While traveling in Sicily with the guidance of the young, passionate Maria Antonietta Pioppo, perhaps the preeminent, wine journalist in Sicily today, I initiated a relationship with a small group of amazing wineries, all with extraordinary people behind them.
I am, as excited about the arriving, group of Sicilian wineries, as I have been about any wineries with whom I have previously worked.
The group of four, Sicilian wineries are all consistent with the philosophy of all Singular Selections wineries. They are all estate grown, family owned and organically farmed (in most cases, biodynamic.) All wineries employ traditional, vineyard and vinification practices with no new, French oak used in any of the wines and no manipulation, non-indigenous varietals nor synthetic additive, utilized in any of the wines. Their volume of production is very, very small.
Apologies, I have been remiss in my travel updates.
November 2012 found me marking the occasion of an ugly numbered birthday with a month long journey to Thailand, Singapore, Vienna and Italy. I was traveling in Asia with Kai Schubert of Schubert Wines whose Pinot Noir “Block B” was recently given the top score in the entire, NZ Pinot category for both the 2010 and 2011 vintages by Robert Parker; 93+ and 94 points respectively. In any case, it was my first time traveling to Thailand and Singapore and the Asian leg of the trip, simply put, was amazing. The people, culture and food were revelatory. There were dinners eaten and people encountered that I will never forget. Vienna and Italy were an overdue escape, spending time with old friends in a slower paced context. During my four weeks on the road, diets were broken, sometimes in style other times, happily ensconced around a family table with friends. In retrospect, memorable times were had by all.
The annual Vinitaly in Verona, held every April, is the world's largest wine fair with over 4500 producers and 150,000+ visitors with, as many as, one third coming from foreign countries. Principally, Vinitaly is an event designed to bring producers together with importers, distributors, restaurateurs and retail customers from around the world. My annual Vinitaly visit is also an opportunity to meet, in one location, with the entire roster of current, Singular Selection's producers, taste their new vintages and make plans and reservations for the coming year. After almost 25 years importing Italian wines, Vinitaly is a party atmosphere and a great opportunity to reconnect with producers, friends and past business associates with whom I have worked and crossed paths over the years.
(Notes and comments on the new, vintage releases from the Singular Selection’s portfolio, previewed at the Vinitaly Fair, can be found on the individual winery / wine pages and news and new release page on this website.)
Once again, attending the Vinitaly wine fair and then immediately returning to my office in Chicago, was beyond reasoned consideration, so mixing business and pleasure, after Vinitaly, I was joined by two customer/friends from Gjelina Restaurant in Venice Beach, California for a whirlwind, 8 day food and wine tour including stops in Verona, Chianti, the Tuscan Coast, Liguria and Piemonte. As was the case when the three of us traveled together three years ago, shared experiences on the road left stories and memories that will live on long after the trip.
For this long overdue blog, rather than expound on the culinary highlights of my November/December 2012 trip, which included dinner at Restaurant Andre in Singapore, a certifiably, amazing, haute cuisine, culinary tour de force, executed with singular precision by up and coming, world class, superstar chef, Andre Chiang. Nor will I detail the amazing, complex, exciting and inspirational flavors I experienced in Thailand at the renowned Naam and Boulon, or the delicious, complex, home style food on display during a lunch at a simple, mom and pop, (impossible to find without a guide,) family run restaurant, near the river that runs through Bangkok. Rather than regale Michelin starred dinners in Austria and Italy, or beautifully, rustic, country, Italian dinners with great friends or winery lunches with storied wines; rather than recount the incredible afternoon in Modena at Giuseppe Giusti, the oldest salumeria in Europe, where, while standing at the retail counter of their gourmet shop, we were spontaneously served lunch consisting of a range of regional, gourmet specialties, along with a sparkling wine tasting, by my friend Matteo Morandi, Giusti’s owner. (Giuseppe Giusti, now a gourmet shop / lunch only restaurant (4 tables) / retail wine cellar and producer of some of Italy’s, best, traditional, artisanal, Balsamic Vinegar will be a story for a full re-telling in a future blog.)
.......no, instead, I would like to talk about Gjelina, my favorite restaurant in the U.S.
The imposing, wooden door on the corner of Abbott Kinney Blvd. and Millwood in Venice, California opens to the roar and pulsing energy of a happy restaurant; everyone is happy to be at Gjelina Restaurant. Certainly the customers are happy, a diverse group of Venice and SoCal denizens of every possible economic, age or any other persuasion; the glamorous, the scruffy, beach folks, students, young, old, hip, un-hip; you name it. The always cool, professional staff effortlessly negotiates the chaos and unbaiting numbers of an always-full restaurant and projects a sense that we are all simply guests at their party.
You would be happy too, if you were at this party every day!
Oh, by the way, the food at Gjelina is a joy.
Gjelina, seemingly effortlessly, produces impeccably fresh, rustically conceived, product centric, delicious, Mediterranean/California cuisine on a daily basis for large numbers of diners. The top quality, California foodstuffs arrive on classically conceived plates that often evoke newness, as if it is the first time these ingredient combinations have ever met. The menu is organized by category including a section comprised of 13 vegetarian dishes. There are amazing salads, outstanding, thinnest of thin, pizzas (reason alone to come to Gjelina) created in a wood burning oven, a selections of oysters, a list of small plates and heartier fare featuring pastas, sea food and meats, house made charcuterie and more, all brilliantly exemplifying, a light, fresh, California sensibility using the pallet of Mediterranean cuisine. The food is brilliant, exciting in its simplicity, unpretentiousness, flavorful and delicious. You will want to eat everything on the menu. Luckily, the always, seasonal food is meant to be shared.
If I lived in Venice, I would eat at Gjelina 5 days per week where you can eat to satisfaction, spending $25 for a few light plates or graze deep into the menu with gusto and spend more; I normally choose the later. I often find myself in restaurants where I repeatedly, scan the menu over and over; trying to find something I want to eat. I always want to eat everything on the Gjelina menu. Its that kind of restaurant.
The Gjelina wine program, which is conceived and directed by Henry Beylin and Josh Frederick, reflects my experience with their menu; I want to drink everything. Relatively small in number, beautifully chosen in every category, eclectic and personal; the Gjelina wine list features hard to find, tiny production properties that are rarely seen anywhere, let alone congregated on a list together.
I will leave out describing the layout of Gjelina’s two rooms and other, restaurant review factoids but getting a table in an always, busy restaurant is never easy. The secret to a no hassle table at Gjelina is that they are open all day. If you can’t snare a table at 8:00pm and don’t want to fight the lunch crush, go for a late lunch or early dinner. You can access Gjelina’s menu and logistical information on their website: www.gjelina.com
I am always struck by the sheer happiness and emotional, dining satisfaction I carry with me, at the end of lunch or dinner at Gjelina. It’s a happy restaurant.
The 46th annual Vinitaly in Verona, held every April, is the world's largest wine fair with over 4500 producers and 150,000+ visitors with, as many as, one third coming from foreign countries. Principally, Vinitaly is an event designed to bring producers together with importers, distributors, restaurateurs and retail customers from around the world. My annual Vinitaly visit is also an opportunity to meet, in one location, with the entire roster of current, Singular Selection's producers, taste their new vintages and make plans and reservations for the coming year. After almost 25 years importing Italian wines, Vinitaly is a party atmosphere and a great opportunity to reconnect with producers, friends and past business associates with whom I have worked and crossed paths over the years.
I am wildly enthusiastic about the quality of the Singular Selections' wines coming this year. Northeastern Italy is following the outstanding 2010 vintage wines with a fabulous 2011 vintage, exemplified by the brilliant line up from La Bellanotte and the ultra-elegant Proseccos from Elysian and Terriero. The wines from Borgo Sugame in Chianti Classico and Le Bertille, in Montepulciano speak loudly of the potential greatness of the newly released, 2010 wines from Tuscany. 2012 will herald the arrival of the consistently amazing Camerano Barolos, "Terlo" 2007 will arrive in June and the 2008, Barolos "Terlo" and "Cannubi San Lorenzo" are scheduled to arrive this winter. Piemonte's perfect fall weather in 2010 is in focus with Camerano's stellar 2010 Dolcetto and 2010 Barbera. Hail cost Gianni Doglia the loss of a large percentage of his 2011 harvest but served to create a vintage that resulted, according to Gianni, in his "best ever" Moscato d'Asti. Finally, Chiara Ciavolichs' pure expression of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and her definitive Pecorino, round out what promises to be an exciting year for Singular Selections.
I am adding only one, new wine to the Singular Selections portfolio this year, a Pinot Grigio IGT from La Bellanotte in Friuli. The category of affordable Pinot Grigio has always been on my radar but I have waited, hoping to find a wine that transcends the commerciality often found in affordable Pinot Grigio category. The 2011 Pinot Grigio IGT, the latest entry in La Bellanote's, exciting, line up of Friulian white wines, is produced from fruit sourced from La Bellanotte's estate grown vineyards, which straddle the DOC zones of Collio and Isonzo. It is labeled IGT because Italian DOC law dictates that a wine vinified from fruit sourced from more than one DOC area must by law be labeled IGT. Produced from Bellanotte's "young" vines, the average vine age is nonetheless between 20 - 25 years. The wine displays a pure expression of Pinot Grigio at a price point that is rarely found when speaking about artisan, estate grown wines. Detailed tasting notes can be found among the Bellanotte wines and information on this site.
To attend the Vinitaly wine fair and then immediately return to my office in Chicago, is beyond reasoned consideration, so mixing business and pleasure, after Vinitaly, I was joined for a tour of each of my seven, Italian wine producers by an old friend and new customer, Karl Newman, now sales director for a prominent Texas distributor. Our trip, an 8 day whirlwind tour, visiting wineries in five different, wine producing zones was also a culinary tour de force with a mix of visionary, refined cuisine, traditional, regional restaurants and rustic, home cooked food, combining to nourish our trip. Notwithstanding, an extraordinary, return visit to the Michelin 2 star, Piazza Duomo in Alba, the stand out dining experience was a departure from the expected, Michelin starred temples of haute cuisine.
Michelin starred restaurants compete on a stage with the most famous restaurants in the world and Michelin restaurants, normally serve an interpretive, cuisine, reflecting the personal, culinary vision of the chef, often only tangentially inspired by the culture and traditions of the regional and local cuisine. This is not in any way meant to be a criticism. As a passionate, lover of refined, elevated cuisine, it is decidedly, only an observation. The cultural heart of Italian cuisine, however, focuses on fresh food products, simply presented without excessive manipulation of the ingredients. Most often, the best recommendation you can offer someone seeking a great, Italian restaurant experience is to direct them to the best, regional, ristorante or trattoria that features traditional, indigenous cuisine of the region. To that end, if you find yourself in the northeast part of Italy, near Venice or the northeastern wine regions of Prosecco or Friuli, then I strongly recommend you pay a visit to Ristorante Albertini.
It has been 20 years since Guido and Graziella Albertini first opened their eponymous restaurant and began passionately serving brilliant, traditional, seafood menus with product sourced daily from Adriatic seafood markets in Venice and Caorle, a coastal town 1 ½ hours up the coast from Venice. The restaurant is located just minutes outside Treviso, 45 minutes equidistant between Venice and Valdobbiadene, the heart of the renowned Prosecco zone and 1 hour and 15 minutes from the Friulian wine region in Italy's far, northeastern corner.
During our visit to the Prosecco region, Karl Newman and I were joined for dinner at Ristoraante Albertini by Gianluca Salamon, project director for both of Singular Selections' Proseccos, Elysian and Terriero, Gianluca's girlfriend, Elisa, along with the Albertini's eldest son Fillippo and his wife, for a thirteen course seafood dinner. Chef / Owner Guido Albertini artfully managed the four hour progression of pristine ingredients, emphasizing lightness and intensity of flavors, so in spite of the duration of the meal, we left satiated but happily, not overfed.
An assortment of pristine, "crudi," Italian, raw seafood preparations, simply presented with olive oil, salt and a touch of lemon, kicked off an amazing display of the wonders of ultra-fresh, Adriatic seafood. Several small, seafood, antipasti courses followed including razor clams, scallops, local shellfish and bivalves not found outside of the immediate area and most memorably, moeche, tiny, soft-shell crabs no bigger than a half-dollar, that exploded in your mouth with juicy, crab flavor. Next up were two pasta courses, pacheri, a hollow, tubed shaped pasta, typically found in southern Italy was served with a complex, tomato based seafood sauce followed by spaghetti with the tiniest, most tender clams you will ever see, perhaps 1/8th inch across. Beautifully fresh, local, Orata (Sea Bream) and a course that featured an assortment of scampi, cuttlefish, calamari and octopus followed for our "secondi" or Italian main plates. Gujido's hand was no less deft with desserts. The standout was a simple sorbet, which I learned, during a post meal, kitchen tour, was made with what can only be called an antique ice cream maker, a large, 60+ year old monstrosity that must be tended with a large paddle throughout the entire freezing process. Made with nothing more than fruit, sugar and a bit of egg white, the sorbets were ethereal and rivaled any I have experienced anywhere in the world.
I look forward with great anticipation to my future visits to northeastern Italy, which will most assuredly find me returning to Ristorante Albertini.
My annual early September harvest visit was a whirlwind tour, visiting producers and enjoying the Italian countryside and vineyards full of ripe grapes, proudly glistening in the Italian sun, impatiently waiting to be harvested. Due to a lengthy period of summer heat, harvest was as much as one month early in most zones. My September visits are normally timed to pre-date harvest by a few weeks, in order to not disturb everyone during their very busy harvest period. This visit, however, landed directly in the middle of the early harvest. At times, the days in the vineyards ran extremely long with everyone working to bring the fruit in before the arrival of rain or inclement weather that could threaten the quality of the harvest. In the end, due to a cool and dry end of August and beginning of September, along with the focused efforts of each of the winery's harvest teams, the fruit arrived in great condition, presaging a successful vintage.
Dining during my visit was mostly rustic, simple and greatly satisfying. Considering everyone was busy in their vineyards and wineries, dinner was mostly a light repast followed by everyone's desire to find a bed to fall down on after their long day of work. One of my favorite Italian dining experiences is always the winery lunch during harvest time. It is a robust meal, meant to nourish the vineyard workers through the remaining hours of their long work day. It always comprises a diverse group of people; winery owners, oenologists and field workers all coming together to share the mid-day meal. The meal is normally comprised of ample quantities of simple foods, lively conversation and laughter. Quintessentially Italian, it signifies the best attributes of Italian countryside culture and life.
For me, no Italian visit can be complete without at least one grand dining experience. On the last night of my visit, I stole away and went to my favorite, fine dining restaurant in all of Italy, the two Michelin star, Piazza Duomo, located in the central piazza of Alba in Piemonte. Chef Enrico Crippa is one of the most highly regarded chefs today in Italy, blending exciting innovation with classical, Piemontese cuisine. The restaurant consists of only six to eight tables and its pink decor can be a bit strange to some but in my opinion, it is one of Europe's great dining destinations. Enrico's experience before arriving at Piazza Duomo reads like a who's who of great European kitchens and chefs. Beginning as a commis in Gualtiero Marchesi's historic Milan restaurant, Enrico went on to work alongside some of the finest European chefs including Michel Bras at Laguiole, Ferran Adria at El Bulli di Roses to name just two.
I have dined at Piazza Duomo multiple times but each time I have chosen the Evasione e Territorio. It best represents the personal style and innovation of the chef and also reflects my desire to enjoy the largest and most diverse menu that the restaurant offers.
For a photo laden review of the Piazza Duomo dining experience, I refer you to: The Wandering Epicures: http://epicures.wordpress.com/2009/11/05/piazza-duomo-alba/
Last, but certainly not least, summer welcomed a new addition with the arrival of Aurora, a beautiful baby girl born to Paola Doglia, sister of Moscato d'Asti producer Gianni Dogllia. Not to be out done, the word is Gianni himself will welcome a son in Spring!
That's it for now. Next up is the annual Vinitaly Wine Exposition, this year from March 25 - March 28.
Please do not hesitate to contact me for any reason.
Best regards and I look forward to hearing from you.
My annual European schedule always includes an April visit to Verona's Vinitaly wine exposition followed by a harvest timed visit in early September when I see all of my Italian producers, pick a few grapes and attend wonderful, harvest parties. This year, I was extremely happy to include a July visit to the beautiful vineyard wedding of Chiara Ciavolich in Miglianco, Abruzzo.
After spending a week with my great friend, Paolo Benassi of La Bellanotte at his home in Massa on the Tuscan, Mediterranean coast and a few days with Paolo, in Farra d'Isonzo, home of his Friulian winery, I had a couple of days, in advance of the wedding and searched the Adriatic Coast, the route to Abruzzo, for a stopover where I might possibly find a stellar, dining experience. I found two!
Senigallia, 15 kilometers north of Ancona, is one of the most popular seaside resorts along Italy's Adriatic Coast with 13 kilometers of "velvet beach," so named for its golden, delicate sand and clear, azure sea. Senigallia is also home to two of Italy's top ten rated restaurants, Madonnina del Pescatore and chef Moreno Cedroni and Uliassi and chef Mauro Uliassi, both of which offer different interpretations of Marche seafood cuisine while carrying 2 Michelin stars.
Madonnina's Moreno Cedroni has influenced and revolutionised the way fish is cooked in Italy. From raw fish to original, inventive creations, this chef's legendary cuisine has evolved, seamlessly blending a classic foundation of Marche seafood fare, while strongly reflecting his time in the kitchen of renowned, Spanish chef, Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame. The tasting menu I experienced at Madoninna (I returned for a second dinner) can be found on his website but of the multitude of courses presented from the two dinners, it was the initial antipasto course that immediately alerted me to the exceptional, dining experience(s) that were to follow. Ricciola sashimi (a local fish) with a leek/lemongrass sauce, violets, basil gelee and fried amaranth. The complex, luxurious, ethereal, leek/lemongrass sauce turned out to simply be leeks, cooked and pureed with a bit of lemongrass infused simple syrup. The memory of this dish will remain in my head for a long time and suffer my attempts to duplicate it in my home kitchen
At Mauro Uliassi's eponymous restaurant, being convinced that innovative cuisine must know how to keep the original characteristics of raw materials intact and respect local food customs, chef Uliassi stays faithful to gastronomic tradition, while not only using pristine seafood ingredients but also cooking them to absolute perfection and occasionally infusing progressive elements to his plates. Dining "al fresco," on a terrace, literally on the beach at sunset, added to the allure of an exquisitely memorable, Marchigiano, seafood dinner.
After dinner, I had the opportunity to visit both, spectacular kitchens, meeting both chefs and their teams and shared a digestivo with each, recounting friends, in common and past, great dining experiences.
For a photo tour of the menus at both Madoninna del Pescatore and Uliassi, including the Ricciola, check out the Italian, wine and restaurant blog of Luciano Pignataro at http://www.lucianopignataro.it/a/moreno-cedroni-o-mauro-uliassi-ora-basta-mafi-risponde-tutti-e-due-tutti-i-nuovi-piatti-di-senigallia/26468/
That's it for now. Please do not hesitate to contact me for any reason. I will report on my September harvest tour in the near future.
Best regards and I look forward to hearing from you.