Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dining in... Italy - Part Due

Phew! Life has been busy lately. Have I mentioned my brother got married this past weekend? I’m very excited that I can stop calling my brother’s significant other “my brother’s girlfriend” or “my brother’s fiancé” and I can now start calling her my “sister-in-law.” But as exciting as that is for me personally, that’s neither here nor there. Y’all came here to read about food, not hear about the drunken wedding antics of the Groomsman.

So as some of you may or may not remember, my last post (2 months ago, eek!), was on how to eat in Italy. If not refresh yourself, because I’m going to delve even deeper into Italian food. I’m going to tell you all about the places I ate, which were good, which were bad, interesting trends in Italian food and anything else I can remember considering its been 2 months since I was there.

We started off our Italian adventure (by we I mean my travel partner Kasie and myself) in Rome. I’ve been to Rome twice now, and I wasn’t all that impressed with it either time I was there… Which is why we chose to only spend 6 hours there on this trip. Just long enough to have Italians yell at me through customs, take the Leonardo express into town, stow our luggage at the train station, and get in one sight, the Sistine Chapel. I did manage to eat a pizza while in Rome, but it was in a tourist trap and I was jet lagged, so it definitely wasn’t anything worth writing about. We got in a quick trip to the Chapel (well as quick as you can make it through the Vatican maze.. I mean museum.. 3 hours minimum) and then hopped our train to Firenze.

Yes, that really is what you think it is, I think this picture is illegal.. shhh

The next day, we had to be up bright and early to pick up our car. The ultimate reason we were in Italy this time around was to attend the wedding of my dear friend Elena an Italian native. And while I absolutely loved attending her wedding, it provided some logistic problems, namely, how to get from the city center where we were staying, out to the Certosa Monastery, where the ceremony was, then how to get to the Villa le Corti where the reception was. So we came up with the bright idea to rent a car for the day to get around. I don’t know if you’ve heard about driving in Italy, but it’s a fairly harrowing experience! Not because Italians are crazy drivers, they’re really not, but the roads are narrow, cobbled together (based on a 1000 years of history) and not marked all that well. Forget about the nice green road signs you have here. Those don’t exist in Italy. You have to say a Hail Mary (you are in Italy) and hope your maps are detailed enough to get you from point A to point B.

We struck out along the SR2 highway towards Sienna (staying off the Autostradale). After getting lost at least 5 times, we finally got our bearings and started to enjoy our Tuscan drive. The SR2 is really a beautiful little road. It winds through the Tuscan countryside passing little towns with quaint hotels and wineries.. lots of wineries. We saw signs for wineries everywhere. So many that we were a little hesitant to stop at one. Most of the wineries are small, and if you happen to be out wine hunting a Friday afternoon, you won’t encounter too many other winery visitors. In fact, most of the wineries we passed looked deserted and empty.

The first place we stopped at was called La Tancia. It looked like a large, empty Italian villa with an open gate, a sign that said “Vino” and a car or two in front of it. We were SO hesitant to stop and get out of the car, but damn it, we were in Tuscany, we were stopping at a winery! We tentatively got out of the car and approached the open front door (that was a good sign!). We were “greeted” by a woman and her son. We looked at them and they looked at us. You’d think an owner of a tourist-centric winery would have gregariously said “Welcome to La Tancia, come taste our wine!” (in Italian of course). But instead we continued to awkwardly look at each other until Kasie, the good practical girl she is, got out her dictionary and asked the woman if we could taste the wine. Problem solved!

We were escorted into a quaint villa filled with wine barrels and tables. She prepared a bruschetta appetizer for us from tomatoes and olive oil grown on their farm and laid out 4 wines for us to try (with the bottles no less so we could pour more if we wanted). Of the 4 wines we tried, we thought 2 were note worthy, the Chianti (not to be confused with the Chianti Classico or the Chianti Reserva) and the their Tuscan blend (I’ll explain the differences between various Chiantis and blends in the next post). I don’t remember much about the wine other than it was yummy. What can I say, we got settled and started drinking, and I was more excited about taking pictures, and well.. drinking.. than writing about the wine. It had a great jewel-like color, a fruity-herbaceous nose, a medium tannin structure, a rich cherry finish, and a leathery overtone. There, that’s a generic enough red wine description for you. Eh, whatever, you can’t get the wine here anyway. But if you happen to be out driving in Tuscany, stop by. It really IS a tasty, easy to drink Chianti, even though my drunk taste buds don’t remember the particulars of it.

We purchased 2 bottles of wine (for later), and a couple of bottles of olive oil (ultimately the best I had of any of the wineries, so I’m glad I got it there), then headed to the next winery up the road, La Palagina. It too, was distinguished as a winery only because there was a “Vino” sign and an open gate. We drove in and encountered an equally shy winery operator. There were no heartfelt greetings or directions on where to park, we were left to figure things out ourselves. This winery had a more interesting set up too. Instead of a villa, they had a small store front selling all manner of meats, cheeses, pastas, and 2 kinds of wine, a white and a red Tuscan blend. They also had a lovely little covered patio with tables and it WAS getting close to lunch, so Kasie and I opted for a meat, cheese, and wine meal. What I experienced was simply orgasmic.

None of the individual items: savory jams, cheeses, meats, or wines were noteworthy in their own right, but combined, they were a prime example of exceptional food pairing. All of the food was grown or raised on the farm and you could tell it. The grassy notes in the white wine went perfectly with the earthy pecorino-like sheep’s cheese. The leathery gaminess of their Tuscan blend red wine paired perfectly with the salami made from the animals on their farm. It was heavenly. I think you can order some of their products online. I highly recommend their vegetable crèmes. They’re kind of like savory jellies. The pepper and onion crèmes were excellent.

After we had stuffed our faces, it was time to make our way up to the church, La Certosa Monastery, for the wedding. The ceremony was amazing; not only were the Bride and Groom lovely, but the chapel was gorgeous. How nice would it be to get married in a 600 year old monastery with frescoed ceilings and hand carved wood panels? This nice:

After the wedding we made out way to the Villa Le Corti for the food orgy.. I mean Italian reception. You want to talk about a high class wedding, this was the prime example of everything a beautiful wedding should be. The Villa sat on a hill overlooking the Tuscan countryside. The park around it had half dozen appetizer tables set up for our munching enjoyment. There was a table where you could sample local wine, a table mixing prosecco cocktails, a table where you could make your own bruschetta, a wood fire oven cooked pizza table (yes, there was an honest-to-god wood fire oven set up in the yard of this villa), and my favorite table, the gelato table. If there was one thing I really absorbed and embraced about Italian food this time around, it was their creative uses of gelato. This particular gelato was a savory pre-meal gelato. Savory and gelato usually don’t go together so let me explain. There was a fig gelato with chopped up salami on top, a honey gelato with pecorino cheese on top, and, I’m not shitting you, lemon gelato with swordfish sashimi on top. They were amazing and for my American palate, really creative and interesting. I STILL dream about that honey-pecorino gelato.

The reception dinner inside the villa was equally as interesting. The villa was a giant square with a courtyard, where each of the walls is a different room. We ate in the courtyard, and ventured to each of the 4 rooms to get our food (buffet style) for the different courses. The first room was the anti-pasti course. There were tables filled with salads, veggies, cheeses, meats. My favorite was the gentleman carving 3 different kinds of prosciutto and wrapping it in melon (did I mention the melon came from the region where the prosciutto was from?). The second room was filled with pastas and risottos for the traditional Italian 1st course (remember the last blog post about courses?). There was even a woman hand making raviolis. Yes, we had handmade ravioli for dinner. While we were noshing on those, the Villa fired up a couple of wood grills and grilled up a bunch of different types of meat (available in the 3rd room) for the 2nd course.

Note the specialized prosciutto holder. Register for THAT at your wedding.

At that point, we were all wine full and food drunk, so we went outside to walk the grounds. Elena and Andrea (the Bride and Groom) had arranged for each guest to light a lantern to celebrate their union. Now, these aren’t normal lanterns, these were large cylindrical, paper lanterns. You literally light the bottom on fire and wait until it has enough buoyancy and let it go. The sight of 200 burning paper lanterns floating into the sky in the really breathtaking… until you consider they have to come down eventually… Oh Italy, I love your non-litigious society.

Well, this post is getting a little long, so apparently I’m going to have to break this thing up and write about the rest of my trip in another post.