Alba, located in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, is not only known for its white truffles but also for its rich autumnal produce such as hazelnuts and fine wines. Although white truffles are no longer exclusive to Alba, the annual ritual of tasting the freshly unearthed aroma before winter sets in is a global gourmet event. However, due to climate change, it seems that the peak of white truffle season is slowly moving from the end of October to November. It is almost unthinkable that even in January of the following year, one can still witness the allure of white truffles, which is generally unheard of in the past.
The town center of Alba is cozy and pleasant, and can be explored in half an hour. Apart from white truffles, the entire Piedmont region is also rich in hazelnuts and Barolo, the superstar of Italian red wines. Due to the richness of natural blessings, the entire region is home to many high-quality restaurants, which are often a serendipity to run into. Piazza Duomo is the only three-star restaurant in Alba. Chef Enrico Crippa, at this time of the year, would always put away his glamour and let the white truffles bloom in his dishes.
Established with the backing of the Ceretto winery and situated in a historical building that has undergone meticulous renovation, Piazza Duomo is led by chef Enrico Crippa, who began his culinary journey at the age of 16. He was mentored by legendary Italian chef Gaultiero Marchesi, and trained under renowned chefs Michel Bras and Ferran Adrià, as well as in Japan for four years. The marshmallow-pink dining space is adorned with Francesco Clemente’s frescos, reflecting idyllic natural light, while the window offers a glimpse of Alba’s beautiful main piazza.
Climate anomalies are emerging around, with northern Italy experiencing a prolonged dry warmth a couple of months earlier. However, at Piazza Duomo, you can still taste the finest white truffles in all of Alba. Chef revealed that the restaurant’s white truffle supplier spared no expense to irrigate the land during the dry season, so the quality of the white truffles was not affected by the unusual weather.
The restaurant building originally offered guest rooms, but no longer unfortunately, because guests would only flock here during the truffle season. It was difficult for the accommodation business to survive. Piazza Duomo also had to turn its four guest rooms into a baking area. With no other five-star hotels in Alba, we stayed at a hotel about half an hour away from the town and drove there. This may be an issue. If accommodation is not to be compromised on, it is recommended to reserve half an hour before dining so that you can have a little tour in the town. Street vendors sell truffles of different sizes (good and bad), and of course, some are not natural products. Beware of those truffle sauces mixed with artificial truffle oil that are being sold as natural. Many things are not what they seem to be.
Having visited Piazza Duomo in different seasons, I know quite well the depth of Chef Enrico Crippa’s culinary skills. On this visit, I asked him if designing a menu for white truffle would overshadow his talents; he smiled to me and said white truffle is the king. His cooking is a voyage through time, led by flavours, colours, textures and aromas. It hardly needs mentioning that Piazza Duomo is a place worth travelling to. This time, to let white truffle shine, all the ingredients are presented in a minimalist way.
This time, Piazza Duomo has designed a white-truffle-inspired seven-course menu with just the right amount of portion and a delicate balance. First, an array of 12 small plates named “The Welcome” came into view. Enrico wants to emphasize the relationship between food and land, where herbs and vegetables are all sourced from the restaurant’s own garden. Without any ingredients being used twice, there was a cornucopia of broccoli and cabbage, bak choi with Japanese furikake seasoning, spinach with Dijon mustard, marinated pumpkin with pickled hazelnuts and mushrooms, among others. One of them was a chawanmushi steamed with beef broth, which had a delicate and smooth texture. Chef’s four year in Osaka has imparted Japanese elements in his culinary style.
I visited the restaurant’s garden, which had over 400 plants and a greenhouse. I was deeply impressed by the fact that the chef could skillfully season his dishes with every herb while highlighting individual flavour. The appetizers were served in a powerfully bold style reminiscent of the cold dishes in Sichuan cuisine.
This was followed by The Sea, seared scallop served sufficiently with shaved white truffle. With no showmanship whatsoever, the dish had only one purpose, and that was to accentuate the white truffle.
Next up was The Garden – cardoons (artichoke thistles) that came with milk foam, hazelnuts, cream of hazelnuts,giving a luxurious twist by the addition of white truffle.
The soft potato cream with Zhengshan Xiaozhong tea-powder marinated quail egg topped with truffles was ultra-rich and enjoyable. The quail egg was cooked to spherification like in molecular cuisine and finished with a dash of smoky red powder, and richly scented white truffle. It’s one of the chef’s signature dishes that other restaurants have tried to emulate, but not with the same finesse. A classic item on the white truffle menu, this was paired with thinly sliced porcini mushrooms, and cute beef ravioli underneath.
The main course was a roast chicken which was sliced on the spot as it was served. Although it was low in fat, it’s perfectly tender and locked in all the juice, bringing just enough elegant balance with the white truffle.
The dessert was a chestnut mont blanc, a Japanese version with the whole chestnut in persimmon sauce and whipped cream, garnished with maple leaves and shaved with white truffle. The smell of autumn was dancing on the tip of my tongue. The dishes were stripped of all superfluous elements, allowing the ingredients to shine without distraction.
Perhaps some may find the menu a bit simple, such as the scallop dish. But this is what a white truffle menu is supposed to be. Visiting Alba in late autumn is all about savouring THE ingredient – white truffles. Even a three-starred chef may have to put asidehis refined cooking techniques and make way for the most natural and pure flavours. After all, white truffle is pricey by weight but priceless by the joy it brings.
Surly, white truffle is the star of the menu, but visiting Piazza Duomo in other seasons could offer a more well-rounded view of Chef Enrico Crippa’s culinary techniques and philosophy. To let white truffles take center stage, he humbly steps back, stashing away his genius and prowess as a cuisine maestro, a deed that takes a great deal of confidence to accomplish.
Author and Chef of Piazza Duomo Enrico Crippa
Photo: instagram@Piazza Duomo