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“When I first went to Italy, it was like Oh my God,” says Barolo Grill owner (then-employee) Ryan Fletter of the inaugural 1995 trip that the restaurant staff took to the Boot. “It’s one thing to taste the food and try these wines in the restaurant, but going there was completely eye-opening.” Fletter, who now proudly helms the 26-year-old dining institution, has continued the tradition of traveling to Italy with the Barolo crew on an annual summer pilgrimage.
Fletter offers the trip to any Barolo employee who’d like to go and can afford his or her own airfare. The restaurant covers all remaining expenses, asking that employees who attend the trip continue to work at the restaurant for at least a year thereafter. “We have sort of a gentleman’s agreement that you’ll stick around,” Fletter says. “It’s kind of like the mother yeast—you’re feeding it for the next year.”
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Fletter and Co. change up the trip itinerary year by year—although they always return to Piedmont, home to the restaurant’s namesake commune. This year’s 12-day journey took a 10-person group—comprised of Fletter, members of the kitchen crew, sommeliers, and a few waitstaff—through Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and Piedmont. Part two, written by Fletter, covers the group’s time in Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont.
Part Two: Emilia Romagna and Piedmont
We left Tuscany, heading eastbound for tastes of crisp white Verdicchio wine and local seafood on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. We passed endless sunflower fields as we moved through the inland areas of Emilia-Romagna, passing the flat farmlands surrounding Modena and Parma. Along the way, we visited artisan facilities that produce prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and various cheeses.
We also enjoyed drinking Lambrusco, the common local wine of the Emilia-Romagna area, in its natural surroundings. It’s a simple, fruity, and almost frothy sparkling red, delicious and served cold. Like a grape popsicle, it keeps you slurping for more.
We landed in the heart of Piedmont, land of white and black truffles and birthplace of the great wines of Barbaresco and Barolo. The noble wine grapes used for Barolo, called Nebbiolo, come from some of the most treasured vines in the world, producing some of the greatest wines on the planet. Our first sip was at the eponymous Bruno Giacosa winery in Barbaresco. This is one of the most famous wineries in the area; it helped elevate that once-poor farmland region to the high designation it enjoys today.
After that visit, we set up base camp in the town of Alba. Famous as the birthplace of a Roman Emperor and as the palatial epicenter for the House of Savoy kingdom, Alba is also the culinary epicenter of the rare white truffle. We also toured other stunning wineries like Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy and Poderi Colla, both early founding firms in this Dolcetto-, Barbera-, and Nebbiolo-rich area.
Next came one of our most anticipated events, which never fails to provide inspiration for the Barolo Grill culinary program: a dining experience at Michelin-star restaurant Massimo Camia. Chef Massimo, his wife Luciana, and his son Iacopo were waiting for us in their dining room.
We began the meal with amuse bouches of lightly fried sardines and guinea-fowl-cream-filled meringues. We continued with “vitello tonnato,” which is composed of thin slices of seared veal topped with a thick tuna sauce and caper berries. The dishes kept coming: “cannelloni di riso nero” (black rice pasta filled with cod in a seafood fumet); “coniglio di pepperoni” (roasted, breaded rabbit with sweet red and yellow peppers). The pasta, in particular, is always inspiring. We fell for the tortellini con ricotta in particular; the pasta packet’s golden hue comes from the almost-orange egg yolks used to make it. (Since returning stateside, chef Truett has created a hybrid of a few of these dishes by stuffing fresh, egg-rich pasta with rabbit sausage to create a version of “agnolotti del plin.” This dish will be added to Barolo Grill’s menu in the coming weeks.)
As we moved to the next course, “bistecca di manzo” (roasted Piedmontese beef with a reduction of veal stock and red wine), we drank gorgeous older vintage Barolo wines. We finished with the best meringues we had ever tasted.
Our last visit was to the swimming pool at winery Poderi Gianni Gagliardo in the Barolo countryside. There, we were hospitably welcomed with glasses of their crisp local white grape variety, ”Favorita,” from special double-magnum bottles. (This wine is currently on the Barolo Grill list by the glass.)
What a memorable trip! From refreshing dips in Tuscan pools to tastings the wines of each region to our intimate dining experience at Massimo Camia, chef Truett and I are still in awe of everything we ate, drank, and saw. We’re already looking forward to returning to Italy next year, and in the meantime, we’ll bring the flavors of our favorite experiences to our guests at Barolo Grill.
Bonus: Get a taste of the the Barolo Grill team’s travels with the following dishes and wines, all on the restaurant’s current menu:
• Agnolotti del plin
• Vitello tonnato
• Prosciutto e melone
• “Super” caprese heirloom tomato salad
• Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Fanetti 2010 Toscana
• ‘Favorita’ Poderi Gianni Gagliardo 2017 Piemonte
• Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi, ‘Crisio’ Casalfarneto 2013 Marche