Today we are up early to collect our car and take a drive South-West of Milan, to a tiny little place called Alba.
It’s a cinch of a journey, coming in at just under two hours, and as we head out of the city, our view is slowly replaced with row upon row of golden corn fields.
We make it there in one piece (which if you’ve ever been in a car with me driving is apparently no mean feat), winding down narrow cobbled roads to the very centre of town. We park up in the shade of a church and head to meet our Airbnb host, Adolfo. He’s extremely friendly and let’s us in, all smiles, proffering advice and suggestions along the way of what to do in the area.
Our apartment itself is absolutely gorgeous. Exposed brickwork dominates the walls and ceilings, with wooden flooring throughout. The kitchen and bathrooms are all of brand new spec, tastefully finished, and I’m pretty happy that this will be our home for the next few days.
We drop our bags and head on out to explore. It’s the Italian equivalent of ‘siesta’ time here, and so it’s a bit of a ghost town with all the local residents squirrelled away, taking solace from the intense mid-afternoon heat.
We make lunch our first port of call, stopping at the end of our road on Via Vittorio Emanuele, the main street, to sit in the sun. On Adolfo’s recommendation, we eat local pasta dishes, a light, yet delicious introduction to Alba.
We finish up, and the town is slowly coming back to life, as people head out for the evening.
We walk around, which doesn’t take long, as the town is minuscule, and the roads run practically parallel in a sort of grid system, making it easy to navigate.
It’s quite a quirky place. High-end clothing boutiques and fancy artisan food stores line the streets, along with plenty of cafes, reminding me a little of Avignon in France. Once you reach the outskirts of town however, it’s as if civilisation just stops, and all that remains is a grungy, unfinished wasteland backing onto the thoroughfare out of Alba. Very Truman Show.
We are happy enough staying central though, our illusions un-shattered, where cool salmon pinks and pale mellow yellows make up the majority of homes; wooden shutters and wrought iron balconies a staple feature of many an abode.
Our tour is complete in under 30 minutes as there really isn’t a lot to do here, but then again, we didn’t come for the sightseeing. we came for one reason, and one reason alone, and that reason is Enrico Crippa.
I first heard about Enrico and his 3 Michelin star restaurant, Piazza Duomo, on an episode of Masterchef a few years back.
After watching the skill and inspiration with which Enrico prepared his menu, I decided then and there, I simply had to go, and big birthday celebrations this year seemed like the perfect time to make the pilgrimage. After spending a moment on Google and ascertaining that the restaurant was basically in the middle of nowhere, I started with Enrico, and built the rest of this trip around him.
I’m beyond excited, and this evening calls for both sophisticated attire, and skyscraper heels.
We head off, fashionably late, and eventually find it, a subtle raspberry-fronted entrance just off the Piazza Risorgimento, so inconspicuous, it is not immediately evident.
To enter you have to ring a bell, and once buzzed in, the door rolls back, and we are greeted by the smiling staff at this exclusive foodie club.
We take our seats, and menus for apperativos are handed to us, suspended in wooden-framed squares of perspex. I’m feeling a little out of my depth as our dining room has only three tables, totalling nine of us in the room, and as I reach to put my handbag down, someone appears, as if by magic, to place a pillow on the floor for it to rest upon.
Our server for the evening is a lovely lady, who looks a little like Lieutenant Jadzia Dax from Deep Space Nine (You’re welcome Star Trek fans!). She explains the menus to us, and as we take stock, the prices are not for the faint of heart, but Adolfo has promised us the experience is well worth it.
The titles of the food are simply put, but after watching Masterchef, I know this is a complete understatement of the intricacies involved in the dishes we will receive. We decide to order the ‘Degustazione’ (tasting) menu, and let the games begin.
Our server returns with the wine menu, which is in itself, two giant tomes of biblical proportions, sectioned into local and non-local wines. We chose to stay local, and are expertly guided by Dax in our choices, narrowing it down to region and grape style.
Before the food we have even ordered arrives, we are gifted three rounds of amuse-bouche, all of which do indeed amuse. Quirky concoctions that would give Heston a run for his money arrive; my favourites being carpaccio disguised as, and tasting of, olives, complete with martini cocktail stick, and a square of green sponge which we are told to squeeze and eat in one bite, which is actually tuna.
Our Mad Hatter’s Tea Party continues, and the first course of our tasting menu is served in gorgeous cups and saucers, blown from yellow, burgundy and purple glass, which I am informed by Dax, have all been tailor-made in Venice exclusively for the restaurant.
It’s an almond crème served with frozen sea urchin, which is a bit too overpowering for all of us; the accompanying lettuce leaf stuffed with urchin cream that little bit more palatable.
Next up is glacier lettuce and sea bass. The absolute attention to detail in this dish is mind-blowing. I can see the beads of a thin layer of iced water, expertly applied to stay fresh in the Italian heat, to three individual leaves, flavoured with edible flowers and some sort of lemon concoction. They’re the best damn three leaves I’ve ever eaten, and all my taste buds light up with each bite.
The sea bass is served raw as sashimi, with more edible flowers and a shot of bright pea-green salad water, which is so refreshing I feel infinitely healthier just sat there drinking it.
It’s time for round three, and I’m practically bouncing in my seat for this next dish. It’s the one I’ve been most excited to try, and the main reason I wanted to come here. And it’s a salad. Yes, a salad. Not that I would declare myself the biggest fan of leafy fare, but then, this is no ordinary fare.
From the episode of Masterchef featuring Piazza Duomo, I learnt that Enrico grows all his own leaves, flowers, fruit and vegetables in a biodynamic garden nearby the restaurant, where it is lovingly tended to by Gardener, Walter Danusso, and Enrico himself .
The salad is called ’21, 31, 41, 51…’ denoting the number of individual ingredients in it, which may vary depending on the season.
Dax is back as ours is served, complete with a printed account of all our ingredients today, which surpasses the 51, totalling about 90, most of which I have never heard of. We are given pincers, a cross between giant tweezers and chopsticks with which to eat it.
It looks like a beautiful bouquet of flowers, and is served undressed at the top, working its way down to dashi seasoned leaves, the Japanese influences in Enrico’s food again shining through.
I eat every bite, to find the dashi has soaked through to create a shallow broth of dressing we are prompted to drink post-salad. And wow. Sorry I’m not sorry and all that, because it’s delicious.
I’m not really sure what could top this experience, but we keep going, moving through langoustine served with a bisque, mozzarella, and a tomato jelly. This is chased by an acid green plate serving warm zucchini, whose pairing with orange blossom leaves and flowers is a revelation.
Betroot cod is an explosion of purple, before we eat squid ink risotto, which comes in a crazy bowl, which is essentially a giant curved plate, thick throughout its central core, save a tiny pit that contains the black concoction, as rich as deep, petey earth. Going against everything I may have ever been told about eating blackened food, I practically lick up every morsel.
Every part of this meal is well thought out, and executed with painstaking precision, and we continue to be blown away by this Willy Wonka extravaganza the more we eat.
Next up is our final savoury fare, lamb in camomile, with kicks of sweet brown sugar bursting through each bite of its skin. Divine.
Panna cotta Matisse is our finale piece, a perfect square of canvas with small edible films flavoured with seasonal fruit and vegetables, in bright primary colours. The whole presentation looks exactly like the Matisse cut-out ‘The Snail’, and bring a smile to my face.
Our trail has ended, but coffee and petits fours, complete with little ‘drink me’ style bottles of flavoured foamy milk are an encore performance.
I don’t want our night to be over, and when the maître d’ sees us out to the foyer to settle our bill, he clocks us lingering and perusing Enrico’s cookbook. With his head cocked to one side, and an eyebrow raised, he quietly tells us to follow him.
We do so, and he leads us into the kitchen, home of all the wonderful deliciousness we have just devoured, and it’s pristine, as if not a speck of food has ever been prepared here before.
We walk in and there he is. The man from the pages, the man from my television, the michelin man himself, stood right there before me.
Losing my cool internally, but somehow holding it together outwardly, I manage not to be completely tongue-tied, and thank him for his wonderful food.
Enrico is a humble, quiet man, his small, neat teeth in the briefest curve of a smile, and I’m even more enamoured with this place knowing he oversaw every plate of food on the pass tonight.
my trip to Masterchef territory has been everything I hoped for and more, fuelling my love for this man’s genius ten-fold.
Leaving the restaurant, we pour out onto the square, which is still heaving with late night revellers, taking a pew at the cafe from earlier, where our waiter brings us glasses of local wine once more.
We debate over our meal, calling favourites, and picking out nuances until long after everyone else has left, and they are closing up shop.
We amble back to the apartment, where our discussion continues, fuelled by more wine, until someone announces it is nearly 3am, and our eyelids droop heavily, before we admit defeat on our critics round.
My dreams this evening take the shape of vibrant colours and bold shapes whizzing by, but at least I know when I wake, every inch of my dream was in fact a reality, and that in itself is worth those three gold stars.