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Hail Cesare

August 15, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

I'd just come in from dinner and turned on the TV. Idly shuffling through the channels in search of a screwball comedy or an old Raymond Chandler film, I caught a flying glimpse of a chef stirring something in a pot and the stentorian tones of Robin Leach's voice.

"My god, it's Cesare!" I exclaimed and burst out laughing at the sheer improbability of it.

But there he was, the mustachioed chef from Italy's Piedmont region, gesturing as broadly as a mime (he doesn't speak a word of English), performing his risotto al Barolo for the viewers of the Food Channel while Bruna Giacosa, daughter of Barolo producer Bruno Giacosa, translated.

Cesare Giaccone--known simply as Cesare in Piedmont is chef-owner of a 25-seat restaurant in Albaretto Torre, a minuscule village in the mists of the Langhe, the wine country that is home to Barbaresco and Barolo. But he is a true original, and the world has beaten a path to his remote door.

"How does it feel to be named by International Herald Tribune critic Patricia Wells as one of the 10 best restaurants in the entire world?" barks Leach.

"Like ascending to the angels!" answers Cesare, smiling beatifically.

Yet Cesare, who has been praised in the same breath as three-star chefs Joel Robuchon, Fredy Girardet and Alain Ducasse, owns not a single copper pot and has no kitchen brigade to speak of--unless you count his son Oscar, who helps out in the kitchen, and a part-time local girl who chops vegetables. His dining room, comfortable but certainly not elegant, would hardly make him a candidate for Relais & Chateau's next guide. Cesare's honor--and his notoriety--is based solely on his cooking.

*

I remember the first time I went to "da Cesare" (officially called Ristorante dei Cacciatori) more than a dozen years ago, with a Barolo producer who was a big fan of the restaurant. We turned off the Alba-Barolo road at Gallo Grinzane and drove along the valley floor past villages we could barely sense in the fog, taking a series of hairpin curves up to Albaretto Torre. At one point, our headlights caught a truffle hunter and his dogs ambling into the forest, his head resolutely turned away so we'd never know which hunter was interested in this particular stand of trees.

Named for its square 14th century tower, Albaretto Torre (pop. scarcely 300) is so small it doesn't have a bar--or even a phone booth. Although everything looked closed up for the night, the winemaker drove on. At the end of town, next to the very last house, he turned in and parked beside a handful of late-model BMWs with German license plates. A few feet away, a black-and-white truffle dog strained on a leash.

"This is it?" I spluttered. "There's not even a sign!"

Inside, the country restaurant was all coziness and warmth, with hand-crocheted cloths on the tables and bright oils and watercolors on the walls. The entire dining room was redolent with the smell of kid roasting over the embers in a fireplace. As the spit turned, it creaked a little and sent the scent of rosemary and garlic wafting into the room.

Over the mantle was Cesare's naive painting of four cherry-red Ferraris on their way to Florence. And rather too close to the fire for any winemaker's comfort were bottles of Barbaresco and Barolo with labels from the Piedmont's greatest producers: Gaja, both the Conterno brothers, Mascarello, Sandrone, Clerico. . . .

We had an astonishing meal that night, one that I still recall in every detail. Potatoes buried in the ashes and splashed with grappa just before serving--an old peasant dish, the winemaker told me, but in Cesare's version, paired with a pheasant mousse. A "poker hand" of funghi--a fabulous plate of local porcini mushrooms cooked five ways, presented on a bed of chestnut leaves Cesare had gathered from the woods. A whole onion baked on a bed of rock salt, with trompe-l'oeil "roots" of grated Parmesan.

He made wide ribbons of cornmeal pasta and sauced it with leeks gently stewed in butter and cream. And then we had the mahogany spit-roasted capretto, so succulent, so stupendous that everyone who comes to Cesare asks for it, even if they've ordered another main course too.

At the end of the meal, Cesare appeared, his eyes twinkling above his bushy mustache, bearing a crumbly hazelnut-cornmeal torte fresh from the oven. And then he was gone, back to the kitchen, from which we heard the rhythmic clank of his whisk hitting the side of the bowl: zabaione, which he makes with fragrant local Moscato instead of the usual Marsala.

I've been lucky enough to eat many times at Cesare's since that night long ago, and I've spent days in his kitchen watching him cook. It's the only way to get a recipe. He cooks so instinctively that he rarely measures or pauses to consider the steps.

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