Simple Food and a Special Wine

My sister invited my wife and I to her Greenwich Village apartment for a classic Italian American dinner party. This was, in fact, her first dinner party. She loves food and wine, but had yet to cross the bridge of entertaining for herself. We were to be her first guests.

She is surrounded by many Italian specialty shops, wine stores, cheese purveyors and even more Italian bakeries. I was excited to see what she put together. We started with stuffed spicy peppers, marinated bocconcini, Piave cheese, rosemary crackers and roasted red peppers. She picked all of these up at Faicco’s Pork Store on Bleeker and they were all delicious. Next came an arugula salad with beets, walnuts and balsamic vinaigrette. Finally, she served a simple lasagna of spicy marinara and ricotta cheese. All of the ingredients were simple, and stereotypically Italian American, but when combined, it was an amazing dinner.

My job was to bring the wine. I stopped off at Le Vigne, an artisanal Italian wine shop on Greenwich Avenue, where I picked up a 2009 Dolcetto d’Alba and a 2008 Barbera d’Asti. Both were excellent wines, but the hands down favorite was a 2006 Carema Classico.  It is no wonder why we loved the Carema best; it is made from our favorite grape, Nebbiolo. We’ve tried our fair share of Barolo and Barbaresco, but this is the first time we tried Carema, which comes from the Northern reaches of Piemonte. It definitely won’t be the last time we enjoy a bottle of this special wine.

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A Reason to Speak Italian

When my friend Sandro told me about the Winter Wine Dinner honoring the Piemontese wine maker Enzo Boglietti from La Morra, I knew we had to attend. Not only was I excited to try the wines, but the dinner was at Sandro’s friends restaurant, Locanda Vini e Olii, a Northern Italian Restaurant on Gates Avenue in Clinton Hill that I have been wanting to try for some time now.

The Locanda Vini e Olii was the perfect setting for an intimate wine dinner. The space, a former drug store, features tin ceilings, original woodwork, and pharmacy bottles. This is the type of restaurant that you add to your “must take visitors to” list. It is certainly now on ours. We hustled in from the cold, hung up our coats, and were escorted to our seats. Our neighbors at the table were introduced to us by Rocco, one of the owners of Locanda Vini e Olii. Seated to my right was the honoree of this dinner, Enzo Boglietti, and across the table was his lovely wife.

We exchanged pleasantries, me in horrible Italian, and the Bogliettis in much better English. The Bogliettis spoke some English, but not much. I, unfortunately, used up most of my Italian skills when we said hello. Here I was, seated next to a highly respected wine maker from my favorite wine region, and we could hardly communicate. I did learn that Enzo grows his grapes on 22 hectares which yields 100,000 bottles a year. He, of course, is very passionate about his wine. This was apparent without the need for any translation.

Thankfully, the food and wine kept us occupied and the breaks in conversation were not awkward. The menu and wine pairings were exactly what I hoped they would be. We started with Bagna Cauda and vegetables paired with Enzo’s 2009 Dolcetto d’Alba “Taglineri”. Next came a Piemontese beef tartare paired with a 2008 Barbera d’Alba, “Roscaleto.” Then came Swiss chard gnocchi with “fonduta” which was paired with a 2007 Barbera d’Alba, “Vigne dei Romani.” Finally came the course I’d been waiting for since seeing it on the menu, Piemontese beef cheeks braised in Barolo with cannellini beans in extra virgin olive oil. This was paired with, of course, Barolo. The wine was Enzo’s 2006 “Case Nere.” Delicious food and spectacular wine. Someone at our table said it best, when holding the 2007 Barbera to his nose. “This just smells like Piemonte!”

As we said goodbye to Enzo and his wife, I silently vowed that I wouldn’t let an opportunity like this slip away again. I must speak Italian. We promised to call on them when we visited Piemonte again. I told them I would speak better Italian then. They promised to speak better English.

Now the search begins for Enzo’s wines here in New York. This dinner is a memory I will always be happy to relive through a glass of Enzo’s wine.

The Bogliettis

Searching for Amaretti

ImageImageFinding Piemontese food and drink that I love here in New York has been pretty easy so far. Barolo? Definitely. Barbaresco? Absolutely. Grissini? You bet. Tajarin? Yes (plus I can make this at home). Soft amaretti cookies? Tough luck!

So far, I have desperately searched for these soft, sweet amaretti cookies from Piemonte, specifically those from Mombaruzzo. Hard amaretti cookies are easily found here in the U.S., both imported and domestic ones. However, the soft cookies that I devoured on almost a daily basis in Italy have yet to be seen.

I fell in love with Amaretti di Mombaruzzo almost as soon as I walked into their shop, and definitely as soon as I took one bite. These soft cookies have intense flavor and pair excellently with wine or coffee. I would love to have these on a regular basis, but so far, they’ve been a luxury in our house. The limited supply we brought back from Italy vanished pretty quickly. Then, my wife had some sent over by a friend as a Christmas present for me. What a great surprise! But, these are dwindling in number as well. I’ll continue hunting for these locally, but my search has been fruitless thus far. Perhaps these should be left as a luxury. Some things are worth the wait.

A Hearty Winter Risotto

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Risotto is famous in Piemonte and is the perfect comfort food. Although I make it year round, I especially enjoy making a pot of Risotto on a chilly winter’s night. At this time of year, I like it to be heartier than usual. The simple addition of carrots and celery does it for me. And because my wife is a vegetarian, you won’t see me using chicken stock.  Vegetable stock produces a darker risotto than vegetable broth and adds to the heartiness factor. Risotto is easy. Here’s my recipe.

Bring 4 cups of vegetable broth to a simmer on the stove top. Keep warm.

In a separate pot, sautee the following in 2 tablespoons of butter (not olive oil) over medium heat:

1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
1 large celery stock, chopped

Once the onions are tender, add 1 1/4 cups of arborio rice to the vegetables.  Stir until the rice grains shimmer and look like little pearls, approximately 2-3 minutes. At this point, add a couple of ladles full of the warm broth – just enough to lightly cover the rice and vegetables.  Add a bit of salt, give it a quick stir and let simmer over medium heat. Once the broth has been absorbed, give the rice another quick stir and then add some more broth and a tad more salt. Continue this practice until the risotto has the desired tenderness.  If you run out of stock, you can add some wine at the end, or some water. I usually have a tiny bit of stock left over. Stir in 1 tablespoon of butter and 1/2 cup of grated parmesan or grana padano, season to taste and serve immediately.

So not to over power the risotto, we drank 2010 Dolcetto d’Alba from one of our favorites, Elvio Cogno. Delicious!

Cipolle Ripiene

Cipolle ripiene (stuffed onions) were never on my radar. During a recent visit from my Piemontese dad, he went on and on (and on and on) about how much he loved “cipolle ripiene.” According to my dad, my great aunt Francesca would make these often and her cipolle ripiene were loved by all who ate them. We tried to replicate Aunt Fran’s dish by combining a few different recipes from my cookbook collection. Aunt Fran’s dish always contained raisins, but the general consensus was to omit them and instead use almonds. The resulting dish seemed to please everyone. They would make a great secondi for a vegetarian and would also work well as a contorni to pass around the table. Try them for yourself! I’ve included our improvised recipe below. Mangia bene!

Makes 4 stuffed onions:

4 large onions, peeled with root attached
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, soaked in 1/3 cup of milk
2 large eggs
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/8 cup ground raw almonds
Large pinch cloves
Pinch of sugar
Ground white pepper
4 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 400.

Place onions in boiling salted water for approximately 5 minutes. Remove from water and when cool enough to handle, slice off the tops of the onions. Scoop out the inside of the onions, leaving a thin shell. Chop onion tops and scooped out insides. Combine chopped onions with soaked breadcrumbs, eggs, cheese, ground almonds, and seasonings. Mix to combine. Stuff onion shells with filling. Place in a butter baking dish. Cover onions loosely with foil and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Serve hot or warm.

Why I Love a Spritz!

We sat down at an outdoor cafe during our first day in Italy and ordered a bottle of wine. This MUST be what Italians drink in the afternoon, right? The waiter brought our bottle and we happily sipped our wine and took in the surrounding sights. The waves were rolling onto the beach in Vernazza, old women were lazily peering out over the square from their windows above, and some local children were kicking around a soccer ball. Suddenly I noticed that every table at the outdoor cafe, except for ours, had an orange drink on it. And every time a waiter walked by with a tray, there was an orange drink on it. I was obviously missing out on something. This something was the “Spritz” – an aperitivo made with Aperol and sparkling wine. The spritz was a common theme throughout our trip and we enjoyed them in every location we visited, from a sidewalk cafe in Alba, to apertivi in Milan. I am officially obsessed. The recipe is below for those who want to make them at home. The first sip immediately takes me back to Italy. Salute!

3 parts sparking white wine
2 parts Aperol
Orange wedge for garnish
Splash of soda water

Combine the above ingredients over ice in a wine glass, stir and enjoy!

A New Beginning

After an amazing trip to Northern Italy, I’ve decided to readjust my life. I can’t move to Italy permanently, but I can try to live an Italian lifestyle (specifically a Piemontese lifestyle) in the U.S. There is probably no better place to do this than in Brooklyn, NY. I have some of the best Italian specialty shops in NYC at my doorstep.  With a little editing and minor changes to my food and wine purchasing habits, I hope to recreate a little of the magic I experienced overseas. Do not get me wrong, I still love Brooklyn and support Long Island vineyards, but I have fallen in love with Italy. Don’t hate me New York! This blog will focus on my quest for all things Northern Italian in Brooklyn, as well as my discovery of local cuisine and culture that I think is noteworthy. Mostly, I want to share things that make me happy. Welcome to Piedmont in Brooklyn!