Thursday, March 20, 2014

My "other" Italy ~ sans tourists, sans checklist

This week, while doing a wine dinner for a private group, the subject of where I liked to go in Italy was asked. I hesitated for a moment, thinking to myself “Do I really want to tell all these strangers about my special place in Italy where no one goes? Do I want this loud room of revelers to invade my beach, my mountains, my serenity?”

I told the group my favorite place in Italy was usually wherever I was and let it go at that. While walking around the room, most people wanted to tell me about their trip to Tuscany, to Venice, to the Amalfi Coast. I could almost tell you what someone was going to tell me in the way they would motion for me to come to their table. For some reason everyone has a story. So I listen, nod in the appropriate place and time and move to the next person. It’s quite odd, the experience of having people purge to me. Odder even than that, is when I try to talk to groups like that, I barely get a minute before folks start talking among themselves.

This last time, the noise level got so loud and folks appeared to not give a damn about anything I had to say, I finally raised my voice and said, “I’m going to stop talking now. If anyone in the room wants more information, please visit my blog,” and I walked out of the room, calmly. No need to stoke the fires of St. Anthony already raging on my very own east coast.
Later that night, over a bottle of Verdicchio from Tavignano, a friend and I were going over the event we had just done. Ultimately we decided the group had a good time, but they really weren’t there for my expertise on Italian wines; they were there for a good time. And the oath of hospitality demands that we serve people, even when they are not as generous of spirit as we’d like them to be.

There are many “other” Italy’s. Mine happens to start on the Marche/Abruzzo border, in the town of San Benedetto del Tronto, sans tourists, sans checklist. There are storehouses of memories, along with a lively community. I can go to this little seaside town and get an instant read on what’s changing in Italy just by looking at the store windows. I’ve done it for years. I love the place, love the food and love the wines.

Marche, for me, is the easier of the two regions. The wines are simple, from the Verdicchio to the Rosso Piceno and Conero. A little rosé, some sparkling wine, not too many choices. Wines I can drink, easily, all the time. Heraldic wines? No. But simple pleasures.
Daria Garofoli was in town last week. I’m getting to know her wines as they are now in the 21st century. Introduced to me by Luigi Veronelli, the winery is revered and resilient. The wines are solid. I will be writing more about these wines this year. For now, I am hang-gliding, just a whisper, a light touch, an impression about my other Italy.

There’s so much more than just the wine. It’s the way the breeze touches your arm, the intense searing heat of the sun as it rises over the Adriatic. The smell of the sea, the abundance of the seafood, arguably my favorite place for such delicacies from all of Italy. Yes, I know that’s probably heresy, after all, there’s Sicily and the Campania coast, Puglia and the Veneto. I know. I’ve been to all of those places, including Liguria, the Maremma, Calabria, I know. This is my other Italy, these are my picks.

And what about Abruzzo, the flip side of coin of my other Italy? Abruzzo is the place, when a young chef asks me the question “Where should I go in Italy to taste and learn about the food?” is where I suggest they go. Sorry again, but Abruzzo has limitless resources and treasures for la Cucina Italiana. I can think of no other place for a young chef to go where he or she can learn good, honest basic techniques for cooking meat, fish, vegetables and pasta. Look only to Rome to see how many restaurants have men or women from Abruzzo running the kitchens. Solid folk, I cannot recall having better pasta, anywhere, on a consistent basis over the last 30 years.

And the wines? Look into my wine closet, you will find many a bottle of Montepulciano from Abruzzo. Recently we opened two bottles of wine from the 1985 vintage, one an Hermitage and one a Riserva from Abruzzo. The Montepulciano glowed, danced, set one’s mind afire. The Hermitage, while lovely, was somber, quiet. Lovely, yes, in a pretty little old lady kind of way. But the wine from Abruzzo was full of sexy, juicy fire. And they say Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo cannot age. Maybe it is just that they “do not go gentle into that good night.”

I have been friends for all this time with the Illuminati family. And that is where my journey started. In the years that have passed I have come to know the wines of Cataldi Madonna, La Valentina, Masciarelli Valentini, Zaccagnini, among others.

One of my favorite meals I ever had was during the summer of 1988. We were staying at the Excelsior Hotel on the beach at San Benedetto. It was July, hot. Lunch was served in a room with open windows, and the warm breeze rolled though the dining room. The server, dressed in whites, brought a chilled bottle of rosé, Cerasuolo from the Montepulciano grape. Cherry bright, dry, spicy, damn sexy wine. Our serve followed with a perfect plate of Spaghetti all'arrabbiata. I still taste the wine and that pasta; my other Italy has spoiled me in the best way.

More to come about this; for now I have gone too long. Only to say, in closing, one must find their other Italy, wherever it is. For you it might be Sardegna, it might be Liguria, it might be Alto-Adige. It doesn’t matter. What I found was my little corner of authentic Italy, a place where tourists do not go to and then tell someone at a wine dinner what a lovely time they had. It hasn’t been found, yet. And that is perfectly fine with me and all the people who live in my other Italy.

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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