Michael has just returned from his annual wine hunting trip to Vinitaly in Verona, exploring Balsamico Tradizionale producers in Modena, sipping the minerally white wines of the Cinque Terre, and discovering the regional food and wine specialties around Rome. Join him as he posts installments of his new wine finds and interesting places to visit in Bella Italia this year.
“When wine takes hold of a person, it tends to sink its claws in pretty deep.”
I make checklists the evening before my flight – passport, camera, laptop, iPod and headphones. Should I bring my 2009 Vini d’Italia wine guide? That adds 3 pounds. The weather promises to be typical northern Italy weather in April: damp and cool. My Canali suit and tie, jeans, sweaters and heavy wool jacket, a collapsible umbrella. Snacks are important on a whirlwind trip like this. Almonds, chocolate, beef jerky, more chocolate. Is that it? Maybe.
I pack everything I need into my Rick Steves backpack. Backpack? Yes, you guessed it – I travel light. A rollerboard suitcase is a nightmare in Italy if you’re planning to travel by train. Don’t do it. With cobblestone streets and sidewalks, miles of stairs and few elevators, a rolly takes the fun out of your trip. This will be the first time in my 50+ trips to Italy where I haven’t rented a car, so traveling light is a must. Not everything fits, so I start tossing items out. Do I really need 3 pairs of shoes? Dressy, street casual, and hiking shoes? Absolutely. I toss out a sweater or two, and leave the Vini d’Italia behind. It’s packed pretty tight, and at 28 pounds I’m pushing the limit.
My business class upgrade comes through — Score! Now I’ll be able to rest on my San Francisco to London flight so I can hit the ground running when I land at 6:30AM. I scribble notes on the 10 hour flight over as to what I want to bring back: The 2010 releases of Vini d’Italia and Osterie d’Italia guidebooks by Gambero Rosso; Special orders from the family like Pocket Coffee for Teresa, “Calabrian Death Peppers” — spicy little red devil (diavolini) peppers for my 13-year-old son Evan, and an Azzurri jacket for my 18-year-old son Andrew This year I decide not to bring home oodles of wine samples, and instead plan to have them shipped. At 3 pounds a pop, bottles of wine can weigh you down and I plan to cover a lot of kilometers on this trip, all without a car. Somehow I’ll still end up with 50 pounds of assorted Italian goodies to bring back.
Planes, trains and automobiles. And water taxis.
I’m off to Vinitaly, my annual pilgrimage to the world’s biggest wine trade show. People “oooh’ and “aaah” when I tell them I’ll have 25,000 wines to taste from when I get there. While it’s a pretty cool and sexy show, Vinitaly is grueling and hard on the body. With one million square feet overflowing with every conceivable wine from every corner of the Italian boot, you have to plan out your visit or you’ll simply wander around for miles, seduced into tasting countless wines from 4200 wine producers, and perhaps a little estate pressed olive oil. And maybe some prosciutto. And a little truffled pecorino. Sounds like heaven, but I need to get some work done.
Vinitaly will wait a few days while my body acclimates to the +9 hour difference from the West Coast. For now, my destination and home base is Venice, where I will immerse myself in Venetian culture and explore nearby islands. Verona is just 60 minutes away from Venezia by Frecciarossa (red arrow) express train, yet I’ll be far away from the crowd of 150,000 people expected to flood Verona for the 5 day show.
Upon arrival at the Venezia Santa Lucia train station, I usually walk the winding streets to my hotel, having memorized the alleys and bridges that take me to my friend Roberto’s quaint Albergo Guerrato near the Rialto fish market. If you’re new here, you can just follow the yellow arrow signs per San Marco or per Rialto, working your way through the neighborhoods where the Veneziani live and work in this watery wonderland. Roberto is full-up this time, so I’m staying at the Westin Europa e Regina near Piazza San Marco and I’m tired after 18 hours of flights and trains, so I hop on the #2 vaporetto, Venice’s mass transit system that moves tens of thousands of locals and tourists daily in and around the Venetian lagoon.
A ride on the vaporetto down the Grand Canal gives me a front row seat to the most elegant palazzo-viewing in Italia. The lavish homes facing the canal date back to when Venice was the world’s richest city, frescoed in vibrant reds, blues and yellows and trimmed in gold-leaf. Many exteriors have not been touched in 100+ years, as strict laws prohibit any changes. Lovely for us, but maddening for their owners. My favorite on the canal — the elegant and ornate Ca’ d’Oro (House of Gold) — offers 3 bellissime balcony designs demonstrating the best of Venetian Gothic architecture, a blend of classic Gothic architecture with Byzantine styles. In its glory days, Ca’ d’Oro was painted and its columns and ornaments heavily gilt, a stunning lady on this grand canal.
Becoming popular in a flurry.
On my first evening in Italy, I drop my bags at the hotel and hit the narrow walkways and damp piazzas of bella Venezia. The best remedy for jetlag is plenty of sunshine, fresh air and lots of walking on your arrival day. I have a few hours to burn before my 8PM dinner date with a plate of fresh grilled lagoon fish at Osteria al Mascaron. I’ve made a ritual out of visiting Piazza San Marco, perhaps the most jaw-dropping, film-gobbling central square in in all of Italy. Napoleon called St. Mark’s Square "the finest drawing room in Europe." Ok, so there’s no sofa or a ceiling, but the cafe seats on the square, dueling quartets playing Vivaldi, and a carpet of hungry pigeons create an ambiance that is distinctly Venetian.
Did I mention pigeons? Piazza San Marco is home to over 40,000 of them, delighting visitors and confounding locals by day, and roosting on the grand palazzi around the perimeter of the square by night. I must admit, I love the pigeons. Vendors sell bags of corn seed, and feeding the mob of hungry pigeons is the most fun you can have in Venice for a Euro. Hold out your hand with a little corn seed and you’ll be covered in pigioni within seconds. One of my favorite pigeon antics is to throw a handful of corn at the feet of unsuspecting children, then watch the shrieks of joy and giggles as hundreds of pigeons crowd around their feet. But on this trip, the vendors are gone. Outlawed years ago elsewhere in the city, Mayor Massimo Cacciari has now banned the sale of pigeon seed in the square. But Venetian traditions die hard – somehow people are still feeding the pigeons, flaunting the threat of hundred-Euro fines while local polizia casually look the other way.
Looking for loose wine.
After dozens of trips to Venezia, I’ve learned to navigate this town by landmark. Getting to Osteria Al Mascaron from St. Mark’s Square requires me to thread my way through calli and over ponti (narrow walkways and bridges), like a mouse in a maze. Along the way, I stop at a favorite wine shop deep in the Castello district. There’s not a bottle of wine for sale here, but you can load up your own bottles or demijohn with sfuso, the Italian term for “loose wine” – regional red, whites and sparklers with a lot of local character, sold by the liter. Think “2 Buck Chuck”, only a hell of a lot better wine and it’s sold portar via (take away) style.
The Veneto region is home to surprisingly diverse wine varietals. Perhaps best known for Prosecco, Valpolicella, Amarone, and Soave Classico, you can taste some surprisingly good wines from International varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. If you wander the back streets of Venice during prime afternoon shopping time (4-7 PM), you’re bound to stumble upon a sfuso shop filled with demijohns in wicker baskets and hoses lined up on a table – all ready to fill your own bottles or jars with fine regional wines for one to two Euros a liter.
If you’re serious about buying (or brazen, like me), the shop owner will give you a taste. Just ask “vorrei un assaggio, per favore” (“I’d like a little taste, please”) and point to the most interesting demijohn of the lot. The Valpolicella Ripassa, a famous wine made from the local Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara varietals in the Verona area, is only 1.70 Euro/liter and is surprisingly good. “Who makes it?” I ask the shop owner. Who knows, and it doesn’t really matter. It could be a regional consorzio, a mom-and-pop shop, or a well-known producer. Nearly every wine producer in Italy makes at least a little sfuso.
If you haven’t packed your empty bottles this trip, you can visit a local bacaro (Venetian wine bar) during the giro d’ombra daily happy hour and toss back a tasty local red or white sfuso wine for perhaps one Euro a glass. House wines in Italian osterie and trattorie are almost always sfuso, and almost always delicious – and cheap. Dive into this truly Italian experience and enjoy wine like a local.
“You must have our crabs.”
Osteria al Mascaron is a Venetian institution. Named after the grotesque mask (mascaron) carved over the door of the bell tower of the nearby Santa Maria Formosa renaissance church, this old Inn and its ancient namesake are intended to provide a safe haven from evil spirits. These days it’s run by gracious Gigi and Momi, friends who go way back and took over managing this osteria in 1978. From the smiles and sounds and smells within this tiny place on any given night, it looks like the mascaron is doing its job.
While Mascaron is in far too many guidebooks these days for my taste, it remains one of the few Venetian osterie that caters to locals and travelers alike, serving up autentico dishes of the Veneziano style with the freshest fish, crustaceans and shellfish you’ll find here, and to-die-for vegetables grown on the nearby island of San Erasmo. Everything served here is bought daily from the vendors at the nearby Rialto outdoor fish and vegetable market. Gigi, Momi and their crew have done a good job of maintaining the integrity of their dishes over the years in this touristy town. With millions of visitors a year, most food joints in Venice can (and do) serve, well, crap and still the masses line up outside their doors. Your hosts here will take good care of your taste buds, and while the place isn’t cheap, you’ll experience some of the best local dishes in town.
“You must have our crabs.” My host Dani is insistent. “Granchio, from the lagoon. They are just in today, first of the season. You will like, I promise.” When I dine at an osteria lovingly run by a local family, I often let them pick some of my dishes. They know what’s in season better than I do, and they seem honored when I ask them what they would order themselves. I usually go for grilled local fish from the Venetian lagoon, but he’s not recommending it tonight. Dani and I bounce back and forth between Italian and English since some of the seafood names are in local Venetian dialect. Antipasti will be freshly grilled vegetables of the season, and I nod to the wisdom of my host and go for the linguine al granchio as my one and only main dish. No grilled lagoon fish this time. “Vino?” Certo. Della casa, per favore. I order a little red for the antipasti and a little white for the crab. Yes, it’s all sfuso.
Mascaron earned it’s reputation on the quality of its dishes and the convivial, local atmosphere. Tonight is busy, and I’m sitting solo at a table for four. I know this place well, and I’ll soon have dining partners – at least two, and maybe three. It’s tough to be a loner in a place like this, and sure enough I’m soon sharing my table with a cute German couple on their first trip to Venice. I can tell they’re overwhelmed, and they’re eying my pasta with crab. “Try the linguine al granchio, you can’t go wrong,” I tell them. It’s true, this is the sweetest crab meat I have ever tasted, tossed in a light, butter-based sauce and perfectly al dente pasta. The white sfuso has spent a little time in wood and has a nice floral, buttery taste, pairing well with this remarkably sweet crab.
Dani arrives at my table and beams when he sees I’ve eaten all of my pasta. “It’s good, eh?” Buonissimo. I couldn’t eat another bite, though – I’m stuffed. He pays no attention and brings me a small plate of the local “S”-shaped esse cookies made with eggs and vanilla and a touch of anise. And of course, a glass of local sweet wine to dip them in. One taste of them and I realize I’ll end up clearing this plate, too.
It’s late and I really should be sleeping after this very long day. Other than cat naps on the flight over, I’ve been up for 24 hours. I settle up and get ready to head for the door. Dani stops me and thanks me for coming in. “When you come back, ask for me, Dani. I have more recommendations for you!” I love Venetian hospitality. “Grazie! Ciao! Buona notte!”
I meander down the darkened corridors and walkways, trying to find my hotel. Was it this way? Perhaps I’ve had a bit too much wine. Venezia at night is wonderfully quiet. The only sound I hear is the distant tap-tap-tap of stiletto heels on cobblestone. The moon is full and casts a romantic shadow on this watery wonderland. Che bella Venezia.
Finding Osteria al Mascaron. Gigi’s place is just off Campo di Santa Maria Formosa, about 50 feet down Calle Longa S.M. Formosa at #5225. Look for the hanging lantern over the door. A reservation is a must here most times of the year, but you can try and squeeze in or catch a late dinner slot. Have your hotel make a prenotazione as soon as you arrive in Venice, this place books up fast. Your hotel can also provide a map and show you the path through the Venetian maze to Mascaron. You can try reserving by email, the boys can be reached at email@example.com, or even try FAXing them at +39.041.244.3856. Dine like the Veneziani and book your dinner reservation for 8PM or later. Mascaron only takes hard cash, no exceptions, so hit the ATM before you go. Dinner with antipasti and primi dishes for two will run you about 60 Euros, including sfuso house wine. Don’t forget to finish your dinner with esse cookies and a little sweet wine to dip them in. It’s divine.