Pouring Over Downtown’s Coffee Scene

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Downtown is awash in great coffee these days. So, as a public service, we at #BeingJohnCurtas thought we’d scope them out for you.

Before we begin, some admissions are in order:

One, yours truly is no coffee connoisseur. In fact, coffee is something yours truly swore off of for the longest time. Having been married to two caffeine fiends in a row (the type who need a hot, steaming cup in their hands the minute their eyes pop open in the morning), we pretty much gave it up for a decade or so in the late 20th century.

Admission number two: #BeingJohnCurtas doesn’t give a puck about pour-overs, cold brews and nitro this or flat white that. John Curtas is a coffee classicist first and foremost.

Image(Cappuccino at Writer’s Block)

Italy is where JC regained his caffeine mojo fifteen years ago, and Italians are the coffee standard by which all others are measured. A bad cup of caffè is harder to find in Italy than a Southern Baptist, and when it comes to brews — from ristrettos to correttos — they get it right, whether you’re in an airport, a trattoria, or a convenience store.

Coffee is wonderfully subjective, both the flavors and one’s relationship to it. One man’s macchiato might not cut the cortado for another. Some use it simply to get up in the morning; for others it’s a social thing. Some people like to drink coffee all day long; others can’t stomach it after lunch. One of our exes could pound a doppio espresso at 10:00 pm and sleep like a baby.

But like a lot of beautifully simple things, coffee has also jumped the the shark in multiple ways. The whole barista thing is pathetically ridiculous. As is obsessing over your beans’ origins and attending coffee “cuppings.” Whatever you might think about comparative tastings (and sure, they can be fun no matter what the beverage), giving “awards” to people for pouring a cup of joe is as dumb as competing for who is the best lasagna layer.

In other words: we care not a whit about fancy-dancy ornamentation or exotic concoctions. They are the quintessential Millennial pursuit: creating a cult of obsession  over something that should be elementally satisfying on its own terms, without parsing the details to death.

Image(Dueling espressos at PublicUs)

When it comes to all things Arabica, it is about the warm, brownish glow of these beans and the soul-soothing broth they bring forth. To us, it’s about the ritual, the taste and the deeply-satisfying buzz you get from a good cup.

If you’re expecting a dissertation on free-trade fermentation, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But know this: there isn’t a coffee house in Las Vegas who can make a proper espresso to save their life. None of them gets the viscous, syrupy mouthfeel right, and the primary flavor component is always sour, as opposed to the sweet-bitter release of a great Italian cup.

So bad are local espressos, we’ve given up entirely. If you want a good one, go to Cipriani at the Wynn. It’s the only one we’ve had recently that truly tastes of Italy.

But I’ve sampled the wares at all of our newest coffee hound hangouts, and here are my conclusions. For ease of reference, we’ve broken each coffee shop into five components: Coffee, Comfort, Comestibles, Crew and Crowd.

PUBLICUS

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PublicUs kickstarted downtown’s coffee renaissance  five years ago in a big way. It’s always busy, despite being on a forlorn corner of east Fremont Street. Until Vesta came along a couple of years later, it had the upscale coffee market all to itself.

Coffee – the espressos here range from unforgivably sour to lightly bitter and acidic, depending on the beans they are made with. The cappuccino is wonderful, as are the pour-overs (what, back in the day we called good old Chemex drip). The cappuccino is the closest you’ll get to Rome in the High Mojave Desert.

Comfort – everything from two-tops to communal tables, in a modern, naturally-lit room that screams “urban hipster hangout.” Nice bathrooms. In fact bathrooms so nice they make you want to go to the bathroom.

Comestibles – all made in-house. Excellent pastries; good savories, avocado toast, waffles, and even a killer corned beef hash on polenta. If you’re hungry for a big breakfast or lunch with a nice range of menu choices, this is where you want to come.

Crew – young, attractive, lots of crazy haircuts, tatts and such. Invariably friendly and fast. The baristas know their beans.

Crowd – an odd assortment of hipsters, youngsters, ‘grammers and tourists….with tables of actual grownups thrown in the mix occasionally. (Amazingly, a lot of cops love it here too.) Probably the artsiest crowd of the coffee bars downtown. This is where you’re also most likely to see some poseur walk in with one of their filthy dogs.

VESTA COFFEE ROASTERS

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Mr. Curtas has a confession to make: he is secretly in love with all of the female baristas here. (Please do not tell Mrs. Curtas.) Because of this, he cannot be fully objective about Vesta Coffee Roasters, although he will try.

Coffee – strong. Really strong. The most lethal of any coffees downtown. All roasting is done on premises and you can taste the freshness. You can also taste a cappuccino that, compared to other brews, hits you like 151 rum after a light beer. The Food Gal® (aka the Mrs. Curtas referred to above) also swears by something called “Golden Milk” here, which isn’t coffee per se, but which she claims has health-giving properties. In the summer, we’re also partial to their “Espresso Tonic” which is just what it sounds like: cold espresso mixed with tonic and lemon. Remarkably refreshing. The cold brew here is also our favorite, but the espresso was given up on long ago. That doesn’t keep us for ordering it occasionally (for the caffeine kick), but it always tastes of acerbic blueberries, rather than the elusive, dense, haunting pungent holy grail of which we seek.

Comfort – seating can be problematic at peak times, simply because all of the tables are always taken with by Millennials furiously pecking away, pretending to be doing something important. Wait a few minutes though, and something always opens up.

Image(Egg-cellence at Vesta)

Comestibles – very limited, especially compared to PublicUs. No great pastries, a few lunch items (sandwiches and such), good soups made in-house, but that’s about it. Wonderful egg sandwich though (above).

Crew as we said above, not something we can be completely objective about. Let’s just say they’re mostly female and work their tails off at peak times. There may be some dudes who also work here, and we believe the owner is also a person of the male persuasion, but to be honest, we’ve never really noticed.

Crowd – eclectic to say the least. A mixture of business types, tourists, lawyers, smelly hippies, tatted-up hipsters, hairdressers, chefs and crowd-following Yelpers. Also big with the alphabet soup sexuality crowd.

MOTHERSHIP COFFEE
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Mothership Coffee is an offshoot of the teeny tiny operation in Henderson that became a coffee nerd favorite a few years ago. It is as renowned for its small selection of exquisite pastries as it is for its Guatemalan Feminino.

Coffee – “Can I get a single espresso?”

“We only pour doubles.”

“Can I get it made with more water –  what the Italians call lungo?”

“We only pour doubles.”

“Okaaaaay….”

Moving on: gorgeous, nutty, beautifully balanced cappuccino. The espresso was beautiful one time, thin and acrid the second, undrinkable the third. A younger, Millennial cousin of ours (who is a major coffee hound) claims that what we call sour is actually the fruitiness of African beans coming through, as opposed to the milder, less acidic nature of South American coffee. What we call impermissibly sour, he refers to as too sweet. We love the kid, but think he has rocks in his head….or a gueule de bois (wooden mouth). Be that as it may, despite this worthwhile newcomer, a good espresso remains harder to find downtown than a hooker with teeth.

Comfort – open and airy. Kind of a pain in the neck to get to, located as it is in the back of the Ferguson’s Motel complex (at what was once the bottom of its swimming pool, see above), but very nicely appointed inside. Not a lot of seating, although you can also sit on the terraced lawn outside. Because of the location, you won’t be fighting many crowds (like Vesta and PublicUs) but you will be surrounded by self-serious Millennials furiously attached to their laptops.

Image(You’ll love getting sconed at Mothership)

Comestibles – Mothership is known for their pastries (above) and all are top notch. A limited selection of savories and sandwiches, which are invariably fresh and well-crafted. More of a place for a light snack than a full meal. If forced to bestow awards, we’d give the sweet pastries here a slight nod over PublicUs, while the latter wins the savory battle by a landslide.

Crew – Nice, but as green as an Arabica bean.

Crowd – lots of Tony Hsieh acolytes and other youngsters who keep their heads buried in their laptops for hours on end. In many ways this joint feels like a clubhouse for the Downtown Project crowd….which is probably the whole idea.

WRITER’S BLOCK COFFEE SHOP

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Rock and roll journalism was once described as people who can’t talk being interviewed by people who can’t write for people who can’t read. In this same vein, putting an erudite, interesting bookstore (Writer’s Block) in downtown Las Vegas is the clueless trying to sell the thoughtful to the thoughtless. The good news is even if the Paris Review and LBGTQWXYZ Quarterly are not your cup of tea, the coffee and pastries will capture your (short) attention span.

Coffee – they use Mothership’s beans here to create the mildest brews of the bunch. This is a compliment to the cappuccino, as it reaches peak coffee perfection with its balance of sweetness, nuttiness, bitterness and acidity. Not a lot of folderol going on with the foam, but the proportions are just right. The espresso, though, is gawdawful — weak, bland, thin, and as sour as a parson’s smile.

Comfort – nothing more than a few tables, a counter and some high-tops located in the entrance foyer. The outdoor seating on the patio is a real plus. You’re also inside a groovy bookstore, which is also a real plus. Parking is a breeze and free along Bonneville.

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Comestibles – extremely limited. Almond croissants (above), cookies, a cinnamon roll and a couple of other items provided by Sonia El-Awal at Rooster Boy Café.  The good news is they are wonderful. The bad news is they run out early.

Crew – also limited, as the place is tiny. One of our favorite barista/bartenders Michelle, moved over here from Velveteen Rabbit/Vesta, making us feel right at home. I’m secretly in love with her too (Jeebus, Curtas, what’s with you!?), so that means this place is now on our steady rotation.

Crowd – here ya go:

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As this post grinds to a halt, and comes to its bitter end, we almost afforgato to tell you something. So, let us not procaffeinate any further, and espresso some final thoughts.

Unbeanknownst to Las Vegas, a hot beverage revolution has been going on around the world for some time now. It’s a brewtiful thing to watch Vegas finally perk up and smell the…

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…. because we couldn’t au lait for it any longer. Now we’re as frappé as can be, and we’re going to cup up, plunge in, and milk this trend for all its worth. We hope you do too.

THE END

 

Now THAT’S Italian!

An Italian renaissance has been underway in Vegas for well over a year.

What began with Esther’s Kitchen (the restaurant that doesn’t sound Italian, but is), has blossomed into a into a full blown tidal wave of authenticity — where competitors joust for prominence to allow the cream of this peninsula to rise from a sea of mediocrity. (For the uninitiated, “Being John Curtas” means being able to mix metaphors faster than shooting monkeys in a barrel.)

Seriously, though, take stock of all the fabulous Italians who have opened their doors since the beginning of 2018:

Esther’s Kitchen

Pizzeria Monzú

Eataly

Vetri

Masso Osteria closing at end of May. I have bananas that lasted longer than this place.
La Strega

Cipriani

Manzo (inside Eataly)

The Factory Kitchen

All of them pitched not to some lowest common American-Italian denominator, but seeking to replicate the clean, precise, ingredient-driven flavors of the homeland.

What is so fascinating for an old, Italo-phile like me is how true each of them is to their roots. Manzo echoes Tuscany with prime meat being grilled over an open flame; Cipriani carefully mimics the flavors of Venice, and La Strega is serving sardines fer chrissakes…way out in a neighborhood! Monzú may be the most crowd pleasing of the bunch, but its menu is a far cry from your basic chicken parm/pizza/pasta joint.

Vetri may be first among equals with its gorgeous setting and evocative, northern Italian pastas, but right behind it, at both a lower altitude and price point, is The Factory Kitchen — the restaurant with the best food and worst feng shui in town.

Before we get to all the great food, let’s get the feng shui issue out of the way.

To begin with, there is the name. Let’s be blunt: it is not a good name. It tells you nothing about the place, and sounds like the exact opposite of a finely-tuned restaurant.

The words “The Factory Kitchen” are so aggressively anti-appetizing, one thinks at first that they must be some sort of ironic joke. They may have made sense in Los Angeles — as the original address — but what resonates among SoCal gastronauts holds no currency in Vegas. Here, meals need to be telegraphed to customers from a hundred yards away.

Let’s be frank: Vegas tourists are not the sorts to parse out vagaries of nomenclature when choosing a place to eat. If it doesn’t spell things out, they get scared and confused.

If the name isn’t bad enough, there is the decor. From the outside, you see a long, industrial-like wall separating diners from passers-by. If you approach from the Palazzo end of the hallway, you can’t even tell if it’s a restaurant. (From the opposite end, the open entrance, hostess stand and bar signal that food and drink are nigh.)

These are not minor quibbles. If the place doesn’t look like a restaurant and the name doesn’t sound like a restaurant, what message are you sending to people walking by? I get that they’re going for an informal/comfortable vibe, which breaks the chains of fine dining (or whatever nonsense restaurant consultants are selling these days), but I didn’t know “late 20th Century cafeteria” had become a design aesthetic.

The room you first see (part of the bar area) has only a few tables, but they’re the best in the house. Turn left, and you’ll see the main dining room (below) stretching all the way to an open kitchen on the opposite wall. This room has comfortable chairs, well-appointed (and spaced) tables, decent acoustics, and all the charm of a mess hall.

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Fortunately, once the food appears, all these feng shui problems go poof!

Your first sign of how serious TFK is about its food will come from the wine list — it being of manageable size and almost entirely Italian content. In an easy-to-read format, you will find well-chosen bottles priced to drink, not dazzle the rubes and soak the high rollers. Most are listed by grape varietals, with plenty of interesting bottles in the $50-$100 range. You won’t find any bargains, but neither will you need a proctologist after ordering from it.

The next thing you’ll notice is the olive oil. This is not the run-of-the-mill half-rancid  stuff put out by Italian restaurants everywhere. This is the real deal from Liguria — with herbaceousness to burn, and a soothing, back-of-the-throat peppery finish that lasts until next Tuesday. The soft white bread that comes with it is rather bland (just like in Italy), the better to serve as a carrier for all of those creamy-herbal notes coming from the oil.

While you’re lapping up all that awesome olive oil, you’ll then confront the menu — and a more pleasant confrontation you cannot imagine. Things you’ve never heard of (ortolana, peperú, sorentina, mandilli di seta) sit beside those you have (carpaccio, frittura, pappardelle, branzino) — all of them eye-popping in appearance and fork-dropping in taste.

Don’t despair if your Italian isn’t up to snuff. Everything is listed with complete descriptions in English. My guess is the affectation of giving each dish its native name is to inform diners up-front that they’re not Chicken Caesar Land anymore. (For that there are six other Italian options (whew!) in the Venetian/Palazzo.)

Over a dozen starters are offered, and they cover the Italian map from prosciutto to Sorrento. Pleasant surprises abound — such as the sweet and spicy, soft-cheese-stuffed peppers (peperú), or the tangle of bright, fresh field greens with watermelon radish and champagne vinaigrette (ortolana), or beer-battered leeks with chickpea fritters (frittura).

As good as they are, the two starters not to miss are the prosciutto and the “sorentina,” The prosciutto (at the top of the page) finds a flower of thin slices of sweet/salty ham sitting beneath a mound of stringy-creamy stracciatella cheese, speckled with pepper and drizzled with more of that insanely good oil. All of these sit atop crispy fried sage dough, making for a picture perfect amalgam of crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet.  The dish represents the sort of flavor/mouthfeel gymnastics Italian food pulls off effortlessly when the ingredients are right. Here, they are more than right. This is a dish not to be missed. It may be the most expensive antipasti ($25), but it also feeds four as an appetizer.

“Sorentina” (above) is chef Angelo Auriana’s homage to the seafood salads of the southern Italy — its grilled calamari, chickpeas and fava beans being enlivened with just the right spark of chili in the lightly-applied dressing. Good luck finding another salad (seafood or otherwise) where each individual element pops as much as these do.

Light and simple might be the way owner describes Matteo Fernandini describes this food, but I think he’s being coy. Most of the dishes sound more complicated than they appear, but there’s nothing particularly simple about plancha roasted octopus with garbanzo puree, roasted carrots and cotechino sausage. The trick is in using good groceries, and knowing how to balance flavors on the plate. Once you get to the pastas, you’ll realize how well Auriana and his on-site lieutenant Eduardo Pérez have mastered this craft.

(Ravioli di pesce)

Pérez, is a man who knows his way around a noodle.  He held down the fort at Lupo in Mandalay Bay for years, and here, he hand-rolls (yes, he personally hand-rolls pasta with his staff and you can see him do it), a variety of fresh pasta every day — from black olive-speckled pappardelle to ravioli di pesce, to short rib agnolotti — and the results are so vivid they will make you question your previous pasta preferences.

The signature “mandilli di seta” (handkerchief-flat noodles bathed in almond-basil pesto, above), will be a revelation to those who don’t while away their time on the Cinque Terre, and the seafood-filled ravioli are like pillow-y surprises straight from Naples. The point is: get as many of the pastas as you can stuff into your piehole. They are fairly-priced (between $21-$31), meant to be shared, and as fresh as Genovese basil.

(Lamb chops with root veggie purée)
I wish I could tell you more about the secondi (main courses), but truth be told, we’ve run out of gas on all three visits after waltzing through the top two-thirds of the menu.  The only one we’ve had were the lamb chops, and they were superb. No doubt they treat their branzino right; and the 16 oz. boneless rib eye looked interesting (as did the grilled veal). But if you want the scallops or New Zealand fish, there’s nothing I can do for you.

TFK aims to take you on a culinary tour of Italy, in a streamlined, easily digestible fashion. It has neither the pedigree of Cipriani nor the ambition of Vetri, but what it does it does well, at a friendly price point, with recipes that will open your eyes to the possibilities of real Italian food.

Ignore the name and the decor and dive in.  And get the cannolis for dessert. They’re fantastic.

 

(Everything on the menu is meant to be shared, with salads and apps running $10-$25; most pastas in the mid-20s; and big proteins $30-$50.
Dinner for two sharing three courses will run around $100 – much more if you go nuts like we do. One of our three visits here was comped.)

THE FACTORY KITCHEN

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1222

 

Drinking Pink – The Key to Chiaretto

(Al fresco dining and rosé wines are a match made in heaven aka Italy)

Ed. Note: I’ve been traveling a lot to Italy lately, and swimming in a lot of Italian wines. One revelation has been Italian rosés — which are some of the best bargains around when you want to rosé all day. So follow along below if you’d like to learn something about these surprisingly satisfying summer sippers — wines supremely suited to a sizzling Vegas summer.

 A primer on the wines of the Veneto

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If there’s a wine region of Italy that can be said to be unsung, it is probably the Veneto.

Stretching from Lake Garda in northwestern Italy, to the shores of the Adriatic sea,  this area has long been famous for producing oceans of supermarket Soave and light, gulp-able versions of its slightly weightier red cousins, Bardolino and Valpolicella. Both of the latter are made primarily from the Corvina grape, with various amounts of Rondinella and Molinara tossed in for fragrance or body.

But aside from the region’s most venerated wine: the muscular Amarone (itself something of a late 20th Century phenomenon), these wines have never garnered the respect doled out to varietals in Tuscany or the Piemonte. In many ways, they were victims of the region’s success with its lighter wines — so much mass-produced Soave and red Valpolicella was sold in the 1970s and 1980s, they became generic brands unto themselves, and the better versions of these wines got lost in the flood.

Which is a shame, since a tour of the region recently showed us how much variety there is in a place long overdue to take a bow for what it produces for the world to drink. This trip was not about the much-maligned Soave (or the ever popular Pinot Grigio, also made in the Veneto), but rather, it was concerned with Corvina — the grape that is the backbone of all the region’s reds and blush wines. Our travels took us from the town of Bardolino, along the coast of Lake Garda, and then to wineries in both the Bardolino and Valpolicella — wine countries, where the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) designation has been granted (not without controversy) to wines ranging from the palest pink to the thickest, most mouth-coating red.

The smokey, thick-skinned Corvina grape makes everything from those unctuous Amarone to light and refreshing Chiaretto (key-ar-et-toh). In between there are the crisp, cherry-bright Bardolinos, and Valpolicella — wines ranging in intensity from a simple pizza parlor drink to “ripasso” wines of startling complexity.

To decipher how so many styles can be made from so obscure a grape, we buckled into a wine tour that traversed the commune of Bardolino, and then plunged deep into the heart of the Veneto.

We began on the shores of Lake Garda, in the picture postcard town of Torri Del Benaco (pictured at the top of the page). There, in one day, at least two dozen rosato (rosé) wines were tasted — but we powered through with the help of both the wine makers themselves, and experts like Elizabeth Gabay MW (pictured below), whose recently published book Rosé – Understanding the Pink Wine revolution helps to explain the “rosé all day” trend that has revived interest in pale wines for a younger generation of drinkers.

A Whiter Shade of Pale

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Chiaretto di Bardolino (or simply Chiaretto), as it is locally known, is a (generally) paler rosé produced on those Lake Garda shores. Chiaro means “light or pale” in Italian, and it was one of the first appellations in Italy to be awarded the DOC denomination (in 1968) in recognition of the wine’s historic tradition. For the longest time, it was thought of as a simple quaffing wine, but a new generation of Italian winemakers — who have taken note of the rosé revolution going on around the world — are trying to upgrade its image by creating wines with more aromatic and floral notes.

Freshness and citrus fruits are what comes through with Chiaretto, along with a whiffs of minerality, salinity, and herbaceousness. It may not have the depth of the storied rosés of Bandol and Tavel, but what it lacks in their complexity, it makes up for in bright drinkability, not to mention extreme food-friendliness. It’s hard to imagine a better summertime wine, and at price usually well under $20/bottle, it is hard to imagine a better bargain as well.

Here are some notable Chiaretto you should be sipping poolside this summer. Some are available in the United States, while others are looking for distribution here. Either way, these tasting notes will give you an idea what to expect at some very friendly price points:

Santi Infinito Rosé 2017

Bright aromatic notes of ripe strawberries and cherries. Very pale pink caused by short contact with the grape skins, but lively and fresh on the palate, making it a perfect match with seafood and salads. $12 retail.

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Le Fraghe 2017 Rodon Bardolino Chiaretto

A tasty, almost salty minerality comes through at first, followed by fragrant red berry aromas and a hint of spice. Ideal with salmon, it shows lots of crispness, finesse and energy, and a hint of bitter herbs, rather than fruit forward, but still quite a mouthful for $16.

Albino Piona 2017 Bardolino Chiaretto

Pale, dry, and light on the palate with a strong mineral nose, this is a classic quaffing Chiaretto of the sort you see accompanying pizzas in trattorias all around Lake Garda. $15 retail.

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Poggio delle Grazie 2017 Bardolino Chiaretto DOC

Another classic Chiaretto (80% Corvina and 20% Molinara blend), this one retails for around $10 if you can find it. Bracing, but rounder and softer in the mouth than many of its rivals, with a hint of salt on the front palate – a perfect aperitif to sip with antipasti. Around $15.

Monte Zovo 2017 Bardolino Chiaretto

Very indicative of the style they shoot for in these Italian blush wines: crisp, pale, austere and very dry, it presents whiffs of white flowers and is not for those who demanding a lot of sappy, feminine fruitiness in their glass. Around $10.

Monte del Frà 2017 Bardolino Chiaretto DOC

Cool fermentation in stainless steel tanks helps to preserve the aromas and gives it freshness and brightness. A blend of 65% Corvina, 30% Rondinella, and 5% Molinara lends this wine a vivid cherry blossom pink hue with hints of red raspberries and currants on the nose. A juicier, fruitier Chiaretto, with lots of youthful acidity, makes this a perfect summertime refresher that’s begging to be paired with prosciutto. All for about $14/bottle.

Villa Calicantus Chiar’ Otto Vino Rosato 2017

Winemaker Daneile Delaini uses organic, biodynamic methods to produce an array of wines from his hand-picked 6 hectares in the hills above Bardolino. He ages his reserve Chiaretto in wood vats which allows it to develop a complexity his competitors can only dream about. A mineral-rich nose leads to bright red fruits, with a mildly tart finish.  Sleek, elegant, and balanced, with beautiful length. An amazing wine for under $20/bottle. It’s too bad you can’t buy it in the United States. Yet.

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Tinazzi Ca’ de’ Rocchi Bardolino Chiaretto DOP Campo delle Rosé 2017

The name means “Field of Roses.” Pearly-pink and deeper colored than most Chiaretto, its visuals indicated it would be a bigger, richer rosato than most, and the color didn’t lie. A wine full of cherry and raspberry aromas, with a longer finish than many of its rivals. Along with Calicantus, definitely the Chiaretto of the trip. It retails for around $20/bottle, and its salmon-colored cousin —  I Serengni (named for the round stones in the vineyard) — was even more opulent for around $10 more.

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Guerrieri Rizzardi Chiaretto DOP Classico 2017

G R is a large operation — the polar opposite of Villa Calicantus, Monte Zovo, and many of these family-owned wineries. It dates back to the 16th Century and is the product of two ancient Veronese wine producers coming to together in 1914 to produce their first joint vintage. Production is over 750,000 bottles of wine a year, ranging from Chiaretto spumante to Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG. (The Calcarole 2011 Amarone, its most recent release, is a knockout worth searching for.) The winery and tasting rooms are within walking distance of downtown Bardolino, making a visit here mandatory on any wine tour of the region. Its Chiaretto is emblematic of the style: spicy, herbal, restrained nose, finishing dry but not astringent. Like all of these Chiaretto, it is eminently drinkable and matches well with almost any seafood pasta you can think of — which is quite a bargain for ten bucks a bottle.

I have to admit that when I began this expedition, I had no idea what to expect from these wines. Italian rosé may not be the first wines to spring to mind when you think of drinking pink, but they may be the best bargain in blush wines available on the market right now. They are clean and refreshing drink, nothing to really ponder, but a lot of satisfaction in the glass, and something I’d much rather sip than some insipid Soave.

Image may contain: 2 people, including John Curtas, people smiling(This was the last time on the trip I was even remotely sober.)