Piemonte, Risotto & Napoleon
In their regional cuisines, Italians understand and celebrate their homegrown specialties, much of which are rooted in long traditions. Piemonte is rich in ingredients ranging from the Alps, to the rice paddies of its plains, to the manicured vineyards on the rolling hills of Le Langhe. Our menu this week showcases all of these, embellished with local folklore and historic battle stories.
Imported Vialone Nano rice with spring garden vegetables – asparagus, baby chard, carrots, green beans, zucchini and peas
Chicken Marengo with tomato, mushrooms and shrimp
Celery, apple and hazelnut salad with Sotto Cenere truffled cheese
Homemade sweet chocolate meringues filled with bittersweet chocolate mousse
May in Italy is packed with art shows, regattas, medieval processions and all manner of foodie festivals. The “Sagra del Risotto,” dating back to the 13th century in the small town of Sessame in Piedmont’s Asti province, draws crowds from all over Italy. Interestingly enough, risotto has seen an enormous resurgence of popularity among Italians during the COVID-19 crisis, amazingly surpassing pasta consumption!
Piemonte, the Piedmont region borders France and Austria in the northwest and is best known for its wine, chocolate ,truffles, automobiles, historic battles and of course, rice. As streams flow down from the mountains they irrigate the paddy fields, “risaie,” originally designed by Leonardo de Vinci, making the Po Valley the greatest rice producing area in Italy. With its unique variety range (over 200!) and its reputation for high quality, Italian rice has reached the point where it is starting to be exported to China!
If you had to choose one place to visit in Italy (outside of Tuscany, of course!), you must consider Le Langhe in southern Piedmont with its beautiful tiny villages in the valleys and its picturesque rolling hills planted with manicured rows of grape vines. It is inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage list for its cultural landscapes. Its vineyards constitute an outstanding example of man’s interaction with his natural environment.
Our first course, Risotto Verdure dell’ Orto, pays homage to Piemonte’s soul food – risotto – as well as the numerous varieties of vegetables cultivated in its fertile plains. As most of you know, executing a good risotto is not an easy task and really does call for mindful cooking with lots of hands-on experience. It is only through the exercise of sautéing the initial “soffritto” of onions, the “tostatura” of rice, followed by the painstakingly slow process of adding stock, and the final “mastecatura” of butter and cheese, that one can achieve the perfect risotto!
Pollo alla Marengo is draped in historical legend. The Battle of Marengo was fought in 1800 between French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte and Austrian forces near the city of Alessandria in Piedmont. It is said that after successfully driving the Austrians out of Italy, Napoleon was famished and ordered his chef to prepare something immediately. The poor cook foraged for local ingredients and created the dish from what he could gather – chicken, mushrooms, tomatoes, and fresh-water shrimp. According to the legend, Napoleon enjoyed it so much he had it served for him after every battle.
The wine I have chosen to pair with our dinner is Renato Ratti’s Barbara d’Asti. The soldier on the label is a meticulously accurate drawing of a soldier circa 1800 from the Asti Battalion, to commemorate the troops of the area that eventually defeated Napoleon.
Our salad course is popular in Le Langhe as it showcases its widely used celery, apples and hazelnuts. Note: Groves of hazelnuts line the north faces of the hills where vineyards are not allowed to be planted. Our addition of Sotto Cenere cheese is a nod to Piedmont’s neighbor, the Veneto region, as well as to its love of truffles.
Meringata al Cioccolato is one our most popular desserts at the restaurant and a testament to Piedmont’s love of chocolate. We slowly bake the handmade rounds of chocolate meringue, then mound them with bittersweet chocolate cream covered in meringue pieces.
As you travel throughout Italy and are exposed to the unique cuisine of its regions and discover the history and reasons behind its specialties, your appreciation of Italy and its food is profoundly enriched. Italians understand their legacy and celebrate their traditions, finding comfort in the foods they know and love.