First, my latest Forbes pieces are here. They include another wine book review, challenges facing Barolo wine, and excellent Crus du Beaujolais wines that are smoking hot values.
Second, we’ll take a quick tour of lesser known locales within northern Italy that serve excellent food and wine (and we’ll learn a bit about ‘orange wine’).
I recently enjoyed dinner in the city of Milan, Italy, with a couple living there—Diletta Sereni and her boyfriend Niccolo. I had met Diletta, a food journalist, earlier this year in Abruzzo. She writes about food, farming and sustainability. Diletta insisted that, if in her city, I should get in touch to sample local food and wine. Because Milan was a stop off point during recent travels, I decided to stay there for a day and evening to explore.
For hours I walked through the city—buying roasted chestnuts, pacing under the high glass ceiling of Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II, wandering on the flagstones past restaurants on Via Brera, eating a sfogliatella napoletana pastry and getting a haircut from a barber named Silvio. After spending time wandering through museums—Natural History, Novecento, El Duomo—I met Diletta and Niccolo at Ratanà. This restaurant, they explained, had no Michelin stars but was twice listed as the best restaurant in the city by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra (“The New York Times of Italy,” they told me).
After aperitifs of Anisos Vallagarina (a biodynamic white wine) for Diletta, Crémant d’Alsace Extra Brut for Niccolo (crémant is sparkling wine, made the same way as champagne, but from outside that region) and Franciacorta Brut (a sparkling wine from the northern Lombardy region of Italy) for myself, we ordered dinner. The key to the main course of Osso Bucco, they explained, came at the end when we could eat the bone marrow (for which we were provided a special tool that resembled a miniature whale flensing knife).
With this we drank a local organic wine from north of the city—a 2015 Buttafuoco Cerasa that includes three grapes: Croatina, Barbera and Ughetti di Solinga (Vespolina). This tasted of light and bright raspberries, with a mild crunchiness and taste of chestnuts. Diletta and Niccolo suggested this wine because it apparently matches well with food rich with fat. Milan is located in the Lombardy region of Italy, and this is primarily where Croatina grows. Vespolina is grown primarily in the Piedmont region (just west of Lombardy). The Barbera grape, grown in the Monferrato portion of the Piedmont region since the 1200’s, was considered a table wine until its quality and status recently began being boosted.
Just as most people associate Italy with Leonardo da Vinci and poet Dante Alighieri, most Italians are also well aware of artist Umberto Boccioni. I showed the couple photos taken earlier that day in the Novecento (‘nine-hundred’) art museum and they immediately recognized the works as created by Boccioni. Diletta then pulled a 20 cent coin from her pocket to show that one side included an image of one of his bronze sculptures (titled: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space).
After dinner, bloated, we walked through the Isola portion of Milan. Although Leonardo Da Vinci designed a church that still stands there, the region transformed a magnet for drug dealers and prostitutes in decades past, until a surge of recent upgrades. The region is now a magnet for businesses and young professionals. The Bosco Verticale towers (vertical forest) with their 900 trees on apartment porches were recently given an award for best ‘tall building worldwide.’
We soon sat inside the couple’s local wine bar—Enoteca Surli, where 24-year old sommelier Lorenzo Scarsi served glasses of orange wine.
The first was a non-filtered 2016 Quinto Quarto Rebula from Franco Terpin from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. Made from Ribolla Gialla grapes, this apparently typifies an ‘orange wine,’ common in northeast Italy. An orange wine is a white wine that ferments with skins and seeds. It’s basically a white made like a red. The green skins are not removed after pressing, which gives the juice a distinct orange color.
This orange wine was acidic and distinct, like a white but heartier. We next tasted an Ein Quantum Weiß 2016 from Austria, a blend of 12 grapes, which also had a distinct taste—tannins and toast. The taste of orange wine undoubtedly grows on drinkers with time.
We next tried an Orano Sangiovese from the Le Marche region on the Adriatic coast—north of Abruzzo and east of Umbria, then finished with a biodynamic and unfiltered 2016 Mille from I Cacciagalli. Made from the dark Aglianico grape as well as the Piedirosso grape, this is slightly vegetal and pungent on the nose, similar to a Cabernet Franc. Lorenzo told us this is one of the bestselling wines at the bar.
Lorenzo held the bottle to the light.
“Non passa niente,” he said. No light passed through that dark wine.
The evening was enjoyable and instructive. Grazie mille Diletta and Niccolo!
Next stop—Lugano, Switzerland (don’t worry, we’ll soon scoot back into Italy).
In Lugano my friend Elena took me on a whirlwind tour not of southern Switzerland, but of hidden dining gems within the backwoods of nearby Italy.
We drove south, from Lugano into Italy, and headed in the direction of Varese. After some 40 minutes, we stopped at Hostaria dei Cacciatori (‘the hunters’ restaurant’) near a small rural town.
Inside this home with starched linen tablecloths and large wine glasses, the owner and chef—Aurora and Paolo—told us that Aurora’s father opened this restaurant 50 years ago. When we were ready to order, there was no menu; Aurora recited what was available that day.
After a glass of sparkling Prosecco, we ordered a fine bottle of Brunello di Montalcino wine made from Sangiovese grapes from Tuscany (Aurora recalled that Elena ordered the same wine when she ate there last, almost a year ago), then ordered an appetizer of lentils and sliced salsicha sausages, followed by pasta with shaved, fresh truffles from the local forest. The pasta was yellow because it is made in freshly in-house, and egg yolks impact the color.
World renowned Brunello di Montalcino wine is made 100% from the Sangiovese grape (which is also the main grape constituent in Chianti). Brunello was the first wine that was awarded the highest quality ‘DOCG’ (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita) designation in Italy; today there are a total of 74 DOCG designations throughout Italy.
The next evening we drove again into the hills of Italy to find a family owned restaurant in the countryside—Agriturismo Barcola. This is a ‘grotto’ restaurant; this local word describes family restaurants that were once adjacent to outdoor caves (grottos) where they kept meat cool and cured. Elena navigated down a single lane on a dark mountainside into a dirt parking lot completely filled with cars.
Inside, families bantered and locals toasted and we ate appetizers of tomino cheese wrapped in bacon, followed by tagliatelle pasta with shavings of fresh wild boar (cinghiale) and a bottle of delicious red Valtellina Superiore Sassella wine. This excellent wine is made from the Nebbiolo grape on the steep slopes of the Rhaetian Alps northeast of Milan, near the border of Switzerland.
For a digestif we drank homemade (‘fatta di casa’) crema di limone—similar to limoncello. When I asked for the bill the owner scribbled a number onto a torn scrap of paper and handed it over. For all that dinner and wine and digestif for two persons the cost was 56.50 Euros. Very reasonable. When we reached the parking lot it was a mishmash of cramped cars, parked randomly within a circular dirt arena, and drivers trying to extricate their vehicles without banging into too many others. Being in Italy, though, this turned into a laughing, camaraderie forming event.
And Lugano? Beautiful. I once lived there, and enjoyed every moment. I wrote a piece about the Merlot wine from that region of Switzerland years ago.
The beauty of the meals described above came from spending time with people who live in the region—people who recommended where to go because they appreciate excellent local foods and have, through time, filtered out locations they consider prime for visiting.
As a teenager, I spent years living in Lugano. I thought I knew it all about the city and its countryside.
Nonsense. In the space of 48 hours, Elena opened up new dimensions to this region that blasted previous concepts.
As you travel, you will meet others who will invite you to visit. To spend time at their spot on this planet.
Go. ‘Throw Caution to the Winds.’ Buy the Ticket.
This will expand Your Horizons, change your thinking, and even—bizarrely—help solve problems that you were concerned about taking time away from.
Funds will come and go, and problems will arise and diminish.
Memories and camaraderie? They are to be seized.
Thanks again for tuning in. I write this blog and another (roundwoodpress.com) and also write for various publications (shown below). I appreciate your visit to this site and hope you will continue checking out Vino Voices!