"Seafood Still Life" by William Merritt Chase (circa 1900).
IN THIS ISSUE
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
SOME THINGS THAT WINE
SHOULD NEVER BE
By John Mariani
COSTA SMERALDA MAY BE SARDINIA'S PLAYGROUND
BUT ALGHERO IS THE ISLAND'S TRUE SOUL
By John Mariani
When I arrived in Sardinia after a Transatlantic flight to Rome and a connection to Alghero, my first stop was at the fish market for a late morning jetlagged lunch. It was eleven o’clock, yet the simple stark cement structure was nearly empty, the floors washed down and still wet, the fish stalls cleaned out, leaving only a faint briny smell of the sea.
I turned to one of the locals and, feeling like I was in a Monty Python cheese shop with no cheese, asked where all the seafood had gone. The man shrugged and said, “It was all sold this morning.” The boats had pulled in under the fading stars and their catch was sold soon after daybreak.
An hour before those stalls were full of flapping fins and tails, crawling crabs and claw-waving lobsters, every one now gone. Nothing could better illustrate the kind of fresh bounty that Sardinians have access to six days a week, both in restaurants and at home.
There was a little trattoria called La Boqueria in the corner of the barren market, with signs ticking off the seafood offerings of the day. We ordered, sat down at a crude table, and feasted on some of the finest fish and crustaceans I’ve ever had—platters of grilled mullet, fried calamari and moray eel, gamberoni, orata, scungilli, swordfish, and much more, all washed down with a Sardinian white wine called Nasco. There were no pastas at all listed.
This was my first trip to Sardinia, the large amoeba-shaped island in the dark blue Tyrrhenian Sea, a land known for its rugged, craggy perimeter and its international playground, Costa Smeralda, developed in the ‘60s on the east coast by Prince Karim Aga Khan and now home to some of the most expensive real estate on the globe. Which was reason enough for me to avoid it and visit instead the city of Alghero, which is a far less trafficked but quite beautiful location on the west coast. It is also closer to the true soul of Sardinia.
Alghero has always had a raucous history, having been occupied in the 14th century by Spanish troops whom the locals cut to pieces in an uprising, which in turn caused King Peter IV to expel most of the natives and, as did the British with Australia, re-populated the town with Catalan convicts and prostitutes.
In 1720 the House of Savoy out of Turin took over Sardinia, and it became part of Italy with the Unification in the next century.
Nevertheless, the Catalonian history and influence abides. Catalan had long been the official language, and a quarter of today’s citizens still speak it; the rest speak a local dialect. You see the Catalan influence, too, in the city’s architecture and walled fortifications. Some of its people like to refer to their city as Little Barcelona.
Walking around the city, at a leisurely place, will bring you back where you began in little more than an hour, along the way visiting the newly cleaned and restored Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculata di Alghero in a Catalan Gothic style and along the thick limestone ramparts above the lapping seashore, which, as in most of Europe, is largely rocky, although the beautifully named La Speranza beach is long and wide, with golden sand and wonderful sunsets.
I highly recommend a drive out of town to explore the prehistoric Nuraghe Palmavera stone towers (left) built over centuries during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Spread out over a hillside like squat Stonehenge monuments, the structures give one an idea of just how primitive lodgings were 3,400 years ago—basic areas for cooking, sleeping and worshiping, set far from other tribes and all other civilizations. The land above the sea drops down in massive gorges (above) and great primordial rock formations stand offshore like sentinels.
Sardinian winemaking has come very far, very fast, so a visit to the modern cooperative of 326 growers who comprise Cantina Santa Maria La Palma, just outside Alghero, is a good way to get a quick education. The winery makes a wide variety of labels, from sparkling to red and white wines, based on indigenous grapes like Cannonau, Vermentino di Sardegna and Monica di Sardegna. The company’s red wines share the notion that youth, not long aging, has its own charms, depending on the grape. Sardinia, south of France and west of Italy, has a very hot, very dry land, so irrigation of the vineyards is allowed; you taste the flintiness of the soil and the brininess of the surrounding Tyrrhenian Sea. One of the winery’s bottlings, Akènta Sub, is actually lowered into the sea for a while to age (right).
Founded in 1959, at a time when Sardinian wines had no reputation and little availability outside the island, Cantina Santa Maria La Palma’s vintners realized that by central control of cooperative growers, the wines could be made better and with more consistency, fresher, less prone to oxidation, and at prices that have made them appealing in a global market flooded with bland varietals.
In addition, Sardinian food is a mix of Mediterranean, Italian and indigenous flavors, and I’ll be writing about them soon in Part Two of this article.
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
200 MOTT STREET
Husband and wife Giorgia and Luca Fadda, together with partner Nico Paganelli, are proudly Sardinian, and their little trattoria is named after the breakthrough bebop composition by Thelonius Monk and Kenny Clarke.
The restaurant is clearly designed to fit snugly into its neighborhood—they offer breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner—and cocktails based on Italian models are a big part of the draw. There is a community table, and the rest of the décor depends on soft cushioned benches, distressed brick walls, a sofa to sink into near the window and racks of Italian magazines to get you in the mood. Live jazz is played on Saturday nights; other nights the piped-in music can get a little loud, though a request to turn it down was immediately and amiably addressed.
Of the three owners, I only got to meet Giorgia, and you’ll know her when you see her. Slender, lithe, with a smile for everyone, she is the spark plug of Epistrophy and it is worth your while to take her advice on ordering. The rest of the staff is just as cordial, which is particularly admirable since they have to go up and down a circular staircase fifty times a night. They must all have great leg muscles.
Among the starters I liked were some creamy, juicy polpettine di vitello ($11), veal meatballs all on their own in a tomato sauce—no spaghetti. Zucchini and ricotta croquettes ($11) were a delight, flavored with mint, basil and a spicy tartar sauce.
We tried four pastas, one better than the next, from the spring-perfect fava bean and ricotta tortelli dressed with pecorino and parmigiano, with a sprightly lemon and thyme sauce ($19) and a finely melded cacio e pepe ($16) to excellent potato gnocchi with mixed mushrooms and a dash of truffle oil ($18) and—best of all—ear-shaped Puglian orecchiette pasta with radicchio and pancetta in a light cream sauce ($15).
One of the Sardinian classics at Epistrophy is a hefty portion of shortribs braised in Cannonau wine with sweet onions and stone-ground polenta ($25). A properly crisp Milanese chicken cutlet came with braised kale and the charming addition of pear mostarda ($19). A nicely chewy Black Angus grass-fed hanger steak came with rosemary-scented fingerling potatoes and pearl onion agrodolce ($19), which carried through the sweet-sour flavors of other dishes. A tuna steak with truffle pea sauce lacked the flavor of superior tuna ($25), when so many other fish species would have been preferable from the daily market. Prices for these main courses are very, very reasonable.
Epistrophy’s desserts include a very creamy tiramisù ($7.50), a light pannacotta ($7) and a dark chocolate mousse ($7.50).
The wine list is about 20 labels strong with only a couple of Sardinian bottlings, and I would definitely encourage the owners to add more specifically Sardinian dishes like malloreddus and culurzones pastas and a dessert like seadas. of a kind I mention in my article about on Alghero.
Now that I know about Epistrophy and what an effusively friendly place it is, I could imagine living in the neighborhood, dropping by several times week—maybe for breakfast, or cocktails with friends, or a good dinner on a summer’s night. And I can’t wait to meet Giorgia's husband and partner to shake their hands for maintaining such a loveable and true-to-form trattoria for more than a decade. It took me long enough to get there, now I can’t wait to go back.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
SOME THINGS THAT WINE
SHOULD NEVER BE
By John Mariani
I gleefully remember a skit in a British TV comedy in which a fellow in a pub recommends a particular wine by saying, “Why, it’ll make yer nipples stand up like the Mountains o’ Mourne!” To which his friend replies, “Well, I’m not sure I want my nipples to stand up like the Mountains o’ Mourne.”
It was a smart retort to the kind of extravagant and absurd recommendations made by overheated wine geeks who have moved well beyond the usual banalities of Winespeak like “fruit-forward,” “hint of chocolate” and “subdued tannins.”
One hyperactive sommelier promised me that “This Cab will blow your doors off!” And in the silly 2013 documentary movie SOMM (right), which follows four candidates studying to pass the Master Sommelier exams, one of them swirls and sniffs his wine, then pronounces, “I’m getting a whiff of ... freshly cut garden hose.” One has to wonder if freshly cut garden hose is something a wine should or should not smell like.
I can hardly blame such zealots; people madly in love with inanimate objects like a bottle of wine feel the need to exaggerate to make a point of their irrational obsessions. And as a wine writer who labors arduously not to repeat himself with inane adjectives in describing half a dozen of the same varietals, I feel their pain. As humorist Art Buchwald, who knew his wines, once said, “When it came to writing about wine, I did what almost everybody does—I faked it.”
The most hilarious mockery of effusive wine talk is, of course, James Thurber’s New Yorker cartoon of a man at dinner with friends saying, “It’s a naïve domestic little Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”
A more extended satire of such pseudo-poetical descriptions is in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, when his two louche heroes try to top one another in their assessment of a Château Lafite-Rothschild 1895 (below):
“Like a leprechaun.”
“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”
“Like a flute by still water.”
“And this is a wise old wine.”
“A prophet in a cave.”
“And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.”
“Like a swan.”
“Like a unicorn.”
There used to be a wine magazine in which each bottling was compared to a rock-and-roll performer, album or song—a big zinfandel to Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Koochie Man,” a red Burgundy to Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and a California Chardonnay to the Eagles’s “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” The magazine lasted about four issues.
Currently on the Turner Classic Movies channel they run a wine club whose resident “curator,” Justin Howard-Sneyd, Master of Wine, explains, “With our movie and wine pairings, our intention is to choose wines diverse in their flavors with very good quality and value, but specifically, to think about those wines, who made them, where they are from and to draw together a movie connection — suggesting the kind of film you might want to watch when you're drinking that bottle.”
red California wine called Marx Brothers 2015 is
compared to the zany comedians’ film A Night at
the Opera: “All three remaining brothers are
represented in this wine’s mix of grapes . . . and
this is one of their most essential films. Both
[film and wine] are sure to be richly enjoyed.” Of a
Ridgerider Cellars Chardonnay 2014, Howard-Sneyd
writes, “Like the inviting flavors in this
eminently drinkable Central Coast Chardonnay,
by Northwest (left) has it all. Cary Grant’s
wrong man story is the perfect blend of action
comedy and romance capped by thrilling finale on
mount Rushmore. It’s best accompanied by this
enticing wine that has a little something for
everyone—apple, pear, warm vanilla and a hint of
And the best put-down of a wine snob ever spoken was an exceptionally informed observation by James “007” Bond when he spurned his boss M’s service of a particular disappointing brandy in the film Goldfinger (left). “Well, sir,” says Bond, sniffing a big balloon glass, “I’d say it was a thirty-year old fine, indifferently blended, with an overdose of . . . Bon Bois.”
And no scent of freshly cut garden hose.
IF THIS SELLS, NEXT
UP IS THE HOT DOG SUNDAE
Windy Brow Farms in Fredon Township, NJ, is now selling ice cream that contains bits of its processed pork product known as “pork roll” in southern New Jersey and “Taylor ham” in the northern section. Maple syrup and French toast are also in the mix because Windy Brow’s managing partner Jake Hunt said an all-pork roll ice cream would be “gross” without the undercurrent of sweetness.
Column Sponsored by Banfi Vintners
Wine is a joy year-round but
in cooler weather one
grape varietal has really taken center stage in
my daily activities – that most Italian of
grapes, Sangiovese, and its ultimate expression
– Brunello di Montalcino.
Recommendations for Celebrating Sangiovese
BelnerO Proprietor’s Reserve Sangiovese – A refined cuvée of noble red grapes perfected by our pioneering clonal research. This dark beauty, BelnerO, is produced at our innovative winery, chosen 11 consecutive years as Italy’s Premier Vineyard Estate. Fermented in our patented temperature controlled French oak and aged approximately 2 additional years. Unfiltered, and Nitrogen bottled to minimize sulfites.
Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino – Rich, round, velvety and intensely aromatic, with flavor hints of licorice, cherry, and spices. Brunello di Montalcino possesses an intense ruby-red color, and a depth, complexity and opulence that is softened by an elegant, lingering aftertaste. Unfiltered after 1998 vintage.
Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino – Brunello's "younger brother," produced from select Sangiovese grapes and aged in barrique for 10 to 12 months. Deep ruby-red, elegant, vibrant, well-balanced and stylish with a dry velvety finish.
Poggio all’Oro Brunello di Montalcino Riserva – A single vineyard selection of our most historically outstanding Sangiovese, aged five years before release, the additional year more than that required of Brunello including 6 months in barrel and 6 months more in bottle to grant its “Riserva” designation. Incredible elegance and harmony. Intense with lots of fruit and subtle wood influence. Round, complete, well balanced with hints of chocolate and berries. Unfiltered after 1998.
Poggio alle Mura – The first tangible result of years of intensive clonal research on Montalcino’s native Sangiovese grape. Estate bottled from the splendidly sun drenched vineyards surrounding the medieval Castello from which it takes its name. The Brunello di Montalcino is seductive, silky and smoky. Deep ruby in color with an expressive bouquet of violets, fruits and berries as well as cigar box, cedar and exotic spices. The Rosso di Montalcino is also intense ruby red. The bouquet is fresh and fruity with typical varietal notes of cherry and blackberry, enriched by more complex hints of licorice, tobacco and hazelnut. It is full bodied, yet with a soft structure, and a surprisingly long finish. The Poggio alle Mura Brunello di Montalcino Riserva is deep ruby red with garnet reflections and a rich, ample bouquet that hints of prune jam, coffee, cacao and a light balsamic note. It is full and powerful, with ripe and gentle tannins that make it velvety and harmonious; this wine is supported by a pleasing minerality that to me speaks soundly of that special hillside in southern Montalcino.
SummuS – A wine of towering elegance, SummuS is an extraordinary blend of Sangiovese which contributes body; Cabernet Sauvignon for fruit and structure; and Syrah for elegance, character and a fruity bouquet. An elegant, complex and harmonious red wine.
Cum Laude – A complex and elegant red which graduated “With Honors,” characterized by aromas of juicy berries and fresh spices.
Centine – A Cuvee that is more than half Sangiovese, the balanced consisting of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Vinified in a firm, round style that easily accompanies a wide range of dishes, this is a smooth and fragrantly satisfying wine with international character, and a perennial favorite at my own dinner table.
Banfi Chianti Superiore – The “Superiore” designation signifies stricter government regulations regarding production and aging requirements, as compared to regular Chianti. An intense ruby red wine with fruit forward aromas and floral notes. This is a round wine with well-balanced acidity and fruit.
Banfi Chianti Classico – An enduring classic: alluring bouquet of black fruit and violets; rich flavors of cherry and leather; supple tannins and good acidity for dining.
Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva – Produced from select grapes grown in the "Classico" region of Chianti, this dry, fruity and well-balanced red has a full bouquet reminiscent of violets.
Fonte alla Selva Chianti Classico – This is our newest entry into the Chianti arena, coming from a 99 acre estate in Castellina, the heart of the Chianti Classico region. The wine is a captivating mauve red that smells of cherry, plum and blackberry with hints of spice. It is round, full and balanced with very good acidity.
Col di Sasso – Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Luscious, complex and soft with persistent notes of fruit and great Italian style structure.
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Eating Las Vegas
JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas
food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is
the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50
Essential Restaurants (as well as
the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas.
He can also be seen every Friday morning as
the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the
Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3 in
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NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani,
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