I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of Cuneo until four weeks ago. Happily it seems nor has anyone else. It’s the most unspoilt Italian town of its size I’ve come across with barely a tourist except for the French (the French!) who come over the border each week for the Tuesday market.
You might think from the abundance of pizzerie and caffés that it doesn’t have any serious restaurants either but a few paces away from the Via Roma, the elegant central boulevard that runs the length of the town, you’ll find the smartly turned out Michelin-starred delle Antiche Contrade (‘the old quarter’)
You know it’s a modern Italian restaurant because it has a scooter in reception. And a French chef, Marc Lanteri (‘though he’s not really French. We used to own that bit of France’ says the owner Giorgio Chiesa loftily.)
The restaurant moved to its current premises from its previous location in the Hotel Palazzo Lovera earlier this year (a long story, involving retiring in-laws) and has been given a facelift, a state-of-the-art kitchen and a warren of cellars which the sommelier Roberto Mostini has proceeded to fill with an impressive selection of over 1000 bins.
We ate there twice during our brief stay. Once to consume a quite disgraceful amount of white truffles under the slender pretext of having a cooking lesson (actually they did most of the cooking. we just stood by admiringly).
The other time was to sample the tasting menu. Except that there wasn’t one despite the fact that we spotted it in the hotel lift. Instead they came along quite charmingly and offered vague suggestions along the lines of ‘Shall we do you a bit of fish, then maybe some veal, some rice and perhaps some pigeon?’ It seemed as churlish as if you were in someone’s house to say ‘Well actually I wouldn’t mind trying the “full of itself calamaro” or the “Cevere’s leek risotto with fried tripes” you have on your menu’ especially as Roberto was rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of matching our pigeon with some obscure bottling. So we kept quiet.
When the fish turned up I nearly choked as it was a seabass tartare and my husband doesn’t do raw fish. But he seemed to be feeling unusually mellow, possibly due to the sonorous effect of the lushly romantic background music, an improbably retro medley from the ‘60s. There was a wonderfully sweet, succulent king prawn to compensate.
The veal turned out to be a cleverly deconstructed vitello tonnato: wafer thin slices with a small lozenge of tuna paté at one end and a few salad leaves and some mayo at the other. It went spectacularly well with a richly tropical Gavi Filagnotti from Cascina degli Ulivi that Roberto had unearthed from his cellars.
A risotto of ceps (served daringly by Roberto with a Morgon) was impossible to fault in everything but quantity. In fact it was so good we could have happily carried on eating it for the rest of the meal. But instead it was on to carpaccio-like slices of pigeon breast surrounded by an amazing selection of vegetables (where the Piedmontese score over the veg-phobic French).
With a flourish Roberto produced his coup de grace, a Rossese di Dolceacqua 2003 from Antonio Perrino, a wild brambly glassful made from native Ligurian grapes. Thank goodness he didn’t play the options game and make us guess what it was. (Apparently the winemaker charges €1 less per bottle for it than for his olive oil as the olive oil costs him more to make.)
We finished off – not that we really needed it – with a dessert of soft nougat (torroncino) and vanilla ice-cream. And a graceful honeysuckle-sweet Sardinian moscato (Moscadeddu Badde Nicolosu) which matched the accompanying fresh-tasting strawberry sauce perfectly.
Now I’m sure you can go to Antiche Contrade and have what’s on the menu or what’s on the wine list but why would you? Frankly the ‘menu surprise’ and Roberto’s lucky dips are far more entertaining.
delle Antiche Contrade, Via Savigliano 12, 12100 Cuneo. Tel: +39 (0)171 480 488 www.antichecontrade.it
Written by Fiona Beckett