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

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

Chiaretto di Bardolino (or simply Chiaretto), as it is locally known, is a (generally) paler rosé produced on the shores of Lake Garda.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

A Moveable Feast – How to Eat and Drink in France and Italy

Good food is everywhere in Europe, at all price points these days, so there’s no excuse for not eating well when you’re over there.

The three countries I visit most (Italy, France, Germany) have serious coffee cultures, so a good cup of joe is always within reach. Those ubiquitous cafes and coffee bars also stock plenty of other juices, teas, and alcohol….so if you’d like some Jack Daniels or Amaretto in your cup at 8 am, they’ll oblige.

I’m not going to get into all the fine points of Euro coffee cups, but the  big difference between their coffee cultures and ours has to do with volume, strength, and frequency. Euros take their coffee in small, strong doses, and do shots of it throughout the day as caffeinated fuel. If you can’t handle the high octane stuff (aka espresso), ask for yours au lait (“with milk”) or café crème (France) or con crema (Italy). Crème and crema both mean “with cream”, although it’s really more like whole milk.

Confused? Don’t be. Just do what I do: either order a cappuccino or just say olé!

My routine is: find a cafe close to your hotel, adopt it as your hangout for how many days you’ll be in town. By day two or three the proprietor/barista will treat you like an old friend when you walk in. Unless you’re in Germany. In Germany, they don’t even treat old friends like old friends.

For the record, here’s my 12 Step Program for eating in France and Italy:

  1. Wake up.
  2. Shower, shave, take care of business while trying not to twist, strain, or break anything in the process (see previous article).
  3. Go to your regular cafe and get a cafe au lait with a croissant (France), or a cappuccino with a brioche (Italy). Gently caress the pastry in one hand as you dunk it into the soothing brown liquid, then eat it while sipping and holding your cup in your other hand. Perfect this art and you’ll feel like a native in no time. Perfect it whilst standing up and affecting a vague air of insouciance about world affairs, and the women will flock to you like you’re Marcello Mastroianni in 1962.
  4. Remember, in France and Italy, breakfast is good for only one thing: thinking about lunch.
  5. Start thinking about lunch
  6. Eat lunch (see below).
  7. Towards the end of lunch, start discussing your dinner plans.
  8. Rest up for dinner.
  9. Have dinner.
  10. Walk off dinner for an hour or so, promising your wife you’ll take her shopping or sightseeing in the morning (which you both know is a lie).
  11. Return to hotel.
  12. Sleep, then repeat steps 1-12 the next day.

Lunch

(Dejeuner at Le Grand Véfour)

The older I get, the more I like to eat and drink myself silly at lunch rather than dinner — it gives you more time to digest things and walk off the calories.

Americans aren’t used to intensive care service at high noon, but it’s the best way to enjoy a big deal meal at a destination restaurant. There’s usually a “lunch special” of a few courses for a set price that’s a relative bargain, and the difference between the food at lunch and dinner is nil. In fact, to my observation, lunch is when most the local gourmets come out to play in the big cities. Dinnertime seems to be for businessmen and tourists.

Lunch takes one of three forms: either a formal affair in a restaurant (France) or ristorante (Italy), or a more casual, but still coursed-out meal in a bistro or trattoria, or a quick bite in one of those cafes where you grab your coffee (all of them usually serve some kinds of pizzas, salads, and sandwiches).

The Rick Steves of the world (and many tourists) prefer the quick casual lunch because it leaves them more time for sightseeing. In my world, the food is the sight to see, so I prefer the bistros of Paris, or a local trattoria which serves the traditional cuisine of the area. Regardless of your mood, there’s always fascinating sustenance to find.

Cafes are everywhere in Paris (I counted nine in a five block walk to my hotel, above), and Rome, Milan, Venice, Verona, Bardolino (not to mention Lyon and smaller French towns like Beaune, and the entirety of Alsace) are chock full of places to eat. You may get an indifferent meal in some of them, but even average Italian or French food over there is a lot better than what we’re subjected to over here.

Dinner

Dinner should be the opposite of lunch. If you stuff yourself silly at midday, find a cafe or casual spot and while away the evening over one or two courses while pondering where to eat the next day. Wine bars are also great for small snacks and light meals.

Know, however, that more formal restaurants have fairly strict and limited service hours. Lunch is usually served from 12:30-2:30, and dinner from 7-9. Restaurants that take reservations usually have one seating only, and the table is yours until they close up shop.

Cafes, bistros, brasseries and trattorias are much more flexible and generally have non-stop service throughout the day….although the only people you’ll see chowing down on a pizza or choucroute garni at 5:00 pm are usually jet-lagged tourists. A good rule of thumb is: the more limited a place’s hours, the more serious it is about its food. Speaking of which…

Rules of Thumb

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Get the specials. If there’s a chalk board (and in France, there’s always a chalk board), order off it. That’s where the good stuff is.

Get out of your comfort zone AKA take the stick out of your ass. You didn’t come to Europe to eat a burger anymore than you would come to America to view ancient ruins. European menus are full of wonders, but you have to bring an adventuresome spirit to the table.

Europeans are closer to their food than we are. Literally. They eat and drink products that are grown or manufactured where they live, not a thousand miles away. And you can taste the difference. Plus, all of the dishes we take for granted over here (pizza, Béarnaise sauce, oeufs Romagna avec sauce Espagnole a pigeoneaux Romanoff jubilee) had their origins over there, and tasting the real enchilada where it was invented cannot be overstated as an epicurean experience.

Don’t be intimidated. English is spoken all over Europe these days — it’s a mandatory subject for schoolchildren — and between the English language menus and helpful waiters, you’ll rarely be at a loss for words, or some tasty morsel. The spry fellow we had at Trattoria Milanese (above) spoke better English than my Greek popou, and the waiter we had at our best bistro meal in Paris (at La Bourse et la Vie) was a bi-lingual chap from New Jersey.

Forget about cocktails. With a few exceptions (e.g. The Jerry Thomas Project in Rome, gin and tonics in Spain) cocktails are not a thing in Europe. They’ll pour you a vodka soda or expensive scotch in upscale hotels and bars (and at the corner cafe), but hard booze is to grape-centric Europe what digestivos are to the new world: not indigenous to the culture and something they struggle to understand.

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If you don’t know anything about wine, get the house wine by the glass or carafe. Societies steeped in wine culture don’t wallow in cheap, disgusting wine. (They blend, bottle and bequeath their plonk to us.)   Even the worst tourist traps in Rome and Paris serve decent stuff. All you have to know are the words for red (rouge or rosso), white (blanc or bianco) or pink (rosé) to drink fairly well.

If you know a little or a lot about wine, grab the list and go nuts. Bottles that go for hundreds over here can be had for 50 euros over there. My budget is usually in the 80-100 euro range, and invariably, a waiter or somm will look at my selection, and then point me to something just as good for half the price. On my recent trip, this happened on five consecutive days in Milan (Trattoria Milanese), Paris (Willi’s Wine Bar, Le Grand Véfour, Les Climats), and Verona (Pane e Vino).

Plan, plan, plan or just wing it. There are two ways to eat and drink your way around France and Italy: book everything in advance, or just walk around and see what looks good. I’ve done both and rarely been disappointed.

A compromise procedure involves doing your homework and making a list of addresses that sound interesting….and then cruising by to check them out. Only at the hoity-est of the toity will turn you away without a reservation.

Youngsters like to book everything through mobile app services (Michelin, La Fourchette, etc.), but many charming, out-of-the-way joints don’t subscribe to reservation services, and you’ll miss a lot of local flavor if you keep you nose in your phone and rely on your apps for everything.

I could go on and on. It’s been said that traveling is living intensified (actually, I think Rick Steves said that), and if it’s true, then traveling is eating intensified times ten. When you’re in a strange place known for its gastronomy, the flavors come into focus, aromas are sharper, textures linger, and the sensations are more vivid. Not for nothing do people fall in love over a bottle of wine on the Amalfi Coast, or re-evaluate the world’s beauty from their perch in a Parisian cafe. To paraphrase Hemingway: Europe is a moveable feast, and if you’re lucky enough to travel there, it will stay with you for the rest of your life.

 

A Tale of Two Italians

That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore. Yogi Berra

Good restaurants are multiplying around here faster than a Catholic rabbit.

So what did I do last week?

Endured two meals that were long on calories and short on satisfaction — a cardinal sin for an experienced, conscientious carnivore catered to constantly by crave-able concupiscent comestibles.

I can make excuses for one of them (and will do so below), but the other disappointed in so may predictable ways I should’ve had my head examined for going there.

Let’s save the worst for first, shall we?

I’ve been a huge Nora’s Cuisine fan since it opened in 1992. Back then, its pizzas and pastas (like pasta con le sarde) were revolutionary for their time.

Back in the day, the whole joint was about as wide as a pizza box, had maybe six tables, and made most of its money on take-out pies. It was a tiny local treasure, known to the pasta cognoscenti as an island of authenticity amidst a sea of red sauce.

In 2004, Nora’s (named after matriarch Nora Mauro) decided to go big time. It blew out walls on both sides of the skinny pizzeria, installed a cocktail bar, upgraded its kitchen, hired a bevy of waiters, and proceeded to rake in mountains of cash. (Fun fact: Nora’s bar was the first local, off-Strip restaurant to sport a serious mixology program. When every bar in town was still pouring cosmopolitans, Nora’s was doing magical things with obscure Italian vermouths, oddball bitters and craft spirits. The drinks here are still money, with the Lemon Drop and Sicilian Mule being justifiably famous.)

The pizzas were still good after the expansion, but the food became more pitched to the endless breadsticks crowd. The something-for-everyone menu eschewed small-bore quality for dazzle factor, and subtlety on your plate became harder to find than an ectomorph at a fat farm. Some time around a decade ago, I wrote it off, not because it was terrible, but because it was too much — too much starch, too much garlic, and too much tomato.

(Four pounds of fruitti di mare, or so it seemed)

So why did I go back? Especially when the excellent Pizzeria Monzú (owned by the same family) is only a block away?

Good question….and one The Food Gal® asked me continually on the ride home after we dropped $150 on two apps, two dinners, and two glasses of wine.

As I patiently mansplained to her, I went mainly to see what all the shouting is about. The shouting in this case coming from Nora’s new digs (2016) in a free-standing building only a few hundred feet from their old location. (The old location now houses the aforementioned Monzú.)

That shouting, you see, is because, the new new Nora’s is always full. Day and night, it is overflowing — with people, cars, and presumably, red sauce. Regardless of the time, there’s never a parking space to be found.  It’s so full the side streets are lined with its customers’ cars (and it has a capacious parking lot). Nora’s is so busy your average Indian restaurant could exist for a month on the patrons it turns away every day.

How do I know this? Because my in-laws live close by, and we drive by it. All. The. Time.

So I was curious, and took my wife along to take the plunge with me. What we found inside were three not-unattractive large rooms facing an open kitchen, with a long, comfortable bar taking up space in one of them (much as it did in the old place). As with the old Nora’s, there’s a winning wine list, excellent service, well-crafted cocktails, and serious digestivos — everything giving off a serious foodie vibe…except the food.

(Fuggidabadit)

As for that food, well, let’s just say it hasn’t gotten any better since they started serving it in a McMansion.

But I’m not blaming the owners, the managers, or the chef(s). The food has gotten worse because Nora’s has become a victim of its own success. Nora’s is too big. This new restaurant is double the size of the old one, which was triple the size of the original one. And no matter how big they get, they’re always full. And being always full, they’ve now become too successful.

Some businesses are too big to fail; Nora’s is too big to be any good.

With those physical expansions has come a menu that looks like it’s locked in a bad recipe arms race with Piero’s for who can offer the most over-the-top Eye-talian dishes to its undiscriminating diners.

“Over 70+ classic Italian dishes,” the menu boasts, and, true to its word, it offers everything from fried calamari to chicken parm to  “Crazy Alfredo” for the hungry hordes. Wings? Pork bellies? Salmon? Spinach and Farro salad? We got ’em. Just add veal for $8 more!

To put things in perspective: if you’re serving 30 different pasta dishes, dozens of pizzas (with 25 different toppings!), 20 proteins, and everything from arrabiata to mozzarella sticks, quality control is going to take a back seat to plate slinging and turning those tables.

(They had me at lemon clams)

I think the chefs here deserve combat pay more than criticism, so we’ll leave you with these final words about the new new Nora’s (which really isn’t that new anymore): the garlic bread is good, the lemon clams were great, and two pounds of pasta underneath the fruitti di mare isn’t fooling anyone.

Serviceable osso buco bedecks a small mountain of mashed potatoes (that starch thing again), but the Josper-grilled veggies (pictured) were a waste of time and ten bucks.

But one can hardly fault the kitchen for not finely-tuning some grilled endive, when 300 growling stomachs are out there demanding their creamed fettuccine with chicken, sausage and shrimp.

So, as with Piero’s, we will leave Nora’s to those who love it, and resolve to eat Italian elsewhere the next time the curiosity bug bites.

At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of vibe, clients and ambition, is La Strega. Located due west and some miles from Nora’s, it aims to be new school Italian, bringing chef-driven food to those who know their polpette from their soppressata.

That chef is Gina Marinelli, and she’s a Strip veteran who knows her way around a pesto. Open barely two weeks, Marinelli is still working out the kinks, but even after a quick glance (or, in our case, a quick meal) you’ll find a lot to like about the place.

To begin with, there’s the build-out. The owners (the Fine family of local real estate fame) have taken the old Due Forni space and blown it out in all the best ways. The kitchen is now open, the bar is in the middle of the room (sounds weird, but it works), and the feel is one of a casual, food-focused room.

The space compliments the food, and the wine list compliments everything. (As we’ve mentioned here and on social media, the wine selections in off-Strip restaurants have improved 1000% over the past few years, and wine director Stephanie Torres’ list is the latest example.)

(Looked great, which is all it brought to the party)

Service was razor-sharp on a full-night not 10 days after the opening, and it was remarkable how poised everyone seemed under such pressure-packed circumstances. There are bones I could pick with some of the menu (the meatballs need to be bigger and cooked better; the frutti di mare (above) was all hat and no cattle; and the sardines need to be 86’d), but the signifiers are all there that this could be a major player on our restaurant scene — even though half the things we sampled missed their mark.

So, we’ll chalk up La Strega’s menu missteps to its infancy and give it another chance. As for Nora’s, I’ll meet you there anytime for a cocktail, as long as we can stroll over to Monzú to eat.

NORA’S ITALIAN CUISINE

5780 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.873.8990

http://www.norascuisine.com/www/

LA STREGA

3555 Town Center Drive Suite 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.722.2099