Thursday, September 29, 2011

Parallel Paths - La Cucina Italiana and Jazz in New Orleans

Limoncello by symbiosis at Domenica
New Orleans has a relationship with things Italian similarly as it does with jazz. While there is a lot of traditional food and jazz in the Crescent City, there is also a good deal of improvisation. And in the world of La Cucina Italiana, this is welcome news. New Orleans is experiencing new and renewed energies in this arena. Places like A Mano, Ancora and Dominica are shining examples of innovation and experimentation. And just like jazz, there are some pretty little melodies floating out of the neighborhoods of New Orleans. In three short days, I just touched the tip of the iceberg.

Salumi, hog butchering, pizzaioli in the food corner. In the spirit department, the city is a repository for infusions and amari, digestivi and hand created libations. One bartender told me ”I’m not a mixologist. It feels more like I’m a pharmacist.” Indeed, some of the hot spots like Cure are experimenting in making drinks that not only make you feel good, but which might even bring a better state of well-being to the imbiber. Who knew? Wine, alcohol and potions that make you feel better. But the Italians knew this ages ago. And now we are seeing a resurgence of that energy in one of the most neglected and beloved cities in America.

I love New Orleans; I feel my ancestor’s spirits roaming the streets of the French Quarter. Along with San Francisco, New Orleans feeds my soul, my spirit and my belly. I come here to recharge, even when it is a paltry three days filled with tastings, meetings and a hectic work schedule. And here it is, we are on the cusp of the dreaded (and highly anticipated) O-N-D selling season. To those of us in the wine business, this is the holiday season.

In one of the beautifully symmetrical quirks of fate, this week saw the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah holiday; Dominica was in full swing with a special menu. A tribute to the Jewish roots of the chef, the city and Italy. And a segment of the Jewish cuisine that is highly inventive and creative. I had a lentil soup that was pure Padova. Loved it; it went extremely well with the Petra Mareto, a Maremma blend of Syrah, Malbec and Merlot. A marriage of disparate things, the grape diaspora landing in Tuscany and yielding a gorgeous offspring for everyone’s enjoyment.

On a slightly critical note – one kvetch, while I am in character; Wednesday we brought out a killer selection of four wines (see photo). While tasting them I started to smell this ammoniated fragrance wafting over in our direction. And there in the middle of the presentation a woman with a bucket of Lysol and a mop was totally destroying our olfactory world. This happened twice this week – what do they say – three’s a trend? Does the chemical company have a greater hold over the restaurant culture than the wine business? Probably a bigger business, but really in a place where food is so elevated, there should be no tolerance for such mindless movements. Not the cleaning ladies fault – but everyone needs a little more consciousness raising on this matter. And with such a cache of rare and hard to get (to taste) wines.

One wine in that flight I rarely get to try (we usually sell it all) was the Dal Forno Valpoilcella 2004. A wine that I don't normally see as my kind of wine, but with such bracing acidity, to go along with the ample fruit and wood, it was seductive and it sucked me right into its vortex of Corvina. I love when a wine fools me and slaps me – a wine I’m not normally attracted to on a philosophical level, but which none the less, won me over. Shattering my preconceptions and prejudices. And a wine on the other end of the spectrum from where I think I’m going. Bravo, Romano!

Stunningly beautiful 2007 Barbaresco "Faset"  from Marziano Abbona
What else? Some really cool wine shops. Bryan at W.I.N.O., David at Cork & Bottle and Beth at Swirl – some, kindred souls from the same tribe as me- wandering around the desert of wine looking for a meaningful oasis of Italian wine. David, an old hand, a journeyman, a tribal elder (not that old – but cellared and seasoned – we need these mentor-like folks). And Beth, lively, vigorous, totally won over to the Italian end of things so much that her shop looks like an Italian enoteca. Occhipinti, Cornelissen, any manner of unusual things. And totally infatuated with the wines of Etna, as I am. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, but knowing I have the occasional brother or sister is a relief in these times.

Crostini with liver pate, hard boiled egg and capers at Domenica
Adolfo Garcia of A Mano and Ancora and Alon Shaya of John Besh’s Dominica exert influence on their staff and their diners to stretch. Their wine lists are inventive, even courageous at times. The love for hand-made food, for process, for husbandry, for nurturing the food onto the tables of their clients, inspires me to continue.

A world apart from an Italian “concept” restaurant. You know the ones: their PR person sends out all manner of blather about unique, authentic, and humble and then you look at the menu and see Chilean Sea Bass slathered with Dungeness crab and topped with a creamy “Alfaro” sauce. Or "Aristocrat” - Alfredo with a touch of Marinara and Parmesan I can’t make this up better than the stuff I run into. And you don’t even want to look at the wine lists coming out of those places – It’s as if the only wines that existed were Sassicaia and Ornellaia – sure a good choice for humble seafood dishes which source their components from every sea but the one right out back. Yes, Alice, there are still folks getting into the restaurant business that should have never gotten off their donkeys.

Photo by Teresa Rafidi

And on that note, Buona Notte and Buon Weekend!

1 comment:

Marco Montefalco said...

Thanks for the inadvertent shout out. I don't know if you watched any of the first season of Tremé. If you did, John Goodman's character was partially based on Ashley Morris who lived on Freret St. He was one hell of a character. He and his family bought a home in New Orleans. Their closing date was August 29, 2005. They did eventually move in.

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