“La cucina piccola fal la casa grande (A small kitchen makes the house big)”. Old Italian expression.
On a bright Sunday morning in Alba, we discovered the Piazza Michele Ferrero.
Both charming and urbane, the plaza was filled with groups of friends and families enjoying the spring sunshine while their children frolicked nearby. Cafe tables, wrapping around the side of the plaza, were doing a hefty business.
An excellent young street performer walked a “slack rope” while she juggled fiery batons to a recording of Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.”
My friend Larry and I managed to find a table on the plaza and planned to have an espresso while our wives did a little shopping. Our waiter flatly told us “No espresso – only wine.” Karel and Sandy never believed that, but it didn’t stop them from pulling up a chair, finding an empty glass for themselves and joining right in. There were few wine options so we ordered a pitcher of the house Barbera. Although it would probably not win many awards, was still quite tasty.
Our wine order came with a plate of cold salamis, cured hams, fragrant cheeses, fresh bread, and the ubiquitous golden grissini (bread sticks). OK, I am really starting to like this place!
Legend has it that grissini were invented at the end of the 17th century to cure health issues of Duke Vittorio Amedeo II who had problems digesting most foods when he was young. The court doctor commissioned the court baker to make extremely light and friable bread. The baker stretched his dough into long, thin “sticks” that were crisp and easy to digest when baked. He named them grissini. The duke’s health miraculously improved and he was crowned king in 1713. People claim that his ghost is occasionally seen wandering around the old castle with a grissino in his hand.
Later in the day, Karel and I explored the streets of nearby Serralunga d’ Alba before visiting the Massolino Winery. While wandering down a narrow, stone-paved street, in search of a place for lunch, we accidentally discovered a grand prize in Il Flauto Magico. Elena and Gianpaolo Caruso own this wonderful tiny bistro and their story is a true fairy tale. He was a pianist with the Milano Symphony (and often plays for diners late in the evening) and she was an attorney. The couple left the bustle of Milano to follow their passion – running a small restaurant with excellent local food.
The atmosphere was simple and homey with interior decoration consisting of a delightful eclectic grouping of personal treasures, books, and artwork. Stunning balcony views of the valley – stellar wine and food – recordings of Mozart in the background – priceless.
Elena made us feel like long time friends at once. The small menu consisted of whatever they had planned for that day and a more than acceptable wine list. Gianpaolo cooked our dishes to order in a lower level kitchen and sent the food up to the dining room in a dumb waiter.
We began with a meat and cheese plate consisting of salami with truffles, cooked salami, lardo with candied chestnuts, three perfect cheeses and a homemade fig jam that reminded me of my grandmother’s (only we ate her jam on hot yeast biscuits with lots of butter).
The next course was a bowl of Piemonte’s iconic golden tajarin with rich veal ragu. After the first couple of bites, we smiled at each other in silent appreciation. After the meal, espresso arrived in attractive demitasse china cups and saucers that were passed down from Elena’s mother. We walked into Il Flauto Magico without a lot of expectations but finished not quite believing our magical discovery.
As we were leaving, Gianpaolo came upstairs and inquired about our satisfaction with lunch. We enthusiastically told him how much we appreciated his cooking and ended up taking his picture with Elena.
Il Flauto Magico was exactly the sort of out-of-the-way place I love to find when traveling.