Showing posts with label Italian wine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Italian wine. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Tasting of Italian Wines in Century City

The 2018 Vini d'Italia tour was an invitation-only gathering to sample wines from some of Italy's best small-production wineries. After Philadelphia and Austin, the last stop was Terra, Eataly's rooftop dining room in the revitalized Century City Mall.

Marilyn Krieger works for the Winebow Group which organized the tour.  She said that the event was an opportunity to enjoy premium Italian wines distributed by Leonardo LoCascio Selections (LLS) and to talk with the winemakers. The wines we would taste that afternoon would evoke the location of their cultivation and the winemaker whose palate guided the creation of that year's bottling. Each wine was unique. Each winemaker had a story to tell.

I understood completely what Krieger meant. I love visiting vineyards and enjoy meeting winemakers, like Shawna Miller at Luna Vineyards in the Napa Valley and Mélanie Weber in her vineyard overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

The wines served at the afternoon event traversed Italy.

Four rows of tables stretched the length of the large dining room and outside on the covered patio where winemakers and representatives of vineyards from all over Italy poured their vintages and talked about their wines.

To stimulate the palate, a table was set with fine cuts of charcuterie, rough-hew chunks of aged Parmesan, small plates of calamari fritti in a spicy marinara sauce, crusted mashed fingerling potatoes heavily seasoned with flake salt, pasta with fennel sausage and spring salads with burrata, English peas and fava beans.

Some of the wines poured that afternoon were not yet available. Those would be shipped in the fall, available for the holiday season. And, many were so prized, their small productions would sell out before their release dates.

For me, the best adventure as a travel and food writer is to visit wineries as I did in Napa and Switzerland, to spend time with winemakers, explore the area around the vineyards and enjoy the fruit of the vines.

At the Vini d'Italia event I did the next best thing. I traveled from table to table, criss-crossing Italy from north to south and along the way tasted a Brunello, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, Barbera, Chianti, Barolo and a Soave Classico. Every wine was unique. Every winemaker had a story to tell.

I wish you could have been at the event. At the very least, look at the website and check with your local wine shop. Maybe you will find one of the wines we tasted. I hope so.

I look forward to enjoying the wines in a restaurant and seeing them in wine stores and I look forward to visiting the wineries in Italy to complete the experience.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Long Day's Journey into Happiness at Savor Italy

Who doesn’t love a good plate of pasta? Or an antipasti with cheeses, meats and vegetables? I know, those aren’t legitimate questions because the answer is “Everyone!”

Italian dishes rank high on the short list of favorite food. A good Italian restaurant is a treasure in any neighborhood.

Recently I attended Savor Italy Los Angeles. The event was devoted not to a tasting of restaurant dishes but of products available for the home.  The one-day event was hosted by the IACCW (Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West) to promote imported Italian food and wine. For the 30+ purveyors, the event was an opportunity to interact with distributors and consumers. Most offered a tasting of their wines, olives oils, charcuterie and packaged baked goods.

With wine glass in hand, I joined the crowds at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club waking past rows of tables. Many of the companies had local distributors, but not all as the signs on their tables said, “Looking for Distributors.”

A catered buffet lunch was another way to shine a spotlight on Italian products with large platters of charcuterie, cheeses, olives, crackers, breads and olive oil catered by the attentive Elisabetta Ciardullo Criel of Think Italian Events. I filled my plate with Italian ham, mortadella, paper-thin flat breads, Gorgonzola, burrata and Castelvetrano Green olives while I looked for a nice glass of wine to go with my lunch-snack.

The fun of the event was not only in sampling wines and snacking on Italian taste treats but in talking with the people who were there to represent their products.
It was early in the day so I thanked Gian Mario Travella for the offer to taste his Freccianera Prosecco. Near closing time I did return to sample the amber colored, barrel-aged Grappa Invecchiato. Very delicious.

With a smile Andrea Grondona offered a taste of Grondona Pasticceria’s pan dolce (sweetened bread with bits of fruit) and the Baci di Dama (chocolate ganache filled cookies). Full of flavor and moist, I was impressed that packaged baked goods could taste so fresh.

A few steps away, Leo Melgar and Giancarlo Rosito stood behind the Rosito Bisani table with machines used in an Italian restaurant kitchen--a panini press, deli slicer, hard cheese grater for Parmesan and a pasta extruder. They had one home machine, The Reale 1 Compact Espresso Machine.

With a butter cookie in hand, a last gift from Andrea Grondona, I explained how happy I would be to have an espresso to go with my cookie. Being a good Italian with a love of hosting, Rosito led me upstairs where the Reale was set up. His strong cup of espresso was the perfect accompaniment for my butter cookie.

Upstairs from the downstairs

A mezzanine meeting room was set aside for presentations about Italian wine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. In that quiet room, speakers talked about the terroir that gave their products their unique qualities.

Smartly dressed wait staff poured samples as speakers talked through their Power Point presentations.

“Ready for bubbles?”

I arrived as Laura Donadoni was describing the terroir and techniques of the Franciacorta winery located in the north of Italy. As a server poured a tasting of the La Valle “Primum” Brut (75 % Chardonnay; 20% Pinot Noire; 5% Pinot Blanc), I settled in behind a flight of six wine glasses.

Donadoni asked us to raise our glasses so we could appreciate the fine bubbles streaming from the bottom of the sparkling wine flute. 

She regaled the gathered group of aficionados with details of weather, soil quality and harvest particulars that created the distinctive qualities of half a dozen Franciacorta wines.

When I returned for the 6:00pm wine tasting, Laura Donadoni had returned to introduce wines from Lugana. Very different from the morning’s sparkling wines, I liked the 2013 Lugana Doc Vendemmia Tardiva, a light dessert white wine. With its ginger, lemon zest notes, for Donadoni, the wine would be perfect at the end of a meal with cheese or with a dessert like panna cotta.

After we had a sip of the Lugana Doc Riserva, Donadoni polled the gathered group, “What do you taste? What notes?” With noses in their glasses and swirling before tasting, people called out, “Watermelon” and “Jasmine.” 

“Everybody, each one of us, can feel what we taste and smell based on what we have lived in our lives. It is very individual. The difficult part is to connect a sensation with a name.  Ok, now we can drink it.” The 2015 Lugana Doc CONCHIGLIA (Citari) had a clean flavor, light, with more acidity than minerality. Very pleasurable.

The 2014 Lugana Doc Superiore CA LOJERA (Ca’ Lojera) was fermented in oak barrels and that gave the wine a spiciness. We took in the aroma and sipped as she talked about how we could taste “wood” and white clay in the wine with a little “apple” sweetness. 

While she was talking, the A/V went blank. “It is telling me, ok, Laura, time to stop.” 

But with a smile she continued because she loved the wine and its layers of flavors. “It has a sweet lemon and almond flavors and a beautiful finish of apricot with a touch of minerality. The wine can age another 5 years with great benefit" and with that she ended her presentation to the audience's applause.

Oil and Vinegar

The final guided tasting of the day was not about wine but “Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar, Modena.” U.C. Davis’ Orietta Gianjorio is a juror and author,  a 3rd level, Advanced Sommelier, Certified Olive Oil Taster and Member of the Italian Registry (also a 2nd Level Honey Taster, 2nd Level Chocolate Taster, a Delegate for the Academia Italiana della Cucina, and author and International Judge.) Given all her titles, you can tell that Italians take their food very seriously!

Her tasting was not only designed to give us a flavor experience but also to introduce us to the vocabulary we would use to describe that experience.

The olive oil tasting sheet listed disagreeable and agreeable qualities. DEFECTS, it said would be rancid, fusty, musty and winey. AROMAS like green, ripe, citrus, mint, hay-straw and almond are good. And then there was a question about BODY. We would taste for mild, medium or robust.

The same was going to be true of the balsamic vinegars she had brought with her. Balsamic had a different set of descriptive words to communicate quality: DENSITY (thick, fluid, inconsistent, lipid, slightly veiled, cloudy), COLOR (light brown, dark brown, Brown, Amber, Dark Amber); SMELL (Intensity, Persistency) with aromas of raspberries, apricots, plums, dates, figs, prunes, raisins, cassis, black currant, blackberry and so on.

Gianjorio loves what she does and with the short time available to her, she had much to share. “We have an hour or more but you tell me when you are tired. I will teach you how to evaluate your palate when you taste balsamic vinegars and olive oil. I do this every day so I am used to it.”

She explained that a taster has to have good taste buds but also must practice tasting to be good at it.

But before we could do our tasting, she talked about fundamentals.

Extra Virgin Olive Oils

“Extra Virgin,” she asked, “What does that mean?” She polled the group. After a lot of guesses, she explained that it does not mean “first press or cold press.” Today olives are not pressed. Olives are washed, defoliated, then ground up with hammers inside a closed container. The change from open grinding was to prevent the olives being exposed to oxygen because once oxidation begins, the quality of the oil decreases.

After grinding, the olive oil is “massaged” before being placed in a centrifuge which separates the water from the oil. The water is discarded. The oil is filtered and graded.

To be labeled “Extra Virgin” the product must be an oil that is produced only with olives and was extracted with a mechanical not chemical method at a specific temperature (80-86 degrees). After production, the olive oil cannot be mixed with any other oil. And the oil must all be “new” oil not a mixture of old and new.

But that is not the end of the story.

Before labeling, the oil must be laboratory tested for free fatty acids because that will tell whether or not the oil was oxidized which would give the oil a rancid taste. And, finally, the olive oil must go through a sensory advisory panel (8 people) who certify that the olive oil is free of defects.

So “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” is a label indicating a manufacturing process and the quality of the product.

I soaked up every detail of her talk. I tasted the olive oils and the balsamic vinegars and they were delicious.

At the end of the tasting, it was time to leave. Downstairs, the last of the tables had been stacked and ready to be loaded into trucks. People pushed brooms to sweep away the litter. Two people poured the last of a wine bottle into their glasses and saluted each other.

I walked out into the cool night air. What a good day spent enjoying so much great Italian food and wine.

What fun to “Savor Italy.”

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region Comes to Il Fornaio

Wedged between Austria and Slovena, the northern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the south and the Alps to the north. Reflecting a climate which can be buffeted by cold fronts, the region's cuisine emphasizes comfort food: hearty soups, polenta, charcuterie, grilled meats and fish, risotto, gnocchi, and ravioli.

To celebrate the New Year, a group of friends gathered at the Santa Monica Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401; 310/451-7800), opposite the Santa Monica Pier, for a tasting of the Festa Regionale (January 4-17) . Along with a selection of regional dishes, we also sampled wines from the family run Tenuta Luisa winery located close to the Slovena border.

When we arrived at the restaurant, a cold chill caught us by surprise, so soup was the order of the day. The Cannellini Bean Soup (Zuppa E Antipasti) was deeply flavored with carrots, potatoes, and Swiss chard, topped with a thin slice of Il Fornaio's bread, crusted with grated Parmesan cheese. The light and fruity but not sweet Friulano (2008) made a good companion for the soup.

While we studied the menu, we feasted on a basket of delicious, fresh-from-the-oven Il Fornaio bread--the restaurant is called "The Baker" after all--with slices dipped into a small plate filled with their own extra virgin olive oil. The struggle, always, is to eat only a few slices of the bread and not the whole basket.

Although off the familiar tourist routes, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is well-known for one of its products, San Daniele prosciutto. Our appetizer was a plate composed as much for the eye as the palate (Prosciutto San Daniele e Formaggi Misti). The sweet, delicate San Daniele could be eaten by itself, each slice practically melting in your mouth.

What's fun about a charcuterie plate is the mix-and-matching that is possible. A piece of prosciutto can be eaten with a bite of a meaty Cerignola olive, or it can be wrapped around a crisp thin bread stick studded with sea salt. My favorite way was to dredge a slice of soft Montasio Vecchio in olive oil I seasoned with sea salt and pepper, quickly wrapping the cheese in the San Daniele, popping the little package in my mouth before too much of olive oil dripped off, followed by a sip of Friulano. Yum.

Reflecting their proximity to the Alps, the pasta courses featured hearty cream sauces. Usually anathema to calorie counters, a special dispensation should be made for these delicious sauces.

When there is a choice between Ravioli with Roast Duck in an Asparagus Cream Sauce (Ravioli d'Anatra Agli Asparagi), Pasta with Shellfish in a Parmesan and Tomato Bechamel (Pasticcio alla Gradese), Gnocchi with Sausage in a Tomato Cream Sauce (Gnocchi alla Friulana), or Risotto with Mushrooms and Vegetables in a Cheese Sauce (Risotto del Cansiglio), you'd want the tasting to focus entirely here and never move on.

But good sense prevailed and we sampled two of the four.

The ravioli hit every comfort note. The sauce, light and creamy, was leavened by the asparagus. The filling of braised duck meat was mixed with San Daniele prosciutto and pillowed softly inside the delicately sweet dough. Needless to say, generous amounts of fresh bread were used to collect every last drop of the sauce.

In the risotto, the sauce had been absorbed into the grains of rice. By comparison with the ravioli, the effect was almost austere but the effect was no less luxurious. The risotto melted in the mouth, with thin slices of wild mushrooms and fresh vegetables providing added flavor to the sweetness of the rice.

With both courses we had the Pinot Grigio (2008), a crisp companion perfect to contrast with the pastas' richness.

For protein, the region looks both to the mountains and the sea. Shrimp and Spaghetti in a Marinara Cream Sauce (Gamberoni alla Busara con Spaghetti), Wild Sea Bass with Mashed Potatoes and Spinach (Filetto di Branzino alla Greca), and a Mixed Grill of Chicken, Sausage, Lamb, and New York Steak (Carne Mista alla Brace).

Choosing the sea bass, I would have happily just eaten the mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach with cherry tomatoes, capers, Kalmata and Cerignola olives. They were that delicious. The sea bass had no trouble competing with such formidable accompaniments. Moist and sweet, the skin turned into a crisp confection that dissolved in my mouth. The Friulano was a bit too fruity for the dish and the Pinot Grigio too crisp, so we switched to the Sauvignon (2008) which had just the right amount of lightness and full flavor.

Outside we could see people leaving the Santa Monica pier, their coats pulled tightly around them, so although we were well-satisfied with the meal, we decided to take another moment and relax in the warm comfort of the restaurant and share the regional dessert.

A small cake topped with ice cream came to the table. The Italian name, Tortino di Mele con Gelato al Rum, was certainly a mouthful. But we were so busy eating the cake, we didn't bother practicing our Italian. To our simple American tastes this was a great version of a Fruit-Nut Cake. And the rum raisin ice cream was as good as it gets.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Il Fornaio Serves Up a Recession Busting Tasting Menu

Il Fornaio started a tasting menu several months ago, encouraging customers to visit and sample the regional menus that are offered two weeks at the start of each month. For $29.99, choices can be made from the soup and antipasti, pasta, and main course menus.

We visited our favorite branch of Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401; 310/451-7800) across from the Santa Monica pier to have this month's selection from the Piemonte region, bordered by France, Lombardia, and Switzerland. Befitting an area with a colder climate, the dishes are comforting and savory, perfect for fighting off the mountain chill.

We happily started with the Potato and Leek Soup (Zuppa di Patate Porcini e Porri), served hot with a toasted disk of Il Fornaio's country white bread topped with a thick coating of melted fontina cheese. Finely chopped sauteed porcini mushrooms supplied the sweetness, complimenting the salty broth. A glass of Gavi, Patasiolo (2008) was the perfect companion.

For our pasta, we ordered the Cheese Ravioli with Porcini Sauce (Agnolotti di Fonduta ai Porcini). With the first bite, the porcinis dominated, suggesting that this was one of those dishes where the pasta was merely a delivery system for a richly flavored sauce. But the agnolotti were an amiable partner in this marriage of equals. With just a hint of white truffle oil--which is all too often applied with a heavy hand, the better to trumpet a restaurant's grand largess--the mild ravioli stuffed with fontina acquired a light but determined accent of roasted nuts.

For the main course, we had our choice of a Breaded Chicken Breast with ham and fontina cheese (Suprema di Pollo Ripiena), Roast Pork Loin with Figs and Sage (Maiale alla Piemontese), or Wild Seabass with Sauteed Vegetables and Mashed Potatoes (Filetto di Branzino all'Uva).

We were in the mood for a lighter dish, so we chose the seabass with the accompanying sauteed whole stems of broccoli-rabe, mashed potatoes, baby carrots and yellow squash. Halved green grapes and musky thyme complimented the sweet, moist fish, served in a delicate Champagne vinegar sauce.

To finish the meal, we treated ourselves to the regional dessert, an Amaretto-Coffee Custard (Bonet Classico), served with a caramel-coffee-creme anglaise sauce, the perfect ending to a delicious meal.

The Piemonte Regionale is served from November 2-15. If you're going to the American Film Market or Cirque du Soleil across the street or if you're just out on the town looking for an delicious, affordable meal, it's easy enough to stop by Il Fornaio in Santa Monica.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia

The first Tuesday of every month, my wife and I have dinner with a group of friends. We go to the Santa Monica Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Pier, Santa Monica 90401; 310/451-7800) for a tasting of the current Festa Regionale.

The dinner is on the early side, so it is a bit of a rush to get there from work, but the idea is to meet, talk, eat, sample the wines, and still get home early enough to deal with kids and other obligations.

The region celebrated this month is Lombardia. The dishes have substance, the better to fight off the cold in this northern region of Italy, so there are entrees of osso buco (Ossobuco alla Milanese) and beef tenderloin with mascarpone and gorgonzola (Filetto di Bue alla Lombarda), which is something of a gilded lily but the side of grilled polenta and sauteed spinach help ground the rich dish.

A Franciacorta Brut, Tenuta di Montenisa, a light fruity sparkling wine, the Malvasia '"Tasto di Seta," Castello di Luzzzano, 2007 with a pleasant mineral flavor, and the Bonarda Oltrepo Pavese, Carlino, Castello di Luzzano, 2007, with a full-bodied quality that would please any Bordeaux-loving oenophile were the regional wines selected for the month.

By group consensus the Lombardia menu was pronounced Best of the Best. The butternut squash and potato soup (Zuppa di Zucca), tomato and mache salad with polenta croutons (Pomidoro alla Padana), polenta squares with six different toppings (Crostini di Polenta), sauteed salmon fillet with red grapes and shallots in a reduction of the Franciacorta (Salmoncino Franciacorta) were all excellent.

Our favorite dish was a very simply prepared pasta with a mix of porcini, crimini, and shiitake mushrooms (Pappardelle Gialle ai Funghi). The savory mushrooms were supported perfectly by the soft, wide strands of freshly made pappardelle. We liked them so much, the whole group is going back again on Sunday.

The end of the meal was another high-point. The Semifreddo all'Amaretto combined custard and creme anglaise with a soul-comforting whipped cream-creaminess.

All articles about restaurants are duty-bound to include photographs, the better to help readers appreciate the food.

My wife is out of town and we missed her at the tasting, so these photographs are as much for her as they are to document a great meal at Il Fornaio in Santa Monica.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio

One of the things I like about Il Fornaio's monthly, regional menus is the chance to take an armchair journey to Italy. This month's region is Calabria.

Located on the toe of the Italian boot and extending into the Mediterranean, Calabria has developed dishes that feature seafood.

With a group of friends, we went to our neighborhood Il Fornaio in Santa Monica (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Santa Monica Pier; 310/451-7800) and shared the dishes family style.

While we read through the menu, we ate baskets of Il Fornaio bread dipped in seasoned olive oil. The fresh bread is so delicious there's always the risk that we'll be full before we even begin the meal.

We started with bowls of the delicious three bean soup (Zuppa Millecuselle) which paired cannellini, borlotti, and garbanzo beans in a vegetarian broth, flavored with lentils, mushrooms, and cabbage and thickened with tomatoes. Adding the lentils was an especially nice touch because they grounded all the contrasting flavors.

We followed the soup with an inventive salad of organic greens (Insalata Monte Poro) with fried goat cheese balls, dressed with fresh strawberries and a strawberry-raspberry red wine vinaigrette. With these two dishes we had a Greco Bianco by Alberto and Antonio Statti (2007), a crisp, light white that complimented the soup and salad.

For our pasta course, we shared plates of spaghetti with shell fish (Spaghettata du Pescatori Calabrisi). Fresh black mussels, butter clams, calamari rings, and shrimp were tossed in a spicy tomato sauce with saltiness provided by capers and slices of giant green olives. We were still drinking the Greco but decided we should try the other wine from the region, a Gaglioppo also from the Satti brothers (2007).

For the main course we had a choice of chicken with mushrooms (Petto di Pollo alla Cacciatora), roasted boneless leg of lamb (Agnello Arrustutu), or a swordfish loin (Involtino di Spada). We decided on the swordfish because the menu said it was a favorite of the region.

Chef Bruno Amato, the Il Fornaio Chef-Partner, who designed the menu, prepared the fish in a manner I've never seen before. Instead of grilling the swordfish, he stuffed it with a mixture of shrimp, almonds, garlic, pecorino, and caciocavallo cheese. Topped with bread crumbs and drizzled with olive oil, the fish was a masterful combination of textures: crunchy, soft, and moist. Accompanying the fish were roasted potatoes, eggplant, and red and yellow peppers in a tomato sauce with a touch of heat. We had more of the Gaglioppo. It benefited from spending time in the glass. Its flavors had softened so it paired perfectly with the swordfish.

For dessert we had the ricotta pudding (Budino di Ricotta) which reminded me of ricotta cheese cakes I used to eat in Providence, Rhode Island. Not too sweet, a little on the dry side, and delightfully flavored with golden raisins, orange, and lemon zest

The regional menu is served until March 15th, so we have time to go back and try the ravioli stuffed with salami and ricotta (Ravioli ca 'Sopressata) and have another bowl of the delicious soup.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

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