- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Cesare Giaccone lives at the end of a winding mountain road in Italy’s Albaretto della Torre. Tucked among steep but neatly manicured Barolo vineyards 15 miles from Alba, Albaretto della Torre is a hamlet so small that you could easily miss it if you look down for a second to double-check your map.

Mr. Giaccone’s restaurant Da Cesare occupies the living room of a chalet-style house, the sort of place you drive by several times before it dawns on you that it could actually be a business. The restaurant has only 12 tables, and getting a reservation can require patience and a bit of luck.

The rustic dining room has whitewashed walls and rough-hewn wood floors, with a stone hearth Mr. Giaccone designed and built himself. When you meet the rough-and-tumble Mr. Giaccone, you wonder who came up with the coquettish touches: the crystal candle holders, the red tablecloths crowned with white crocheted top cloths, and the bouquets of white and yellow roses.

If you’re lucky enough to be invited by Mr. Giaccone to spend the night, you’ll be lodged in a stone farmhouse nearby where the chef, his parents and other family members grew up.

Mr. Giaccone is one of the most celebrated chefs in Italy. You’d never guess it to look at him. A cigarette dangles from a mouth, framed by a splendid salt-and-pepper moustache. His hands are callused. Outside the kitchen, he sports the worn blue trousers and jacket of an Italian laborer.

The 60-year-old looks more like a stove repairman than a master chef, except for a pair of bright red glasses hanging from a string around his neck.

However, to watch him work even for an hour is to know you’re in the presence of a master. He moves through the kitchen like a slow, steady machine, his hands never empty, no gesture wasted. He can tell you the provenance of every ingredient — the home-brewed Barolo wine vinegar, the supernaturally ripe and never refrigerated Ligurian tomatoes, the pungent truffles for which this hilly area is famous. No task is below him, not butchering the meats, not stirring the polenta, not even washing the lettuce.

Some of the world’s greatest chefs, from Chicago’s Charlie Trotter to Spanish chef Ferran Adria have come here to pay homage. International Herald Tribune critic Patricia Wells included his tiny restaurant on a list of the world’s top 10 dining establishments. Vogue columnist Jeffrey Steingarten raved about the spit-roasted baby goat.

Said goat was the reason for my trip here and for my driving halfway across northern Italy in a single day to sample it. The moment I heard that Mr. Giaccone had personally built the stone fireplace in the dining room for the express purpose of spit-roasting goat, I knew I had to visit.

Master showman that he is, Mr. Giaccone realized early the public-relations value of a theatrical house specialty. You don’t get much more theatrical than spit-roasting an animal in the fireplace in front of your guests.

Preparation is simple. The only seasonings are salt and freshly ground black pepper. Of course, there’s the meat, a 4- to 5-week-old capretto (kid) raised on a nearby farm. Mr. Giaccone butchers the meat himself, swinging a giant cleaver and trimming off every last bit of silver skin and sinew.

As he weaves the kid onto the hand-forged spit, he’s careful to include both meaty shoulder and flavorful ribs. “Everything I do is simple,” he says.

Earlier that afternoon, he had built a fire with local beech and oak logs, letting it burn down to glowing embers. The rotisserie spit turns 16 inches above the coals, just close enough for the meat to be licked by flame and far enough to be roasted by the radiant heat of the embers. The total cooking time is about 2 hours, and what comes off the spit is crusty and smoky on the outside and meltingly tender inside, with a delicate flavor that lies somewhere between veal and baby lamb.

The sauce is equally easy to make. It’s gorgeous extra-virgin olive oil perfumed with fresh parsley, sage, rosemary and garlic. The understatement is deliberate. What’s important is to keep the focus on the meat. “The best piece of meat I had ever eaten,” Mr. Steingarten said.

If we’re talking best, the short list of Mr. Giaccone’s triumphs could also include a shallot- and rosemary-perfumed roast duck agrodolce, served with a sweet-sour honey vinegar sauce. Then there are Mr. Giaccone’s spareribs, which are roasted with milk and honey and carpeted with aromatic porcini mushrooms.

Mr. Giaccone is cutting-edge enough to pull off an almost nouvelle cuisine pairing of porcini mushrooms with sauteed peaches and coffee semifreddo with a textbook hot fudge sauce. His traditionalist soul is apparent in his bechamel-stuffed roasted onions, his truffle-scented polenta (cooked in the traditional copper pot) and pasta made to order before each meal using local eggs with vivid yellow yolks.

Mr. Giaccone comes by his passion naturally. His great uncle opened a simple hostaria dei cacciatore, a country restaurant for hunters, in this town of 200 about a century ago. His grandparents, then parents, then Mr. Giaccone took over the restaurant. He is training the fourth generation of Giaccones to take over, his sons Oscar and Filippo.

Kid may be Mr. Giaccone’s house specialty, but most Americans will have an easier time buying and eating lamb. Lamb is the traditional spring meat for three of the world’s great religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I can’t think of a better spring or holiday centerpiece than spit-roasted lamb served with Mr. Giaccone’s fragrant salsa verde, a fresh herb sauce.

Da Cesare’s address is 12 Via Umberto, Albaretto della Torre, near Alba in Piedmont region. For reservations, call 173-520-141 or fax 173-520-147.

Spit-roasted lamb in the style of Cesare with salsa verde

Mr. Giaccone makes this dish with kid (baby goat), but the procedure and sauce are terrific for lamb. If you live in an area with a large Italian community, you may be able to buy baby lamb, a true spring delicacy and traditional Easter dish. Note that you can cook the lamb on the rotisserie on your gas or charcoal grill or on an indoor countertop rotisserie.

1 2½- to 3-pound piece of shoulder or butterflied leg of lamb

Coarse salt (kosher or sea)

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves

3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage leaves

3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Generously season lamb on all sides with salt and pepper to taste. Tie the lamb into a cylindrical roast with butcher’s string. Thread the roast lengthwise onto the rotisserie spit. Insert the drip pan. If working on an outdoor grill, preheat according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (Preheating is not necessary for most indoor grills.) Place the spit in the rotisserie, and turn on the heat and motor.

Spit-roast the lamb until darkly browned and cooked to taste, about 1 hour for medium. (I like kid served medium to medium-well, as does Mr. Giaccone.) The internal temperature on an instant-read meat thermometer will be about 160 degrees.

To make the salsa verde, place garlic and ½ teaspoon salt in a mixing bowl; mash to a paste with the back of a spoon. Add rosemary, sage and parsley, and mash slightly with the back of the spoon to release the aromatic oils. Stir in olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. For a thicker, more emulsified sauce, mix ingredients in a food processor or blender.

Remove lamb from the spit, and transfer to a platter or cutting board. Let it rest for 5 minutes, then thinly slice crosswise or cut into chunks for serving. Serve salsa verde on the side for spooning over the lamb. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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