Acqui Terme is a small town in the Northern Italy, in the Piedmont region of Italy. It's also the hometown of a good friend of mine. Italy is a country precious to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons - for its food, for its art, for its romance (I know a lot of couples that have gone there for their honeymoon) and for the architecture and history, of course. There are plenty of sights to see in all the big cities like Rome, Milan, Naples and Venice - if you wanted to tour Italy and see all the sights, it would take you months. But if you've been to this site, you know I don't really go to the big cities (at least, not at first). I'm more interested in the cultural experience that you can have when going around with a local in a smaller region. I personally find that much more rewarding. Don't get me wrong - there is a time to see the big sights as well, but as much as I can, I prefer to go around the lesser known areas. So when I got a chance to go to Germany for work, I figured a good way to see Acqui terme would be to fly into Milan, and then drive up to Germany through Switzerland.
On the first trip, we drove back late from Rothenburg, and eventually got there pretty late. My first impression was as I had expected, as Acqui resembles some of the historical Italian cities I've seen in the movies. The architectural style is full or arches, and domes and building facades filled with details. It was not easy to see some of these details at night, but walking through the town, you can get the feel for being in an old town.
The next day, we got up early to have breakfast and and walk around the city center a little bit more. During the day is when you can appreciate the picturesque town.
Going around town with a local is always better. They know where to go for the local experience, and can likely keep you away from the tourists. They also know the secret spots where the food is awesome. We went to a restaurant in a hidden away alley for lunch that was close to my friend Francesco's house, and also owned by a friend of his, called Carialoso Trattoria. I've heard that the grandmother of the friend cooks a lot of the food, or at least provides the recipes. Simple in-season food, but seriously delicious. I had the steak tartare, and the speciality during that time was this large wild mushroom fried in season. I've heard since then the restaurant is no longer owned by the same person, but I assume the food is still awesome.
I think one of the best ways to experience a local culture is by experiencing their food. Italian food needs no introduction, and I'm fortunate enough to be able to appreciate a wide array of flavors, even though I am a picky eater - picky in the sense that I don't eat certain food groups (fish/seafood) - but the food groups that I DO eat, I want them in as many different flavors as I find. So on one of the dinners, I was taken to a restaurant a little bit out of the way, and definitely not on the tourist brochure, called Ristorante Da Mario in the Montferrat region in the same Piedmont region as Acqui Terme. Locals know about this place very well, and they usually take anybody that visits. As with a lot of really good restaurants, the place has a pre-fixed menu, and they come to your table every 10/15 mins and serve one dish after another.
It was a little funny in the beginning, because when we first walked into the restaurant, we stood out like a sore thumb - our group consisted of a normal Italian guy, his Japanese wife, and his brown skinned friend. I assume there aren't too many non-Italian fellows in that are that frequent that restaurant. It was a reminiscent of a scene in a bar in an old western movie - when the door swings open and someone new walks in, the music stops and everybody turns around to look at who just walked in. It was only for 2 mins, and then everybody continued with their meal.
One of the real specialities of this area is truffle. If you are familiar with truffle, you know how expensive it is, especially white truffle. The white truffle originally comes from the Montferrat region, so it was impossible to pass up. I've never had actual truffle (just small amounts in sauces and stuff), so this was a real treat. We started with their own house wine and ended with their own house made Grappa. The best way to have truffle is just get plain spaghetti pasta, which is flavored lightlly with garlic and olive oil - and then shave the truffle on top. There were some great cold and hot anti-pasti, but the highlight of the meal was definitely truffle.
My friend Francesco also has a confectionary/candy shop in the family that is run by his aunt, from which I've had many a chocolate when he was in the US. The speciality of the shop is Acquese al rum, which is a thick, dark chocolate disc and in the middle is soft chocolate fudge, heavily infused with a type of rum. His aunt would pack a bunch of them nicely in a plastic bag, and tape it multiple times and mail it to the US. But that didn't help the rum smell from intoxicating anyone around - when the mailman came to deliver the box, he would always ask what was inside that smells so good. I can't help but think he was a little tipsy from the fumes...
The rest of the time was spent walking around and shopping! The abundance of really good cheese and other stuff around town is just amazing - I took some time to stock up. Francesco stands next to the cheese stack for size scale.