One Friday afternoon in June, I stopped for gas at an overcrowded Autogrill on the road to Piemonte – just one of several Milanese out to beat the weekend rush. Traffic lightened once I passed through the Langhe valley as most cars were headed due south to the Ligurian coast. Two hours from Milan it’s not hard to find an unforgettable trattoria in the hills; where I was headed, I soon discovered, was so much more. Rantan farmhouse offers dinner on Friday and Saturday nights and lunch on Sunday, but do not call it a restaurant. The founder-owners, Carol Choi and Francesco Scarrone, have never published their menu and all bookings are made directly through them via their website – a boutique agriturismo where after dinner, a few lucky guests have the opportunity to stay the night. Choi and Scarrone’s work-life romance was born out of their passion for food yet also for community building and cultural preservation. Eating at Rantan feels like being cooked for by a family that cares to know what you like.
My friend and I locked in our trip months in advance to ensure our dinner would be long and our glasses filled high with Barolo, reserving their two cosy sleeping options for a night: a luminous bedroom above the Rantan kitchen and a stylish cabin with crisp hemp sheets and their own farm fresh flowers. No detail was spared including eco-friendly toothpaste packaged in a carnation pink vessel, like chewing gum but made of baking soda and essential oils.
Choi and Scarrone, both under 35, opened Rantan after meticulous renovation of their stone house; their plans to enhance their farm’s activities works symbiotically with their seasonal menu, chic lighting, colorful posters and custom carpentry. Rantan’s interior relishes in play between stone and wood — the couple openly celebrates local artisan Davide Arlaud, who owns a falegnameria in nearby Salbertrand in collaboration with Bottega Pitti. Impeccably warm, the presence of Ben, their house cat nestled in a chair next to my room, gave away the fact that Choi and Scarrone live upstairs too. Four years ago they settled into their hectare of land near where Scarrone had skied as a child growing up in Torino. They named it Rantan, meaning pantano, or “mud puddle,” in Piemontese dialect, a reference to the condition of the place when they bought it.
A carefully considered project, Rantan is the realization of their collective desire to spend more time in collaboration together and build their own community, something they craved after spending close to ten years in the culinary limelight. Carol previously worked at Per Se in New York and then at Noma in Copenhagen. She later went on to work at Relæ, which is where she met Francesco; both spent subsequent years as major supporting players for chef Christian Puglisi. The couple now have the space and freedom to fully pursue their culinary passions: a small shed contains a walk-in refrigerator full of resting loaves that Choi, a master baker, prepares for both dinner and breakfast at Rantan. Not far from the shed, their Korean onggi area is in progress for fermentation projects. And for their next phase, they plan to build a wood-fired oven and gathering space for workshops in an effort to preserve their valley’s long held culinary traditions. They have chosen to keep all pasta off the menu.
A dinner at the long, custom-built wooden table in the Rantan kitchen, which also serves as Choi and Scarrone’s personal kitchen, is a communal affair featuring ten strangers and multiple courses. The menu, crafted around the best fresh and preserved ingredients, has an unmistakable identity from a season about to pass. “Rantan is not a restaurant – you can eat, stay and share in nature’s rhythm,” says Choi in a video posted on their website. Beyond the exquisite bread is the butter, cold-churned, raw and white as snow; polenta even whiter, next to artichokes with a hint of char; potato latkes abundantly speckled with delicate trout roe from a local Traversellaian who raises trout in fresh spring water just down the road. The feeling of being cooked for by a family that knows you and knows the land, is exactly what Rantan is all about.
While Carol sliced her signature brown bread the next morning, Francesco lit the kindling on his newly arrived smoker on the terrace. The crackle of the hazelnut and oak wood made a staccato applause for the cows whose bells echo endlessly through the valley until nightfall. Scarrone’s first go with his smoker was with a dairy cow shoulder given to him by the family across the street, reluctantly sacrificed because of a back injury. Not surprisingly, he barbequed the shoulder and invited their neighbors in the valley to taste it. While my stay had come to an end, my window into the world of Rantan is everlasting. The space and people are special and their resilient passion for all that is simple and yet in need of preservation- making it simultaneously innovative and delicious.