Met Elio and Lucia for dinner on Friday at the Trattoria del Bivio in the hamlet of Cavallotti outside Cerreto Langhe. New experience for me – I had only driven through this town, never stopped, but both the Altares said it was one of their favorite restaurants in the region. I’ve never spent much time in the Alta Langha, or High Langhe – this is too high for most grapevines (too much cold and snow late into spring) and so the dominant activites are cheesemaking (Robiola is from this region) and hazelnuts.
Amazing how much cooler it is up here: whereas at the Sandrone winery it was beastly hot and the air still, up here it is cool enough for a sweater and there is a fabulous breeze going. Not even Monforte, known for its constant winds and gusts, was this fresh. Barolo is the oven, Cavallotti is the fridge.
Waiting for the Altares outside on the terrace, I wish I’d brought a sweater. I pass the time with a book and a glass of wine. Originally we had said 8, then they had called to push it back to 8.30 … which means closer to 9 around here. It is still light when they arrive and we head inside.
Chef Massimo is ably assisted by Selia in the dining room. The place is bright, but homey. (A digression on Italian restaurant lighting: It’s always too bright by half, at least compared to what we are accustomed to in the US. I suspect this is an old custom of letting your customers see what they are eating – in effect, to make sure that people can see that the braised rabbit on the menu is actually rabbit and not artfully cut donkey. So the lights are usually up at full brightness in many restaurants, much to the irritation of someone looking for some “atmosphere.”) Menu is traditional, straightforward and unsurprising, with two verbal additions – this last part is a rarity. The concept of the “daily special” is not universal.
The wine list is a wonder, though. For a place out in the middle of nowhere (ok, only 16 kms from Monforte, but over narrow, windy roads) there is a great selection of wines not just from the region but also from Veneto, Alto Adige, Toscana and even other parts of the world. The champagne list is deep and I want to dive in but there are only three of us … I will come back.
The meals are lovely: my tajarin with porcini is lovely and subtle – the egginess of the hand-cut noodles setting the earthiness of the noodles off beautifully. Lucia’s rabbit salad looks amazing. Elio starts with tiny hand-formed gnocchi with a sauce of castelmagno, a piedmontese cheese. Main courses are equally lovely: my roast suckling pig is delicious, with a crunchy skin and cut-with-a-fork tender inside. Lucia has baccala (salt cod) with fresh tomatoes and potato puree, but the star is a whole Merluzza (Mediterranean Sea Bass) that Elio orders: the chef has completely deboned the fish before cooking without cutting it apart … so the whole fish that shows up at the table, with a gorgeous crispy skin still on, is entirely without bones. Wow. And Delicious!
We enjoy a bottle of Bruno Gottardi’s outstanding 2007 Blauburgunder (Pinot Noir) Mazzon from the Alto Adige. This tiny producer is barely exported to the US, but should be a rock star: the wine is an amazing balancing act, all its elements precisely focused and wound together with skillful harmony. It is a deceptively quaffable wine – it is so shimmeringly silky that it’s entirely possible to miss the underlying complexity and nuance.
Elio and Lucia tell me about their new project: rehabilitating a tiny hamlet in the Castelmagno area. They and three other partners bought this hamlet, abandoned since the late 1940s, and want to restore the village, underwrite the return of a few dairy farmers and renovate the houses into an isolated but comfortable place for getaways, meetings and vacations. At about 1500 meters above sea level, it has just been out of the snow for about 6-7 weeks, so they doubt that many will want to live there full-time. But as a summer residence, it would be heavenly. Elio claims to be mostly retired by now (I will respectfully hold my tongue) and says this is his dream retirement project. If he can bring it to fruition, it will be amazing.
A few desserts to finish up with a glass of Paolo Saracco’s most excellent Moscato (more on Paolo here); kudos to Massimo and Selia for the excellent work they do here. This is a lovely restaurant, and away from the madding crowds in the Barolo. As much as I love the Barolo, it has changed with the influx of tourists over the last decade – there are far more indifferent and even downright bad restaurants in the zone. Proprietors know they will be full during the season and see no reason to improve. Too bad, as many locals complain that the restaurants have generally gotten worse, and they only go out to support the restaurants who buy their wine. Interestingly, many of the same locals drive out of the zone for eating out, as the food is an order of magnitude better 5-10 kms away. Go figure! Other great places outside the Barolo zone: the Marsupino in Briaglia, Il Verso del Ghiottone (the sound of the Glutton) in Dogliani, and La Cochinella in Serravalle Langhe. All worth repeated visits.
Finally, the windy drive back to Monforte for me, where I have a last glass of wine in my apartment while reading “The World as I Found it,” Bruce Duffy’s marvelous fictionalization of the life of Wittgenstein.
A week of tastings, late May 2010.
Big week. Lots went on, wine-wise. Tuesday, a dinner with a friend who knows loads about Italian wine. Wednesday, the “Planet Pink” party and tasting of Rosé wines put on by DiVino wine store on South Broadway. Thursday, the Masi dinner at Luca d’Italia. Friday, a dinner with wine friends at Il Posto.
Busy few weeks. But hey, you gotta eat. Recent visits: Brasserie Ten Ten, Boulder CO Hopping, fun place. The menu is printed to look just like a parisian bistro, and all comparisons to the real thing can stop right there. In spirit, it is Parisian, and the food here is certainly decent, even good, but there is a kind of soullessness here that I found a bit depressing. The meals themselves were tasty but frankly unexciting. Worth a visit, and maybe you'll have better luck than I - I'd try this again, as it has gotten enthusiastic reviews from my friends; perhaps I caught it on an off night. Twelve, Denver CO Had dinner with a good friend from the wine business: the meals here are uniformly delicious, the kitchen is consistently excellent to a fault and the staff is always friendly and knowledgeable. The willingness of Chef Osaka to wipe the slate clean every month (hence the name; twelve menus per year) is courageous and risks putting off less adventurous diners; but I have never missed a departed menu item more than I've enjoyed new ones. If you are wanting the exact same dish every time you go out, this place is emphatically not for you. The only complaints I have here are minor: the floor is sometimes understaffed (adding one person would probably take care of this; service can be less than smooth if things get busy), and that the wine is not stored properly - the reds always come out warm. Still, this is probably my favorite place in all of Denver right now. The meals are vibrant, fresh, beautifully prepared and full of unexpected surprises, and the service is so nice it's hard to stop smiling while I am in here. Owner/Chef Jeff Osaka can do no wrong! Plus, I can walk up here from my apartment. How great is that?
3.1.10. We start the day at the Altare farm in Annunziata, Silvia greets us and takes us on an impromptu tasting of the 2007 wines from tank. They had just been assembled from their constituent barrels a few weeks before and are resting, integrating and settling before being bottled later in the spring/summer.
Funny, at Altare, Silvia always gives a tour that goes backwards ...
I wake with wicked drymouth. Too much good wine and great food last night!
This is an off day in every sense: we drive from Cannetto to Monforte d'Alba, in the heart of Barolo country. We have lunch at La Cantinella in Barolo, an oddly indifferent meal. I haven't been here in a few years, but this meal confirms my previous opinion that it is a decent, correct, traditional and unexciting place to eat. After lunch (2008 Elio Grasso Nebbiolo d'Alba ... decent, but nothing spectacular) Edward and Mark get checked into their rooms, and I head to my apartment. Time for a little laundry and cleanup before a lovely supper at La Saracca in Monforte.
No spring tasting trip is complete without a meal at Dal Pescatore, one of the greatest restaurants of Italy. I’ve eaten at all of Italy’s Michelin 3-star restaurants (there’s only 4 or 5, sheesh) and this one is hands-down my favorite. It is possibly my favorite place to eat in the world – not only for the amazing cuisine, but the care and graciousness of the staff and family. The old maxim about great service making your meal taste even better is, in my experience, true. I’ve written about the importance of the general mood and tenor of a restaurant’s staff, and what I wrote about Casa Bleve applies here doubly. There is a sense of joy and pride here that I’ve rarely experienced elsewhere. What happens when you take otherworldly food and combine it with great and caring service? Your taste buds are off-planet, definitely.
Friday morning dawns foggy and rainy. We meet for a quick breakfast, then off to Tiefenbrunner in a sprinkling rain. This is an estate I’ve wanted to visit for ages; I’ve really enjoyed their wines (and sold them at both my restaurant and wine store). This producer is a negociant: some of the vines are estate, the balance are growers who have long-term contracts with the Tiefenbrunner family. This allows them to better control what goes where, and how it is farmed. Keeping track of a few hundred vineyard sites is no easy task. As with most wineries here, the products are divided into three lines: Classic, Castel Turmhof, and Linticlarus, the top line.
The hamlet of Entiklar, about two klicks from Kurtasch/Cortaccio, is tiny – a few dozen houses huddled together about a hundred feet above the valley floor on the side of the alluvial fan. Castel Turmhof is the name of the old “castle” – really it is a big fortified farmhouse, charming as hell on a rainy day. Cristof Tiefenbrunner greets us as we arrive. We take a quick tour through the ageing cellars and winery. There have been experiments with rotofermentors, but most fermentation seems to be done in upright tanks, some with automatic punch-pown hydraulics built right into the apparatus. It all looks very sci-fi from a 1950’s movie – in a good way. And as we shall see, this winery has an amazing little bit of history that was very sci-fi when first brought online.
Got home last night to Denver before the spring snow hit - when I woke this morning there was an inch of fresh snow on the ground. 23 hours awake! I left Monforte at 6.30, drove to Torino, caught a flight for Frankfurt, then direct back to Denver (almost 10 hours, ugh), arriving late afternoon. I made it up to 10pm that night!
I thought I would grab a burger at Jax next door before heading to bed, but I wasn't hungry enough to make it out the door - besides, I would have probably pitched face-down asleep in the fries. The Jax burger, by the way, is excellent (I would never have guessed given that they are a fish place). When I get back from Europe, I usually have cravings for burgers, Tex-Mex and sushi. This time is no different.
It is good to be home.
There's something about the first day back, though. Completely disorienting. Something about part of your being still far away - Amie once described it as "the molecules not catching up," which somehow describes it perfectly for me. My body thinks it is still in Italy, time-wise, and when I woke up this morning, the Union Station neon glowing red through the snow, i was discombobulated and completely confused. "Where am I?" ... always a good question! (Especially for a philosophy major, ha!)
There's a slight sense of panic waking up that first morning in the pre-dawn light and not having any idea where you are ... kinda like after a night out in college. I realize that I'm home, my cozy apartment, 4 floors up, the snow is gently falling, the city feels muffled, as if noise can't travel through the soft, wet falling snow. Up and at 'em! There's laundry to do, unpacking, bills to pay, and my girlfriend is coming up from Manitou to visit tonight. We'll eat at Twelve, one of my favorite places in Denver. More later.
Quick visit to NYC to see my sister and family. I haven't been in almost a year ... way too long. I take the train to Philly for a night to visit friends and have the de rigeur philly cheesesteak - hey, when visiting a place for the first time, it's a great idea to sample the local specialty. And what makes a cheese steak authentic? Cheeze Whizz!
Had dinner at the Summit, the least stodgy of the Broadmoor Hotel's dining choices. I've been coming since the restaurant opened and have always found it good without being truly excellent - and this time was no different. The room is nice, the service is friendly and well-meaning if often completely clueless, and the meals are consistently decent though uninspired. It's probably the best choice for "fine" dining in Colorado Springs. Still, it pisses me off that with a bit more effort, this place could be truly excellent.