I dressed in what I decided was the look of a serious American businesswoman – a classic white wool suit and navy blue ankle strap high heels. It was April of 1980 and I was hungry to learn as much as possible about the business and marketing of wine at Vinitaly – the largest wine event in the world – and to look fashionable in the process. Convito was 6 months away from opening its doors and we were still formulating our retail wine strategy, so Paolo decided that Vinitaly was the perfect place to jump start our research.
Vinitaly is held in Verona, a city surrounded by wine country that has cultivated grapes since the Bronze Age. Over four thousand exhibitors display their wares in a show area the size of almost 20 soccer fields where wine sellers, buyers, aficionados and novices like myself assemble every year. It is not just overwhelming in size but also in activity. More than 140 thousand people attend major events, tastings, workshops and meetings in just four crazy days – cramming themselves into crowded booths and smoke-filled alcoves hoping to discover the latest and coolest wine gadget or taste the newest, most incredible Super Tuscan.
Style has always been important to me, so much so that early in life I seriously considered a career in fashion. Even though I chose a different path, I still give as much thought to what I wear to a trade show as I do to a fundraising ball. Cut, color and fabric are the details of style I observe whenever I make a new clothing choice.
I was hoping to transfer my affinity for sophisticated aesthetic observation from fashion to the wine choices we would make at Vinitaly. At first I did. However, after navigating aisle after aisle of wine and wine related products and listening to vendors from all over Italy speak “vino talk” in Italian, the big lesson learned was not about wine but rather that wearing high heels to a trade show larger in size than many vineyards was a colossally bad decision. As was wearing white when surrounded by cigarette dangling conventioneers swirling red wine in oversized goblets. Even fortifying myself with “tastes” of wine along the way didn’t help. Six hours later I no longer cared about anything to do with wine. I longed only to return to our hotel for a nap and a hot bath. Our hotel, the Due Torri, a converted XIV century palace, is situated in the historic center of Verona. After the loud, frenetic and crowded convention hall, its quiet elegance offered a complete and welcome contrast and a much-needed rest before dinner.
Though I have returned to Verona quite frequently over the years, the mention of that spectacular and overwhelming wine expo sends me running in the opposite direction. I have come to realize that I prefer studying wine in a more intimate setting with fewer varieties and less people. However, Convito was invited to attend Vinitaly in 1986 to accept the Vide Award, given for “outstanding achievement in fostering a better understanding and appreciation of Italian wines”. Fortunately for me, my first wine manager, Seth Allen, was more than happy to take my place and fit Vinitaly into his spring Italian wine tour.
Seth was as passionate about wine as I was about food. Joining the Convito staff in 1981 fresh out of college, he spent hours swirling, twirling and tasting Italian wines of every color and category increasing his oenilogical knowledge daily. Though I have always enjoyed wine, my appreciation of it has always been more focused on its food pairing qualities. However since wine would become a very important component of our business, early on I realized the necessity of serious wine research in order to effectively merchandise and sell it. I enjoy research. Research is a reflex with me. A teacher father and librarian mother taught me this tool as a child so the process of learning – no matter the subject – is always a pleasurable experience.
Researching wine in Veneto, the geographically varied area of northeast Italy that ranks among the foremost wine-producing regions in the world, was more than pleasurable. Its cool, humid climate yields crisp light red wines like Bardolina and Valpolicella and similarly bright whites like Soave and Custoza. These lower tannin varieties were wines that rarely gave me the headaches I would get from heavier wines (unless of course I overdid it in which case I had no one other than myself to blame!).
An exception to Veneto’s lighter wines is Amarone, a supercharged Valpolicella . This was one of those wines where I needed to keep my enjoyment of it to a minimum. It is also a wine where weather is trumped by wine ingenuity. Grapes are laid out to dry for 3 to 4 months after the harvest reducing the water content and concentrating the sugars eventually producing a power-packed, dry dense wine often compared to port. When Amarone is balanced with zippy acidity it is considered one of Italy’s greats.
My wine education was profoundly expanded by the savvy Sandro Boscaini, president of Masi Agricola, a winery that produces many of the best wines of the region. Located in the heart of Valpolicella, the Boscaini family has owned and operated Masi for six generations. Its portfolio includes fine Valpolicellas, distinct Soaves and special blends such as Campo Fiorin, a Convito favorite to this day. I initially met Sandro at Convito’s first downtown Chicago store. Most winemakers are interested only in meeting with the wine buyer. Sandro, however, made a point of popping into my office for a chat each time he visited Chicago. “I always visit with the owners”, Sandro said. “Wine buyers come and go. Owners remain. It is important for me to establish a relationship with the people who have created the business where my wines will be sold.”
During one of my many visits to Masi, my traveling companion, Leslee Reis and I met Sandro for dinner at a restaurant in Verona just off the Piazza Dante. An acclaimed restaurateur (Café Provençal in Evanston, IL), Leslee shared my passion for food and viewed wine much as I did. “A wine that is perfectly paired with a particular food is like a great marriage”, she would say. “When it’s a match – both are enhanced.”
From past experience we both knew that a great meal was almost a guarantee when dinning with a winemaker – especially one of Sandro’s stature. Winemakers want their wines to be featured in restaurants where the food is of the same excellent quality and generally spare no expense.
We were escorted to a table in a corner of the room made private by a leaded glass divider allowing us to be a part of the restaurant’s ambience yet creating a cozy, intimate area all our own. It was Sandro’s favorite table. Lively conversation ensued as well as a delightful seven-course meal. Every dish was outstanding, but especially memorable were Sandro’s wines including an excellent Serego Alighieri Valpolicella 1985 , as well as an appetizer of lightly breaded fried black olives and a delicious salad made with Treviso, a mildly bitter type of radicchio with long purple leaves and thick white ribs named after the charming nearby city of Treviso where it is grown.
Radicchio, Fennel, Arugula & Grana Padano Salad
Serves 6 – 8
2 small heads of radicchio*
2 small fennel bulbs (2 cups thinly sliced)
¼ pound Grana Padano Cheese* *
Dressing (Makes 1 cup)
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Break apart the radicchio into bite size pieces. Slice the fennel bulbs into paper-thin strips. With a potato peeler, shave the Grana Padano cheese (about 1 ¼ cup)
Make the dressing whisking the ingredients together.
Mix together the radicchio, fennel and arugula. Toss with the dressing. Sprinkle the cheese on top of the salad. Add salt and freshly ground pepper as desired.
* Radicchio di Treviso is difficult to find. The round radicchio called radicchio di Chioggia can be substituted. The Treviso version is a little less bitter and softer but the round cabbage-like version is also delicious especially when mixed with other ingredients.
* *Grana Padano is from the Veneto. It is a hard semi fat cheese perfect for grating. It is less crumbly, milder and less complex than its more famous relative Parmigiano Reggiano, which could be used instead.
The next morning Sandro picked us up at our hotel for a drive into the Veneto wine country – a lovely, leisurely drive through dense forests and undulating hills all the way to Bardolina whose vineyards overlook magnificent Lake Garda. Our first stop was to the Serego Alighieri estate also in Valpolicella. The property was bought back in 1353 by Pietro Alighieri, the son of the famous poet Dante and has remained in his family ever since. Over the years it has been a flourishing agricultural and oenological enterprise and today the estate is managed in collaboration with the Masi Agricola. Sandro is equally passionate about the Alighieri wines he represents as he is his own and speaks proudly about his connection to this historic estate.
Sandro wanted us to meet the current Count. Count Serego Alighieri, an elegant aristocratic man, is a direct descendant of Dante. His estate, described modestly in pamphlets as an antique and gentile farmhouse, is nothing less than magnificent. Known for top quality Amarone, the Count gave us a tour of the property ending in his private parlor where Leslee and I were offered a respite and glass of Recioto di Amarone while Sandro and the Count tended to some business in his office.
“This is like no farmhouse I have ever seen”, said Leslee admiring the grand furnishings – especially the Venetian chandelier surpassing the one we had just seen at the Gritti Palace in Venice. Leslee, one of the funniest people I have ever known, loved to laugh as much as she loved to eat. “In my next life I am going to be a Count”, she said ironically. “What do you suppose the Count does all day? Count?”
Continuing to sip her wine and meticulously scanning the elegant surroundings, she casually commented, “ I think we need to take home a souvenir. Maybe one of these small items” she said glancing at what looked like an antique museum quality enamel box. “Maybe not!” she said laughingly pointing to the security camera aimed directly at us.
We eventually left the estate sans souvenirs and headed for the Masi cantina for a tasting of a new Soave Sandro had just bottled. Hugh Johnson, British author and wine expert, described the Masi winery as a “touchstone for Veronese wines”. “We always want to emphasize the personality of each wine,” Sandro said. Now this is my idea of research – seated in a private cantina tasting wines with the head of the winery himself not only learning about wine but also about wine marketing. Much better than elbowing your way to a tiny smoke filled alcove at a huge trade show with thousands of other people vying for the same information.
Like most of Italy, this region’s food can be divided into two categories – rustic country cooking and the more sophisticated, elegant fare of the cities. The varied landscape of Veneto which reaches from the mountains and hills in the north, descends toward the fertile lands of the Po Valley and then south to the Adriatic Sea offers this varied cuisine. Juxtaposed alongside the glittering, exotic, well-seasoned face of Veneto is the cozy, comfortable countryside. This part of the region depicts a simpler life. Dotted with walled medieval towns and rustic farmhouses that reach all the way to the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains, much of the food here is simple country fare. I adore this food. Hearty peasant dishes have always been my favorite, perhaps connected in some way to the Midwest American casseroles and stews I was raised on. I certainly appreciate truffles and rich delicate sauces but I am much more passionate when cooking a one-meal dish made with accessible, inexpensive ingredients from a recipe that has most likely been passed down from earlier generations.
Polenta is one of those dishes. It is a mainstay of the region. Here Polenta is more than just a food; it is a ritual. In some country kitchens, polenta is made daily in a copper pot called a pailo, stirred with a wooden spoon until the cornmeal becomes so thick that the spoon can stand upright without aid. Everyone in the family takes turns stirring.
Though my kids loved polenta in its simplest form, drenched in homemade tomato sauce, one of my favorite dishes – Polenta Pastissada – was a little more complicated. Regardless, the process of cooking the cornmeal is the same. So when my children would arrive home from junior high and high school, I would engage them in the stirring process. Forty-five minutes of arm numbing mixing calls for family participation whether in Italy or Chicago, and though I am not sure they loved the ritual preparation, I do know they loved the polenta!
This recipe – one of my favorite Veneto polenta dishes – is one that I never had in a restaurant, but tasted originally in my mentor Wanda’s kitchen. Polenta Pastissada is a layered casserole where the polenta is interspersed with two sauces, topped with butter and Parmesan cheese and then baked in the oven until golden brown. Robust and flavorful, it is one of those one-dish-meals that arouses my passion – both in the making of it and in the savoring of each delicious, comforting bite.
Polenta, Chicken, Tomato and Mushroom Casserole
For the casserole you will need:
11 x 7 inch rectangular casserole
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1-½ tablespoons butter
6-½ cups water
2 cups yellow cornmeal
In a large heavy kettle bring the water to a boil. Add the salt. Turn the heat down so the water is at a constant simmer. Add the cornmeal in a very thin stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. After all the cornmeal has been added, continue stirring for approximately 35 – 45 minutes. It is cooked when the polenta pulls away from the sides of the kettle. Using a spatula spread the polenta on a board in a rectangular shape approximately 11 x 7. It should be approximately ¾ inch high.
While the polenta is cooling, prepare the following two sauces:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped leeks
½ cup finely chopped carrots
½ cup finely chopped celery
1-pound chicken breasts cut into ¾ inch pieces
1/3 cup dry red wine
1 cup diced canned tomatoes
½ cup tomato puree
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat the butter with the olive oil over low heat in a medium-sized skillet. Add the leeks, carrots, and celery and sauté for 10 minutes. Add the chicken pieces; turn the heat up to medium and sauté for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the wine and cook until the wine has evaporated, approximately 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato puree, salt and pepper and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Set aside.
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms (soaked in tepid water for ½ hour)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, diced
½ cup onions, chopped
¾ pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced into 1/8 in slices
1 cup diced canned tomatoes
½ cup tomato puree
4 oz. chicken broth
1-tablespoon porcini juice (reserved from drained porcini)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat the butter with the olive oil over low heat in a medium sized skillet Add the pancetta and onion and sauté for approximately 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté another 3 to 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato puree & broth. Mix well into the sauce. Drain the porcini reserving 1 tablespoon of the mushroom juice. Wring the mushrooms dry and chop them coarsely. Add the porcini and the porcini juice into the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste and simmer over medium heat for approximately 10 minutes. Set aside.
To assemble the Pastissada
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Grease casserole with ½ tablespoon of butter.
When the polenta has cooled completely and the sauces have been prepared, take a thread and slice it horizontally into three layers of equal height (about ¼ inch each).
Carefully place the first layer of polenta in the casserole and spread with the chicken sauce distributing the sauce evenly. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the grated Parmesan.
Place the second layer of polenta on top of this and spread with the mushroom sauce. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the grated Parmesan. Place the final layer of polenta on top. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan and dot with 1 tablespoon of butter.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Cut into squares to serve.
Another passion of mine is ceramics. Bassano del Grappa, a medieval town known mostly for its covered wooden bridge designed by Palladio in 1569, is the ceramica capital of northern Italy. Much of the pottery produced in nearby Nove, is extremely whimsical, especially the vessels for food and wine created in the form of fanciful fish, birds or animals. Since my first ceramic collection as a child consisted of miniature playful animals, I had an immediate connection to this town and its ceramics. To this day I collect ceramic animals, birds and fish – some as vessels for food or wine – some not. They are my pets but imminently easier to manage. No feeding or walking required!
Regrettably, I have never had a leisurely shopping day in Bassano. I always seemed to arrive just as the stores were closing – either for lunch or at day’s end. But even with a clerk hovering over my shoulder, anxious to close up shop, I have always managed to grab some wonderful piece treasured to this day: a black polka dotted guinea hen (faraona) soup terrine; a yellow and salmon colored fish platter; a small fish sauce boat; and one of my favorites a gorgeous black bowl painted with pastel pink and green flowers.
Asolo, one of the most beautiful and well-preserved hamlets in all of Italy, was only minutes from Bassano. As with Bassano del Grappa, the town itself was not the main reason for my visit. It happened to be where I stayed the night before or after a day of shopping for ceramics. The Hotel Villa Cipriani itself – just steps from the heart of the walled village and once the home of Robert and Elizabeth Browning, became another reason for a visit. The hotel’s intimate and welcoming lobby, its pastel decorated guestrooms framed by handsome exposed beams and furnished with exquisite antiques perfectly fit my sensibilities. I even love the Vietri tiled bathrooms – functional but warm and charming as well. And views of the cypress trees, vineyards, castles and villas in the surrounding Veneto countryside are simply magnificent.
I have enjoyed countless blissful dining experiences here – from savoring a plate of Bassano white asparagus with my friend Leslee, to enjoying an early morning cappuccino in the outdoor terrace with my partner Paolo, to sharing a delicious bowl of risotto primavera in the garden with my sister Karen.
Often the food that remains in my memory the longest is that which is made even more special by the people we share them with and the location in which they occur. This particular Risotto Primavera was one of those dishes.
Many years after that original visit to Vinitaly, I was back in Vento with my sister Karen. One afternoon we stopped at the Hotel Villa Cipriani for a late lunch after visiting the famous Palladian Villas along the River Brenta and shopping for ceramics in Bassano. It was an early spring day – warm enough to lunch outside on the terrace. We had not ordered risotto, but the chef made the dish to welcome the spring – “Benvenuti Primavera” – and was offering portions to his guests scattered about the terrace. We, of course, accepted.
5 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
1-tablespoon olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 ½ cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
½ cup dry white wine
¾ cup carrots diced (1/4 inch dice))
¾ cup green beans cut into ¼ inch pieces
¾ cup asparagus cut into ¼ inch pieces
¾ cup baby peas (if frozen, defrosted)
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a steady simmer. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat. Add the onion and sauté over medium heat until soft, approximately 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir until well coated. Add the wine and stir until absorbed.
Begin adding the simmering broth ½ cup at a time. Continue stir cooking always making certain the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan and yet not adding too much broth at a time. This process should be done over medium heat. (Approximate cooking time is 30 minutes). About 20 minutes into the process, add the carrots and stir into the rice. Continue adding broth. Next add the green beans and stir into the rice. Add the asparagus and continue cooking finishing with the peas. (The peas need to cook for only a minute or two so they should come at the very end.) The rice is done when it is firm but tender. You may need more broth or if you run out, use hot water.
When you estimate that the dish is a few minutes away from being done and the rice and vegetables are al dente, turn the heat off. Add the lemon zest and the Parmesan cheese, stirring it into the rice. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve in bowls immediately.
The risotto itself was delicious – simple and elegant and so representative of the area’s cuisine – but savoring it with my sister at my side, while looking out onto the lyrical noble Veneto countryside, combined to make this dish one that will remain forever in my memory.