Now That's Italian

July 11, 2007
Section: Food Wine Bay Area Living
Jessica Yadegaran

WHEN MASSIMILIANO BOLDRINI left Italy, the chef didn't stuff his suitcase with beloved bottles of Chianti or pricey Super Tuscans, but two vines of fragolino, a grape that has a natural strawberry flavor and produces a fruity, luscious wine."That's what I could sneak in," says Boldrini, who owns Riva Cucina in Berkeley, where he creates sustainable seafood dishes inspired by his native Emilia Romagna.He's replanted the vines on his Napa property, a symbol of his dedication to l'abbinamento: the centuries-old Italian concept of matching food and wine. Italy has 20 regions, and more than 2,000 indigenous varietals that date back three millennia.Boldrini is part of a wave of Italian-born restaurateurs who are transplanting traditions from their home region to Bay Area menus and wine lists."There is a big focus in revisiting cucina del territorio, to show the great capacity and range of Italian wines," says Mauro Cirilli, wine director of San Francisco's Perbacco, which specializes in the cuisine of Piemonte and Liguria.Cirilli should know. Growing up in the Veneto, he made moscato with his grandfather.Cirilli says the trend is a reflection of what's happening in Italy: regional producers reclaiming their terroir by revving up quality and scaling down quantity on sinking varietals, from Barbera to Lambrusco.The slow food movement, which began in Italy in 1989, has fueled the focus on local as well.Emilia Romagna, for instance, in central-north Italy, is the fourth-largest wine producing area in the country, though few of their wines are classified DOC (Denominazione di Origine) or have ever made it to American tables.While it is planted with staples such as sangiovese, trebbiano and cabernet sauvignon, the premier wine of the Emilia area is actually Lambrusco, with its frothy shades of fuschia, made from grapes grown high on thetrellised vines south of the Po River.Meanwhile, Romagna gave Italy its first white DOCG (the highest quality classification of wine) with Albana, a medium-bodied wine that Boldrini's father, also a chef, grows on his farm between Ferrera and Bologna.The almondy flavors of Albana and the fruity effervescence of Lambrusco are perfect summer matches for the subtle, rustic cooking style Boldrini brings from Emilia Romagna. Seafood — especially eel — Boldrini says, is particularly popular in his hometown of Ferrera, where he first worked as a chef.Around 4 a.m., after hitting the nightclubs, he'd visit a fishmonger friend for first dibs on the day's catch, then clean them and go to bed. For dinner, he might grill the eel and serve it with an Albana di Romagna. It's authentic, regionally inspired wine pairings such as these that are fueling restaurants such as San Ramon's Incontro, which showcases the cuisine of Puglia."We want to get away from the typical suspects, Chianti, Barolo, Barbaresco," says co-owner Gianni Bartoletti.Terra Mia in Livermore focuses on the cuisine of Calabria. You can find traditional Sardinian food and wines at La Ciccia in San Francisco. At Perbacco, Cirilli's Ital-Cal flight compares varietals and winemaking styles.To showcase the new Barberas, Cirilli serves roasted quail with balsamic-roasted figs and gorgonzola polenta. The wine of choice: a 2004 Paitin Barbera D'Alba from Campolive in Piemonte. It comes from a single vineyard — 150 cases, tops — with only 20 cases imported to the United States. It's light and elegant, with good acidity and black fruit that stands up to the saucy figs. And it's $38 a bottle.On a recent Monday afternoon, Boldrini marinated local, wild sardine fillets in shallots and Champagnevinegar and served them over parsley potatoes and Blue Lake green beans."You poach the potatoes and steam the beans so they absorb the sardine's flavors," Boldrini explains of his Sardine Marinate. "You can't accomplish that with roasted potatoes."For a red, he poured chilled Lambrusco (ironically, Riva Cucina, which opened in April, is still waiting for its liquor license), which suffered from overproduction and alteration in the 1980s but is now experiencing a renaissance thanks to producers in Emilia. Often reserved for rich dishes like Bolognese or Parma ham, Boldrini liked the pairing because the fruity bubbles cut the fishiness.For a daring pairing, try the zingy fruit and minerality of Sibilla Falanghina from the Campi Flegrei in Campania. The grape has a natural salt flavor, which stands up to sardines and similar foods.With the same type of dish, white wine drinkers can also try verdicchio, a dry, crisp variety from the Castelli di Jesi DOC in central Italy's Le Marche region, says Luigi Troccoli of Incontro.He pairs it with the restaurant's signature Pollo Piccantino alla Potentina — grilled, southern Italian chicken marinated in lemon juice, rosemary and chile flakes — because the wine's high acidity complements the dish's heat."It's also fruity and marries well with the lemon," Troccoli says.Meanwhile, Bartoletti likes a Luccarelli Primitivo from Puglia, the same region where the chicken dish is from. Primitivo is genetically identical to zinfandel but the Italian style is different."California makes it strong with oak and spice," Bartoletti says. "In Italy they make it a little softer and fruitier, so it's a perfect summer barbecue wine."When considering a wine pairing, strive to complement or contrast the food's personality."There are no fixed rules," says Boldrini, who teaches a wine pairing class at Napa's Signorello Vineyards.True Sicilian food lovers should try any number of light-to-medium bodied blends from the region, like Nero d'Avola, the most widely planted red variety in the region, and Frappato, Italy's answer to Beaujolais. The combination makes for lush wines with firm tannins, fresh acidity, some pepper and violet floral notes.At Terra Mia, co-owner Roberto Pugliese serves Agnello Scottadito: grilled lamb chops seasoned with garlic, oregano, thyme and rosemary. The dish is actually from Rome, but the red wine he likes to pair it with, a Montepulciano, is from Abruzzo.The grape can do it all: dark spicy fruit and soft acidity make it perfect for early consumption, but it also produces an earthiness with chewy big tannins and aging potential, perfect for red meat dishes.And if you want something lighter, say, grilled salmon and a strawberry spinach salad, Montepulciano has a sweet secret. It's also made into Cerasuolo, a fruity rose.Sardine MarinateRecipe courtesy of Massimiliano Boldrini, Riva CucinaWine pairing suggestions: Red: Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro. The powerful fruit and lively effervescence of this reddish-purple sparkling wine cuts the salt and aroma of sardines. Excellent with seafood or spicy dishes. White: Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. The crisp, dry wine from the second largest DOC in Italy is a natural accompaniment to seafood. Fans of mineral should try Sibilla Falanghina from the Campi Flegrei in Campania, a varietal grown near the coast with a natural seaweed flavor that stands up to sardines.— Jessica Yadegaran1 large shallot1/2cup Champagne vinegarKosher salt and fresh ground pepperLeaves from 1/2bunch Italian parsley1/2cup olive oil2 Russet potatoes1/4pound Blue Lake beans, stems removed12 fillets local sardinesMince shallot and macerate in Champagne vinegar with a pinch of salt and pepper. Chop parsley and add to vinegar (if making ahead, don't add parsley until the last minute). Gently spoon in all but 1 tablespoon of olive oil.Peel and cut potatoes into 1-inch cubes then poach in salted water, 10-15 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a dry cloth, spreading them out in a single layer.Clean beans and poach in salted water, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a dry cloth.Heat the remaining olive oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat and cook the sardines skin-side down for 1 minute, flip over, turn off heat and let rest in pan for another minute.Plate the warm potatoes and beans, arrange the sardines skin-side up over the vegetables, stir and drizzle vinaigrette over all.Serves 2.Per serving: 719 Calories; 62g Fat; 21g Protein; 22g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 102mg Cholesterol; 381mg Sodium.Pollo Piccantino alla PotentinaRecipe courtesy of Luigi Troccoli, IncontroWine pairings: White: Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. This light, greenish yellow wine from Le Marche is full and intense, with bright acidity and hints of citrus, almond, apple and pear that will complement the lemony flavor of the hearty grilled chicken. Red: Primitivo Di Manduria. A rich, mouth-filling red wine from Puglia grows in limestone-rich soil, home of the Primitivo grape. Its lush berry fruit and structured tannins can take on the smoky, spicy flavors of this hearty grilled chicken.— Luigi Troccoli, Incontro2 garlic cloves, sliced1 shallot, sliced2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves1/2cup Dijon mustard1/2cup lemon juice11/2cups extra virgin olive oil1 teaspoon chile flakes2 whole free-range chickens, backbone removed and split in half along the breast bone1 tablespoon sea salt1 teaspoon black pepperIn a large bowl, combine garlic, shallot, chile flakes, rosemary, mustard, and lemon juice, then slowly whisk in the extra virgin olive oil.Season the chicken halves with sea salt and black pepper, and add to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it marinate for few hours or overnight in the refrigerator.Grill the chicken skin-side down until crisp, turn and finish cooking on cut side, about 30-40 minutes in all. Alternatively, place them cut-side down on a heavy cookie sheet or roasting pan and cook in a 450-degree oven until crisp and cooked through, 30-40 minutes. Let rest for a few minutes before serving.Serves 4.Per serving: 1,070 Calories, 115 g Protein, 0 Carbohydrates, 64 g Total Fat, 18 g Saturated Fat, 365 mg Cholesterol, 350 mg Sodium, 0 Fiber. Calories from fat: 56 percent.Agnello ScottaditoRecipe courtesy of Giovanni Marzocca, Terra MiaWine pairing: Montepulciano d' Abruzzo Testarossa, Pasetti 2003. Greatly structured with deep red ruby color and a bouquet of red ripe cherries with spicy notes that matches the herbs in grilled or roasted meats like this one plus game or pastas such as lasagna Bolognese.— Roberto Pugliese, Terra Mia2 large lamb racks cut along the ribs into chops, about 165-6 cloves garlic, minced1/4cup extra virgin olive oil1 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary1 tablespoons minced fresh thyme1 tablespoons minced fresh oreganoKosher salt and fresh ground pepperToss lamb with garlic, olive oil and fresh herbs. Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour (or refrigerate for up to 1 day, taking them out an hour before you're ready to grill).Prepare a grill to medium-high. Sprinkle lamb with salt and pepper, pressing the chops flat so they cook evenly. Sear for about 5 minutes on each side depending on thickness until medium rare or done to your liking.Serves 4.Per serving: 500 Calories, 41 g Protein, 0 Carbohydrates, 36 g Total Fat, 18 g Saturated Fat, 190 mg Cholesterol, 85 mg Sodium, 0 Fiber. Calories from fat: 64 percent.Reach Jessica Yadegaran at (925) 943-8155. Read her wine blog at cctextra.com/blogs/corkheads.