By Peter Easton, Velo Classic Tours
Following the end of our season, I had the opportunity to travel a bit through Piedmont, in Northern Italy. It was a chance to bring my Italian mother back to her homeland one last time and indulge in all the aspects of Italian life I love – the people for starters, followed by the food, the magnificence of the cities, the stunning beauty of the landscape and the passion with which they do everything.
For years, the notion of hospitality in Italy seemed non-existent. Italians were mired in a stale culture of service that was gruff, off putting and indifferent. But over the past few years, I have noticed a surprising change and it has inspired me to seek out restaurants and hotels where I can experience this change. This happened in Piedmont, both in the towns surrounding the Monteferrato Hills and Alba and Asti as well as the brilliant city of Torino.
The most enlightening encounter I had came from one of Piedmont’s biggest stars – Chef Walter Ferretto. Ferretto is considered the father of modern Piemontese cuisine and Ristoranti IL Cascinalenuovo, his slick, Michelin star restaurant on the outskirts of the town of Asti portrays his culinary excellence perfectly. The key to the dinner, however, was not just the exceptional food.
We arrived a bit early for our reservation, and we were happily shown to our table. We ordered our aperitivi – mine at the suggestion of the young hostess, which was a specialty of the region that consisted of sweet aged Italian vermouth, bitters and tonic. Those who followed my ramblings during the New York Mets run through the playoffs and World Series will recognize the drink I concocted in an effort to replicate it – aptly named the “deGrom” after our long-haired star pitcher.
As I slipped into the cradle of the plush dining chair and studied the menu, out came Mr Ferretto, chef’s apron over his jeans, sneakers on his feet. He slid a chair over from the next table, sat down, and in very good English, started chatting. I have been to New York many times with my wife, he says. Where is your favorite place to eat he asks? Where else will you go in Piedmont? He asks. Torino is next I answer. Torino is fantastico (a favorite Piemontese expression). Where do you recommend we eat in Torino I ask, Magorabin, of course he answers. I inquired for a reservation but had not hear back I said. He quickly asks his hostess for the phone and promptly calls the restaurant. You are confirmed, he says. My mother then asks about one of the pastas. Walter begins to explain, and when learning my mom comes from southern Italy, he proceeds to describe in great detail the difference between his agnolotti and those from the south, which he politely and humorously says, are not as good. I thought for a moment he may just sit down and join us for dinner. After recommending what we should eat, he worked the dining room with the other guests, his personality naturally conducting the conversation.
Following dinner, he returned and was humble in accepting our praise of his kitchen’s excellence. The conversation had artfully transcended the entire evening, and even when we were eating, we felt we were still conversing with Walter through his food.
While our cycling trips are not wholly about eating, it’s this experience that highlights the efforts that define what it means to not only experience different cultures and engage different people, but to be enlightened by the hospitality and the possibilities. Knowing there is more out there inspires me to keep digging and keep offering the type of journey that portrays our philosophy that it is the dialogue that matters most.
The hospitality dialogue is an ongoing conversation that is at the core of our 2016 trip schedule. Some of our longest standing relationships have enabled me to develop these ideas into a schedule of itineraries that explore the emotional and physical challenges that I believe we continue to seek out as cyclists, travelers and adventurers.
From riding the cobbles during the Spring Classics to Lake Como and the Giro di Lombardia in the fall, we’ll be leading memorable cycling vacations next year as we have for the last 15 years. If this combination of cycling and food interests you, browse the site and send me an email on the trips that interest you. I will reply.