By Marialisa Calta
My father’s hometown, in the Italian Piedmont, the foothills of the Alps, inhabited the geography of my childhood dreams. Like J.M. Barrie’s Neverland, the town of Susa seemed, through my dad’s stories, like a place I knew. I felt like I could see my father, growing up there in the 1920s and ’30s, ping-ponging through the narrow streets from school to church to home, skinning his knees on the sharp cobblestones. In the summers he and his sister would hike mountain paths to small, alpine farms where they would sleep in haylofts, drink milk still warm from the cows and watch black-clad nonnas stir polenta in cauldronlike pots set over open hearths.
I could taste his childhood through the food that his mother, my Nonna, made—warm, creamy polenta with savory rabbit stew, red-wine risotto, gnocchi with bacon-scented tomato sauce and the tiny ravioli of the region known as agnolotti. My sister and I had grown up fighting over toasted heels of Parmesan cheese and the crispy browned bits of polenta that clung to the pot that we called “candy.” My aunt’s crisp biscotti—full of the hazelnuts that are ubiquitous in the region—were a regular treat.
My dad was long gone when my older daughter decided to spend her junior year of college in Florence, and in the spring of that year I decided to see Susa at last. Emotionally, this was risky; I was expecting to find, in the real Susa, the village etched on the map of childhood fantasy.
I was not disappointed. Flinging open the window at our hotel I felt the shock of recognition: ancient slate roofs and crumbling chimneys gave way, in the near distance, to the stony grandeur of the snow-covered Alps. I saw my dad’s school (housed in an 11th-century castle) and the Triumphal Arch (built in 8 B.C. to honor Caesar Augustus) through which he raced daily with his friends.
In shops and restaurants I found the agnolotti stuffed with veal and greens just like Nonna used to make, as well as the potato gnocchi, peppers sautéed in olive oil, the simple risottos, warm polenta and all those other specialties the women in my family cooked every Sunday.
To understand Piedmontese cooking, it helps to realize that the region is locked in on three sides by mountains—to the west by the French Alps, to the north by the Swiss Alps and to the south by the Ligurian mountains. Language, food and customs were heavily influenced by France; Turin, the largest Piedmontese city, was entirely French-speaking until the 1880s. Getting in and out of the region has, historically, been difficult and so Piedmont developed in relative isolation.
And the old ways persist, as they do in many of the countries around the Mediterranean. Although it is located just a couple of hours from the coast, it’s hard to find fish in Susa, unless it is salt cod, anchovies or lake fish, such as trout and eel. Instead, meat figures more prominently than in most Mediterranean cuisines, showing up in such dishes as the classic bollito misto—boiled beef, chicken and sausage served with a parsley sauce—and in an array of dried sausages that hunters and shepherds once took to the mountains for sustenance. Rice (in risotto), cornmeal (in polenta) and potatoes (in gnocchi) are as likely to serve as a mealtime starch as pasta. Dairy and eggs, staples on alpine farms, are used in many preparations. Mushrooms—especially porcini and truffles—add complex flavor to otherwise simple sauces.
Given its population of only 6,500, Susa seems to have an inordinate number of small markets, and we quickly found our favorites. At Dindo’s we bought provisions for our picnics in the town park: tiny red and green peppers stuffed with tuna and anchovies, thinly sliced prosciutto and various vegetables cooked in oil and garlic. At Favro’s bakery we munched on thin, hand-rolled grissini, or breadsticks, that are emblematic of the region. Pietrini’s offered delectable, jewel-like petit fours made of the classic Piedmontese combination of chocolate and hazelnuts.
Historically, the diet of Susa was a robust one, which fueled the local folks as they traveled up and down the high mountains. The unpretentious restaurants where we dined translate the local cuisine into many small courses: shaved slices of dried meats and sausages and lightly sauced pastas followed by meat or chicken. Vegetable dishes are invariably cooked; this is not a region for fresh salads. Dinner might begin with a small glass of vermouth—the spirit originated in nearby Turin in the 1700s. Desserts included budin (a dense chocolate pudding-cake) or a mousse of local chestnuts served with espresso and chased with a thimbleful of grappa.
For my taste buds, the visit was a trip back to my childhood. It prompted me to dust off some of my father’s family recipes, such as Hunter’s Chicken Stew and Hazelnut Cookies, and return to cooking some of the favorites of my—and my father’s—youth. When I bring these dishes to the table, I sometimes have a distinct feeling that a small boy with skinned knees has joined the feast. His cheeks are rosy from the crisp mountain air. He is digging in.
Marialisa Calta, a nationally syndicated food columnist, is a contributing editor for EatingWell.