It could not be darker. You weave up the dark road, which becomes suddenly brilliant from the lights illuminating the castle of Grinzane Cavour, yet another of the castles that mark the towns of Barolo. The lights of the castle quickly fade and you are plunged into a blackness only punctuated by the lights of the few sparse farm houses. Where you are going to dinner bonds you to the families in those houses that are just now sitting down to food much like you will soon be eating. You are headed to have dinner at your grandmother’s house in Piemonte - or at least as close as you can come to that pleasure if you’re not Piemontese. The first time you are bound to pass it and have to turn back, but getting lost is part of this pleasure.
The Trattoria Nonna Genia (Grandma Genia) is located in what feels like the middle of nowhere on this cold, dark Langhe evening in Piemonte, Italy’s northwestern capital of food and wine. Home to Barolo, Barbarecso and the Slow Food movement, this region is a rich blend of the cultures of northwestern Italy and southeastern France - not a bad culinary combination. The local dialect here has a distinctive French patois as do the foods, wines and cheeses. There is no pretense or menu at Nonna Genia, you eat what they’ve made for dinner that night and drink whatever they’ve liked and purchased from local winemakers. That’s not to say there’s no wine list, as there is, but you’re unlikely to be able to use it as Dario will decide for you no matter what you try to choose. Nonna Genia is run by the Marengo family and Dario rules the dining room, while his wife is queen in the kitchen. Dario will be picking your wine for you and you’ll need quite a few glasses to get through this meal.
As usual in the Piemonte, dinner starts with a seeming myriad of antipasti and you can depend on carne crude and vitello tonnato showing up as they do on tables throughout Piemonte. It’s bad luck to have an even number, so expect more if you’re only at six or eight. This will be followed by due primi ( two pasta and/or risotto courses) like the classic plin (tiny local hand formed ravioli) al burro e salvia. Of course, you are just getting warmed up here in Piemonte so this will be followed by due secondi (two main courses) like the mouth-watering brasato (braised beef) al Barolo and coniglio (rabbit) al civet. Then, of course, comes the cheeses and a full plate of assorted desserts a person. All of this costs not much more than dinner at your local Fridays.
The food is good, honest and hardy. There’s nothing fancy about it - it’s the real thing. The same goes for the wines Dario will bring to your table once he discovers you’re serious about your vino. He has the full range of local treasures: barbera, dolcetto, freisa, gavi and so on, but we’re there for the Barolo. The Baroli and other wines are likely to come from producers you’ve never heard of and you’ll find no big Euro bottles from Gaja, Conterno or Giacosa. It’s Dario’s passion and he scours the Langhe hills for exciting small producers. It was at his instance that I had my first taste of the wines from Teobaldo Cappellano and that alone is enough to be forever grateful to him. It’s always the same with Dario, you look at the list and choose, but all to often those wines are long gone and it’s just not all the important to him to reprint the list. He is more than a sommelier, Dario himself is the winelist. I always consider myself lucky to be in his hands.
Oddly enough there is no Nonna Genia at Nonna Genia, which is named after a famed cookbook of traditional Piemontese cuisine, which the Marengo family is ably keeping alive. Everything is about tradition at Nonna Genia - the food, the wine and the people. The evening ends with an assortment of grappa bottles on your table - some without labels. Dario just brings the bottles and glasses and lets you sip at your leisure and the warm glow of the grappa lights your stomach and your mind just like the golden light from the castle of Grinzane Cavour, just across the valley, warms the windows of Nonna Genia on this chilly fall night.
There are some traditions that cannot be improved on.
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