There are rare restaurants where you know that everything is going to be all
right the moment you walk in. There’s something about the manner of the
greeting, calm, warm, confident. There’s something about the way the place is
decked out – not too smart, not too flashy, accommodating. There’s a
comfortable chair to settle on, a table with fine glass and polished cutlery.
A drink materialises with calming rapidity. Most of all, best of all, there is
a sense OF steadiness, of rhythm. You know you won’t be hurried or fussed,
that lunch will take a bit of time, but that no matter how long it takes, you will
be looked after with the affectionate, measured consideration. There’s the
quiet reassurance that this is a place dedicated to pleasure and eating. You
just know that you will be well fed and well cared for. That’s the feeling I
had when I went into the Ristorante del Belbo da Bardon.
It doesn’t look much from the outside, just a long, solid, white, two-storey
building set above the road, and looking out over the sodden valley of the
Asinari, not far from the Langhe hills. Cesare Pavese country, for the literate.
Inside a cosy feeling settled on me, much like the sensation of slipping on an
old jacket or pair of shoes. Nothing looked new. Nothing looked out of place.
It all felt vaguely familiar. There were amber shadows here and there, and the
murmur and laughter of people settled to lunch. There was the calm, reassuring presence of the family in the shape of Gino Bardon, and the necessary leavening of eccentricity of our waiter, Antonio, a man who confessed to have been converted to vegetarianism through the medium of roast lamb. In short here was a restaurant with character, pedigree and a sense of purpose. Its purpose was what it had always been, to give pleasure, to fill people with food they expected to eat.
There was nothing remotely contemporary about the dishes that issued
from the kitchen with that measured tempo, the product of long experience.
Three cold antipasti: vitello tonnato; insalata russa; pepperoni quadrati ripieni di tonno. Two hot antipasti: cotechino con purea di patate; cardo
gobbi con fonduta. Primo piatto: taglierini con porri. Secondo piatto: quaglie
al forno con sancrau; cheeses; mattone. Nothing much to get excited about, you
But, taken all in all, it was exemplary, the food of long practice, of
implicit understanding, of finely honed skill. Top-quality tinned tuna linked
those first three antipasti, in the slithery sauce with the slices of veal like
linen handkerchiefs; in the refulgent filling inside the sweet, fleshy peppers
and binding the mayonnaise in the insalata russa – Russian salad, to you and
me, chopped veg and mayo, that stand-by for mass catering and buffets. You
find it all over Italy for reasons I’ve never been able to fathom. In this
version, the vegetables were crunchy not mushy. Among the hot antipasti, the
cotechino was simply the finest example of its kind I’ve ever eaten, salty,
burly, oozing fat-rich juices. And the hunch-backed cardoon – cardo gobbo – is
a speciality of the region, and it’s slightly bitter nuttiness carried the
cloak of cheesy fonduta with grace.
The taglierini were as elegant as strands of silk, dressed in a shimmering
sauce of leeks. To be honest, the quail was a touch over-roasted, but still
produced enough robust flavour to stand up to sancrau, a pungent mulch of
cabbage, anchovy and vinegar. It may sound a bit challenging, but it works.
The cheeses were all classics from Piedmont, and in limber condition. The only
serious disappointment was the pudding, mattone. The name means brick, which
is just about what it was – a brick of chocolate, crème patissiere and pastry,
decent enough in its way, but not a serious contender. But then Italians don’t
understand the concept of pudding in the same way we do.
The time by now was about 4pm. The conversation had ranged over football and
food, cricket and Paolo Conte, politics and Parade’s End, wine and why not?
The three of us had done a bottle of fizz, a bottle of brilliant Barbera, a bottle
of so-so Barolo. There was time for a nip of rum and a short, sharp coffee
before heading back to base, replete and suffused with that sense of
well-being, warmth for one’s fellow man, cheerfulness and all-round moral
uplift that only comes from having lunch very well indeed.
Ristorante del Belbo da Bardon, Valle Asinari 25, 14050 San Marzano Oliveto
AT. Tel: 00 39 (0)141 831340. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org