Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

A Tale of Three (Italian) Cities

October 2014. Why I love Italy.

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VERONA

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On a quick visit to three north-Italian cities – Verona, Mantua, and Bologna – I was able to sample a few delicious dishes (and some appalling ones too) and a couple of splendid reds. One of the best meals was also the cheapest: A lovely cep risotto taken in a tiny, unpretentious bistro, l’Orlogio in Verona, chosen more or less at random. It came with a perfectly decent glass of red and finished with one of the best espressos I’ve had in years. Total cost: 19 Euros. Another excellent lunch was enjoyed at Al Calmerieri, also in Verona, handily close to the San Zeno Maggiore church, one of the city’s best sights (and sites).

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My heart sank when I saw that the menu listed just one red and one white (both generic). But it lifted again with relief when the waiter asked if I wanted to look at the wine list. This proved to contain a rollcall of leading names and growths. As we were reserving our strength (and spending capacity) for dinner, I ordered a moderately priced, deliciously fruity 2010 Valpolicella Superiore from Roccolo Grasso – an excellent accompaniment to a tasty pasta dish and a lovely plate of raw Montagnana ham – the latter light as a feather but full of flavour.

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We took dinner at the one-star La Fontanina. The food was very decent: egg poached at low temperature in sauce; a fine pasta creation; and a lovely suckling pig dish. That delicate meat did wonderful things for the 1999 Lariga Langhe from Elio Altare – which returned the compliment. It looked like a mature Haut-Brion but was as inspiringly, boldly Italian as an aria by Puccini or Verdi. Deep-flavoured and persistent, it almost prompted us to call for another bottle.

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We decided instead to try a grappa, but asked the charming ladies who served us for one that was “subtle and delicate”. This prompted them to bring us, clasped to their bosoms, eight or nine different bottles, six of which were grappas, the others French digestifs. Though at this stage distinctions had started to blur we did, indeed, find an excellent grappa that did not smell like chloroform. In the end we tasted all eight spirits (surreptiously spitting out the more rustic ones) and were charged just for one each. A delightful evening.

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The only negative experience in Verona was our two-night stay at Hotel Giberti. My companion (an old friend of 40 years), and I had each taken a “Superiore” single, paying extra for a supposedly higher level of comfort.. My room, No 114, while clean, proved to be tiny, more a cubicle really: about five metres by three, inclusive of the cramped bathroom. The shower – no bath – was less than one metre square so you banged your elbows every time you tried to give yourself a scrub. A framed certificate in this dismal chamber described it, presumably with the connivance of the licencing authorities, as a “Junior Suite”!

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Within minutes of entering the room I conveyed my disappointment to the reception staff and said that I was more than willing to pay for an upgrade. I was told that none was available. The hotel is classed as a 4-star. In my view, the calibre of a hotel is defined by its humblest room not by its most luxurious (the ones presumably occupied by visiting inspectors).

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MANTUA

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In the lovely city of Mantua our rooms at Hotel Rechigi, by contrast, were excellent – and quite a bit cheaper. Our dinner at the one-star Aquila Nigra, however, was a huge disappointment. I’d booked a table there because, a dozen or so years earlier, my wife and I had had one of the best meals of our lives (I’ll never forget the risotto with baby cep mushrooms nor the white truffle dish that followed, both accompanied by a wonderful 1990 Barolo). The same patron was there – like many Italian restaurateurs, he looked like a blend of a great philosopher and a deeply humane novelist – but now, a dozen years older, he was merely there to greet guests and made no move towards the kitchen. In the empty dining room the head waiter – very professional but clearly in a difficult position – offered us an endless choice of dishes, in any kind of combination, and told us we could take the best bits from any of the several set menus at no extra cost. But several items I asked about (Italian classics like suckling pig, veal, ceps, pigeon, calf’s liver, etc.), however, proved to be unavailable. What we ended up eating, or rather picking at, was a mish-mash of heated- up items that tasted as if they’d been lying around in the kitchen for some time.

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Because of an early start the next day, we’d arrived at this restaurant earlier than our usual dinner hour. Because of this we, to begin with, charitably attributed the absence of other guests to the Italian habit (and ours, in fact, under normal circumstances) of eating at a later hour. But by nine-thirty the place was still empty and we now understood why: the locals, unlike us, were clearly aware that things were not as they had once been and had made themselves scarce.

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We took this disappointment manfully. How? Because we’d been strengthened, physically and morally, by a superb lunch we’d eaten that same day at an altogether less pretentious restaurant in the same city: Fragoletta. The place, with cheque tablecloths and rudimentary furnishings, could not have been simpler. It was like entering somebody’s home. The home of somebody you like.

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Like Aquila Nigra it was completely empty when we arrived. But unlike Aquila Nigra it was packed when we left. The cheery proprietor let us order half-portions (a lovely Mantova sausage and a fine pasta dish) and seemed positively overjoyed for our sakes when I ordered a bottle of 1999 Barolo Cannubi Boschis from Sandrone. And we were thrilled for our OWN sakes when we tasted it: its vast, uniquely Barolo bouquet burst from the glass like a blast of trumpets, delivering a bewitching meld of plum jam, raspberry, wild cherry, and cinnamon scents. The flavour was just as enchanting: full, velvety, with lovely balance. The ripe tannins were in perfect harmony with the complex fruit. This great bottle cost 82 Euros (about £65).

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BOLOGNA

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One good thing about the two hotels so far (and the only redeeming feature of the Giberti!): both were within easy walking distance of the respective railway stations, from which we travelled, surprisingly cheaply, to the next city. And we did walk to each of the three stations – in the process, saving money while losing weight. Our third destination was Bologna, an architectural treasure-house. Our hotel, I Portici, was ideally located, and superb in its own right. Learning of my interest in gastronomy, an art that enjoys great prestige in this city, the management upgraded me, giving me a genuinely superior room, very large and with a lofty ceiling that was intricately hand-painted – very nice to look at when you wake in the morning! The large bed was as soft as thistledown.

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Bologna could equally well be called Arcadia. It seems to be built on a grid system – though the older quarters tend to be more meandering – and every one of its countless blocks of buildings is supported by magnificent arcades, each and every one of them different in style. No two sets of arches are alike; and all the manifold architectural details – masonry, brickwork, windows, cornices, columns, architraves, and pilasters – seem to have their own unique shape, structure, and proportion. Infinite variations on an architectural theme. Timber is used in some of the older buildings, which are mediaeval.

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Only the fact that the women of Bologna, whether young, middle-aged, or elderly, were so slim, graceful and vivacious prevented me from keeping my head permanently tilted upwards, towards that lovely architecture, for the whole of my stay there! It was interesting to note that the very few obese people to be seen in Bologna (and Verona and Mantua) were visitors from abroad.

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Our first – and last – meals in Bologna were taken at the charming Teresina restaurant, half-hidden down a narrow alleyway, unperceived by all but the most observant passers-by. The proprietor – another restaurateur who looked like a philosopher/novelist – had us seated in no time and a bottle of fresh and fruity wine appeared only seconds after being ordered. The food was simple and delicious, utterly free of all pretentiousness. As usual with good Italian places, it was empty when we arrived but completely packed when we left.

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And we were the only foreigners!

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When we returned there for our last meal in Italy, two days later, the proprietor instantly stepped forward, shook our hands, and placed a delicious seafood platter before us, on the house. Best of a couple of succeeding items was a wonderful polenta dish, halfway between a mousse and a soup. I was completely unable to analyse how it had been made; all I can say is that it was truly delectable. And I was wholly unable to stop eating it until every morsel has disappeared. Were a celebrity chef able to reproduce this remarkable dish in his own restaurant, he would be overwhelmed with praise for his great originality. Praise of unwonted sincerity, in most cases.

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****

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Back in the UK I received a query from Mr Nigel Ridgway who told me that “we found 18 bottles of 1961 Château La Tour Bicheau, Justerini & Brooks, stored in my late aunt’s cellar in Cheshire, as well as a dozen bottles of port, probably the same vintage. We were told you would be the ideal person to ask about how to extract the cork efficiently and to say whether the wines might be drinkable.”

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I replied as follows:

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“1961 was a great year in Bordeaux – though not all ’61 claret is great! La Tour Bicheau is a Graves, probably made from a blend of Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot. If J & B are mentioned on the label it probably means that it was bottled by them, not the Château.”

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“Without opening the bottle, the best clues are colour (depth and intensity thereof), the level in the bottle (a low level means either leakage or evaporation – the latter almost inevitable with great age), and the degree to which the label has remained pristine. Water-stained labels usually don’t matter. But faded labels usually mean that the bottle has been exposed to light, which is inimical to wine in the medium to long term. As to the port, 1961 was not a particularly good year there, but there can be exceptions.

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“The corks of such old bottles will almost certainly break and may even crumble into dust when extracted. An extremely delicate operation.”

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Mr Ridgway has promised to bring a couple of the bottles around and in return I’ve promised to show him how best to get at the wine inside, assuming that it’s is in good shape after 53 years. Should the wine prove to be sound but full of microscopic cork fragments – which will be the case if the cork disintegrates – it will be necessary to filter it through muslin into a decanter.

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Two corkscrews are better than one. I extracted the top half of the crumbly 50-year-old cork with a conventional model but had to use the very long spiral to get at the rest...

Two corkscrews are better than one. I extracted the top half of the crumbly 50-year-old cork with a conventional model but had to use the very long spiral to get at the rest…

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Mr Ridgway and his wife and son arrived a couple of days later, bearing a bottle each of the ’61 Tour Bicheau, a J & B House Claret (presumably from the same era) and a port, likewise of approximately the same age. The levels in all three bottles were good, into neck. The corks of both clarets broke in half, leaving the lower half in the neck of the respective bottles. I managed to extract both recalcitrant lower fragments without any pieces dropping into the wine. The port turned out to be sealed with a stopper, enclosed in thick capsule, and could simply be pulled out.

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The Tour Bicheau was in good condition for its age, a bit mean but not without flavour; while the House Wine had an almost Beaujolais-like charm. Clearly almost a 100% Merlot, it was neither astringent nor sour. Both wines were perfectly drinkable and, given their great age, in good shape withal. The port was delicious. In fact, it was a tawny, not a vintage, and in no way over the top. Very tasty, it would be the ideal accompaniment to fig tart, nuts, or dates.

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© Frank Ward 2014

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Photos : Frank Ward

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One Response to “A Tale of Three (Italian) Cities”

  1. […] October 2014. On a quick visit to three north-Italian cities – Verona, Mantua, and Bologna – I w… […]

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