Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.
Today I’m happy to introduce you to Daniel Blair, an expat, runner, and cyclist here to tell us all about Alba – a town famous for its white truffles, peaches, wine, ancient towers, and Baroque churches.
First, tell us about you.
I’m from Bethesda, Maryland, and I’ve lived in Alba since 2008. I’m actually a reserved and lazy person, but the landscape is so nice around Alba that I’m trying to take up running and cycling. I like music and computers, too.
If someone is visiting Alba for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?
Alba is in a region that prides itself on food and wine. So anyone who visits Alba needs to see a few restaurants and vineyards (either in Alba or the region). Most Americans have heard of Chianti, but that’s a different region. Wine buffs know about Barolo and Nebbiolo, considered top wines around the world and all from the region where Alba is.
What neighborhoods or parts of town are best to stay in?
Just to clear some things up: Alba is in the region of Piedmont, but the area where it is located is referred to as the Langhe. It’s not a big city (31,000 people). If anyone wants to stay here, I recommend the historic city center or one of the bed and breakfasts in the hills in the area. If you stay in the center, you are immersed in the daily city life. If you stay outside the city, you’re in the middle of the countryside with rolling hills and views of countless vineyards.
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?
Turin is the biggest city in the region and worth the 1.5 hour train ride. You can find a variety of museums (including an Egyptian museum), an opera house, and a very tall cinema museum.
The Langhe has a lot of castles. You could spend a day driving around to each one. Some are empty; others have been transformed into museums or restaurants. Some names (off the top of my head): Grinzane Cavour, Guarene, and Barolo (it’s a town and a wine).
Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?
Wow. Uh…that’s a long list. Here’s it is common to have three or four appetizers, then a first and second course followed by dessert…then maybe coffee…and then maybe some grappa. Of course, not everyone eats like that every day!
Appetizers: carne cruda (raw meat). Piedmont prides itself on the quality of their meat and it is common to find an appetizer that consists of thin slices of raw meat. Sometimes it’s ground up instead of sliced. Don’t worry about bacteria, but for some people the concept is unappetizing. I have bravely tried it. The taste is nice with a bit of lemon and pepper, but I’ve never been able to get over the fact that it’s raw. I’ve seen other Americans simply love it.
Another appetizer is Russian salad, which is basically potato salad. Still another is vitello tonnato (literally “tuna-ed veal”), which is slices of veal with a tuna/mayo sauce. The combination seems strange, but it is very, very good.
First courses: obviously pasta. A common noodle here is tajarin (ta-ya-reen). It’s fresh pasta (made from egg) often served in a meat ragu. A type of ravioli called agnolotti is very popular and can be filled with meat or veggies.
Second courses: meat and veggies. Brasato al Barolo is a thin steak (usually veal) cooked in a Barolo wine sauce. It’s very good. Rabbit is also common.
What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?
VinCafe (located at Via Vittorio Emanuele 12, on the main street) triples as a restaurant, cafe, and wine bar. Their food is good and the waiters are fun. They get a lot of business and, in nice weather, you can sit outside on the street.
I also like Osteria del Teatro (located at Via Generale Govone 7), a small restaurant with simple, good food.
If you want pizza, I recommend La Ducchessa (located at Via Ospedale 5). These guys (from Naples) have been around forever and their pizza is very good (and very filling).
Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?
Piedmont people are more closed compared to other parts of Italy, so they can seem more angry than they really are. Alba is touristy, but it’s still small enough that tourists are stared at. It’s not meant to be menacing or angry, that’s just how some of the people look. Tourists should always be friendly. I’ve found that I can get a lot of smiles and make a lot of friends in the area by being nice and polite and courteous.
The nightlife isn’t too crazy in Alba, so loud, drunk tourists are frowned upon. There are a couple bars and one can easily have a good time. Just don’t overdo it and don’t bring chaos into the streets.
The only other thing I can think of isn’t a problem, just a difference: Italians don’t typically drink a cappuccino beyond breakfast…and tourists do. It’s not insulting. It’s just different, but in this area, food is important. If you want a cappuccino after dinner, you can have it. The locals wouldn’t, but it’s your meal, so who cares?
To fit in, try following some of the local rhythms, living how the locals live. Between 12:30 and 3 p.m., shops close and people eat/relax. In the evening, everyone goes home or goes out. No reason to work (or shop). They have small espresso and brioche in the morning for breakfast. Simple. They eat a big lunch and smaller dinner.
What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?
Talk to the shop owners, in English or Italian (it doesn’t matter if neither one of you can speak the same language). It’s fun to communicate and people appreciate it. If there are special events, talk with some of the people managing things. Go to bars and sit at the counter and chat with the barman.
Why should people make sure to visit Alba?
People often want to see something authentically Italian. Alba is large enough that it offers some nice touristy things, but it’s small enough to avoid the feel of a huge tourist city. It’s closer to being Italian than other places. Also, the wine is good. And if you come in October/November, there’s a truffle fair. That gets big and touristy, but there are some fun events (including a donkey race and Medieval games).
If you want a taste of truffles, I recommend coming mid-November or even December (after the fair). You’ll still find them in restaurants…and maybe you’ll get a bit of snow.
What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?
From the hills surrounding the city (Alba is in a small valley by a river with hills all around it). You can drive up these hills if you want, but cycling and walking are best. If you do it the day after rain, in the morning, the sky is perfect.
Anything else you want us to know?
Honestly, the area is out of the way. People who come here are usually looking for the place. They don’t necessarily stay long, but they eat and drink well when they do. If time is short, there are many other bigger places to see in Italy. If you just want to relax and enjoy beautiful scenery, Alba and the Langhe are a good choice (especially in May…the weather is great today). If you want to practice your Italian, you can find families willing to host you. Many locals love the opportunity to host people. The cultural exchange is fun and it’s an excuse for more food.