Pastoral Piedmont: An Agriturismo & Epicurean Experience in Italy

Piedmont-Italy-Agriturismo-Restaurant-MonferratoWhen you think of Italy, no doubt home-cooked, steaming pasta; verdant agricultural landscapes, and gourmet food products such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and traditional balsamic vinegar come to mind. A lesser-known concept is that of the agriturismo, a compound noun which marries the Italian words for ‘agriculture’ and ‘tourism’. As the name implies, an agriturismo is a place where visitors can find lodging, meals, even hands-on experience on a working farm. Some agriturismi are elegant and resort-like, while others are more informal places where guests can get their hands dirty and learn the art of viticulture, olive harvesting, or virtually any aspect of small scale food production. The concept that unites the most formal and simple establishments is that an agriturismo will likely serve food that is either grown on the property, or sourced locally. In addition, income from tourists will help supplement profits earned from traditional farming pursuits.

I had long wanted to stay in an Italian agriturismo of the formal or relaxed sort – to walk among the countryside, even try my hand at some aspect of farming. This summer, Shawn and I got to do just that while in the Northern Italian state of Piedmont, or Piemonte. By day, we tasted wine, chased truffles and explored the city of Asti’s food culture, and by night we rested and dined at the Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana and La Riserva del Gusto, respectively. The two are situated within the same property, on a stunning piece of land which overlooks the Langhe and Monferrato hills, an area which is inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The History of the Agriturismo Concept in Italy

Starting in the mid-twentieth century, small-scale farming became less profitable for Italian farmers. To combat this decline and the abandonment of farms, the Italian government officially described the concept of agriturismi in a 1985 law. In some cases, economic incentives were given to farmers or other individuals wishing to restore abandoned farmhouses and estates. The result was that many of these structures were transformed into private vacation homes, and agriturismi.

Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana

At first glance, Tenuta La Romana seemed as though it was peeking out of a robe of vineyards dressing the Monferrato hills. The mustard-colored building, with its Palladian windows and chocolate-brown shutters, was eye-catching, even among a stunning landscape of summer green hues. Historically, this structure now housing the agriturismo was called L’Armanna. It was constructed in the 18th century and was originally owned by noble families. Today, it overlooks an atmospheric lake, poplar grove, vineyards, a handful of farmhouses, and even a small hilltop fortress.

La Riserva del Gusto

La Riserva del Gusto’s name hints at its penchant for good taste, as well as its location inside a nature reserve. In its early days, the now-shrimp-colored structure housed clergy, something that’s evident when you pop into its wine cellar, a former crypt. The elegant restaurant specializes in cuisine of the Langhe and Monferrato, and has charismatic Chef Luigi Vinciguerra at its helm.

When I asked what recently encouraged him to take over the restaurant, he did not hesitate.

“The magical setting here,” he said, with our waiter Pietro acting as translator. “This landscape captivated me! I am here most of the day now, and this is a passion,” adding that his daughter also motivates him.

As he showed us around the 18th-century-crypt-turned-wine-cellar, Luigi, who has experience working in Milan restaurants, explained that he prefers to work with local, small-scale wine producers. “Most of our ingredients are also locally-sourced,” he added.

Though Italian tradition and Piemonte cuisine favor heavily in his fare, Luigi is not afraid to blend old ideas with contemporary ones. Jazz & blues nights are weekly offerings, and Chef Luigi is also happy to prepare meals that appeal to vegetarians, vegans, and people who are unable to consume gluten.

As he escorted us around the three levels of the building, it also became apparent that the chef has a penchant for interior design. From an outdoor seating area with transparent chairs and mood lighting, to an upstairs dining room with an Old-World marble fireplace, Luigi was eager to show how he and his wife, Michela, have transformed the building. His latest project is a transformation of the restaurant’s tower. He plans to enclose its windows in order to create a intimate dining area where couples or private parties can dine while overlooking the hills of the Monferrato and the Langhe.

Blank Space Blog

Chef Luigi was kind to share his extraordinary recipe for Strawberry-Chardonnay Risotto with us; please find it below, and Buon Appetito! Also, if you have any risotto variations or recipes that you’d recommend, please share them in the Comments below.

Hydrangea Italy

Hydrangea blooms on the property. This flower is fascinating in that its color can change from bluish-purple to pink, or vice versa, based upon the pH of the soil in which it’s growing.

Nizza Monferrato Agriturismo

Tenuta la Romana Monferrato Italy

Piedmont’s rolling hills.

La Riserva Del Gusto Nizza Monferrato

The restaurant, La Riserva del Gusto, is housed in an 18th-century building.

La Riserva del Gusto Nizza Monferrato

Nizza Monferrato Agriturismo Restaurant

Pretty in pink.

Grapes Nizza Monferrato

Tempting grapes, just about ready to harvest, adorn the property.

Blue Skies Clouds Piemonte Italy

La Riserva del Gusto Monferrato Italy

La Riserva del Gusto restaurant is housed in the building next to the agriturismo. Its chef, Luigi Vinciguerra, plans to eventually transform its tower into a romantic, private dining area.

Piemonte Italy Vineyards Sunset

Tenuta La Romana Monferrato Italy

La Riserva del Gusto Restaurant Monferrato

We dined al fresco, surrounded by vineyards which were framed by a blush-colored sky.

La Riserva del Gusto View Nizza Monferrato

La Riserva del Gusto Grissini and Goj Wine

Our wine choice (left): a bottle of Goj 2012 Cascina Castlet, Barbera del Monferrato. It was frizzante (slightly bubbly), but less sweet than Lambrusco. On the right, Piedmont’s legendary thin and crunchy breadsticks known as Grissini. According to legend, in the 17th century, a child of the powerful Savoy family was ill and unable to digest standard bread. His family doctor asked a baker to design such a recipe, and Grissini were born. That royal child eventually become the King of Piemonte, Sicily, and Sardinia. Chef Luigi even made up a gluten-free batch for me; they cannot be compared to their packaged counterparts!

La Riserva del Gusto Monferrato Antipasti Flan and Fresh Salmon

As antipasti (appetizers), I chose creamy vegetable flan (left), beautifully garnished with rosemary and flower petals. Parmesan cheese and wild fruit balsamic vinegar rounded out the elegant presentation. Shawn ordered fresh salmon marinated in citrus juice and anise seeds (right), and presented with a sprig of lavender. Both appetizers were gluten-free, and while mine was perfectly rich in flavor, Shawn’s was refreshing and light. Both dishes were so delicate, we hated to disturb them!

La Riserva del Gusto Monferrato Risotto Fragole Bollicine and Risotto al Barbera

When I asked Chef Luigi what his favorite Northern Italian dishes were, he said, without hesitation, “Risotto.” It was appropriate then that Shawn and I were both drawn to this special rice dish as our first course. Shawn’s (left) was Risotto al Barbera, risotto made with the local Barbera wine. It featured creamy perfection, a brilliant aubergine color, and a light cheese flavor. Moving away from more traditional savory risotto varieties, I was tempted by Risotto with Strawberries & Chardonnay (right). It offered just a hint of sweetness, tempered by a buttery creaminess. I could have easily eaten another bowl of each had it not been for another course coming our way! Risotto is generally gluten-free as rice, butter or olive oil, broth and Parmesan cheese are the base ingredients. As someone who loves trying her hand at making a hearty pot of risotto, I asked Chef Luigi to share the recipe, and he obliged. It’s below, and I cannot wait to give it a whirl.

La Riserva del Gusto Sea Bass with Grilled Vegetables

My second course: Sea Bass with Grilled Vegetables (eggplant, zucchini and tomato). A spritz of lemon made the flavors in each come alive. The dish was naturally gluten-free, as was the plate of homemade bread that Pietro brought out for me. Even though it’s a rare treat to get one’s hand on freshly-baked gluten-free bread, I was simply too stuffed to enjoy it. If doggy bags weren’t a faux pas in much of Europe, I would’ve spirited it away with me. :)

La Riserva del Gusto Tagliata di Sottofiletto di Fasonne

Shawn’s second course: Tagliata di Sottofiletto di Fasonne (grilled beef dressed with spices and served with potatoes).

La Riserva del Gusto Fruit Dessert

By the time Pietro handed us the dessert menu, I felt stuffed to the brim. To ensure we didn’t waste any dessert or pop the buttons off our clothes, we went for something lighter, in the form of this shared seasonal fruit dessert. As a result, I’ll never quite look at fruit salads in the same way. This one featured nectarines, figs, watermelon, cantaloupe, grapes, plums, white peaches, pineapple and strawberries. A dusting of cocoa and powdered sugar adorned the rim, and a candied rosemary looking a bit snow-kissed emerged from the peak. Extraordinary!

La Riserva del Gusto Nizza Monferrato

After dinner, Chef Luigi, his wife, Michela; and Pietro showed us some of the historic restaurant’s lesser-visited spots, including its tower, which will soon be transformed into a romantic and private dining space. Afterwards, he offered us shots of Toccasana (right), a liqueur produced in the neighboring Langhe district. It is made with 37 herbs and packed such a punch that Shawn and I could only sip it!

Riserva del Gusto Monferrato Italy

Chef Luigi and Michela (left), and the upstairs dining area (right).

Chef Luigi La Riserva del Gusto Monferrato

The restaurant’s wine cellar was previously a crypt, dating back to when the structure was a chapel in the 18th century.

Chef Luigi La Riserve del Gusto Nizza Monferrato

Chef Luigi’s personable nature comes through, as his hand is dwarfed by a mammoth bottle of Grappa.

Agriturismo Italy Tenuta La Romana Monferrato

Piemonte Italy Agriturismo Restaurant

Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana Nizza Monferrato

The Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana, crowning a hill of vineyards.

Agriturismo Italy Tenuta La Romana Monferrato

Trompe-l’œil artwork on the agriturismo depicts a pair of doves.

Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana Monferrato

Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana Monferrato View from Balcony

A magnificent view of Monferrato’s rolling hills, as seen from our room’s balcony.

Tenuta La Romana Monferrato

Our room’s balcony, framed by wispy clouds.

Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana Superior Room

We stayed in the Superior room – spacious, with an enchanting view. Given that the building is several hundred years old, I couldn’t help but wonder how our room had evolved over the centuries!

Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana

Golden-hour sunlight casts long shadows in the hallway of the agriturismo.

Tenuta La Romana Monferrato

Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana Monferrato Italy

The vaulted, brick ceiling in the Reception area highlights the agriturismo’s age (left), and on the right, a farmer at work in the neighboring hills. Our breakfast, while not entirely gluten-free, featured fruit and preserves grown and made locally. The homemade pastries and savory dishes had ingredient lists posted, making it easy for me to see what contained gluten and what was on my safe list.

Monferrato Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana

Tenuta La Romana Pool

Between truffle hunting, sampling wine, and exploring Asti, our day was so busy that we didn’t have enough time to enjoy the agriturismo’s pool. On a hot August day, it certainly looked inviting, though!

Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana Resort Monferrato

Piemonte Italy Agriturismo Restaurant

Chef Luigi’s Risotto with Strawberries & Sparkling Wine (Risotto Fragole e Bollicine)

Ingredients:

  • 180 grams Carnaroli rice
  • 6 strawberries (dice 2; reserve others for garnish)
  • 1 glass of sparkling Chardonnay
  • butter
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 2 Liters vegetable broth, boiling-hot

Preparation:

  1. Reduce the wine in a pot and add 2 diced strawberries.
  2. Toast the rice in the same pot until the wine is completely absorbed.
  3. Add the boiling broth until the rice is covered and stir. If necessary add more wine until the rice is cooked (about 16-­18 minutes).
  4. Remove from heat. Add a small spoon of butter and some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to taste.
  5. Garnish the risotto with fresh strawberries. (Chef Luigi served mine on an oversized white plate, with a sprig of lavender. He dusted the rim of the plate with delicate, dried flower blooms.)

Serves two.

Our Video of this Experience:

Pastoral Piedmont Agriturismo Epicurean Experience in Italy Video

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana and La Riserva del Gusto restaurant are located in the Monferrato countryside, on an adjacent piece of land surrounded by vineyards and agriculture. (Please note that the hotel link is an affiliate link. If you make a booking, the price will stay the same to you and I will get a percentage as a commission.)
  • The district of Monferrato is located in Italy’s Piedmont (Piemonte) region, about 55 km (30 miles) southeast of Turin, and 140 km (85 miles) southwest of Milan. High-speed trains link the Piedmont area to Italian tourist meccas such as Rome and Venice. See Trenitalia for schedules and prices.
  • To get to Piedmont, we traveled by train from Milan to Asti. While we found mass transit accessibility to be good in larger Italian cities such as Milan and Turin, we were told that public transportation is quite limited in Piemonte’s countryside. Locals routinely advised us to rent a car or hire a private driver.
  • Marco, one of Meet Piemonte‘s co-founders, coordinated the details of our Piemonte visit in advance, and guided us through each excursion. He and his colleagues lead customized tours covering everything from wine-tastings, to cooking classes, truffle hunts, hiking and biking excursions, and visits to Piedmont’s rice fields. Having worked in the tourism industry for more than a decade, Marco speaks fluent English and also helped ensure that tour partners took into account my gluten intolerance.
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Italy.

Disclosure & Thanks:

Both Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana and La Riserva del Gusto hosted us for these experiences.
Mille grazie to the agriturismo staff as well as Chef Luigi, Michela, and waiter Pietro for being so welcoming and sharing their passion for incredible Italian cuisine and hospitality. Also, hearty thanks to Marco at Meet Piemonte for arranging our dinner and lodging.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. Video footage is a creation of my husband, Shawn.

34 Comments on “Pastoral Piedmont: An Agriturismo & Epicurean Experience in Italy

  1. It looks like you had a very good time eating and drinking and enjoying the countryside. Thank you for sharing.

    • Gerard, indeed we did! What made the experience so nice was being able to chat with the people there too. Chef Luigi, in particular, was quite enthusiastic about what he does. His passion shines through in the extraordinary dishes he creates, especially those risotti! And, how are you? Are the leaves turning in the Big Apple yet?

      • Tricia, the leaves aren’t changing colors yet but they look like they’re about to. The weather has been beautiful.

      • Gerard, ah, I have lots of fond memories of autumns in NY. Hope your good weather spell continues, and that this year’s foliage show is a beautiful one!

  2. The peachy pink of the house and that ochre are such lovely Med colours Tricia. Portugal has many of the same kind of agritourism properties too these days.

    • Jo, you’re right that those Mediterranean are so beautiful when surrounded by a neutral backdrop – be it green, sand-colored, etc. Your mention of Portugal’s agriturismi reminds me how much of Portugal I have yet to see. I went to Porto & Lisbon back in 2003, but the thought of staying in the countryside is really intriguing. Are you there now?

  3. I love making risotto and I’ve heard strawberry risotto is delicious. Looking forward to trying it out next year when strawberries are in season again.

    • Rosemarie, is strawberry risotto fairly common in Piedmont, or is it a newer version of a classic recipe? I was initially surprised to see a sweet, not savory risotto, but of course, it was beautifully made and presented. What are some of your favorite versions of risotto, or, which ones are most common in Piemonte?

      • I’m not sure if it’s traditional but I have seen it on menus and it is in my copy of Il cucchiaio d’argento (The Silver Spoon), which is considered one of the seminal Italian cookbooks. Risotto is be very versatile, as it can lend itself to whatever vegetable is in season. I’m looking forward to making it with pumpkin and porcini mushrooms this autumn for example. In Piedmont, I’ve come across several risotti ‘piemontesi’ with all sorts of variations (it may make a good subject for a blog post actually!) but they all seem to have one thing in common, the use of a good Piedmontese red wine (Barbera, Dolcetto, sometimes Barolo) in them. The most famous example is probably ‘panissa’, which is a risotto made in Novara and Vercelli (the heart of Piedmontese rice country). It’s made with rice, beans, onion, Barbera wine, lardo and sausage or salami.

      • My stomach began to growl just imagining a steaming bowl of risotto dressed with pumpkin and porcini mushrooms. :) Absolutely, a risotto-focused post sounds like a fantastic one in the making! We did not have enough time to make it to Piedmont’s rice country. Have you been out to the rice mill, or the rice fields? We also think that the Italian Rice Exchange sounds interesting, but I’m not sure if it’s open to visitors.

    • Silvana, as the Italian cooking expert that you are, I’d be curious how it turns out for you. :) We’ve made our fair share of risotto here in Germany (mostly with zucchini or butternut squash) but for me, this strawberry version was a new one. Do you have any risotto variations that you would recommend?

  4. Such beautiful pictures, story and recipes!!! This is an enchanting place to visit and I guess we may take the opportunity soon enough… It looks very romantic (what I love) and at the same time could be an extraordinary experience.
    I’ll try out the risotto’s recipes :-) Thank you for sharing, dearest Tricia and Shawn… by the way, remember the risotto with orange peel and honey? Kisses :-)claudine

    • Claudine, grazie mille. It would certainly be lovely to meet in Piemonte someday!

      Shawn and I still reminisce about your superb risotto (along with the gazpacho, hummous, polenta, and many more!) We, but not our waistlines, miss the aperitivo, and the fior di latte and the sour cherry too. :-) When you have a free moment, can you please send the risotto recipe?

    • Darlene, here’s hoping you might be able to give the risotto recipe a whirl then. In Spain, I’ve read that Bomba rice is used for Paella. Do you know if it’s challenging to get Italian risotto types like Arborio or Carnaroli there? I’m thrilled that Malta’s grocery store shelves have lots of both, thanks to the country’s Italian influence. Here’s to much more risotto in the months ahead! :)

    • Atreyee, so am I! I’ve always used Arborio rice for my risotto, so it’ll be interesting seeing how Carnaroli compares. As for working at this agriturismo, I’m not sure if this particular property offers that opportunity, as it’s more of a place to relax. Having done a bit of grape harvesting in Moldova last year, though, I would welcome the chance to work on an Italian agriturismo. Something more that’s been added to my life list! Have you had the chance?

      • No, never! Your experience seems a wonderful way to relax and get to know the intimate details of all the hard work that goes into managing a farm.

  5. Hi Tricia.
    This post was one of your best, I love the pictures and especially the ones of you and Shawn.
    Thank you for sharing
    Melissa

    • Melissa, that’s high praise, and an indication that Chef Luigi and his agriturismo colleagues’ attention to detail shined through here. :) Thank you for your kind words, and I’m happy to hear that you and Shawn’s parents had such a lovely Napa weekend!

  6. A slice of heaven you have uncovered here…there is nothing quite like a feeling of being apart of the land you are visiting, with the food but also putting yourself right into the scene as you do so well. Wonderful…and yet another destination you’ve added to my growing list :-)

    • Randall, it’s important to have a ‘growing list’ I think, for it’s nice to have something to look forward to. The next time we visit an agriturismo, I’d love to try my hands at doing some of the tasks that are integral for making the agriturismo run. Harvesting grapes or olives, anyone? :) Grazie mille for your thoughtful comment!

  7. Piemonte was really a big surprise to me when we visited Bra, Alba last year. We passed iT so many times when driving to Tuscany, the Marche, Veneto and never realized how beautiful it was. Not to speak of the food, that was delicious, like the many wines piemontese!

    • Ann, it’s true that the Piemonte region is regretfully not on everyone’s radar, as are Rome, Milan, Venice, and Florence! Perhaps that works to our advantage as travelers, since the area then offers a more relaxed pace at which to explore. :) Do you recall what dishes captured your attention in Piemonte?

  8. Hi Tricia, I’ve travelled through the rice fields on the way to Lago Maggiore and Milan but have yet to stop and explore them. I’m lucky enough to know someone here though who knows a producer from the Vercelli area and I buy kilos and kilos of Baldo and Carnaroli rice from her. I absolutely love making risotto and other rice-based dishes.

    • Rosemarie, lucky indeed! Your mention of having a producer connection reminds me of our time in Modena, when everyone seemed to know a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or traditional balsamic vinegar producer. With a smile, they’d mention how the producers would often give them those mouth-watering products as Christmas presents.

      We’ve just moved to Malta, and since I also like making rice-based dishes, I was delighted to see that Arborio and Carnaroli rice are readily available (unlike in smaller towns in Germany, where we’d been living). What do you use Baldo rice for? It’s my first time hearing of it.

      • So glad to hear Italian rice is so readily available in Malta! Baldo rice is a ‘superfine’ variety of rice like Arborio and Carnaroli. It can be used to prepare risotto, just like its ‘superfine’ counterparts.

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