Questionable Tastes TM_QT_RISOTTO_AP_004

During late summers, I become almost fruitarian. Sometimes, nearing the dinner hour, I suddenly realize that the only things I’ve eaten all day have been fresh melon, berries, nectarines, and plums.

The root of this fruity love affair is clearly my childhood summers, which I spent at my family’s open-air, roadside produce stand in southern New Jersey. My cousins and I sold fruit and vegetables in a makeshift wooden structure with hand-written signs at the edge of property owned by my father and uncle’s packing house. I worked there pretty much from the first grade, when I had a little corner where I sold little containers of bruised and overripe “seconds” under a sign that read “Bargain Table. Everything 50 cents.”

By the time I was about 12, I awoke before sunrise and — before eating breakfast — pedaled my bike a few miles over to the packing house, where we kept our produce in huge refrigeration rooms. I enjoyed whizzing down the loading dock on an electric pallet jack, and I loved the sensation of zipping into the cold and then back out into the warm summer air. I mostly worked alone, unless an onion truck had just arrived, and then one of my dad’s employees might decide he needed to “help” me, instead of unloading 50-pound bags of onions. My job was to get the pallets ready on the loading dock before my cousin arrived in his pickup truck, back from a daily run to the farms or from the produce terminal in the city. MORE

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In the town of Crema, less than an hour east of Milan, they make a stuffed pasta that goes by the straightforward name of tortelli cremaschi. The name, however, is about the only straightforward aspect of this local specialty. Federico Fellini may have famously said, “life is a combination of magic and pasta.” But even the great filmmaker himself could not have dreamed up tortelli cremaschi, which must be the most Felliniesque pasta in Italy.

While the pasta itself follows a basic egg-and-flour recipe, the ingredient list for the ripieno (or filling) reads as follows: amaretto cookies (nearly a pound); candied citrus; raisins; mint candies; grated lemon zest; grated Grana Padano cheese; nutmeg; Marsala wine; mostaccino, a local cookie that is sort of like a ginger snap.

Allow me to address a few of your questions: No, I am not making this recipe up. No, this is not a child’s fantasy creation. Yes, this being Italy, there is an Accademia del Tortello Cremasco, a self-appointed organization, with officers, that governs the recipe’s correct preparation. Yes, tortelli cremaschi tastes as bizarre as you’d imagine.

How do I know all this? Because once, about a decade ago, I made the mistake of preparing tortelli cremaschi for people who were not citizens of Crema.
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Questionable Tastes TM_PG_ALTINTR_FI_001

Wine books almost always begin with a light-hearted tale of the author’s initiation into the world of wine via some crappy bottle of plonk. This is where you’ll normally read an anecdote of misguided youth involving, say, Thunderbird, Sutter Home white zinfandel, Boone’s Farm, Lancers, Mateus, Korbel, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers or — for the generation of wine books soon to be written by millennials — boxes of Franzia. It’s sort of like an immutable law of wine writing.

So let me begin by saying I went through a period during my senior year of high school when I was very enthusiastic about Mogen David’s flavored and fortified wine MD 20/20, otherwise known as “Mad Dog.” MD 20/20’s Orange Jubilee was my particular tipple of choice, and the reason had more to do with how much easier it was to hide in the woods than a six-pack of beer. I vaguely remember it tasting like a a mix of chalky, watered-down SunnyD and grain alcohol, but I’ve mostly tried to cleanse that memory from my mind, along with other, numerous suburban New Jersey public school rites of passage.

My MD 20/20 connoisseurship ended soon after I left for college in the big city. During the first week of college I professed my enthusiasm for Mad Dog and shared some Orange Jubilee with the new friends on my floor. After gagging and spitting out the MD 20/20, my new friends laughed and gave me the ironic nickname “Mad Dog,” which stuck until I transferred schools at the end of my freshman year. It was an early lesson in how fraught it can be to express a wine preference. It was also a lesson in how it feels it to have one’s taste disapprovingly assessed.
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Summer in the world of wine has become the oh-so-cool Summer of Riesling, in which the cognescenti try to convince the average drinker to welcome riesling into their lives. That may seem a tall order, but I am undertaking an even more difficult — and significantly less hip — task: I am going to suggest that you make this summer the Summer of Lambrusco, and pop open the classic fizzy red wine.

I can hear you now: Lambrusco?! Whaaat? Didn’t we leave lambrusco behind in the 1980s, along with those cheesy Riunite commercials — with the jingle “Riunite on ice, Riunite so nice!” and with mustachioed Tom Selleck lookalikes courting bleach blonde Cheryl Tiegs lookalikes over chilled lambrusco?
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Questionable Tastes TM_QT_CARBON_AP_010_1

“It’s not about a recipe,” said chef Riccardo De Pra. “It’s about a concept.” He was talking about spaghetti alla carbonara, the humble bachelor’s dish of pasta, eggs, and bacon that he serves “deconstructed” at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Dolada, in the foothills of the Alps, overlooking the serene Lago di Santa Croce. On the last evening of a very strange trip, I ate De Pra’s deconstructed spaghetti alla carbonara, paired with a profound Piemontese white wine made from an ancient grape called timorasso that had been rescued from near-extinction, and I wondered seriously if I would ever find my way home.

I’d been stranded in Italy for several days. This was in the spring of 2010, when an Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajokull erupted, spewing tons of ash and causing havoc for air travel. Many, at the time, called Eyjafjallajokull the worst disruption in the history of transportation. My trip was supposed to be a four-day jaunt to visit wineries in the Veneto, focusing on Prosecco, Soave, and Valpolicella. The plan: jet in; visit a dozen wineries in four days; jet out; return home; write article. Like millions of others during that shutdown of European airspace, I hadn’t factored a volcano into my plans. So the airline canceled my Sunday morning flight from Venice, with the earliest possibility of return on Thursday. MORE

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Wine can be a complicated language to understand. Forget about the difficulties of tasting and describing it for just a second. When you first set out to learn a thing or two about wine, the first obstacle is getting past the complicated names listed on a label.

I first learned this lesson in a winery’s tasting room in Asti, which lies at the heart of the Italian Piedmont wine region. As I stared at the many bottles before me, I was admittedly a bit confused. Only a few of the names made any sense at all. The one with chardonnay listed on its label was easy enough to understand — my parents had similar looking ones from Napa Valley in their wine rack at home. And I recognized the word Barolo as a nearby town I had seen earlier on my Google Maps app. I wasn’t entirely sure about the moscato d’Asti and was only able to translate half of its meaning, figuring it was somehow related to the sweet moscato wine that was popular at home.

That’s when Roberto Bava, the winery’s manager and winemaker, noticed the puzzled look on my face. “Ah, you are a bit overwhelmed by all of the different names?” he asked.
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Dispatches

From Mama’s Kitchen

Our photographer's perfect lunch in a tiny, family-run Positano restaurant

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This summer, photographer Rachel Wisniewski found herself careening up the side of a mountain in Italy – toward what turned out to the best meal of her life (so far). Check out her photos below.

“As our tour guide, “Crazy Carmine,” drove us up the winding mountain road in Positano, Italy, I felt my stomach lurch. By the time we reached the mountaintop, I swore that I’d be sick. I didn’t expect Carmine’s next announcement: “It’s lunch time.” He quickly ushered my family into a small, stone home. The sign over the door read “La Tagliata Fattoria.”

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    The best tomatoes I'd ever eaten grew in Mama's vast garden — firm on the outside, yet surprisingly succulent on the inside. I popped one into my mouth; as I chewed, my disposition changed instantly from nauseous to ravenous. I couldn’t help but pluck a few more from Mama's basket before she left.
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    It wasn’t until we neared the end of the trail to La Tagliata that I realized how high up we were. The garden extended dangerously over the side of the mountain — allowing us to see turquoise water for miles. The air was sweet, but the view was much sweeter.
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    The first wave of appetizers: peas, eggplant, chickpeas, broccoli, and fried cauliflower. Each vegetable was prepared simply—accented by herbs, but not overpowered by them. I took second helpings of everything.
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    I indulged in several balls of Mama's homemade mozzarella. The cheese was undeniably fresh; as I cut into it, buffalo milk oozed onto the plate.
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    The pasta course began with gnocchi filled with buffalo mozzarella, blanketed with a thin tomato sauce, and garnished with basil and cherry tomato halves. The mild sauce allowed the light, fluffy gnocchi to shine.
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    Strozzapreti, a hand-rolled pasta that reminded me of cavatelli, was covered in a chunky sauce made of pumpkin, mushroom, and basil.
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    As we dug into the tomato sauce-bathed ravioli, Carmine informed us that Mama had woken up at 5:00 that morning to make them by hand. In addition to ricotta cheese, the pasta was stuffed with minced, smoked eggplant – a vegetarian's dream.
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    For dessert, homemade limoncello and apple liquor accompanied a dessert plate with ricotta and chocolate cheesecakes, fruit tarts, chocolate-dipped profiteroles and “Mama’s cake.” We couldn’t eat much before our already-stuffed stomachs cried for mercy.
Questionable Tastes TM_PG_SOAVE_FI_002

In August, Table Matters will be launching a series of digital wine guides called Planet of the Grapes. Stay tuned for updates.

I have been trying to spread the good word on Soave Classico for the past few years, and reactions divide squarely along generational lines.

Most people under 35 give me blank stares. “Soave?” they ask. “Like Rico Suave?”

Meanwhile, when I mention it to those of my parents’ generation, Soave brings a distinctly negative response. Baby boomers remember the cheap, pitiful product that flooded our shores in the 1970s. When I told my father I would be tasting Soave for my next assignment, he looked at me like I was crazy. “Soave Bolla?” he said. “Good luck with that. Isn’t that on the same shelf as Blue Nun and Mateus?”
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There are times in life when, for brief moments, everything seems perfect in the world. One of those times, for me, was one late summer afternoon on my honeymoon, sitting on the upstairs patio of a café overlooking a busy outdoor market. There was chilled, slightly fizzy white wine on the table, and a small tray with salami, olives, and bread. I remember the long, flowy skirt that I was wearing, and my new husband sitting across from me, a mischievous smile on his face.
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When I studied abroad in Rome a few years ago, my travel packet included a primer for ordering espresso from the little museum café around the corner from our classrooms. To begin with, we were warned, don’t order espresso, a term which refers to a technique and not a beverage. Instead order caffè — short for caffè espresso, there’s no other kind — and embellish the word with lyrical phrases to indicate how long to let water seep through pressed grounds and how much milk to add and when.
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The first thing I wish I had known before I approached the car rental kiosk: Almost all cars in Europe are manual. The second: European car rental companies don’t really care about silly Americans like me that don’t know how to drive them.

Many young Americans are just like me. I learned how to drive in an automatic car. Five years have passed and I still cannot operate one with a manual transmission. At home, in my good old automatic, this is never an issue. But when I arrived in Europe last fall for a self-guided tour through wine regions in Spain, France, and Italy, my inability to manage a stick shift suddenly became a hindrance. Luckily, one rental company offered a solution to my problem: the Smart Car, which has an automated manual transmission and can be driven in either mode. It was extremely tiny, like a toy car — much smaller than any car I had ever driven. I wondered where exactly I was supposed to put my oversized suitcase. But while it wasn’t the most comfortable ride for a lengthy journey through wine country — certainly not very impressive to roll up to a winery in — the little car took me far.
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Most people who profess to hate blue cheese don’t know a thing about it. They see blue veins, and they turn their peacock heads toward the Jarlsberg display. What a pity. If only they would close their eyes and accept a spoonful of Gorgonzola Dolce, then they might think they were eating vanilla ice cream. Or if they accepted a morsel of Cremificato Verde Capra, they might mistake it for lemon frosting.

Not all blues are badasses. Some tread very, very lightly.
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Lately, I’ve been dreaming about the cheeses of Piedmont. Like so many borderlands, this Italian region hugs France and sucks the marrow out of two cultures, fusing the best of both: namely, Italian vigor and French romance. Here, you’ll find operatic young goat cheeses rolled in flower buds, along with oozy Robiolias (think: robust Brie) swathed in leaves – fig, chestnut, or even cabbage.

It’s as if Versace had dressed these wheels.

Piedmont, which means “foot of the mountains,” produces more than 50 varieties of cheese, ten of which are labeled Protected Designation of Origin (DOP), a hard-to-garner marker that ensures quality and distinction. MORE