This installment of our Espresso in Torino and Piemonte series comes from the very small town of Pollenzo, practically in the middle of nowhere. At least geographically speaking. But on the food map of Italy, this place is one of the country’s brightest stars.
One of the reasons is that it is home to the the Slow Food-affiliated Università di Scienze Gastronomiche — the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the first of its kind in the world. Another reason is that it hosts a restaurant, Guido Ristorante Pollenzo, that served the best meal we had in this most over-the-top of food adventure travels we’ve ever been on.
It’s here on these vast castle grounds that we met Piero Alciati, who, along with his brother Ugo, established this destination restaurant in homage to the cooking of their mother, Mama Lidia Vanzino Alciati — a living legend in Piemonte cuisine (who, along with her husband Guido, opened the original Guido da Costigliole restaurant in the small Piemontese town of Costiglole d’Asti in 1961). The restaurant is rightfully known for its quite outrageously good food — much of it modern interpretations of Lidia’s classic Piemontese recipes.
Piero is an outstanding host at the front of the house while Ugo spends most of his time in the kitchen. Talking with Piero, you really sense his all-consuming passion for good food and wine.
In Piemonte we met master chefs who will take your reservation, unlock the door to let you in (it’s quite common to arrive at restaurants in Piemonte with locked doors, needing to ring the doorbell to be allowed in), take your order, recommend wines from their personal favorite vineyards, and cook your meal. But in Piero, we received a formal invitation to visit his massive fine food project at Torino’s Eataly — complete with a business card with his mobile phone number, an arranged tour, and a comped lunch there. And he didn’t know us from anyone. But we’ll save more on Eataly for a future Trip Report.
(Another observation about Piemonte restaurants: the dinner crowd fills in around 8:30pm-9pm, and that’s it. Whoever dines there rents the table for the night — there is no such thing as “turning tables” as there is in the U.S.)
So what’s with all the food talk? This is a coffee site, right?! Of course. But it’s important to understand the context in which an appreciation for great espresso comes. A good espresso is expected as an accompaniment to a great Italian meal. So consider this a representative tribute to the espresso standards of a fine Italian restaurant — unlike America’s finest restaurants, which require public shaming in lieu of doing the right thing. By showing us what is clearly possible, places like Guido further expose the excuseless farce that is espresso at American restaurants.
Did we mention that the setting is exquisite? The food here is equally so, and the espresso is no major let down either. (We hope you’re reading this, Thomas Keller.) Using a three-group Faema in the back kitchen, they pull espresso shots with a coagulated but thinner medium brown crema. It has a splotchy consistency with some of the espresso surface exposed — a definite flaw for most Italian establishments. But the shot is the perfect size, and they use roasts from the quite excellent (and quite obscure, outside of the gourmands in the area) Caffè Mokabar in Torino. The resulting cup is potent and has a flavor that’s mostly herbal (thyme, etc.).
While there are deficiencies, it’s still a solid restaurant espresso. It would rank among SF’s top 7%, sharing that honor with only three other restaurants currently. Piero and company may not be gunning for the best restaurant espresso in Italy, but they have standards to uphold. And at only €2, it doesn’t even come with an obscene mark-up.
In our Portugal travels last year, restaurant espresso was generally as good as anything in a café, and few of the residents held a consensus opinion on where to find the best examples. Here in Piemonte, while restaurant espresso was consistently good, it was the select few cafés in town that had the best espresso — and the locals generally knew it.
Read the review of Guido Ristorante Pollenzo.
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