil has only been used in local cooking since the 1950’s, brought north by southerners who immigrated to Turin to work in the automobile industry. And more than in any other part of Italy, local dishes incorporate a variety of savory sauces.

Truffles Big and Small, Black and White
Another difference is that appetizers play a much larger role here than in other parts of Italy, both in the size of the portions and in their sheer creativity. In Chef Donna’s cookbook, ‘Cooking in Piedmont’, he presents twenty-six recipes for appetizers including such non-appetizer sounding dishes as rabbit salad, stuffed roasted peppers, veal tongue in a spicy red sauce, a duck liver flan and spicy polenta served with fried quail eggs.
Probably the best known Piedmontese appetizers are bagna cauda –literally a hot bath -of oil, garlic, anchovies and butter served as a dipping sauce for winter vegetables, and fonduta (from the French fondre, to melt) a fondue of creamy Fontina cheese flavored with white truffles. Truffles are used extensively in Turinese cooking, and when they are in season – between November and February – they are liberally showered over just about everything.

Ravioli del Plin

In a traditional Italian meal, appetizers are followed by a primo, usually pasta. Two of Turin’s most popular dishes are tajarin, golden egg noodles served with melted butter and a shaving of white truffles, and Chef Donna’s favorite, ravioli del plin, (del plin means to pinch in Turinese dialect) often served with a reduced veal stock and a veil of grated parmesan cheese. It is interesting that the Turinese prefer fresh egg pastas, rather than pastasciutta, dried pasta, that is so popular throughout the rest of Italy

The best rice in Italy, some say the world, grows in the wide flat lands between Milan and Turin so in addition to pasta you’ll find rich and creamy risotto, riso all piemontese, rice served with meat sauce, and riso e ceci, a rice and chick pea dish on menus. Other non-pasta choices are chestnut flour gnocchi served with a fonduta di Castelmagno (Castelmagno is a town southwest of Turin that is famous for its cheese), or baccalà (salted cod), served with saffron flavored polenta. And then, as the Italians say, Coraggio! – courage! It’s time to move on to the main course.

Bollito Misto

The city’s signature dish is bollito misto, a mix of boiled meats served with three sauces: bagnet verd, a parsley sauce spiced up with anchovy, garlic and olive oil; bagnet ross, crushed tomatoes, garlic and hot peppers, and saussa d’avije, a mustard sauce sweetened with honey and crushed nuts. In the past, traditionalists insisted that bollito misto contain seven vegetables, seven types of meat, and seven types of ornamenti, i.e. tongue, tail and dangly bits, but today the more exotic dangly bits are slowly being eased out. On the menu at least once a week in most Turin restaurants, the boiled meat dish is served from a rolling stainless steel cart, each meat kept warm in its own broth filled compartment, and you can ask for the meats that you want.

Other classics include brasato al Barolo, Piedmont beef slowly braised in Barolo wine, and finanziera, a stew of cock’s crests, chicken livers, veal, peas and porcini mushrooms. In the fall and winter, you’ll find venison, roe deer (a small European deer), quail and even tagliata di renna, slices of reindeer meat, on some menu, along with beef and veal, free range poultry and freshly caught fish instead of fish farm fish.

Elegant Dining in Turin

In a country where no culinary rock has been left unturned, it’s nice to know that there is still a small corner where you can find new taste experiences. The food in Turin may just change the way you look at Italian food forever.

In next week’s Auntie Pasta post you’ll find a preview of what’s on the menu at some of Turin’s restaurants, and some insider tips by Chef Donna as to the best Turinese dishes to try.

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1 comment:

  1. Wow! I'm at Porto Palazzo all the time, maybe we walked right past each other!