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Il Boschetto di Vignole, Piemonte

Dario Ponzo, owner of Il Boschetto di Vignole

Continuing our theme of writing about authentic regional restaurants with hardly any foreign language reviews but with consistently high praise from Italians, we are now in the village of Castelnuovo Calcea in the middle of the Piemonte wine country. It’s early December and already winter in the land of Barbera with the tourists gone and the vines now at rest, shorn of their grapes and almost completely bereft of leaves.

Early winter in Piemonte

While it’s true that everywhere in Italy is glorious in the summer, there’s something more atmospheric about Piemonte in the winter with snow on the high ground and the famous fog, which gave Nebbiolo its name, shrouding the lower slopes. It’s also a better season for enjoying the full-bodied local wines and the hearty Piemontese food, both of which can be a little heavy in the summer heat.

Castelnuovo Calcea, Piemonte with the Alps to the north

Castelnuovo Calcea is just a stone’s throw from Agliano Terme where one of our favorite Piemonte wineries is located. After visiting Renata Bonacina at Dacapo we came to Il Boschetto di Vignole for a classic three hour Italian Sunday lunch, a ritual never to be rushed. As soon as we stepped inside the restaurant we could sense that we had made a good choice.

Two large family groups were already seated and clearly enjoying themselves, a fire was burning in the hearth and Dario Ponzo, the owner, came straight over to greet us. The warm atmosphere inside and the contrast with the cold, gloomy and deserted town outside brought back memories of stepping into an English country pub in winter.

Writing this a few days after our visit I don’t remember ever seeing a menu, instead Dario went through everything verbally. Given that the other customers were all locals, and, as we found out later, were in fact mostly friends and relatives of Dario, we took our cue from some of the dishes we could see on the other tables as well as suggestions from Dario.

We started with three different antipasti, the first of which was a classic Piemontese steak tartare (below left) described as battuta di fassona al coltello, much simpler than the French version in that it is seasoned only with salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon and decorated with shavings of parmigiano reggiano.

Piemonte is famous for its razza Piemontese cattle which is a special grey-white breed that has a unique gene mutation causing the animal to produce much more muscle with correspondingly less fat, resulting in the perfect lean meat for this dish.

Next was a simply cooked red pepper (middle photo above) dressed with the famous creamy salsa tonnata sauce used in Piemonte for the region’s signature dish vitello tonnato and the final antipasto was a torta di porri (above right) or leek flan with a cheese sauce.

The primo piatto was a difficult choice so we took the easy way out and ordered both the classic home made Piemontese agnolotti di brasato condito con burro e salvia and the tagliolini al ragu, but in the process had to sacrifice the secondo piatto for lack of room.

Watching the signature dish, bollito misto alla piemontese, being carved by Dario at the next table I personally felt no pang of regret at missing out as I failed to recognize any of the various animal parts on the tray, but as a party of only three we were probably too small a group to do it justice. Next time perhaps, but then again perhaps not.

Il Boschetto di Vignole has garnered a reputation for both its bollito misto and its gran fritto misto piemontese, the latter of which was commended in a recent article in La Stampa (one of Italy's oldest national daily newspapers based in nearby Turin) which said of Il Boschetto: “sulle colline popolate d’arte si trova un sublime fritto misto”.

The bollito misto at Il Boschetto di Vignole
Bollito misto alla Piemontese with animal parts that are not easily recognizable, but the locals love it

Both of these traditional Piemontese dishes contain a variety of things I wouldn’t normally order but they are adored by most people native to this region. The bollito will often include pieces of offal like the head, tongue and tail of the cow as well as some more common cuts of beef like brisket, flank, belly and chuck, all of which require an extended cooking time of around 3 hours. It is typically served with one or more types of salsa, ie con bagnet, and is best ordered by a large group.

The fritto misto will generally include calf's liver, brains and other internal organs mixed with various vegetables and was singled out by Claudia Revelli as her absolute favorite dish on our visit to the Eraldo Revelli winery.

Perhaps the most notable feature of all of the online Italian language reviews of this restaurant is the praise for Dario himself. When you visit Il Boschetto you will understand why because he's the most genial restaurant owner and manager that we've encountered anywhere in Italy.

Dario in his restaurant Il Boschetto di Vignole
Dario loves to chat and provides a warm welcome

He has the perfect personality for all the front of house jobs in a restaurant, charming but in a very genuine, unforced way and he takes care of everything personally. Dario has over thirty years experience with Il Boschetto di Vignole and lives in the apartment above and his relaxed and friendly demeanor has much to do with the fact that most of his guests have been regular customers for years and have become his friends.

But even though this was our first time and it was clear that we were just passing through and live too far away to become regular visitors, Dario still made lots of time for us and we had pleasant and amusing conversations throughout our dinner. He enjoys his job and it shows.

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