Franco Bernabei wines of Sartori di Verona at Spiaggia

Last week I had the pleasure to have dinner with Andrea Sartori of Sartori di Verona, and his winemaker, Franco Bernabei at one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Chicago, Spiaggia.  The marriage of a Tuscan winemaker with Veneto wines and this amazing Tony Mantuano restaurant was too big to miss!  

The Sartori family has been making wine for over 110 years, and started very small with just 37 acres as of 2002.  This quickly grew when they secured over 5000 acres from a partnership with Cantina Colognona di Colli of Soave and Valpolicella.  Later, the family secured the services of Franco Bernabei, a well known winemaker known all over "the boot" as a master,  Needless to say, I was anxious to try the food and wine.

Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio

We started with the Ferdi Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir (under $15), both of which were light, acidic and dry, exactly how I enjoy my typical Pinots from the region.  This went well with our Foie Gras, a salty, fatty goose liver, typically served with a sweet fruity sauce (or wine) to counter the saltiness and fat content.  Excellent.

Next we moved onto the Valpolicella reds, starting with a Valpolicella, a light drinking wine blend normally comprised of Corvina and Rondinella varietals.  Quite good, light and fruity with a touch of minerality.  This was followed by Sartori Veronese "Regolo" ($20) 100% Corvina varietal.  This wine goes through an interesting process as it is cold soaked with the grape skins for 15-18 days.  This allows the juice to soak in color, flavor and tannins before fermentation begins.  Later in the year, the wine goes through the Veneto "ripasso" process of passing through the "lees" (fallen yeast) and grape skins of Amarone wine, which still contains much sugar, resulting in a secondary fermentation.  This adds body and complexity.  The wine is named for Regolo, the Patriarch of the Sartori famiglia.  The wine melded well with our mushroom risotto, as the earthiness and minerality mixed with the shrooms, creamy rice and pancetta.

Spiaggia Lamb Chop

Spiaggia Lamb Chop

We then leapt to the Amarone ($43), which is one of Italy's largest wines.  This one is made up Corvina, Rondinella and Oselta varietals which have been laid out on straw mats after harvest to raisinate.  This leaves behind concentrated fruit and sugar, more for the yeast to feast on and create more complexity, body and alcohol.  Always a great treat and fabulous with food, like the lamb chops we had.  Gamey flavors mixed with minerality, herbs, bitterness and fruity body.  A delicious combo.

Franco wanted us to try his Garganega, a white wine he described as having body and complexity, so much so that we could drink after any hearty red, such as an Amarone.  While I do not agree I want to end my night with this (or any) white, I do agree the complexity was there to fully enjoy.  The juice went through an interesting process, as the grapes were hand-picked and dried for over 30 days to reduce water and concentrate sugar and color, then they're cold soaked and macerated on the white skins.  Some of the wine is aged in used barrels and aged "sur lie", then aged 3 months in bottle for great stabilizing.  

A great way to end an amazing evening with amazing people like Franco, Andrea and the rest of the Sartori, Banfi and Spiaggia crew.  Thanks again!

Franco, Me, Lars and Andrea

Franco, Me, Lars and Andrea

Masciarelli Abruzzi Wine at Pane Caldo

Masciarelli WinesI recently had the pleasure of tasting Masciarelli wines paired with the Italian cuisine of Pane Caldo Restaurant and it was both a tasty and enlightening experience.  Pane Caldo has a longPane Caldo standing on East Walton Street in Chicago's Gold Coast.  It's a quaint but classy establishment with great northern Italian dishes and an amazing wine list.  I (fortunately) found parking in front and was directed to a private dining room a couple of doors down.  The space seemed perfect for private events with a large banquet table, open space, ample lighting, a restroom and coatroom.  I was greeted by Angela Acquaviva of Masciarelli and Betsy & Pete of Vintage Wine.  Let's get to the tasting!

We started off with an explanation of Azienda Agricola Masciarelli.  Gianni Masciarelli began a journey over 30 years ago to become a great winemaker in his home of Abruzzo.  He traveled through France to learn of advanced techniques which greatly influenced him and his wines.  When he returned home he was ready to take his family's vineyards and increase the quality level of their output.  He wanted to do this by putting indigenous varietals like Montepulciano and Trebbiano of Abruzzo on the world map.  Gianni did this by lowering production, adding a good mix of new French oak and aging.  Today Masciarelli has 13 vineyards throughout Abruzzo.  Unfortunately for most of America, the only wines we've seen from Abruzzo are extremely light reds of Montepulciano grapes and whites of Trebbiano (except for Orvieto DOC wines which can be much higher quality), until now.  The family dealt with the unfortunate recent passing of Gianni in 2008, and continues to produce great wines in his honor.

While we were learning about Masciarelli, we tasted through a 'vertical tasting' (a tasting consisting of multiple vintages (years or harvests) of the same wine) of Gianni's famed Villa Gemma Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.  Vintages started with recent selections and went as far back as 1999.  The youngest were very full of fresh dark fruit, big gritty tannins and high acidity- both indications that the wine still needs aging.  The further we went back in vintage, the more wild gamey notes came through, along with herbal scents, with the tannins gradually softening.  This wine was truly amazing compared to other Montepulciano d'Abruzzo wines I've tried- it's aged in both barrel and bottle for over 5 years!  Gianni started this label in 1984 and it is only produced in high quality years and will be available in wine shops for about $90.

It was then time to enjoy some cuisine with the wines and we started with Castello di SemivicoliCastello di Semivicoli Trebbiano Trebbiano d'Abruzzo paired with seafood in white wine and saffron.  This worked well as the fresh seafood and lively sauce mixed with the wine's young fruit and zippiness.  Next we went on to Marina Cvetic (a label named after Gianni's Serbo-Croatian wife who works with the winery) oak aged Trebbiano paired with Marina Cvetic Trebbianomushroom risotto.  I normally would recommend Pinot Noir, Barbera or Nebbiolo with this dish, but the rich Trebbiano was very unique.  It's weight and sour creaminess stood up to the risotto and the rich mushrooms.  For a final course we had filet mignon with a red wine sauce matched up with the Marina Cvetic Montepulciano which was an excellent pairing- the slight game and tannins that the grape brings with it wasMarina Cvetic Montepulciano excellent with the beef.  And there was more Villa Gemma left to tackle our chocolatey desserts.

In summation, it was a fantastic experience with varietals I've never known to produce truly great wines, at a fantastic restaurant with outstanding food, service and ambience.  I'll be visiting both in the future- salute!

Italian Delight at Vivo Chicago

My wife & I were overdue for a date night so dinner and a few drinks on the town seemed like a great idea. We met up at Sweetwater Tavern & Grill for a cocktail and then it was off to Vivo for some fun with Italian.

It was my first visit to the restaurant and it is visually appealing. The outside has a small patio covered by a black awning and the dark wood and colors continue indoors giving the place a very romantic atmosphere- perfect for a date! We were greeted immediately at the host stand and sat on a nice table for two.

Our waiter, Erik, was the type which is best- knowledgeable about theCalamari Grigliati menu and wine list, timely and friendly, plus he knew the best times to approach. We started off with some drinks, heard the specials and ordered the Calamari Grigliati- woodoven grilled calamari served with mixed greens and tomato. The squid was very fresh and flavorful and instead of having grill char like most places, had a wood-smoked flavor. It was also served with a slightly spicy tomato sauce which added to the experience.

Il Bagatto SuperTuscanThe wine list is a decent size and half is comprised of Italian wines from up and down the boot. I knew more tomatoes were in my future, so I decided to go with a Toscana wine, as they have bright acidity, good weight, fruit and tannins to pair with. I selected Fattoria Scopone's Il Bagatto from Montalcino, a blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Sangiovese and 10% Petit Verdot. It was everything I'd hoped for plus dark fruit, oak spice, vanilla and a great length. I'd do that again.

Next I was trying a special appetizer, Burrata with fresh fruits and speck, salt cured and cold smoked Italian ham. The Burrata was very creamy and delicious, and the fruit paired nicely. My wife tried the Arugula salad which she also enjoyed. The thing I liked about this course is there was no hurry to take our main dish order or hurry us along with our meal.

We did eventually move on and I decided on the Linguine Nere alla Polpa di Granchio which is freshLinguine e Granchio octopus ink infused pasta combined with lump crab meat and spicy tomato sauce. The pasta was soft with homemade texture and the sauce had such fresh crab aroma and flavor- definitely a good dish. My wife tried the Gnocchi Gratinati which were soft and full of cheese richness. Both dishes had us leaving with leftovers.

We finished up with some espresso and an after-dinner drink, but we received the wrong chocolate dessert- a double chocolate cake which ended up being a nice end to the meal. We finished our drinks on a tour upstairs in their private party space which can be rented year-round for special events. There's a full bar, TVs, colorful furniture- a real classy place to have a party.

Overall, I was very pleased with the evening. Overall a very romantic spot with great service, good food, different wine selections, clean bathrooms and nice private event space. Like I said before, I'd do that again.

*Disclosure- this meal was compliments of Vivo Restaurant.

Piccolo Sogno: The Little Dream

IMG_1222Since last summer, I had been meaning to take a trip to one of Chicago's best new restaurants, Piccolo Sogno.  Many accolades, including Chicago's best outdoor dining, have been given in such a short amount of time.  My wife and I were finally on our way to enjoy some Italian food!

Piccolo Sogno means "small dream" in Italian- a vision created by co-owners Chef Tony Priolo and Ciro Longobardo.  The space is very smart, located on the southwest corner of Halsted and Grand.  We entered from a small valet controlled parking lot (free for lunch, $6 for dinner).  After we were greeted at the host stand, we were escorted past the busy wall bar, around the corner to our table.  The room is painted lively blue, with intimate tables bookended by an open kitchen and the entrance to the outdoor patio.  We were presented with our menus and the wine list, and we dove into our studies.

Now for a bit of background.  I worked with both Tony and Ciro at Coco Pazzo Restaurant for three years.  It was there I saw Tony grow into a great chef, with his many trips to Italy, working, learning, and creating natural, authentic, and fabulous Italian cuisine.  His winning staple is Italian imported food and ingredients accompanied by local meat and produce.  Ciro was a very likeable and professional General Manager and host, who I always shared a great connection with: he grew up where my family emmigrated from, Napoli.

It didn't take long for Tony to stop by the table for a visit.  We talked about his new restaurant, our current happenings, and old times.  Even though he was busy running the line in the kitchen, he seemed to make his way to almost every table to chat with guests.

The wine list is very impressive- an all Italian selection of over 400 bottles.  You can find values from all over "the boot", with some of the most moderate restaurant pricing in town.  From classic lighter styles like Valpolicella, Barbera, and Piedirosso, to the heavy hitters like Barolo, Amarone, Brunello, SuperTuscans, and Aglianico.  Glass pours were numerous- over 40 choices, ranging from $4 on up.  I really wanted to start with the sparkling Aspirinio, a wine I've only tried once at A16 in San Francisco, but it was off the list.  So we started with a sparkling Pinot Nero rosé from Veneto, which was crisp and fruity.  We later moved to a bottle of 2006 Maculan Brentino, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, also from Veneto.  This wine worked well through our meal, as it had supple tannins, floral notes, and rich dark fruit.  The long flavor winded down with a bit of oak.  A steal at $38.

Now for the meal.  We were immediately presented with an amuse-bouche of truffled potato croquets and soft house-made breads.  We wanted to share many items, so we could experience most of the menu.  To start off, we had to try the pizza napoletana style- thin crust, cooked in a wood burning stone oven, topped with fresh ingredients.  Verdict: this is as close as you can come to Napoli in Chicago.  The thin, crisp and doughy crust was topped with fresh cheese, olive oil, and arugula.  We also had the Burrata con Culatello- thinly sliced prosciutto topped with Burrata, a cheese from Puglia made from mozzarella and cream.  The combo of the melt in your mouth salty pork with the creamy cheese is amazing.

IMG_1214Next, we went with the Insalata Barbabietole, which came out in gorgeous presentation.  Locally grown beets topped with shaved fennel, greens, and ricotta, surrounded by citrus oil.  This was a pleasant, clean, and delicious salad.  We also had the Griglia Mista, a mix of grilled seafood surrounding greens.  There was not much seafood, and the baby octopus was a bit scorched, but the calamari was crisp with light char and big sea flavor.

For pasta, we split the Gnocchi di Spinaci, small spinach and potato dumplings in a sauce of herbs, sundried tomatoes, IMG_1215and mushrooms.  The care in the house-made pasta was evident, as they were soft and subtle with each flavor hint.  The sauce was so fresh, I could not help but scoop every drop up with bread.

IMG_1219For our secondo piatto, we went with the Porchetta alla Romana.  This is a very authentic and simple dish from Lazio, of pork rolled in olive oil and herbs, wrapped with Pancetta, and wood roasted.  It was sliced, accompanied by roast potatoes, and topped with pan drippings.  The smell was so intensely delicious, we received comments from the table next to us, commending us on our selection!  The palate matched the bouquet- rich and flavorful. 

IMG_1221On to the sweets.  For chocolate lovers, go for the Torta con Gianduia.  It is a warm flourless chocolate cake, with an oozing center, accompanied by hazelnut ice cream.  The Millefoglie, IMG_1220meaning "thousand leaves", is a multi-layered puff pastry, encasing a chocolate chip custard- almost tastes like cookie dough.  This is a "do not miss" dessert!

I highly recommend coursing your meal at this restaurant.  You will be able to experience all the authenticity they have to offer.  Also, the food quality to price ratio leaves the consumer in a huge winning situation.  This spot will be pleasing Chicagoans and tourists for years to come!