Back in December I had been given a tour of an unfinished Alba Osteria just days before its grand opening (on the 30th). I had sat down with Chef Roberto Donna and chatted about the changing definition of “Italian food” and the particularities of regional Piemontese cuisine. The conversation had left me eager to return, to eat and review. Recently I did just that. I was guided through the menu by Executive Chef Donna and Chef de Cuisine Amy Brandwein, who provided a detailed explanation of each dish with a fondness in their voices that made my mouth water all the more. I won’t go into too much detail about each, as the full review is yet to come on TDM, but I thought I’d risk just a glimpse.
The Magherita D.O.C. pizza straight out the V.P.N.-certified wood oven was a great start. A modest spread of toppings (thin layer of tomato sauce, patches of Fior di Latte mozzarella and a few leaves of basil) on a crunchy crust. Two slices left me feeling light enough before what was to be a long dinner. Our cheese board had a blue-veined, aged Gorgonzola Montagna as well as a Robiola Bosina perfect for spreading over the variety of breads and crackers which come with the dish. A thick, grainy hazelnut honey and sticky sweet mostarda balanced out the acidity of the blue. Fried bread was a great alternative to bruschetta, though some were a tad too chewy.
A charcuterie board came also, with Speck, Finocchiona and – my personal favorite – the Salame cotto d’Alba. The housemade, hand sliced, cooked salami was crumbly and soft. Thick rings of it made the perfect topping for crunchy bread.
Two trendy cocktails were the White Manhattan (made with the ever-in-vogue white whiskey) and the Prosciutto Martini with prosciutto-infused vodka, served with olives stuffed with gorgonzola and a rim of crunchy prosciutto bits. The latter was a bit gimmicky for me and I did not enjoy the acidity of the olive against the salta vodka, but creative nonetheless. One of my favorite dishes was the Tonno di Coniglio, which translates literally to “tuna of rabbit.” This is in reference to the texture of the protein, which gets as flaky and tender as tuna salad after being in poached with herbs and pulled off the bone. Each mouthful is succulent and juicy, flooding the mouth with plenty of moisture. It is served with delicate lamb’s lettuce, bits of black olive, capers and onion. Apparently this is a traditional Piemontese appetizer born from peasant culture. In the classic recipe, the rabbit is preserved in oil long enough for it to become tender. The Lingua al Verde is another traditional Piemontese starter. Paper thin slices of juicy veal tongue is presented as a carpaccio with a brilliant green sauce of parsley, garlic and olive oil. Light and mild in texture, this is a good alternative to a salad for those seeking to try something new. A fantastic vegetarian option is the Ratatuia Piemontese, served in a piping hot cast iron bowl. Though ratatouille is of French origin and is most prevalent in Niçoise cuisine, this version is made Piemontese in that it is not tomato-based as the traditional French dish, but instead highlights vegetables that are more popular in the area. Cauliflower is roasted to a perfect texture, maintaining a crunch, and is accompanied by cardoons, creamy kabocha squash and cipollini onions. Plenty of garlic and anchovy sauce add richness.But for the cauliflower purist the Cavolfiore alla Cavour is by far the best option. Bunchy florets are baked with plenty of Parmigano Reggiano and topped with crumbled, hard-boiled egg. A bit dull for my palate, but a warm and comforting dish on a cold winter night. At one point I was craving something golden brown and delicious and it arrived in the form of Subric, a fritter made with a thick, smooth filling of eggplant, potato and cauliflower. The fried coating was crunchy and delicious, though maybe just a tad too greasy. It came with a tangy Bagnetto Rosso sauce made with tomato, carrot, garlic and onion.
A dish I was very excited to see on the menu and even more excited about after the first bite is the Fegatini e Porcini, chicken livers and Porcini mushrooms sauteed in a deep, earthy Marsala sauce and served on a bed of creamy polenta in a cast iron bowl. Murky, metallic organ meat flavor went perfectly with the earthy mushrooms and was cleaned up nicely with the wine. It occurred to me that there maybe should be something pickled, crunchy and fresh to offset the deep flavors of the liver. But maybe that’s just the Hungarian gal in me.
A Roero Arneis (the white that tastes red) and a Dolcetto d’Alba were our two wines of choice that night, both Piemontese favorites. The former was a bit bizarre in that the aroma was a lot fresher than the slightly bitter, herbaceous flavors which unfolded on the palate. Both great and new to me.
I was lucky enough to try the Mezzaluna on the first night it was offered at Alba. The half-moon shaped dumplings came in a familiar yet out-of-place bamboo steamer, on a bed of sauteed spinach, and sprinkled with Parmesan. They were chewy and doughy, filled with a blend of creamy cheeses. I later learned that in Piedmont these pasta are stuffed with ricotta that has been aged in hay. To acquire the same flavor, the dough of these Mezzaluna were boiled in water that had also been infused with hay. I’m not sure I tasted too much of the latter, but the dish was flavorful nonetheless. Perhaps the most well-known pasta of the Piedmont region is agnolotti. Alba Osteria’s version comes stuffed with juicy, crumbly braised beef and is doused with the braising jus of the meat within. Pillowy soft pockets bursting with meat, topped with Parmigiano Reggiano melting its nutty, salty flavors all over. To make the dish even more decadent, a ring of bone marrow was pinned to the top of the pile and added an extra layer of beefy flavor to a few bites. My personal favorite dish of the night (and, as it turns out, Chef Donna’s favorite to make) was the Trofie alla Finanziera, a chewy, hand twisted pasta made with chestnut flour for a beautiful tan color. It is topped with Finanzieria, a Piedmontese sauce made with veal brain, sweetbreads, chicken heart, cockscomb, and veggies all cooked together in Marsala. I loved the small pieces of innards, bunchy and murky in flavor. Although all pastas at Alba come in either European or American portions, this is a dish I could easily gobble up a huge plate of. During my interview with Chef Donna a few months back he mentioned his gnocchi as a dish that he is particularly proud of. He spoke of the texture – fluffy, airy and light – and how it is unlike the chewy, tough balls of dough most Americans associate with the word. The gnocchi is topped with a crumbly sausage ragu that is light and mild enough in acidity for the gnocchi to stand out in texture.
The Milanese at Alba Osteria is rabbit pounded thin, wrapped in fontina and prosciotto, breaded and lightly fried. The meat is moist enough on its own but the melted fontina adds a layer of gooey, smooth hydration to each bite, while the prosciutto adds a nutty, salty something to the relatively mild rabbit meat. The coat is perfectly crunchy, crackling under my fork and knife as I carved off large mouthfuls. It was ballsy of the kitchen not to add any sort of sauce to dip the meat into but it worked, as the meat was plenty moist on its own. Fond memories of (other people ordering) milanesas in Argentina… Maybe this time around I’ll find a good one!
There are two things one must not leave Alba without. The first is dessert. The second, a dessert cocktail or digestivo. I got both. There is a tiramisu martini made with chocolate-infused vodka and Frangelico, with an amaretto cookie smeared with marshmallow fluff dangling out. The cocktail is creamy and sweet enough to be a dessert on its own but it also pairs nicely with any of the sweet dishes. It was, however, a tad too sweet for me to end with it so I order a Negroni, which came out bitter with a hint of sweetness and helped me wash everything down.
My favorite dessert and one I’ve never had before was the Polenta Bianca. Creamy, snow-white polenta sweetened with white chocolate under a crunchy layer of bruleed caramelized sugar that shattered like glass with a single tap of my spoon. I enjoyed the dark chocolate gelato that came with the dish, as the bitter flavors offset the sickly sweetness of the cornmeal.
Itching for my after-dinner cigarette, I was excited to see the Coppa di Torino come to the table. Some saw a porcupine, some an ashtray when looking at this sundae of hazelnut gelato, Noccello-soaked cookie, candied chestnuts and cherries and airy, crunchy meringue spears. The nutty, sweet flavors of walnut, chestnut and hazelnut are offset by slightly tart candied fruit. The texture ranges from crunchy to smooth, mushy and creamy. There was also a Torta Gianduja, a classic chocolate and hazelnut cake from Piedmont, served in cast iron with bittersweet hot chocolate for extra moisture and some floral apricot marmellata to lift the flavors of the chocolate from becoming too bitter. Soft and airy cake with plenty to dip in, though I enjoyed our other two desserts more for their unique textural features.