Italian food is one of my comfort foods. But, I grew up surrounded by Italian-Americans who cooked southern Italian cuisine. Northern Italian food, though, is so different than what I grew up with. And some of the best northern Italian cuisines can be found in the Piedmont, Italy, region. We will share what makes Piedmont food so good and different from other Italian cuisines.
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Italian Food Regions – Northern Italy
Understanding Italian food by region is important. There are so many different types of cuisine depending on where in the country you travel to.
In my opinion, there is no such thing as a “food capital of Italy.”
Piedmont recipes are going to be entirely different than recipes from Rome, or Florence, or Sicily. And a big part of this is because of the key ingredients the Piedmont region is known for. In this Italian food blog post, we talk about the food in Piedmont and why it is so tasty.
Learn more about traveling in Italy:
What Is The Piedmont Region – Piemonte Versus Piedmont
The first thing to understand when learning about the food and wine of the area is to define Piedmont. It’s not an Italian region that is as well known as other areas of Italy, like Tuscany or Umbria. First, what is the difference between the Piemonte and Piedmont regions? That’s a simple one. Piemonte is the Italian spelling and Piedmont is the English spelling. In this post, I might use both versions interchangeably.
Where Is Piedmont Italy?
The Piedmont area is located in the northwest corner of Italy. The capital of Piemonte is the city of Turin, which is known as Torino in Italian. Some other major cities in Piedmont include Alba and Asti, as well as the tiny village of Barolo, well known for the best Barolo wine.
Perhaps less known about Piedmont are the Italian dishes of the area. They are not necessarily as well known as some of the dishes and food products from other areas of Italy, like lasagna from Bologna or Parmigiano Reggiano from Emilia Romagna. But, the Italian dishes from the area are very good. This is mostly due to the high quality of the Piedmont food products available.
While visiting Piedmont and staying in Barolo, we sat down with dozens of Piedmont food producers to learn all about their quality products. Then, we traveled to Turin to learn (and eat) more Turin cuisine.
Assopiemonte – The Piedmont Italy Consortium
The Piedmont region is most famous for wine, chocolate, and hazelnut products like Nutella. But, the region is not known much for its cheese or other products. And, it’s not as well known for its Italian cuisine. But, from what we learned about Piedmont food when visiting Barolo and Turin, some of the most high-quality Italian food products are from the area. We learned so many Italian food facts while in Piedmont.
Assopiemonte is a consortium of Piedmont food producers founded in 1989. Like in Emilia Romagna and elsewhere in Italy, the consortium regulates the agriculture process and quality for DOP and IGP products. It also helps promote Piedmont food and wine throughout Italy and worldwide.
The Assopiemonte consortium focuses on the promotion and quality of three primary products: 1) Piedmont cheese, 2) rice, and 3) Piedmont meat. They work on other products as well. They not only promote the products but to help promote and support smaller family estates that wouldn’t otherwise be able to promote their products. They offer technical support as well, to keep standards and to help smaller producers modernize and to ensure consistency. It’s one of the reasons why Piedmont food is so good.
People may think that pasta is the national food of Italy. But, when you think about it, most signature Italian dishes are made with cheese. And almost every Piedmont restaurant menu includes all sorts of dishes featuring some of the most prominent Piedmont cheeses.
Now for a little cheese nerd history. Cheese production started in Piedmont with the first documented production in the 12th and 13th century. At that time, there was evidence that cheese was used as a payment to the Marquis. In the 14th century, the first treatise of Piedmont cheese was published, which covered how the cheese is made, consumed, and how to produce milk. It sort of codified cheese culture and cheese production.
Piedmont, Italy is a mountainous region, giving the cheese a unique character. The cows graze up and down the steep Alpine mountainside, constantly in search of grass to eat.
There are about 2000 farmhouses or barns with cows that produce milk. Of those, about 600 produce cheese, most of which are found quite high in the mountains. There are many different types of cheeses produced, but one reigns supreme.
Castelmagno Piedmont Cheese – The King of Piedmont Food
The self-proclaimed ”king” of Piedmont cheese is Castelmagno, which comes in two varieties, Castelmagno DOP and Castelmagno di Alpeggio DOP. Both kinds of cheese are made with the simplest of ingredients, milk, salt, and rennet, but the latter is from the Alps. Although not to get too confusing, the Castelmagno DOP is also referred to as from the mountains, which it is; it’s just not as Alpine as the Alpeggio. Welcome to the world of Italian DOP and IGP products!
And Castelmagno is one of the key components of Piedmont cuisine and is probably the most well-known of the Italian specialty foods from Piedmont – at least to those in the know. Prior to spending this week in Piedmont, if someone asked me what food is Italy known for, I never would have said Castelmagno cheese.
The Alpeggio cheese is produced high in the Alps, with the cows grazing over 1,000 meters high. The cows must only eat grass from the Alps in order to be called Alpeggio. The cheese also must be aged a minimum of 60 days to be called Alpeggio. It’s often called a “green cheese” style blue cheese, one of the most expensive in Italy. The Castelmagno di Montana DOP (so not Alpeggio) is similar but produced at a lower altitude.
Eating Castlemagno in Piemonte – Italian Food Pro Tip
Wondering how to eat Castlemagno? It’s common on pasta and risotto dishes. Try the Tajarin al Castlemagno at Porto di Savigno in Turin, one of the best meals we had while in Turin.
Tajarin is a ribbon-shaped pasta, similar to tagliatelle but thinner. Look for restaurants that show “fatti in casa” or made in-house.
Hazelnuts in Piedmont are a certified IGP product, officially known as Nocciola Piemonte IGP. Yes, there is a consortium that regulates hazelnut production the same way that they regulate Prosciutto di Parma.
Many of these producers (like Cascina Valcrosa, and Terra delle Nocciole) produce raw hazelnuts, roasted hazelnuts, and a variety of other products, like hazelnut paste and hazelnut chocolate cream.
You might find these products at a luxury food shop or even a Piedmont farmers market. They also make sweets and cakes with hazelnuts that are unlike anything else in the world!
What Are Real Piemonte Hazelnuts
They are real products, with no preservatives or extra ingredients. Their hazelnut paste is just crushed hazelnuts and is great for cooking. We’ve used it to make pasta with hazelnut cream sauce. Their hazelnut chocolate is sublime, with a creamy texture that is a world away from Nutella. Yes, Nutella is a Piedmont product, but it is one that is filled with extra sugar and oils.
All their products are made with Nocciola Piemonte IGP. They are part of the Consorzio Tutela Nocciola Piemonte, who regulates the quality of the Piemonte hazelnuts. Not only can you find these products on Piedmont restaurant menus at some of the best restaurants in Piedmont Italy, but it’s also possible to find IGP hazelnuts in some of the most high-quality gelato flavors around Italy.
Italian Craft Beer in the Piedmont Region
The Italian craft beer scene is developing, as these beers go well with local Italian food. We learned a lot from some of the top Piedmont craft beer producers. And, much like craft beer is known as cervesa artesana where we live in the Costa Brava, in Italy, craft beer is known as birra artigianale. We met two birra artigianale producers in the Piedmont region.
Recommended Italian Craft Beer Producers
Kauss beer started by three friends with a passion for beer about six years ago. Recently they became a “farm brewery,” or birra agricola in Italian. Meaning more than 50% of their raw ingredients are produced by themselves on their land. They are cultivating their grain. They are using locally produced Italian hops, although they are working towards their hop production. Their ultimate goal is total control over all ingredients used in the production. Kauss produces about 100,000 liters a year of “easy-going beers, but not simple beers.”
La Alabuna started in 2013. The name of the beer comes from the local Piemonte dialect for a word that translates to genuine or down-to-earth. Both Kauss and La Alabuna produce more blonde beers because that is what the Italians prefer. La Alabuna’s goal is to work with its customers to meet the needs and most importantly, tastes of the local market. They produce at the same brewery as Kauss. I am sure there is a little bit of competition, but it is good to see the cooperation between the two breweries because they have the ultimate goal – to spread the word about Italian craft beer.
Piedmont Rice – Unique Piedmont Agriculture
Growing up in the US, I only knew rice as Uncle Ben’s. But, as I learned more about food, I learned that there are different kinds of rice for different uses. I understand that it is a good idea to use Arborio for risotto, basmati for Indian food, and there is a Catalan bomba rice from Pals that we uses when living in Girona.
Piedmont is the best region in Italy for food if you love risotto. And that’s all because of Piemontese rice. There are over 200 different rice varieties in Italy, yet most people only recognize the name Arborio.
Types Of Risotto Rice In Italy
There are six different rice varieties within the category of Arborio within Baraggia, the Piedmont region that produces rice. There are seven rice varieties grown in the area, and yes one of the most well-known varieties being Arborio, but there is also Carnaroli. And, there is a Piedmont rice history – people have been cultivating rice in Baraggia since the 1400s. And, is there any surprise that Baraggia rice is a DOP product? At this point, there should be no surprise.
Having the DOP designation offers full traceability, from cultivation to the shelves. The farmers and the millers work together to produce the best quality product. And, it’s the only DOP rice in Italy. There is even something called a “rice sommelier” who recommended that the Santa Andrea rice is the absolute best for risotto because it is better adapted to the cold weather and the rice offers a lower viscosity. Who knew?
But, I learned first and foremost while traveling in the Piedmont region of Italy that risotto, made with Baraggia DOP rice, is the epitome of Piemonte cuisine – particularly when served with DOP Castelmagno cheese!
Within Assopiemonte, there is also an association of Quality Meats, focusing predominantly on protecting traditional breeds of Piedmontese beef. It’s one of the newest associations, being formed in 2001.
There are over 800 livestock rearers in Piedmont; most of them that are very small productions of Piedmontese meat. There are both pure Piedmont races, and other cow breeds as well. It is the second region in Italy for meat production. There is more beef produced in the north of Italy because there is a higher amount of grain production, so the cows have food to eat. This means that Piedmont beef is commonly found in Italian meat dishes.
It’s possible to find Piedmont beef in restaurants or small butcher shops within Italy. They only export about 1% of the beef, mostly to France. This means that if you see “Piemonte beef” in the US, on restaurant menus, it is a Piedmont beef breed that is then raised in the US. It is not meat imported from Italy to the US. That makes this one of the most native Italian foods in that it is pretty much only found in Italy.
How To Eat Piedmont Beef
Because the Piedmont beef is so lean, like the Italians like it, it shows up in a lot of Italian raw beef dishes. I know that Italian raw meat can be tough to eat for many Americans (and others) but the meat is tasty and even healthy. That said, we ate a raw beef appetizer of Piedmont beef. We tried a lean meatball, almost like a tartare, but without seasoning, that was made from the thigh meat of the cow.
We also tried a super unique salsiccia di Bra, which is a sausage that is never cooked. Instead, it is seasoned and eaten raw, more similar to a traditional tartare. This has to be a unique food to track down when traveling in Piedmont, Italy. I will say I liked the sausage a lot more than the meatball.
Piedmont Food Pro Tips: How to try Piedmont beef in Italy: Look for Vitello Tonnato, or a sliced piece of Piedmontese beef, served rare, with a tuna sauce. Or, La Battuta di Fassona, which is a raw beef dish, similar to a tartare. Both are very tasty.
FAQs – The Piedmont Region Italy
Piedmont is in Northern Italy, where it borders France and Switzerland. Turin is about a 7 hour drive from Rome, or less than 5 hours by train. It’s only an hour by train from Milan.
When it comes to wine, the best depends on each person’s tastes and preferences. That said, some of the most awarded and most recognized are Bruno Giacosa, Enrico Rivetto, and Massolino, among others. These are some of the best wineries to visit in Piedmont.
Italy has loads of Michelin restaurants. Italy doesn’t have the most of any country, but it’s a lot. Piedmont hosts approximately 40 Micheline Star restaurants, including just under a dozen in Turin and the surrounding area.