Pastoral Piedmont: An Agriturismo & Epicurean Experience in Italy
When 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.
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 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.
Piedmont’s rolling hills.
The restaurant, La Riserva del Gusto, is housed in an 18th-century building.
Pretty in pink.
Tempting grapes, just about ready to harvest, adorn the property.
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.
We dined al fresco, surrounded by vineyards which were framed by a blush-colored sky.
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!
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!
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.
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. :)
Shawn’s second course: Tagliata di Sottofiletto di Fasonne (grilled beef dressed with spices and served with potatoes).
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!
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!
Chef Luigi and Michela (left), and the upstairs dining area (right).
The restaurant’s wine cellar was previously a crypt, dating back to when the structure was a chapel in the 18th century.
Chef Luigi’s personable nature comes through, as his hand is dwarfed by a mammoth bottle of Grappa.
The Agriturismo Tenuta La Romana, crowning a hill of vineyards.
Trompe-l’œil artwork on the agriturismo depicts a pair of doves.
A magnificent view of Monferrato’s rolling hills, as seen from our room’s balcony.
Our room’s balcony, framed by wispy clouds.
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!
Golden-hour sunlight casts long shadows in the hallway of the agriturismo.
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.
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!
Chef Luigi’s Risotto with Strawberries & Sparkling Wine (Risotto Fragole e Bollicine)
- 180 grams Carnaroli rice
- 6 strawberries (dice 2; reserve others for garnish)
- 1 glass of sparkling Chardonnay
- Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 2 Liters vegetable broth, boiling-hot
- Reduce the wine in a pot and add 2 diced strawberries.
- Toast the rice in the same pot until the wine is completely absorbed.
- 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).
- Remove from heat. Add a small spoon of butter and some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to taste.
- 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.)
Our Video of this Experience:
Where in the World?
- 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.