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IN THIS ISSUE
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
THE WINES OF AUSTRIA
By John Mariani
On the next episode of my WVOX Radio Show "Almost Golden," on Wed. September 29, at 11AM EDT,I will be interviewing Fredric Logevall, biographer of JFK. Go to: WVOX.com. The episode will also be archived at: almostgolden.
COMOBy John Mariani
War Memorial, Como
Photo by Galina Dargery (2020)
Funny thing about the city of Como in Northern Italy is that many travel guides recommend getting out of town and sailing around Lake Como, rather than staying put in a city I’ve come to love all on its own for its beauty, its size, its history and its food. Yes, you can hop a tour boat and visit all the wonders of Lake Como—the charming towns of Bellagio and Tremezzo, the funicular up to the mountain town of Brunate—but Como itself teems with things to do and see.
Easily reached by train from Milan, Como has never been overrun with tourists (who use it as a base from which to explore the lake), and its manageable city center is laid out largely along rectangular lines, with impeccably clean streets and restored buildings that include modern monuments well out of the ordinary in large Italian cities. There is little of the baroque in Como, and its magnificent cathedral (below) is the last of its kind in the Gothic style with Romanesque motifs, dating to the end of the 14th century.
It is a very appealing walking city, lying flat on the lake’s edge, with a broad Piazza Cavour flanked with fine buildings, including the city’s best and most modern Vista Palazzo Lago di Como Hotel (left) and the old Metropole Suisse, though esthetically compromised by the grotesque banality of Hotel Barchetta Excelsior. Here is the obvious place to start, from the train station, or, if you come from the north through the city’s Porto Nuovo gate, which bears strong resemblance to one in a De Chirico painting.
Como was home to Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), the inventor of the electric battery and someone who is widely held as a favorite native son in the city. You can tour on your own those places associated with the scientist, including the classical high school Liceo Volta near the gate; Volta’s house on Via Volta; the Volta Museum (left) on Viale Marconi, built in 1927, where you’ll find the first version of the electric battery; the avant-garde Monument designed by architect Daniel Liebeskind at the bottom of Diga Foranea; Volta’s tomb is within the Camnago Volta village; and the Volta Lighthouse up in Brunate, designed by Gabriele Giussani in 1927.
The city was once center of the architectural style called Italian Rationalism, developed in the 1920s and 1930s based on principles of functionalism for which a building should clearly reflect the purpose for which it was created without much flourish. Such structures around town include the Futurist Camerlata Fountain by Cesare Cattaneo and Mario Radice (right) in 1936; the innovative and influential Sant’Elia Kindergarten (1937) by Giuseppe Terragni with its wall of glass bringing light into the classrooms; the War Memorial of reinforced concrete designed by Antonio Sant’Elia and constructed by Giuseppe Terragni; well worth visiting is the Minimalist Casa del Fascio, built in 1936 as the Fascist Party headquarters (now a law enforcement agency building) that epitomizes the restraint and balance of Italian Rationalism, which stands out amidst the rest of the old mundane buildings on the block.
Something of this same sense of order and spatial dynamics is to be found in the shopping streets behind the main Piazza and the old extant medieval walls. There are wonderful food shops, bakeries and cafés, along with very special clothing stores devoted to local designers, including the darling Il Girotondo degli Angeli (below) for infants and children on Via Cinque Giornato. Tessabit, with two stores, has moderately priced men’s and women’s fashions, and for higher end there is Franca Roncoroni on Via Varesina, while Wolford on Via Indipendenza sells exquisite lingerie; for housewares, and home décor, check out Dep on Via Carcano. There are, of course, the international fashion chain stores also in the city center.
A while back I wrote about where to eat in Como, so let me just jot down some names here: The finest alta cucina in the loveliest spot on the lake is at the Vista Palazzo Lago di Como Hotel’s Sottovoce (below),where chef Stefano Mattara works wonders with local ingredients. Chef Carlo Molon makes a worthwhile visit to Kincho outside of town at the Sheraton Lake Como. My favorite trattoria is Osteria Gallo, tucked into Via Vitani, where the di Toma family has over 37 years perfected the traditional fare of Lombardy, like braised pork and sweet prunes and chestnuts. And if you crave great pizza, stroll over to the pretty blue-and-white Napule Pizzerias (there are two), where “Papa” Umberto and his three children, Ciro, Antonio and Katiuscia, have a high reputation in town and rightly so.
The lakes of Northern Italy all have their individual appeal, but for me the city of Como is expressive of the very best of classical Italian beauty and modernity, and for its quiet, its sparse tourist crowd and its sophisticated inhabitants, it is a place where you can avoid the frenzy elsewhere as Italy returns to normal.
NEW YORK CORNER
621 Amsterdam Avenue
By John Mariani
Like the old joke about the three most important things in real estate being location, location and location, it is always worth repeating that, when it comes to cooking, the essentials are ingredients, ingredients and ingredients. Without good ones, a good cook cannot produce a good meal; without the finest, a great chef will never show his mettle. On the rare occasion when both are in harmony, you get a great meal, which is what I enjoyed, from antipasti to dolci, at the three-year-old Lucciola on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
It was not the menu itself that was distinguished, for most of the dishes can already be found at many Italian restaurants in the city. Lucciola’s most exciting items are from Chef Michele Casadei Massari and partner Alberto Ghezzi’s native Emilia-Romagna, whose capital is Bologna. Certainly you’ll find tortellini and bolognese sauce everywhere, but not of this quality, and it all begins with the superb Italian charcuterie of buffalo milk mozzarella and truffled burrata DOP Fasano Pinsa.
DOP (Denominazione d' Origine Protetta) is a strict labeling system that preserves and protects regionally produced foods from lesser versions in the market, and it assures that the products meet the highest of standards of production from within very restricted regions. Largely, these are family-run operations designated by the DOP, which tests and tracks with serial numbers to understand the exact origins and processing. In fact, as brand ambassador for Parmigiano-Reggiano, Felicetti Pasta, and Urbani truffles,Massari is guaranteed to obtain the best of those lines in his kitchen.
Lucciola takes its spirit from the charming 1985 film La Festea di Laurea (right), directed by Pupi Avati, about a lovelorn baker who mounts a graduation party for his inamorata’s daughter, which ends with a garden scene filled with lucciole (“fireflies”).
Lucciola is a good-looking, well-designed ristorante with fine amenities: Soft lighting, good linens, exquisite wine glasses and Venetian blinds that reminded me of the art déco in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film The Conformist.
I just left myself in Massari’s hands, asking him to stress the Bolognese dishes. Out came morsels of 48-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano with drops of Giusti aged balsamico dating back decades. Then came a platter ($49) of Salame Felino IGP, Mortadella Artigianale, Salame Gentile, Salame Fiorettino PAT, and cheeses (right) whose brands I’ve only seen in Italy, like Barolo Occelli, Castelmagno D'Alpeggio DOP, Taleggio Vero Sergio Arrigoni, Gran Pepe, Castelbelbo Pinsa al Pesto Modenese.
To prepare us for richer food to come, Massari served yellow Cherokee Heirloom Cubarole with Cervia Sea Salt and a white condimento Bianco Giusti that had just the right sweetness and acid. You can tell from these citations just how individualized are the ingredients used.
Then arrived the glorious pastas: Tender little tortellini with white truffles ($59) is a star turn, and when I asked the chef if it wasn’t a little early for white truffles, he said these came from the Apennines, rather from the better-known forests around Alba (right). They had wonderful aroma and good flavor this early in the season. Tortelloni ($49) were fat and the pasta (below) wrapping impeccable, tossed with very good Burro delle Vacche Rosse butter and sage (right). Passatelli ($32) is a very unusual pasta for which the dough—made from eggs, cheese, lemon peel, breadcrumbs and a touch of nutmeg—is formed into tiny dumplings, here lashed with a cream of Parmigiano Reggiano and Balsamico Giusti. The fourth pasta was the classic tagliatelle al ragù di bologna ($35), which Massari insists is “a meat-based sauce . . . Please be advised that it contains no garlic and no tomato sauce!!!” (Left)
The city of Bologna (below) is called “Bologna Grasso”—“fat Bologna”—because of the hearty nature of its cookery, which is evident in Lucciola’s roasted free-range chicken with funghi porcini ($39), and in the robust beef stew called stracotto ($39) baked in a broth of Parmigiano Reggiano and served with potatoes.
The dessert was a zabaglione with Amarena cherries.
The basic wine list is short and, to my surprise, lacking in wines from Emilia-Romagna, though the waiter has some special wines he will gladly suggest. Happily, there is nothing on the main list costing more than $99.
I should mention that for some reason Lucciola has a selection of caviars ($49-$299, depending on the ounces served), and their meats come from Niman Ranch Prime Reserve ($79-$289) and A5 Mizazaki wagyu ($69-$299, the latter 29 ounces and topped with caviar.)
If you paid attention to the prices for pastas, you might have knit your brows as to why they cost so much, aside from the white truffles. I can only say that, owing to the ingredients and expertise with which they are made, they are exceptional in every regard. I can easily see why the squid ink tagliolini with Colossal King crab runs $59, the lobster tagliatelle $49 and the spaghettone with bottarga, caviar and uni $49, but $49 for tortelloni with a simple pesto and $39 for spaghettone alla carbonara with egg yolk, guanciale bacon and pecorino romano are comparable only at Marea (where all pastas are $39), A Fiori ($37) and Il Gattopardo ($32-$37). One does need to factor in the probability that most people who eat in Italian restaurants in New York rarely order antipasto, pasta and main course, so the splurge on a well-proportioned pasta is no longer as decadent as it once seemed.
And if you thought you already knew all about Italian cuisine, you have a lot more to learn about ingredients in the hands of a master like Massari. Rigorous authenticity only works when the cook’s respect for tradition is invigorated by his individual talents.
Open Tues.-Sun. for dinner.
By John Mariani
To read all chapters of Capone's Gold beginning April 4, 2021 go to the archive
Both Katie and David were looking at
ceiling in silence for answers.
© John Mariani, 2015
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
THE WINES OF AUSTRIA
By John Mariani
wines have played a distant second to German wines
in the world
market, just as German wines have been
decreasingly popular globally. Part of
the quandary is that too often the wines of both
countries have been regarded
as too sweet for the contemporary palate,
reminiscent of Blue Nun Liebfraumich.
In fact, many of the finest German and Austrian
wines are by design intensely
sweet, like the great beerenauslesen
What does “Green Austria” mean?*
I’m not familiar with the term “Green Austria” but I would like to mention that Austria is “a little darker green” compared to most of our neighbors. The structure of our farmed land is small and the farms are mostly family businesses. Since 20 years now, there is a big run to organic and biodynamic farming and in the last 5 years also to sustainable farming, which can be seen as a first step in the right direction. Austria at the moment is No.1 in the world, it has the highest percentage of organic certified farm land.
Green Austria is a promotional term
used for the country’s wines.
Tell me about “orange,
natural raw wines.”
It started in Austria with the “first wave” changing to biodynamic. Styrian growers like Sepp Muster, Werlitsch, Tscheppe, etc. started natural winemaking and the biggest change, was fermentation of whites on the skins. This was in the early 2000s. We, at our estate, started in 2003 with skin fermentation, changed to biodynamic 2 years later and started getting our experience in natural winemaking in 2006 with the move to biodynamic. So “orange,” “natural” and “raw” in Austria are very much related to biodynamic or organic (at least) farming, and it’s a reaction to a very technical, technological-driven boring mainstream of today’s majority in winemaking. These wines get more and more audience and also more and more a clean and clear profile.
Give me some of the basics that distinguish integrated, organic and biodynamic viticulture.
Integrated. This is today more or less the basic law of farming in Austria, nothing special. This was new and there were some regulations like the need of green cover and herbicide use and insecticide regulations. This is today the basic for sustainable winegrowing which only measures the way of working, and if you reach a certain level you get certified “sustainable.”
Organic—Farming is very regulated. No artificial fertilizers (especially nitrogen), no herbicides, no synthetic and systemic fungicides are allowed in the field. Also regulations in the cellar (SO2 on lower levels), short list of fining products, no additives.
Biodynamic—Organic with a holistic approach. Farm individuality is the concept. That means, you have to use your own resources instead of buying need for production. Two examples: no fertilizer allowed, ONLY own compost. No yeast, enzymes, or bacteria allowed; you have to create your own microflora in your cellar. The basic law is European organic growing, biodynamic guidelines are coming from associations like Demeter, Respekt, Biodyvin, etc.
When was Austria Bio Garantie GmbH founded and how extensive is its inspections? Every vineyard? Each estate’s wines? How does it differ from Demeter: Respekt-BIODYN: and Sustainable Austria? These seem to be doing much the same work, so it’s very confusing.
ABG (Austria Bio Garantie) is like Lacon and others—a company which has permission to control farms. I have no idea when it was founded. It’s not a label or trade mark. ABG controls, like Lacon, organic certifications (EU BIO—the green flag), Bio Austria (organic), Demeter and Respekt (both biodynamic) and also Sustainable Austria, which is a trade mark run by the “Weinbauverband Austria,” a political association.
Organic and Biodynamic farms get controlled every year by appointment and one time in 5 years by dropping in. Sustainable Austria is a kind of “self control” and get certified and controlled every 3 years.
Sustainable and organic/biodynamic are by far not the same.
How do Austrian winemakers try to differentiate themselves from the Germans and Alsatians?
Is there still a lingering fall-out from the long-ago glycol scandal?
No! This is a history which was useful and happens in almost every wine country in their histories. I think this is related to winemaking since thousands of years. Jesus made water to wine
How available are
Austrian wines in the global marketplace?
We are niche, but if you search you will find. We (Loimer) is available in 55 markets in the world. So, not that bad but we have a lot to do in the future.
How do they keep prices
at a workable level?
With passion for winemaking. We love wine and were born as farmers. Marketing is something we are learning step by step.
How has global warming affected Austrian vineyards?
Harvest is almost a month earlier today compared to 40 years ago. But we are fine at the moment because Austria is after all a cool climate wine growing country. But the problem is serious and we take it seriously. It’s one of the reasons so many growers are changing to organic or biodynamic.
What will the industry be in 5 years?
Hopefully, successful. No kidding! I hope much greener and I do hope that between “story telling” and real quality is “Veritas!” – In Vino Veritas!
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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
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Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3 in
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