Dear Italian Wine Guy,
"I recently visited a long-established Italian place in my town. The owners are good friends and honest hard working people. The owner said his business was spotty. “Some days are good. Some days it’s like a mausoleum in here. What can I do?” I sat down for lunch and the waiter took forever to bring me a glass of water. Before that he asked me if I wanted anything from the bar. I asked him what kind of wine he had. “Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Chianti, Cabernet.” His heart clearly wasn’t in it. I asked for the wine list. The water eventually showed up as did the menu and wine list.
The place was empty, maybe three tables. It was blisteringly hot outside.
Eventually I settled on a glass of Frascati. The wine was fine enough, but they served it in one of those wine glasses from the 1960’s, you know the ones that are thick like jelly glasses. The wine was cold though, so I overlooked the stemware.
I ordered a mixed antipasto, really more of a vegetable salad. The waiter brought me that along with cruets of oil and vinegar. The oil was rancid and the vinegar was that faceless industrial balsamic stuff that you see around these days. I ate the vegetables dry, sprinkled a little oil on them and tried not to notice its fetid nature.
My question to you is: What do I tell these owners, friends. They clearly are fine people but the world outside their restaurant has moved on, in some cases light years beyond where they are stuck. I just got back from Italy and this is not what Italian food and wine (and service) is like in Italy."
"Welcome to my world. Or anyone’s world for that matter. Some folks catch the wave and some get stuck in the eddy. Capitalism allows for anyone to choose how they are going to run the business. And capitalism will also sort out the wheat from the chaff."
Another note recently came though the cloud:
Dear Italian Wine Guy,
"A Neapolitan style pizzeria just opened in our town. I was very excited because we live out in the sticks and don’t get anything near like the pizza I experienced when I went to Naples a few years ago. In fact it was that trip that inspired me to know more about Italian food and wine. I took classes, made trips to special markets and stores. Read blogs. Got into it.
I went to the pizzeria for lunch, because I had heard the place at night was impossible to get into. I had a day off and was meeting an old friend, so I was in the mood for a leisurely lunch.
The server showed up and asked us if we wanted anything to drink. I asked for a wine list. She handed me the list and immediately recommended an Italian Cabernet. It was 95 degrees outside. I remarked to her that Italian Cabernet wasn’t exactly the first wine that came to my mind in a Neapolitan Pizzeria. She was cool about it, just said it was really popular. I opted for a Barbera. She brought the wine and served it to us. It was warm, so I asked her to bring a cooler and some ice to chill the wine down. She returned with one of those ceramic wine chillers. You stick them in the freezer and they come out cold and are supposed to keep the wine from getting warm. Problem was those things don’t chill a wine down. She wasn't really listening to me. I shrugged it off and stuck a few cubes of ice in the wine.
I asked her for a salad before the pizza. She served it, with little bottles of oil and vinegar. I noticed that the vinegar was balsamic and asked her if they had any real wine vinegar in the back. She answered curtly, “No, balsamic vinegar is all we have, and it is wine vinegar.” Not wanting to argue with someone who didn’t know what I was talking about I asked for some lemons. When life hands you lemons, you make salad dressing. No sooner had I dug into my salad than the pizza arrived. Fortunately the pizza was awesome, even if it was poorly timed. But it wasn’t like the salad was all that remarkable. They had those little black California olives in it, you know the ones we all would put on our fingers and eat one by one, when we were kids? So pushing the salad aside, I tackled the pizza. And it was pretty good.
At the end of the meal, the served tried to sell us tiramisu. And cappuccino. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and I didn’t need to load up on creamy stuff. I don’t remember, do they serve tiramisu in pizzerias in Naples? Maybe they do. Anyway, I asked her if there were any Italians in the back. She said, yes, of course there are. I asked her to go to them and ask them to make a short espresso, “corto.” I knew I was probably getting on her nerves, but she did as asked. The wines came back short (and woefully weak).
My question to you, is this the best it’s going to get for me out here?"
"Of course this isn’t the best it’s going to be for you. You can always buy a ticket to Naples and get you some pizza, some salad with real wine vinegar and a real ristretto. But it will cost you. Look, I know where you live and you should have seen the place 30 years ago. It was all buffalo and prairie. So before you complain about the way it is, think about how dreadful it was with all those buffaloes roaming around there preventing people from getting a decent pizza and thank your lucky stars they have cleared the place out and gotten rid of those dreadful creatures. And having to drink a glass of Italian Cabernet isn’t all that bad. Some Italians have been doing that for hundreds of years.
We all want what we can’t have, or we want what we once had and can’t have now. There are good and bad everywhere. I recently had a bad pizza in Italy. And they also served up a salad with balsamic vinegar (they did have the real stuff in back though). Nothing is perfect, and the capitalism mode will sort out the good from the bad. Unfortunately it takes a few bad experiences for folks to find out they aren’t going back. I say embrace the good times and let the bad times roll down the side of the toilet bowl of life. Life is too short to linger over a lousy corto. When life hands you warm red wine, throw in an ice cube (it’s probably too high in alcohol anyway and that will adjust it back to pre-global warming levels of alcohol)."
So to those folks who write me these letters (* if only from within the post office of my mind) I reaffirm that we all have freedom of choice and we can choose to eat it or drink it or not. When one gets enough of the good stuff, here at home or on the wine trail in Italy, then one begins to sense there are higher expressions of food, just like music, philosophy, art and love. Search for the higher expressions and don’t worry about the flotsam stuck in the jetty back there. That’s in the past. Move on - onward through the fog.
written and photographed (in the Vatican Museum in Rome) by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
* and yes, just so there is no confusion, these are "letters" written to myself as a way of presenting situations put before me and possible explanations,solutions and ways to understand how to deal with them. No big shakes, just using a journal exercise. This is after all a web-log, which is in fact a journal, yes?
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