Italian chefs are rapturous about truffles. And so they should be. In fact, it’s almost impossible to shut them up once they’re on the truffle hypercoaster. They’ll bore your ear off about the complexity of such an ingredient – any Italian ingredient for that matter. To these proud capocuocos, nothing comes close to a roasted lamb leg from Abruzzo or the dexterous tortellini parcels from a nonna in Modena. Every other cuisine is secondary. All other opinions false.
For an Italian chef in truffle country, there really is nothing that compares. And the great source of this fanatical fungus adoration is the Piedmont region, Alba specifically. For Enrico Crippa, head chef of three Michelin-starred Piazza Duomo, the raw ingredients of Piedmont mean everything, and the luminous white truffle the central gem of Alba’s agrarian bounty.
Not all salads are simply salads. They can be strange and complicated
Crippa is unlike his contemporaries. Despite the success of Piazza Duomo, he has resisted the usual celebrity chef lures, preferring instead to stay put in his kitchen or at least within the shadow of Alba. Instead, he goes about his business quietly, precisely and with a possessive approach. His staff – all young Italians which, in a three-star environment nowadays, is somewhat unusual (so often there’s at least one trainee from Iceland or London or Sydney or Mumbai) – tells me that he’s in the kitchen before sunrise, and present throughout service, weekdays, weekends, whenever.
To say that the tasting menu at Piazza Duomo is a neat assembly of locally sourced ingredients tells only half the story and for a comprehensive list such as this, you need the whole book. It’s seemingly never-ending. But I ate it all.
Everything served in this decidedly pink dining room – with a fresco by Francesco Clemente, inspired by the Langhe landscape – is made with panache and the customer in mind. None of this is the chef’s ego, and you’ll find none of the self-possessed named courses that punctuate many menus – “Memories of Childhood” and “Nonna’s Carbonara” – but respect for regionality and seasonality with produce from the offsite garden within the grounds of the Monsordo Bernardina estate. Nothing represents this more than Crippa’s salad. Yes, a salad. A €45.00 salad.
Not all salads are simply salads. They can be strange and complicated assembly projects consisting of things that have no place being there – strewn with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, croutons, courgette ribbons, shaved Parmesan – a garden mess in a bowl. Here, a colourful melange of considered components unfolds, titled “Insalata 21,31,41,51…” Fifty-one ingredients – for now – with every leaf and flower cultivated from the restaurant’s greenhouse. An accompanying list details the name of each, some familiar – sorrel, watercress, mustard leaf – and others more peculiar – phlox, silene, ruby nasturtium – but all lively and fresh, presented on a saucer of dashi broth to be slurped afterwards.
“It’s not about the fancy assembly, but quality, seasonal flowers,” Crippa says, describing the creation of the restaurant’s most Insta-famous course. “We have two full-time farmers who work in our garden and know exactly what to pick and when. As we grow and the seasons shift, the dish evolves.” So, watch this space for “Insalata 51, 61, 71, 81…”
Crippa is a shy man, but when engaged, a joy to speak to. He flips simultaneously between Italian and English, intense but showing zeal for his profession. “I’m happiest here [in the kitchen]”, he tells me. “This is my home. I’ve lived in Alba for over 15 years, and have found my happy place. I plant, I grow, I harvest, I cook – and I can cycle the hills and inclines to ease my overactive mind.” He is a keen cyclist, sometimes covering hundreds of miles a week.
Crippa continues: “The environment is part of me, something I continue to explore. Customers expect certain things. Truffles, of course, but I do other things to lift the menu, to lift the restaurant, to show our creativity. I strive for perfection, we all do as a team; our manager, sommelier and waiting staff, we can always do better. I’m not the finished product and will be forever curious.”
To a chef like this, there is no finish line, only hiccups and lessons along the way. For Crippa, ideas are found in ingredients and art, in music, surroundings and above all, territory. “A dish can remain in the background of my mind for a whole year,” he says. “Even if I start from the vegetable garden and what this territory offers me, there is a moment in which my idea, my personality, begins to emerge.”
It is a ceaseless search, with the knowledge that in the pursuit for perfection, one can never really be content. C
Piazza Duomo, Piazza Risorgimento, 4, 12051 Alba CN, Italy
+39 0173 366167; piazzaduomoalba.it