Tour the lush valleys and romantic cities of Italy as we follow St. Louis chef Jim Fiala and his wife, Melissa, on a delicious adventure through some of the country's illustrious wine regions.
I arrive in Rome exhausted, once again having been unable to sleep on the flight from New York. My wife, Melissa, and I quickly find our bus and meet our driver for the trip, Luigi, who keeps an espresso machine on board. After the rest of the group shows up, we pile on the bus and Luigi navigates the tiny streets of a country built centuries before man conceived of our modern transportation.
We check into the Hotel Lloyd, and Mel and I are off to explore the City of Seven Hills. We walk past, through and over cobblestone streets to the Spanish Steps, then along the small, boutique-lined streets and vicolos (alleys) of Rome. Lunch has to be Nino, a famous Tuscan restaurant. We are served the classic fennel salami, finocchiona; chicken liver on crostini; and prosciutto and melon with bicchieri (glasses) of red wine. Now I understand why Nino is famous. The flavors are spectacular, and the advice is kind, efficient and professional. Pasta, the centerpiece of any Italian meal, comes to our table. Melissa orders the spinach ravioli, and I have tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms. Perfectly executed and bursting with flavor. We know now this is Italy.
After a quick power nap, Melissa and I are back on the street, pushing ourselves to the Coliseum, which we missed on our last trip to Rome. Nothing is boring, and we turn corner after corner to find exciting sights that are worth the blisters forming on our feet. After a couple of hours of sightseeing, we stumble into a bar for an Aperol spritz and a glass of prosecco. The drinks are perfect, and our server drops off some snacks (Italians never drink without some kind of food). We sit on the shaded patio as we watch the world pass by on this small, crowded pedestrian street.
We do a little shopping, and then we are off to Il Convivio. When in Italy, I typically prefer the local, casual trattorias for a true taste of a region's style and flavors, but this night I make an exception. We recall our last visit to this tiny trattoria as we walk to dinner. We enter the Michelin two-star ristorante, hidden on a back alley, to warm greetings. The menu looks great, and the wine list is huge. I want to read through the entire list (easily a 90-minute endeavor) but restrain myself and settle on a 1995 Clerico Barolo.
Eating light, Melissa settles on crispy fried zucchini blossoms with melted mozzarella and anchovy cream. Fantastico! I stare in disbelief at my plate, which is overflowing with crudo, an Italian-style sashimi - marlin, sea bass, mackerel, oysters and sepia, each uniquely seasoned to enhance the natural flavors of that particular seafood. Across the table, Melissa is buzzing over a warm seafood salad with crunchy vegetables while our waiter places an impressive amatriciana in front of me. The thick, chewy, almost meaty rigatoni is made in a classic Campania style with crispy guanciale and organic pecorino on top. Perfect. Memorable. I am stopped in my tracks. I have to savor every bite. Next, to our surprise, the chef drops his specialty: a pasta carbonara made with seafood in which bacon is replaced with bottarga (cured fish roe). Stunning. Melissa is finished, but I have room for one more dish. The Pigeon in Four Preparations is made up of a perfect mousse of liver, a broth with panzanella, crispy fried leg and the breast cooked exactly the way I like it: rare. The flavors of the tender breast paired with the liver will be embedded in the mind for years to come, influencing my cooking as I try to replicate these dishes in my restaurants.
Morning has come too early. Caffe! I need espresso. We load onto the bus. "Buon giorno, Luigi!" Let's go to Campania.
We're off to Avellino and our first winery. Casablanca dell'Orca is the house of the ogre. They greet us with a beautiful sparkling Falanghina and a spread of wine, cheese and a leg of prosciutto. We head back up to the patio for awesome views of the Campanian hills and the three stones of the ogres, and we dig into fresh mozzarella, ricotta, smoked mozzarella and other fresh cheeses. I taste the Greco di Tufo and the Fiano di'Avellino, both of which are rich and full with beautiful fruit and complexity. I try the Taurasi - a '99 and an '05. A classic Taurasi, as age has begun to do its work, with leather, tobacco and spice jumping out of the glass. Biscotti and a sweet Moscato are served before we head back to the bus and are off to Puglia.
We drive the back roads for what seems like an eternity to our next winery, Rivera. The winery has three generations of wine making, and it seems that it upgrades every 20 years but never gets rid of the old equipment. It's high-tech and completely different from our first stop. The wines are very interesting, made from grapes unique to the region, such as Bombino Bianco, Nero di Troia and others I can't spell. Most of the wines come from the region, DOC Castel del Monte, which I have never heard of before but am quickly becoming a fan of today. The region is named Castel del Monte because of a famous castle built for Frederick II. We are heading to the huge octagonal stone tower for a quick tour by Rivera's owner, Sabastiano, and then he takes us to dinner at the cantina.
We are greeted with local olives and taralli bread circles, and they are perfect with Sauvignon Blanc. Sabastiano's mother, Marilla, has prepared the meal. She is kind, shy and beautiful. The first course is an amazing dish of mussels with barley paired with a Chardonnay from the vineyard we visited earlier in the day: no oak, very light, crisp and lovely. Next comes orecchiette with a lamb ragout that is perfect. Out comes the vino rosso: first the Aglianico, then Nero di Troia and Primitivo and more Nero di Troia. We are served a braised beef dish followed by local pecorino and caciocavallo with Marilla's mandarin marmalade. We end this memorable meal with Rosata cake with Moscato di Trani. I get one bite before Melissa grabs my plate. We say our goodbyes, head back to the Hotel Queen Victoria and are out cold.
We wake up to bright sunshine. I need an espresso. One down and I discover espressini, a mini cappuccino in an espresso cup. This should get me through the five-hour drive to Umani Ronchi in Marche.
We tour the expansive cellars and then head to a farmhouse in the picturesque region of Castelli di Jesi. We walk the vineyards, learning a bit about the farming techniques. As we stroll through the rows of vines, I can see the staff at the farmhouse busily preparing our dinner. They are frying everything - zucchini flowers, olives, rosemary, sage, zucchini, cheese and more. They grill piadini and slice the prosciutto. All of it is amazing. We reach the patio and are greeted with Pecorino and Lacrima di Morro d'Alba wines. I know the Pecorino, but the Lacrima, a fresh, simple wine similar to Beaujolais, is new to me. We dig into the fritto misto and antipasti. I know we are going upstairs soon for dinner, so I am trying to pace myself.
Dinner begins with an amazing Verdicchio and a fava bean ravioli with puntarelle and oven-dried tomatoes. Interestingly, the favas were not peeled, and they were still perfect. I think if I brought this concept back to St. Louis, my chefs would smile with delight. We are having a ball, and the conversation goes from translation of Italian to English to the City Museum back home. Dinner finishes with a million sweets, a Sauvignon dessert wine (the best yet), a round of applause and a slow walk in the drizzling rain back to the bus.
We are on our way to Montalcino and Montepulciano. Life is good. Luigi drives down the back roads of Montalcino and up the drive to a small estate called Palazzo. We take a quick tour, and they pass out the Rosso di Montalcino. This is the best rosso I've ever had. It truly tastes like Brunello, just a touch lighter. We are served what reminds me of ribollita soup with toast and fantastic olive oil. We taste the Brunello and the Brunello Riserva; both are amazing with the cheese and salumi. We take a few photos and jump back on the bus for our next destination: Salcheto in Montepulciano.
This small estate is in the middle of a major transformation. There is a major influx of money in this winery, and the resulting construction is a huge undertaking. It is focusing on becoming a game changer in terms of "green" by using no light and no electricity, going organic and more. The winds are whipping in the Tuscan hills, but the scenery is picturesque. After a small rest and a quick shower, we meet up with the party poolside for some rosé. I love the crudités, served in a small cup with salted olive oil in the bottom. We head up the hill to our dinner and an opportunity to taste the wines of Salcheto.
We begin with the Chianti Colli-Senesi, a young, fresh and simple wine. Then we have a Rosso Di Montepulciano and a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The wines are very good, better than the food tonight. A blessing in disguise, it would be the only night in Italy we would not overindulge.
As we drive through Chianti, memories are playing back in my mind as we pass by each little town. The farmers' market where I saw my first porchetta; that small stone hallway under the town; Dario's butcher shop where Adam [Gnau, chef at Acero] and I ate raw sausage. We head toward Greve in Chianti only to turn off the road a few feet before entering the town onto a gruesome Tuscan back-country trek to Vignamaggio. We sit down for the tasting, and they are mostly solid wines. The export manager is funny and wise and keeps our attention by not being too geeky about wine making. The wines are many people's favorites so far, though not mine. They are very good nonetheless. We stop in the shop and buy four types of extra-virgin olive oil, and then we're off to the bus. We are late, so no time for Greve as we race by on our way to Florence.
We spend the morning walking around Florence, shopping, sipping espresso and soaking up the beauty before a five-hour drive to Udine. In the small town of Colloredo, we dine at La Taverna, a one-star Michelin restaurant. Prosecco flows, and appetizers are passed, each one more wonderful than the last. Crudo beef, tuna and shrimp are all delicious, as are the almond-stuffed olives wrapped in bacon. They copy this, substituting dates for the olives. We are served potato soup topped with micro shrimp. People are turning their noses up, but I think it is amazing. We devour prosciutto and fried scallops before heading to dinner, and in the tradition of my father I am already stuffed.
We are seated in the dining room, all 30 of us around one large table. The first course arrives: asparagus crème brulée. A layer of crème on the bottom appears to be a béchamel; it is followed by a purée of asparagus and finally the bruléed Asili crust. I can't stop eating this amazing dish. Pinot Grigio is the only way to refresh our palates after each spoonful. I need a break, but now they serve a near-perfect Friulano wine and garganelli pasta with fresh shrimp. I am too busy pinpointing the flavors to acknowledge how full I truly am. They serve the rack of lamb. I think I'll just try one bite. I don't want to be rude. Oh no! It is the best lamb I have ever eaten. I demolish the plate. I give up - no more, please!
Still full from last night's amazing dinner, today we head to Veneto to see where Amarone is made. The drive from Friuli to Veneto is much longer than I anticipated, but we finally make it to Michele Castellani. Its entry-level Amarone, with leather, chocolate and plum, is wonderful. To my astonishment they hit us with the big boys: two single crus that blow me away. The entire tasting is accompanied with toast with EVOO, salumi, bread and cheese. All delicious. We slowly make our way into the heart of Verona. Crowds are everywhere, and an absolutely perfect Ferrari Daytona drives by us, stopping me in my tracks. I quickly learn tonight is the finish of the 1000 Miglia, a 1,000-mile car "race." The cars keep driving by to thunderous applause; even a trash truck gets a standing ovation. I see Jags, Mercedes, Lamborghinis and all sorts of classic cars. This town is beautiful, maybe the most beautiful of all the Italian cities I have seen so far. Across the street and down an alley from the Juliet balcony is the restaurant Michael White (of Marea in New York City) said I have to go to tonight, Trattoria al Pompiere. It's very small, warm and inviting, and I can just tell this is going to be good. The food is top-notch, not too pricey and just what the doctor ordered: more salumi, pasta and lamb. I shouldn't eat everything, but I'm here to learn, remember?
It's morning in Verona, and photo shoots are happening everywhere as we walk slowly through this beautiful town before we depart for Piedmont. I get excited as we drive past Asti, as this area produces some of my favorite Italian wine. I see the small village of Barbaresco up to the left, and I point it out to the ladies near me on the bus. I still recall the tajarin pasta I had there in March 2011. As we pull into Alba, my friend (and our host) David jumps off the bus, greets a guy on the street and then returns to announce that this is our tour guide and he will be taking us on a two-hour tour of Barolo. Our tour guide is really funny; he doesn't understand he is giving a bus full of winos a very basic introduction to the wine of Alba, but I still learn various new facts about the region. We go to several of the 11 villages of Barolo and finish up the tour with a drive into La Morra village high on the hilltop. We get out of the bus and trudge up to the top to look out over the region of Barolo. Amazingly we are able to see most of the villages below, and I get a very good understanding of the region unlike anything I could glean from a book or online.
Back at the hotel, I change quickly, as I want to go to a shop specializing in the white truffle of Alba before we head to dinner. I find the shop and buy three truffle slicers for the restaurants, each about $50 cheaper than I can get stateside. Heading back to the hotel, I suddenly feel a wave of exhaustion come over me. I think I have hit the wall, and I still have to go to dinner. And my trip to the shop has left me no time for a nap.
At dinner, we have several typical dishes of Piedmont, including carne cruda, tajarin and agnolotti. The wines of the Brothers Giacosa are very good. The Barbaresco is feminine and the Barolo is masculine, as expected, and both are amazing. I find it hard to stay awake, but I power through the meal, looking forward to the four hours of sleep I'll get tonight before we schlep our goods and bodies back to the States.
We wake up before dawn, exhausted but excited to jump on the bus today, for we are going back home. On the ride, Luigi tells David stories that appear to make both of them slaphappy. We pull into Malpensa airport, say our goodbyes to those on other airlines and head home to our families, where we will be greeted with love-filled hugs and kisses.
Jim Fiala recreated some of his favorite dishes from this trip so you can make them at home.
Crudités in Olive Oil
Serves | 8 to 10 |
- 1 cucumber
- 1 bulb fennel
- 1 bunch radishes
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1 carrot
- 2 ribs celery
- good quality extra-virgin olive oil
- sea salt
| Preparation | Cut all vegetables into uniform strips, about 2 to 3 inches in length. Add ½-inch oil in the bottom of a small glass, similar in size to a votive for a tea light. Sprinkle a little salt into the oil, and stand the vegetables in the oil.
Mussels and Barley
Serves | 6 |
- 2 cups quick-cook barley
- 6 lbs mussels, cleaned and trimmed
- 12 Tbsp butter
- ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1½ tsp red chili flakes
- 8 bay leaves
- 6 cups dry white wine
- chopped parsley
| Preparation | Boil barley in 4 cups salted water until al dente. Spread cooked barley on a sheet pan and refrigerate. In a large pot, melt butter and oil over medium heat. Add garlic, red chili flakes and bay leaves. Cook until garlic is tan, not brown. Add wine and cook until alcohol is evaporated, about 5-7 minutes. Add mussels and increase heat to medium-high. Cover the pot, and cook a few minutes, until mussels open. Discard any unopened mussels. Drain the mussels, reserving the broth, and remove mussels from their shells.
In a large pan, add 6 cups cooked barley and 3 cups mussel broth and simmer until reduced by 2/3. Add mussels and stir until coated. Season with salt, and divide among 6 plates. Drizzle each serving with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with parsley just before serving.
Serves | 6 |
- 4 lb ground lamb
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 medium onions, diced
- 1½ carrots, diced
- 1½ cups diced celery
- 2 cloves garlic
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 1 Tbsp anise seed
- 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
- ½ bottle red wine
- ½ Tbsp Spanish smoked paprika
- chicken stock
| Preparation | Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Brown the lamb in a large pan over medium heat. Be sure to not crowd the pan to get a good brown. Keep excess fat in the pan.
Add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic. Let the vegetables cook and release some of their liquid, meanwhile scraping any brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Add the tomato paste, anise seed and balsamic vinegar, and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the wine, paprika and enough chicken stock to cover the lamb and vegetables by ½-inch. Cook low and slow until it reaches your preferred ragoût consistency. Cool and serve over pasta, polenta or potatoes.
Braised Lamb Shanks
Serves | 6 |
- 6 lamb shanks
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 medium yellow onions, diced
- 2 cups diced celery
- 2 cups diced carrots
- 3 cloves garlic, diced
- 1/3 cup tomato paste
- 1 cup white wine
- ½ sprig thyme
- ½ sprig rosemary
- roasted baby artichokes
| Preparation | Salt and pepper the lamb shanks and rub with a little oil. Brown in a heavy pan over medium-high heat, making sure not to move the shanks too much to ensure browning on all sides with a little sticking in the bottom of the pan. Remove shanks and set aside. Add onion, celery and carrot to the pan. Scrape all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan while sweating the vegetables.
Add tomato paste and wine to the vegetables and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the herbs and nestle the lamb shanks in the vegetables about half way up the lamb shanks. Lightly cover and cook in the oven until liquid is just bubbling and the meat starts to loosen from the bone. Remove the lamb and set on a tray.
Run the vegetables and liquid from the pan through a food mill. Watch for bones, as they can wreck a food mill. Strain liquid through a chinois and heat to a sauce-like consistency.
| To Serve | Place each shank on a plate with roasted baby artichoke. Spoon a little of the sauce on top of shank and drizzle the shank and artichokes with a little extra-virgin olive oil.