Dining at La Contea, in Neive, shines in all seasons.
I love going to the region of Piedmont in the spring, when no truffle-hunting tourists are stalking their beloved funghi in my favorite restaurants. Without truffles, the food tastes lighter. Menus feature asparagus, zucchini blossoms, and wild greens that are not available in the winter.
I always head for the restaurant La Contea, between Asti and Alba in the Piemontese village of Néive. Claudia Verro and her daughter, Elisa, prepare traditional dishes based on outstanding local ingredients. The dining rooms are formal without being stuffy, lit by candlelight in the evening, with fireplaces glowing when the weather is cool.
Customers at La Contea feast on appetizers such as deep-fried sage leaves, lightly breaded zucchini blossoms (capunet), and a savory asparagus custard (tartrà) dressed with black truffles that have been preserved in Marsala and cognac. For the pasta course, the Verros offer almost-orange-colored, delicate strands called tajarin in Piedmont (tagliarini elsewhere) and meat-stuffed agnolotti.
Stewed hare, braised poultry, and roast lamb are all reasons to drink big, red wine. Claudia's husband, Tonino, guides diners through a glorious wine list of regional gems from producers Ceretto, Gaja, Braida, and Altare, all served respectfully in large crystal glasses.
Cheese lovers will enjoy the stellar local selection, which is accompanied by Claudia's cugnà, a sort of chutney made by cooking grape must with fall fruits such as pears, figs, and quince. Her brus, an acrid-smelling fermented cheese and grappa spread, is a treat for the intrepid only. Desserts are classic Piemontese: hazelnut cake, a semifreddo studded with bits of hazelnut torrone, or a chocolate-amaretti pudding delightfully paired with a glass of palate-refreshing Moscato d'Asti.
Spend the night in one of La Contea's rooms and you won't have to worry about a drive back to your hotel. The view from both restaurant and rooms, over a valley of vineyards in the Langhe countryside, is quintessential Piedmont. So is La Contea.
La Contea, piazza Cocito 8, Néive, tel. 39-0173-67126, fax 39-0173-67367
Closed Sunday evening and Monday.
March 29, 2001