Monday, April 7, 2014

Pleasant Italian food memories...

Last night, I made baked ziti for dinner.  It was purely American style, which means that no Italian would touch it with a ten foot fork.  But Bill and I enjoyed it.  As we were eating dinner, we reminisced about visiting the Piedmont region of Italy back in May 2008.  It was our first trip after we moved to Germany.  I kick myself for not taking a trip earlier; we were in Germany for over six months before we went anywhere, unless you count a quick trip over the Swiss border that we took when our dogs were being temperament tested at a dog hotel.

Anyway, we started our trip at a small hotel near Lake Como.  We were just over the Swiss border, high in the mountains that overlook the lake.  We spent a few peaceful days there, enjoying the beautiful views and good food.  It was Bill's first trip to Italy and he was loving it.

Our trip was to last about ten days, including four nights at Bella Baita, an adorable little B&B in Serre Marchetto, near Pinasca, Italy, and a couple of nights in Thun, Switzerland.  While all parts of our trip were fun, we especially enjoyed Bella Baita.  I found this little retreat while searching for accommodations near Torino.  Bella Baita is maybe 30 miles from Torino, very close to the French border.  Owned and operated by Marla and Fabrizio Roncaglia, this place is totally secluded with beautiful views of the French Alps.


View of the French Alps from our Italian B&B, Bella Baita.  France is about a 90 minute drive.

But what Bill and I were remembering last night was the wonderful food we ate on that trip.  Marla and Fabrizio are chefs and we signed up for a cooking class with them.  Bill requested to cook rabbit and Marla and Fabrizio were delighted, since that was a local specialty and almost no one asks to cook rabbit.  Frankly, I'm not a fan of rabbit… they are too cute to eat.  But Bill is an Arkansan (sort of) and loves game.    

Marla took us to the market in Pinerolo, where we purchased all the ingredients for our meal.  She knew all the vendors and where the best food was.  As I made the ziti with ricotta last night, Bill was reminded that we bought ricotta at the market for a fruit tart we made at Bella Baita.  I don't eat uncooked/unmelted cheese, but Bill tasted it and said it was unlike anything you could ever find in a United States supermarket.

The duomo in Pinerolo...

As he commented about that cheese, I was reminded of a delightful meal we enjoyed in Pinerolo.  We were looking for a place for lunch when I stumbled across a brand new restaurant that opened in May 2008 called Perbacco.  The owner's mom came out.  The restaurant wasn't open for lunch, but was open for dinner.  She didn't speak any English, but she gave us a business card and wrote Aperto: 19:00 on it.  She made it clear that we should come back for dinner.  We did… and boy, was it a great experience.

I remember having this delicious carrot spinach flan there that was nothing like I had ever tasted before.  I wish I had taken a photo of it.  I wasn't all that excited about the flan; I picked it by default.  It turned out to be amazing.  For my main course, I want to say I had steak.  But the one thing that really sticks out in my mind was the wine.  Bill asked the sommelier what we should have.  He made a suggestion and advised us to let it sit for a few minutes.  We did and it opened up beautifully.

A table of Italian men sat nearby and they were all enjoying steak.  They were loud and obviously having a great time.  The sommelier was fascinated to be serving Americans.  He wondered what on earth we were doing in Pinerolo when most Americans go to Florence, Rome, and Venice!  We told him about Bella Baita.  It wasn't until last year that Bill and I did the so-called "Holy Trinity".


A small shrine near Bella Baita…

When we got back to Bella Baita, we told Marla and Fabrizio about the new restaurant and showed them our bill.  Marla, who is an American, commented that the food was cheap and they must be trying to build up a clientele.  She told us that Italians won't pay a lot for untested cuisine.  She assured us the prices would eventually go up and we were lucky to visit when we did.  She also noted that the table of men were there enjoying beef because the prices were so good.  We encouraged her to go there with Fabrizio and check it out.  We still talk about that meal six years later!

Another great meal we had was at the tiny restaurant next to Bella Baita.  I'm not sure if the place is still open, since during our visit, Marla commented that they didn't get much business.  She said the place was called (in Italian) The Ant and the Giant, because the husband/wife owners were respectively very large and very tiny.

When Bill and I dined there, we were one of two couples.  The restaurant was very charming and the food was exquisite.  Bill ordered branzino, which is a delicious fish that has a lot of bones in it.  The chef brought it to our table and deboned it for him.  It was one of the more memorable experiences we had on our trip.

Of course, Italy has been the site of many a wonderful culinary experience.  Last year, when we went to Italy and Greece, we enjoyed an amazing meal at a small restaurant near our secluded inn.  Half the staff did not speak English, but they brought out the most amazing food.  And one waiter spoke English, Italian, French, and German flawlessly.    

*Sigh*…  I wish I could live in Europe again.  For now, I'll keep making my American style baked ziti.


My ziti.

An old review I wrote about Bella Baita...

Beautiful views and blissful times at Bella Baita in Pinasca, Italy...

 May 28, 2008 (Updated Jul 22, 2008)
Review by   
Rated a Very Helpful Review

    Pros:Beautiful setting. Warm welcome from our hosts. Good food and cooking seminars. Inexpensive.

    Cons:Difficult to access without a car. Credit cards not accepted.

    The Bottom Line: Bella Baita definitely lives up to the hype!

    My husband, Bill, and I just got back from a wonderful vacation to Italy and Switzerland, with a couple of day trips into France. It was Bill's first time in Italy, though I was there last in 1997. He wanted to visit the Turin (aka Torino) area and put me in charge of finding us lodging. I plugged Turin into my favorite search engine and soon found myself reading many wonderful reviews of a B&B called Bella Baita. Intrigued, I visited Bella Baita's Web site.

    As it turns out, Bella Baita is not actually that close to the city of Turin. It's in the province of Torino in a little town called Pinasca. Situated about six kilometers up a mountainside, Bella Baita offers plenty of good views and peace and quiet. The B&B, which consists of three rooms, is run by American born Marla and her Italian husband, Fabrizio. Both Marla and Fabrizio are chefs who, besides offering lodging, cook meals for their guests and teach cooking seminars. Since Bill and I are amateur foodies, this was a definite plus for us.

    When I noticed the room prices, I was actually very surprised. At this writing, a double room at Bella Baita runs just 50 euros a night (approximately $80 by today's exchange rate). I had a feeling the place would be rustic and, at that price, I wondered just how rustic a room there would be. But the endless stream of positive reviews on Trip Advisor won me over, so we booked four nights and a cooking seminar.

    The B&B... off the beaten path

    Both the reviews I read and Bella Baita's Web site warn that Bella Baita is located on a long and winding road that goes up the side of a large mountain. For that reason, it's best for visitors to have access to a car. Bill and I currently live in Germany, so we drove to Italy. I remember being very impressed and a little scared on our first trip up the zig zagging little road to Bella Baita. The views on the way up are breathtaking, but it definitely pays to drive carefully. The road is not very wide and some of the local drivers we encountered were pretty cavalier about taking the hairpin turns. Happily, by the time we were finished with our visit, Bill and I were more comfortable with the road.

    Our arrival

    We found Fabrizio doing some work outside when we arrived at Bella Baita. He greeted us with a big smile and helped us get settled in our room, inviting us for a drink after we'd had a short rest. Marla fixed us some coffee and cookies, plus gave us a taste of some local liqueurs. Since we didn't have dinner plans, we ate dinner with Marla and Fabrizio. We enjoyed Marla's fresh foccacia bread, a turkey and spinach roulade, local wine, and a banana crepe dessert for a total charge of 36 euros-- definitely a steal.

    It was chilly our first night, so Fabrizio brought us a space heater to use in our room. The heater, coupled with the cozy flannel sheets on the bed, made our room quite comfortable. I'm also glad to report that the bed was also very nice; we had plenty of room and the mattress was neither too hard nor too soft for my tastes. An added bonus is free wireless Internet.

    The bathroom

    During our trip to Bella Baita, I encountered something I had never seen before, the "sit bath". I'm sure there is a technical term for this apparatus, which resembles a short bathtub with a little seat built into it, but I don't know what it is. Anyway, the sit bath has a faucet and a sprayer. You fill up the tub and then use the sprayer to rinse off and wash your hair. It takes a little getting used to, but I got the hang of it quickly and actually enjoyed using it.

    Besides the usual toilet and sink, the bathroom also includes a bidet and a hairdryer. I was glad I had brought my own toiletries since there was only hand soap in the room and there definitely aren't any stores nearby!

    Breakfast

    Each day, Marla served us breakfast consisting of warm pastries and bread, fresh fruit, cereal, juice, and hot coffee. I particularly enjoyed the fruit and pastries while gazing out at the spectacular view of the mountains from the kitchen window.

    Cooking seminar

    My husband, being an Arkansas native, wanted to try cooking braised rabbit and risotto. I was a little skittish about cooking rabbit, but I needn't have worried. As it turns out, game is a specialty at Bella Baita. Marla told us that she was happy when Bill asked if she and Fabrizio could teach us how to prepare rabbit. Apparently it's not a request they get very often.

    Cooking seminars at Bella Baita are definitely an experience to savor. Our Wednesday started with a trip to the market in Pinerolo, a good sized town not far from Pinasca. Marla took us around to meet her favorite vendors, charming Italians who didn't seem to be too jaded about Americans. We really enjoyed the sights and sounds of the market and Bill got to try some wonderful cheeses and locally produced salami. I'm not as much of a cheese fan as he is, but even I was impressed by the delicious local ricotta we tried, which is nothing at all like ricotta you can get from an American supermarket.

    Later that day, Bill and I donned aprons and submitted to Fabrizio's tutelage, as he showed us how to cut and peel vegetables for our risotto and braise the rabbit. We also got some great tips on finding good cookware and knives. Marla prepared a delicious fruit tart made with ricotta cheese and fresh strawberries and pineapple. Then, we enjoyed eating our meal with our hosts. I was pleasantly surprised by how good the rabbit was. You know the old joke about rabbit tasting like chicken? Our braised rabbit at Bella Baita tasted much better than chicken. Marla printed out the recipes for us so we can try them at home. We paid 90 euros (45 euros apiece) for the cooking seminar-- again, money well spent.

    Other things we did

    Bella Baita is in a very beautiful and unspoiled part of Italy. It's about a 90 minute drive from the French border, so we took a drive to Briancon, France and had lunch, passing through Sestriere, Italy on the way. Sestriere is where the 2006 Winter Olympic village is located and the place where many of the ski events were held. The scenery in this part of Italy is amazing and again, not teeming with tourists.

    We also visited Turin and checked out a great Italian gourmet store called Eataly, where we loaded up on pasta, risotto, cheese, chocolate, and some special canned tuna. Afterwards, we strolled through Turin's old town until we got rained on by a surprise storm. For dinner, we stopped at Perbacco, a wonderful new restaurant/wine bar in Pinerolo, and enjoyed a very nice meal with wine for only 54 euros.

    Things to know about Bella Baita...

    As much as I enjoyed my stay at Bella Baita, there are a few things I think prospective visitors should know before they book a stay there.

    * It's best to have a car. Public transportation is available to Pinasca, but it won't get you up the mountain! Marla and Fabrizio will pick you up on your arrival and drop you off when it's time to go, but if you want to go into town during your stay, you might have a problem finding transportation.

    * A GPS will help you find the B&B, but bear in mind that many GPS systems give incorrect directions for the last three miles. Our GPS lost the signal once we got close. Take heed of the directions posted on Bella Baita's Web site and the signs posted on the road if you're planning on driving.

    * There is a restaurant located next to the B&B which offers excellent food and good service, but it's not open every day. Likewise, grocery stores, laundromats, and gas are also located at the bottom of the mountain. That's another reason why you might want to have a car available.

    * The area around Bella Baita offers great opportunities for hiking, rock climbing, and biking, especially if you're in good shape! Mushroom hunting and wildflower picking are also popular pursuits. But it does get cool on the mountain, so make sure you bring some warm clothes and sturdy shoes.

    * We found Bella Baita's accommodations to be very comfortable and affordable-- especially for Europe-- but they are not necessarily luxury accommodations by American standards. Be sure to bring your own shampoo and don't expect a big screen TV or a jacuzzi (what do you want for 50 euros a night?)!

    * Bring your laptop computer. Bella Baita offers free wireless Internet.

    * Bring cash. Bella Baita does not accept credit cards.

    Overall...

    I would not hesitate to recommend Bella Baita to anyone looking for a peaceful, homey, and affordable vacation spot. We found Marla and Fabrizio to be wonderful hosts who went the extra mile to help us have a good time. I had originally intended to book three nights at Bella Baita, but ended up going with four. I'm so glad I did that because our time in Pinasca was the highlight of our trip. We left Bella Baita feeling like we had gotten a slice of Italy that we never could have gotten had we stayed in a hotel. Needless to say, Bella Baita gets five stars from me!

    Bella Baita's Web site: www.bellabaita.com

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