14 October 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: la cantinetta, barolo

"I'm going to be a slight rip-off."
"That so?"

Ordinarily you can't go wrong taking dining advice from winemakers.* Where I miscalculated after our visit to Francesco Rinaldi e Figli might have been that I hadn't been speaking with the actual winemaker. Or perhaps there simply aren't any good lunch options within the price range we were seeking** in the town of Barolo itself, which, alone among towns we visited in the region, my friends and I unanimously found to be a self-parodic touristic moneypit.

The main street of the tiny town is lined with tasting rooms, all charging for tastings. There's a "Museum of the Corkscrew" that appears to be just a baroque beard for yet another shop selling wine, t-shirts, mugs, and other wine-ish memorabilia. And the castle that dominates the town houses a Museum of Barolo, which the Native Companion and J's wife C incomprehensibly decided to visit after declining to join us tasting at Francesco Rinaldi e Figli. (At lunch they insisted the puppet shows and hammy videos in the tour at the Museum of Barolo had been very amusing.)

J and I had planned to just get paninos somewhere. But the sandwich café in Barolo that day was unconscionably hot, hotter even on the tarped-over terrace than inside among the candy bars and Lotto tickets. So we had the NC and C meet us on the pleasant terrace at La Cantinetta, a place that was probably most notable for some absurd Batman Eating Pasta With Child On Lap artwork on the wall.

If I had to search the meal for some teachable moment - I suppose this is my self-imposed responsibility, in writing about it? - it would just be that Piemontese meals on autopilot are full of fairly reliable, unscrewupable options. I got no particular sense of quality consciousness from the staff at La Cantinetta, who instead displayed a sort of hokey Italianate moneygrubbiness I remember well from my time in the North End of Boston.

But the carne crudo was still absolutely fine.

And the tajarin - that rough-cut egg pasta, frequently in meat sauce, that everyone who's been through Piedmont will urge you to sample at all costs - was as pillow-soft and simplistic as it was everywhere else I tried it, including at some notably better restaurants. I didn't come away from this trip a great fan of tajarin, all told. It seems like its the area's specialty pasta sort of by default.***

Physically unable to drink red wine in the Augusto heat, J and I settled on an inexpensive bottle of Arneis we'd never heard of, on the simple basis that the producer, Bric Cenciurio, made two bottles of this grape and this one had a vineyard designation, "Sito dei Fossili." Sometimes this can imply that the vineyard-designated wine will be more structured, potent, and so forth... At other times, as in the case of the "Sito dei Fossili," the producer has just spent a little money on oak elevage, giving you what tastes quite a bit like the basic wine, plus wood.

The "Sito dei Fossili" sees just 40 days in oak, so it was far from overpowering, but nevertheless the wine was certainly one of the dullest Arneises I'd had in a while. It could have come from anywhere, it was like Faceless Italian Bianco #3589. There just aren't a lot of options for quality versions of Arneis, even in Piedmont. The best stuff - Bruno Giacosa, BroviaGiovanni Almondo - is widely imported to the states, and these wines share an infinitesimally spritzy, energetic, oak-free style far removed from the soft and pear-shaped "Sito dei Fossili."

* No matter how tiny the town, how the odd the recommendation, e.g. Ludwig Bindernagel's suggestion we eat at Marmara Kebab in Poligny.

** Here everyone will recommend Ristorante Brezza. I really wanted to go! Not to mention taste through the wines. But the scheduling just didn't work out. Next trip. 

*** Every town with a population over forty in Italy must by law have a specialty amaro, pasta, hand gesture, etc. It's how the economy has been sustained up till now.

La Cantinetta
33 Via Roma
12060 Barolo
Tel: +39 017356198

Related Links:

N.D.P. in Piemonte: Francesco Rinaldi e Figli, Barolo
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Capella di Sol Lewitt, La Morra
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Osteria La Salita, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Solativo Vinosteria, Ivrea
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Luigi Ferrando, Ivrea

N.D.P. en Suisse: Chateau de Villa, Sierre


  1. How dare you insult Boston's North End like that? One charming and completely authentic trattoria after another...


  2. Did you make it to La Coccinella in Serralunga? By far the best meal we had in the area. We ordered a bottle of Giacomo Conterno and the host said we just missed him, he had been in for lunch that day. We tried to track him down in Monforte, but being a couple of days after Christmas, he was nowhere to be found. Feel like I read that you managed to meet him in a previous post. I thought La Cantinetta was fine, given the dismal alternatives, and reasonably charming, although I thought the regional specialty was the plin, which are pretty delicious. Your posts have got me thinking it's time to go back

  3. As someone who runs a small wine cave in Boston's North End i understand your frustrations with the neighborhood. That said, when you get past the obscene lines at the place(s) that "must be good" simply because there is a line there, there is a lot of life in the hood. Layers of real deal, old school italians (and non-italians) that know what roof top gardening is all about as well as a small but rising culture in the area for things that are even slightly more "real". I walk in the streets on my way to work because the tourists bother me, but i also drink a lot of natural wine in the cellar of a shop there. No one would ever know it...

    Also, Thor Iverson reads here?! You have a bonafied blog now! Hi Thor!

  4. clem: didn't make it to la coccinella... definitely top of my list for next time though. roberto conterno had recommended that restaurant, as well as trattoria della posta, but we went for the latter because it was meant to be more traditional. and i agree that plin tend to be extremely enjoyable! much more than tajarin. i'll henceforth talk more about plin.

    matteo: which cave do you run? is it the wine bottega? a great place. i used to live in the north end a few years ago; it was actually where i first got into wine. i was waiting tables at one of the frank dipasquale restaurants, and would frequent the tastings at the bottega because a flatmate was working there part time. this was in the era of kevin and kelly, who have both moved on from what i understand.

  5. Matteo is the reason I had to leave Boston. ;-)

    He's not wrong about the North End, but it requires way too much work to sort through the dross, even in these post-resurrection days, and frankly if a guest to Boston wanted to go out for Italian food, I'd take them to Queen Village, or Fort Point Channel, or even Park Street. And when I'd take people to the North End (which I almost always did) over the last few years, we ate at Neptune. Which isn't devoid of strong Italian/Italian-American influences, but certainly isn't an Italian restaurant.

    Aaron, the Bottega is indeed his gig, and has long been a particularly bright spot -- there are others, likely a fair number more than when you were there -- but despite the retention of a good bit of Italianate nostalgia and families clinging to increasingly overpriced properties, its qualitative hope is not Italian but gentrified neo-Italian, as increasingly goes the makeup of the neighborhood. At least, that's my semi-cynical take.

    That said, it's more "Italian" (maybe make that Eyetalian) than Philly's Italian Market, and the restaurants are still better...disregarding the crappy identi-menu, gravy-not-sauce, eat two lbs of pasta in a single sitting and you get a free meal, places in both...you're basically left with nothing in Philly, but in the North End you can still get a bite or two.

  6. Cool connection to the neignborhood Aaron. We probably have interacted in the past given you frequented the shop. Indeed we have evolved in some ways but the old core of the bottega has only been positively sharpened in my (biased) opinion. Kevin was the one who hired me after my stint in europe some years ago and though he has moved on he remains a close friend and mentor (and ironically our sales rep from the small supplier he works for now).

    Thor: We miss you on the disorder (kinda :)

  7. matteo: so funny. tell kevin i say hi next time see you him! will definitely pop in if i make it through boston sometime (not an impossibility).