A Legendary Day in Napa Valley

24 09 2010

September 11, 2010 was the Staglin Music Festival for Mental Health, an event I work annually that focuses on finding solutions to combat mental health issues as well as to address the stigma often associated with mental illness.  The event was fantastic.  Highlights were a tasting of “cult” wines, a concert by Dwight Yoakam (he and his band were amazing!) and a dinner prepared by Jon Bonnell from Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine.  The event was also attended by Glenn Close, her sister Jessie and her nephew Calen Pick, Rusty Staub, comedian Bob Sarlatte and other celebs who you may not have heard of but should know, for example author of The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine.  (Her latest, The Male Brain has also just come out.)  To learn more about the benefit and mental illness go to http://www.imhro.org/ and to see the amazing public service announcement filmed at Grand Central Station go to http://www.BringChange2Mind.org/

Me and Dwight's band, Mitch Marine (drums), Josh Grange (pedal steel) and Jonathan Clark (bass)

Dwight Yoakam

It’s always fun to volunteer to work the event, partly because it’s for a great cause but also the Staglin’s really host us to an amazing weekend.

Alicia Towns Franken, Me, Rusty Staub and April Gargiulo

This year was truly legendary.  Shannon Staglin created a day that was really memorable.  I have to admit I did not know all the producers on the itinerary but I was excited to see some spots in the valley I was less familiar with.  Although I teach for the Napa Valley Vintners and the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena and spend a good deal of time in Napa it still amazes me when I see there are still so many unexplored corners and folds, despite being a very small area there is so much diversity.

My friends and I arrived the night before the event and enjoyed a glass of wine at the Oxbow Market in downtown Napa at Oxbow Wine Merchant before heading over to Zuzu, my absolute favorite restaurant in Napa Valley.  Owner Mick Salyer was on hand to be sure we had enough Vina Tondonia Rioja Rose, we knew there were lots of big reds in our future, but we did also enjoy a nice half bottle of Revana courtesy of Natalie Vache.  It was delicious!

Beau Wine Tours donated a very comfortable bus for the group of sommeliers so no one had to drive, this is KEY to having a good time in Napa, always be sure you have a designated driver.  The bus picked us up at Saintsbury’s gorgeous Brown Ranch where some of us were staying, a really comfortable country house in the middle of the vineyards of Carneros with gorgeous gardens.  With a quick stop for coffee at Bouchon which was a bit of a madhouse we collected the rest of the team. Alicia Towns Franken from Boston formerly of Grill 23, Peter Hiers from the Monterey Peninsula, formerly of the Highlands but now Rising Star Wine Group, Patrick Mullane from Forbes Mill in Los Gatos, Mark Buzan from Pebble Beach, The DC crew Cesar Varela, David (Charlie Palmer Steak) and Maria Denton (Ruth’s Chris), and the NY crew Brian and Crystl Friedman (DelFrisco’s) and our host Shannon.

NOTE: Some of these locations are sadly not open to the public, Shannon traded in some big favors to create this experience for us!   It’s always ok to ask though so you can check the websites listed and see if they do tastings or try to add yourself to the mailing list (or mailing list wait list!)


First stop was Dana Estates.  On the western side of the valley in the Rutherford appellation this property is located at the former Livingston Moffett property and upon driving up you can see it is absolutely stunning.  We were greeted in a beautiful courtyard with some Schramsberg sparkling (the perfect breakfast wine!) and learned a bit about the property from Daniel Ha.  Dana is Sanskrit meaning “Spirit of Generosity” and the fact that they were willing to share this special experience with us was just a bit of evidence of that!  Perfect for the theme of the weekend really.  The first winery was built on the site in 1883 by H.W. Helms and the courtyard and parts of the winery are built around these original ghost winery walls.  Dana Estates purchased the property in 2005 and since then has built the most amazing facility.  Clearly high end yet it has an air of comfort and the use of the old and new design elements really melds together, seems like it’s been there forever.  They make wine from three sites, Helms, Hershey and Lotus vineyards.  Philippe Melka consults on the project and the wines are stunning as can be expected.  And what would a cult wine be without an amazing package, the label features a dozen lotuses cut into the label for the twelve months of the year, life, rebirth, it’s really GORGEOUS.  Unfortunately quantities are extremely limited and in 2009 they decided not to use the fruit from the Helms vineyard so production will be even less, but they want to be sure the wines are always amazing.  We tasted Helms and Lotus 2007 (about 300 cases of each made!).  They only made 42 cases of Hershey so there was none to taste!  I preferred the Lotus, really rich and powerful, more reticent than the Helms but had an incredible chocolate mocha coffee thing going on.  Lots of power and really an infant, it’s going to be amazing.

Next stop was to see Scarecrow also in Rutherford.  This is the JJ Cohn property on what I believe to be possibly the most prime piece of Rutherford.  Right next to Rubicon Estate firmly on the Rutherford Bench this is land that cannot be duplicated.  It creates wines that just scream of the Rutherford Dust quality that Andre Tchelistcheff talked about.  We were greeted by proprietors Mimi DeBlasio and Bret Antonio Lopez, Nancy Andrus of The Duck Blind who markets the wines, and consulting winemaker Celia Masyczek who also has her own wine, Corra and two cheerful white Bichon Frisees.  The group quickly derailed the planned agenda by asking about the ancient vines on the property and we traipsed into a vineyard of giants.  Head trained in the old style they were like stalwart little trees.  While walking back to the house Mimi and I exchanged tequila tips and she promptly ran off to get me a mini bottle of Corzo Reposado which I will add was VERY useful at a recent Willie Nelson concert at Wente Vineyards where I traded a shot of said tequila with Karl Wente for three bottles of wine!  Although I think we could have convinced him to give us the wine anyway finding the tequila in the middle of the show when we had sucked down the first few bottles was very welcome.  But I digress… Celia led us through a tasting of her wine, Corra and Scarecrow both 2007.  Amazing wines.  I won’t say who said it but after tasting the Corra one of our group whispered to his neighbor, “This wine keeps pumping and pumping and pumping.”  And it did.  It was dense and concentrated yet elegant and full of flavor and passion.  Celia makes wines that are really unique in Napa.  Then we tasted the Scarecrow, just amazing.  Dusty and earthy yet rich and flavorful.  And enjoying these wines in the home of Mimi and Bret, such a beautiful and historic place was truly amazing.  Bret told stories of “Aunt Bessie” and how she selected every piece of furniture.  He even took us on a tour of the home which has really interesting twists and turns, the original wallpaper, beautiful and pristine despite its stains.  It was such a cool amalgamation of these old elements that were carefully selected with the new treasures that Mimi and Bret have added, amazingly they meld seamlessly.  It’s a gorgeous and very special place and imbued with the spirit of their ancestors.  Before we left we got a tour of the old barn replete with an inchworm ride toy that actually brought a tear to my eyes, as did the barn itself.  Memories of childhood flooded back, summers at my great grandfather’s farm in Pennsylvania.  Knowing that Bret spent summers here and was now living here completed the moment.  Truly a unique visit.  Bret took a shot of us in the barn, he is primarily a photographer, and we headed back to the bus (kicking and screaming because we didn’t want to go) but luckily our lunch from La Luna, a Mexican market in Rutherford, was waiting for us and Mimi sent us off with chocolates too.

Just as we were digging into our food Nancy warned us that there would be snacks at the next two stops, but we could not resist the juicy burritos and the amazing chips.  The next stop, Checkerboard, does not even have any wine to taste yet, but they wanted us to see the site which was way up valley in the Diamond Mountain appellation near Calistoga.  Although we did not get to taste it was a refreshing and needed break after the big wines of the morning and we took ATVs through forests all the way to the top of their property where we got an amazing view of the northern part of the valley.  When we arrived there was an amazing spread for us, Calistoga waters (of course), gazpacho, shrimp skewers, cheeses, we enjoyed the picnic and the fact that we were their first tour EVER!

Alicia, Shannon and I at Checkerboard, Diamond Mountain

We headed back down the mountain and zipped all the way over to Ovid Vineyards where we were greeted by Janet Pagano and Assistant Winemaker Austin Peterson.  Winemaker Andy Erickson was busy at his home making us dinner and actually building a table for our meal from reclaimed wood.

Ovid

Ovid is situated at the top of the slopes of the Vaca range in the Oakville appellation high above the valley floor.  It’s almost as far as you can get from where we were at Checkerboard and on the opposite side of the valley.  High above even Oakville Ranch this site faces West so they receive a great deal of afternoon sunlight up there.  The winery perched on this hillside takes advantage of the sun with huge windows that soak in the amazing view.  They have a gravity flow system of tanks and everything is all clean and compartmentalized yet very comfortable.  I immediately gravitated

Ovid

towards the long cozy benches in the main room where I could have easily laid down to read a book and napped like a cat in the sun, but they had other plans for us.  The tanks of concrete were selected by visits to numerous producers in Bordeaux and all the research resulted in a winery that is really efficient in all aspects.  They also have an orchard and bees so although the place looked very modern and high tech there’s a soft side to it.  The wines were also incredible.  We tasted a comparison of a wine that was fermented in barrel versus one fermented in concrete (I was wrong I will admit it this once).  They were definitely different but it was really hard to discern exactly how.  Guess that’s why I am not a winemaker!  Then we tasted the finished wine from 2006, just amazing.  It was so concentrated that when we swirled the glass the legs just sat there suspended above the wine.  Dense black fruits, blackberry, cassis, really powerful but with very balanced tannin.  Possibly my favorite Cabernet of the day.  And of course they pulled out two huge platters of berries and cheeses (an amazing aged Comte that with the wine was just perfect) and their own olive oil, breadsticks.  The works.  Again Shannon had to pry us away and back into the bus as we were keeping vineyard guru Larry Hyde waiting all the way down in Carneros!

We arrived at Hyde Vineyards a bit late but Larry was very patient with us, and although we had to cut the tour of the vineyard in half we had a chance to walk out to where he has both Chardonnay and Syrah planted.  He puts the Syrah near the riparian areas near the river since the sharpshooters aren’t as attracted to its leaves.  Larry Hyde is legend.  His own wine Hyde de Villaine http://www.hdvwines.com (HdV) is a joint project with the also legendary Aubert de Villaine from Domaine de La Romanee Conti in Burgundy and his own domaine in Bouzeron.  Despite this Larry almost gets more notoriety for wines from the wineries he sells grapes to.  His client list reads like a who’s who of the top wines produced in the valley, some of my favorites being Patz & Hall, Ramey and Kongsgaard. His Chardonnay is tough to beat and as such those that get their hands on his fruit usually vineyard designate it as Hyde.  He is at heart a vineyard guy so we discussed the trellising, row direction, soil types, terroir.  My kind of visit, very intellectual.  Then he invited us into the guest house on the property where his wife Beta presented us with yet more delicious cheese and crackers (it would have been rude to pass it up!).  We tasted pretty much the entire line of wines and sat and enjoyed the company of Larry and his wife and their new German Shepherd whom I (and the cheese) helped train to sit.  As the sun started to set over the hills of Carneros we boarded the bus again to head to Annie Favia and Andrew Erickson’s house for dinner.

To cap off a day that couldn’t seem more perfect we arrived at the home of Annie and Andy to find a scene straight out of Martha Stewart Living.  In the expansive back yard the light was dimming over Annie’s outrageous garden filled with vegetables and flowers and the chickens were safely in their coop.  There spread before us was the most gorgeous table and an entire kitchen island set under the trees.  Electric lamps, flowers, plates of food, a tire swing, a roaring campfire off to the side and even better some Leroy Bourgogne Blanc that Annie’s sister Brigit was kind enough to bring for us.  One of the wines she sells, it really hit the spot as a palate cleanser after a day of heavy Cabernets (although Larry Hyde’s Chardonnays were similarly refreshing).  While we snacked on olives and almonds and a squash soup from the garden Andy pulled out a bag of padron peppers not to be believed.  Those peppers, to which I am addicted, are about $6 for a bag of about ten at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market.  And I pay it gladly!  He sauteed them up and we all dove in (and I again could NOT stop.)  They are fun little things, you can eat ten and just enjoy their nuttiness and then one will just wallop you with intense fiery flavor!  It’s fantastic and very much a pleasure/pain thing.  Dinner accompanied by Favia wines continued with short ribs, a fantastic tomato salad and an amazing nibble: a piece of watermelon with an herb puree and a bit of Serrano all eaten in one bite.  Salt, sweet, herbal, fruity, great combination!  And all you can eat padrons.  The Favia Cerro Sur and Magdalena were both incredible but by that time I was not taking notes…  While we were dining Annie and Andy’s young girls made us cupcakes with ground coffee in the icing (their idea, and really delicious).  We retired to the fire pit and I broke out a guitar and we sang and played as the fire popped and burned. The tequila and the tequila horn also made a cameo.  Annie and Andy sent us home (to our guest house) with fresh eggs from their chickens.  And more padrons!  It was truly a magical ending to a magical day.  Food, friends, great wine and spirit and the most gracious hospitality.

If you’re planning a trip to Napa Valley go to www.napavintners.com/wineries/ to search wineries to visit!

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Italy Day Six: Montefalco and Bevagna Redux

30 05 2010

May 30, 2010

Today we were greeted for our tour of Montefalco by an amazing tour guide, Annalita Pollicchia.  To explain how amazing she was I would have to add that I am currently eating traditional cookies from her hometown of Bevagna and her mother’s bakery.  Despite the rivalry between the towns of Bevagna and Montefalco, Annalita was still very fair in representing both cities fairly and in fact we spent a bit more time in Montefalco than Bevagna.

Bevagna (the city we visited earlier in the week, home to the Nocineria and Bottega Assu, was the second town on the Flaminia Road built after Spello and as such is considered a Roman town while Montefalco, built later in the Middle Ages, is from that time period.  Annalita described Montefalco as the “Balcony of Umbria” and spectacular views can be seen from all angles along the ramparts of this walled in town.

We got to town around 10 and the museum opened around 10:30 (i.e. 10:45 Italian time, add 15 minutes) so we grabbed an espresso and sat in the town square (unusual for a town square since it is round!) to see what life is like in the town on a Sunday morning. In fact it was rather quiet, but the coffees were great (four espressos and a plate of Italian style cookies for less than 4 Euros).  Then off to the 14th century church of St. Francis (San Francesco) where you can see the amazing frescoes painted by Benozzo Gozzoli as well as the “Nativity” by Perugino.  Apparently this cycle of frescoes was comparable only to Assisi but contains twelve images only.  The colors of these frescoes are really amazing and some criticize their restoration saying that they cleaned them too much and that the green colors are exaggerated, but the impact is significant.  Gozzoli was painting these in a much different style than the frescoes painted at the Basilica of St. Francis and so the figures are much more attractive and often blond and fair skinned which was the trend at the time.  The museum that houses these gorgeous paintings also houses the ancient monk’s wine cellar with channels cut into the stone to catch the wine as it comes out of the presses and collect it into a trough.  We strolled through the medieval town noticing the incredible pride people have in their flower pots that surround the entryways of their homes.


Off it was to Bevagna, where the two Roman churches face each other across the square.  Bevagna was a border town between the empire and the papacy and as such there are thirty-five churches within the town walls.  While the population has grown to 5,000 the space within the town has not really expanded, so these churches have been reused as supermarkets and cinemas over the years.  The church of San Silvestro built in 1197 was consecrated at the time by an emperor, which was a challenge and an insult to the papacy, so they basically abandoned it and used it as storage.  This luckily means that it is in very good condition.  It also features very unique architecture thought to be brought by the Benedictines as they travelled on their pilgrimages.

The area of Bevagna is fortunate to be at the confluence of multiple rivers and was able to sell their production of hemp, eggs, and bricks to neighboring towns.  Within the town there is an amazing excavation of the Coliseum area.  This former stadium was in ancient times closed and divided and turned into what we would today call work lofts, craftsman’s shops on the ground floor and living quarters above where they were safer from attack.  We visited this Casa Medioevalle with our guide Annalita who helped restore one of these ancient work residences with a friend.  Amazingly they have recreated a water wheel machine that would have either pounded materials to make mortar, felt or paper or run a wheel that would grind flour or olive oil (here the machine does both just to show us, but this would not have been the case back then).  Upstairs you can visit a traditional Roman home where the kitchen it attached to the rest of the room in order to conserve heat.  Hearty stews were made with small pieces of lard that hung from the rafters, in fact everything was hung, meats, cheeses, etc.  Bedrooms were painted bright colors in the spring since throughout the whole winter they burned animal fats for warmth, you can imagine the smell, and most had tuberculosis so they actually had a tiny bed where they slept sitting upright in order to prevent suffocation.  These structures actually date back to the 2nd century AD, it was really interesting to try to imagine life back then.

After our tours it was off to a picnic at Arnaldo Caprai to celebrate the day of Cantine Aperte for Umbria (May 30, 2010)www.movimentoturismovinoit  The winery was bustling with lots of people there to taste and eat and overall the crowd was very young and seemed very excited to be there.  It apparently happens around Italy offering a chance for tasters to visit wineries for the day.  We enjoyed some amazing super fresh mozzarella, like Burrata, but small, super orange and sweet yet firm melon and some amazing prosciutto.  Lunch was of course a repeat of these items plus a pasta with tomato and chicken livers, super al dente in texture and delicious, then grilled local lamb and sausages from Bevagna, and Chianina beef.  We tried some of the experimental trials at the winery, a Syrah, Petit Verdot and Tannat, all 100% and all really amazing.  I was a real fan of the Petit Verdot which although tannic was really delicious and not as herbaceous as you might imagine.

Lunch was followed by a jaunt through the vineyards, and then some time spent relaxing and investigating the local style as we spent some time watching the attendees and enjoying some Grecante.   Arnaldo Caprai winery also hosted a jazz concert with Marco Marconi which was a great endcap to the day as the sun set behind us.  A quick saber of some Billecart Salmon by Marco and then our journey was basically, and sadly, over.  We had a quick bite in Foligno and an interesting beer (!) called 32 Audace and now it’s off to the airport for the grueling journey home.

Hotel Villa dei Platani Viale Mezzetti, 29- 06034 Foligno 39 0742 355839 f 39 3281654025

Bottega di Assu Via Gabriele Crescimbeni, 3- 06031 Bevagna, 39 0742 360059

Arnaldo Caprai Loc. Torre- 06036 Montefalco 39 0742 378802 http://www.arnaldocaprai.it, imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners http://www.foliowine.com

Transportation in Umbria: http://www.Autonoleggio-Umbria.it Gianni 347 3236404





Journey to Italy Day Five: Perugia, Assisi and Montefalco

30 05 2010

A leisurely morning was spent at the hotel before we embarked to Perugia and met up with a tour guide who showed us the local sights there.  Sylvia, our guide showed us the sites and commented on the town that benefited from their proximity to the Flaminia Road, a Roman road and major connector between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Adriatic over the Apennine mountains.  A unique sight within the town is a gorgeous fountain with carvings that depict the daily life of man at the base of the fountain.  To represent each month of the year there is a carving showing the activities such as pruning vines and tending sheep along to more intellectual pursuits towards the end of the year.  The idea is that over the course of the year through daily life humans move from action to intellect and eventually to spiritual enlightenment represented by the more saintly beings at the next level of the fountain.   The town church is modest compared to richer towns, with only faux marble columns and their one relic is the ring said to be that given from Joseph to Mary.  The town was so lacking in relics back in the day that they tried to actually steal the bodies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, but were unsuccessful.  Apparently relics were vital as they were a source of tourism, so without them your town suffered.

Perugia was a source of some of the best painters in Italy as home to both Perugino, Raphael and Pinturrichio.  The history of the town is rather violent as f conflict between the popes and emperor creating a great deal of turmoil over its history.  One leading family of the town, the Baglioni.  The Baglione family lived in this town but opposed the pope and as such he destroyed the towers that housed their family.  In its place a fortress was built where he sent delegates to control the town, but of course the locals of Perugia hated this as it was an insult and eventually also destroyed most of the fortress and in the process destroying much of their history.  We were shown the ruins of the ancient town that lie under the Piazza Italia as well as the escape route these delegates would take to leave town.  The weirdest thing is that you reach these ruins through a series of escalators, it feels like you are going into the NY Subway, but you are surrounded by ancient stonework.  Nowadays this leads to the underground parking structure (weird!).  One of the folks in our group got her dress caught in the escalator and luckily survived unscathed, but we joked that maybe this was the miracle the town was waiting for and she should sell them the pink shroud of life as their new relic.  We left the town hearing nothing about the chocolates that are named for the town but someone did ask Sylvia about the “Baci” made by Perugino, she said that basically the Baci was a great marketing idea since they used to call the little chocolates “fists”.  Really?

Off we headed for a quick jaunt to Assisi.  I could have stayed in that town all day.  While it seems a bit touristy it was really amazing to see all the incredibly narrow streets running throughout the town.  Our van driver expertly navigated some really tight turns, I wouldn’t even drive a Smart car through this town, it was crazy tight.  We visited the main Roman square where columns of the Minerva temple still sit.  Built in about 100 BC this site has always been a religious site despite the fact that the religion changed over time.  The city of Assisi was a bit smarter than Perugia and never adversarial towards Rome, which means that much of it is preserved.  This square also housed the market and the old metal measures used for silk and bricks can be seen on the wall next to the temple.  Assisi is famous of course for St. Francis, and also St. Clare, and the whole town’s names really resonate to me considering I am so familiar with California and the names of cities inspired by these saints, San Francisco, Santa Clara and even Los Angeles named for the church where Assisi found his inspiration, Santa Maria dei Angeli.  St. Francis was born at the end of the 12th century to an upper class family.  He had an easy life and was given the benefits of education and financial comfort.  He determined that he wanted to go to war at the age of 19 but was captured and imprisoned and his father bailed him out.  Then he decided to follow the Crusades, but got ill not far from home and again had to regroup.  It was at this time that he discovered his path and decided to live by the Gospel.  He had the benefit of being able to address the nobles as well as all levels of society and received entree to talk with the Pope due to his status.  The Pope was being challenged by the Emperor at the time and so the new Franciscan movement that St. Francis proposed seemed like a good option so he actually gave it his blessing.  The tenets of the religion 1. Poverty 2. Chastity and 3. Obedience to the Church, the last two are the longer lasting ideals…  St. Francis was of course also famous for his respect for animals and the environment, he spoke to all creatures calling them all brothers and sisters.  The Basilica of St. Francis is pretty incredible.  The top story is where the public would attend mass, the next level down you find a more spiritual chapel and at the bottom level is the area in which St. Francis is interred.  You can make an offering an buy a candle to be burned at a later time.  It was really moving.  Amazing also to think that here is the birthplace of a religion that ultimately spread across the world and brought winemaking to California with the Franciscan missionaries.  While they were apparently from Spain they evolved from the teachings of St. Francis, and as our guide said, really a missionary has no home but the figurative home of the church.

Off we went to lunch at Hotel La Bastiglia in Spello, a gorgeous restaurant with an incredible view where we dined on a panzanella salad, fresh ricotta, free range pork prosciutto, herbed pecorino cheese and those were just the starters!  I am getting used to this.  These were of course followed by Tagliatelle with Chianina beef as well as a “mixed grill” of pork, beef and sausage.  Just when I thought I could take no more in comes a molten chocolate cake that was incredibly decadent with strawberry sorbet.  We also met Marco’s amazing family including Arnaldo Caprai, he seems ready to take over now…

A quick jaunt through our local town of Foligno and a 20 minute power nap and it was back to work at Arnaldo Caprai where Paolo Biccheri led through a tasting of Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino de Montefalco from numerous local producers.  My highlights were Tabarrini and of course Arnaldo Caprai.  Then we tasted seven of the latest new wines from Arnaldo Caprai and were met with a gorgeous sunset over the vineyards while we discussed their latest clonal trials.  They are working both with the traditional propagation of Sagrantino as well as using seeds to breed new clones in order to get the best vine material possible.

We headed off to the gorgeous town of Montefalco as the bats were coming out and the sky was a deep indigo and were greeted by Sylvia Santificetur and her husband Achille, who just happen to be parents of Maria Assunta’s grandson, the couple we met at lunch the day before.  They own Spiritodivino, a gorgeous restaurant that has been getting incredible press lately http://www.spiritodivino.net.  It was another one of those nights when the food and company were so wonderful it was hard to take notes, but highlights were an artichoke served with cauliflower puree and a poached egg as well as a 1996 Sagrantino de Montefalco.

Now it’s off to Montefalco and back to Bevagna for a tour and then onto the winery where they are having an open house and concert!





Journey to Italy Day Four: Umbria

28 05 2010

May 28, 2010

After some early morning blogging we headed off to Umbria in our “van”, a quick hour and fifteen minutes or so and arrived at the Hotel Villa dei Platani in Foligno http://www.villadeiplatani.com/it/camere_en.php, a really beautiful villa on the outside with swanky and trendy room furnishings inside.  Just about as different as you can get from the Grand Hotel Villa Medici, you could tell right away by the fancy lamp and very different fruit plate.

After a quick email check we headed out to meet Marco Caprai, son of Arnaldo Caprai in the nearby town of Bevagna.  This quaint Roman town is said to be the unique due to the two churches built facing each other, the first unfinished.  When we were greeted by Marco Caprai he told use we were going to go on a quick walk to get an aperitif, which of course doesn’t sound too bad after a long trip, but imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that this “aperitif” was pork based!  On the way I could not help but notice a gorgeous little bottega with photos of Frida Kahlo in the window, luckily I saw Marco greet the owner so I anticipated our return.

I could tell the minute I saw the Nocineria (place where they sell “carne suina”, i.e. pigs) that I would love it because of my love of everything swine…

We entered and our senses were overtaken by the rich smell of all the hanging meats.  I was of course in hog heaven.  We were treated by a selection of items, Pancetta made from a slab of the pig that is salted and then rolled and wrapped in paper and hung to age, Lonza, the loin of the animal, Ciauscolo which is a fattier sausage, Porchetta, and my all time favorite, a dry salsiccia aged with Montefalco wine that had a much harder and chewier consistency and incredible flavor.  Owner Rosita Cariani is a fourth generation producer of these products while her partner whose name I did not catch is only third generation, so basically it seems that she is the boss of the place.  They noticed how excited we all were to taste and so they sliced thinly some Coppa di Testa, basically a head cheese usually made in winter that includes all parts of the animal, the guanciale (cheeks), head, gelatin, etc. along with garlic, orange rind, lemon rind and nutmeg.  They were sure to come out and show us the type of garlic, red garlic, which seemed to be very important to the production of this product.  It had a melt in the mouth texture and was just delicious, I think the reason I haven’t enjoyed many head cheeses in the past is the chunky fatty globules that don’t seem quite appetizing, but this texture was just perfect.  We ended it off with a well-aged pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese aged and rubbed with olive oil.  And of course we had to accompany this with some Arnaldo Caprai Grecante.  The reception at this wonderful Nocineria was so warm and friendly, with that the wine and cheese and these amazing meats I would have been happy to stay there all day.  They also sold fresh cuts of Chianina beef and the local specialty, lamb.  When we shook hands I could not help but notice and feel comforted by the super soft buttery feel of these hands that not only butcher, but craft such exquisite and time honored recipes.  I have always loved salumi, but lately in San Francisco it has seemed overdone, but now I really understand the passion that is imbued in those who have visited an authentic Nocineria and understand their quest to emulate such a place.  It was truly magical.  And I was so proud to be wearing the jacket from my friend Stephen Gerike of the National Pork Board that features his own farm’s logo, Boris Max.  If you visit the store is called “Da Tagliavento”, Gran Maestro di Salumeria, Corso Amendola, 15/a Bevagna.

coppa di testa

Sad to leave the Nocineria, we stepped out to find that school had just gotten out for lunch break and little children were walking through the town excited to go and join their families for lunch.  This town of about 5000 inhabitants still operates much like it did in ancient times, and it was refreshing to see that this culture is still strong in Italy.  We headed over to La Bottega di Assu, the restaurant I had seen on the way in.

Upon entering you immediately notice the organized chaos of the place.  It is tiny with only about maybe 10 seats at three tables.  We combined two tables and began to admire the charm of Maria Assunta, the proprietor (Assu is her nickname) and the incredible surroundings.  Marco explained that this spot is the place to be in town, famous for local Umbrian dishes, wines, but also sort of a mecca of culture.  Stacks and stacks of books line the shelves as they intermingle with the bottles.  Under the bar that hosts black truffles, bread and prosciutto you find boxes of pasta and ceramic ware.  And the left wall is covered with a scrapbook of photographs of Maria and her family, including the apple of her eye, her 9 month old grandson, who also made an appearance during lunch when his mother and father came in to help with the lunch rush (there are also four outdoor tables).  The eye darts from photo to photo and book to book while Maria carves some prosciutto and serves water, some Franciacorta and hearty wheat bread.  Those that have seen my house  and office will understand how comforting that type of controlled chaos is to me, but it is clear that everything also has its place.  When we asked about some of the photos of the family she grabbed a book, seemingly at random, and pulled out a photo of her mother in 1955, pregnant with her.  Then she ran off to continue to cook, and I carefully filed said photo back in the book and replaced it.  The tables are complete with flowers and colored pencils in case you get the urge to draw, which I did, and music fills the air.  We had a simple local specialty, basically bruschetta or grilled bread doused in olive oil and nothing else.  Marco explained that the locals did not use salt in their bread because the popes started taxing salt, so salt was very valuable and they saved it for the salumi (which I thought was very reasonable).  We enjoyed a very nice panzanella salad with fresh mozzarella, lots of olive oil, tomatoes, olives, red peppers and celery, and then Marco tempted (and dared?) us to have a “little” bit of pasta which we enjoyed with guanciale (cured pork cheeks, kind of like a fresher version of bacon).  Maria zipped around and expertly served the table, throwing in a few comments here and there and when I expect I looked like I was about to burst she jokingly wafted a plate that was headed outside in front of my nose, teasing that it was coming my way.  Her smile and vibrant personality was both infectious and addictive.  I really felt like I had walked into an Italian version of the movie Chocolat, she could have easily inspired such a story.  From her photos you can tell that she has a mischievous streak and the glimmer in her eye just shows her zeal for what she does.  Another amazing meal.  We enjoyed Marco Caprai Montefalco Rosso Riserva with lunch, and I was not taking notes so I do not even know what vintage it was.  I do know that we had about four bottles amongst seven of us (it was one of those the wine just keeps coming deals) and we left the lunch happy and fulfilled.  We chatted outside with a bunch of folks, some from Memphis, some from Pennsylvania, the gentleman had just run into a former student.  It was like this place had a magnetic vibe to it.  Just an amazing time.

So off we went, fat and happy, to Arnaldo Caprai.  Boasting a very slick tasting room the place has a stunning view.  We were treated to a tour of the vineyards where experiments are being conducted on various vine trellising systems.  Of course we then enjoyed a tasting of their wines.  Two whites, Anima Umbria Grechetto IGT 2009 and Grecante 2009, followed by a red Anima Umbria Rosso 2007 made from Sangiovese (85%) and Canaiolo (15%) before we were presented with the blockbusters.  Montefalco Rosso 2007 was a mix of 70% Sangiovese and 15% Sagrantino a really chewy rich wine with great balance but a large expression of concentrated fruit.  This was followed by the Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2005, super dense deep and earthy with gum gripping tannins but this was no match for the Sagrantino di Montefalco Collepiano and the Sagrantino di Montefalco 25 Anni.  These wines are MASSIVE.  Full of tannin that takes over your entire mouth and won’t let go.  Tasting them without food was tough but luckily later in the evening we had the chance to taste older vintages with dinner, only then can you truly understand the purpose of these wines that adeptly navigate the rich Umbrian cuisine.  We finished the tasting with Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito 2006, a dried grape wine that is really intense.  Both sweet and still very high in tannins I could not imagine what pairing would match it.  Marco suggested it was a little wine to “drink alone during the day.”  But he also suggested it was great with dessert.  I thought perhaps cheese and luckily he wanted to prove me wrong which he did by bringing out some 12 month old Pecorino and a 36 year old Parmeggiano (I was happy to admit my error in the pairing but the cheese was amazing.)  He said that cheesemonger has a limited number of molds so the cheese is very hard to get.

We finished up and after a quick nap at the hotel it was back to eating.  We arrived at the beautiful Villa Roncalli where chef Maria Louisa created an exceptional meal for us.  We drank the Arnaldo Caprai Nero Outsider, a lush expression of Pinot Noir with an amazing Chianina meatball with capers and shaved parmesan on super fresh lettuce.  Monkfish with tiny slivers of zucchini and fried squash blossoms with Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso Riserva 1998 was amazing, but the Farro soup with many drizzles of olive oil and ricotta ravioli stole the show along with the Arnaldo Caprai Sagrantino di Montefalco 1997.  This was where it became evident that although the soup was super rich the wine just lifted it and made the meal work.  Amazing that such a huge wine could be a delicate foil for a rich dish, but the tannins wafted away and you found that you could not help but drink the wine, food, wine, food, wine, bite, sip, bite, sip, the way it was intended.  Pigeon was served with a thick noodle and then a lamb (I got the shank) but by that time I was done.  Until of course we were presented with more Sagrantino di Montefalco passito with one of the best desserts I have ever had, pears delicately poached with a semolina type cobbler type thing on them sitting in a bed of zabbaglione served with what to me tasted like an eggnog type ice cream, no doubt just a rich egg base with some nutmeg.  And just like Marco said, it was incredible with the passito, amazing!  To top off the evening their dog came by to say goodnight and we retired back to the hotel where I slept like a log.

Today it’s off to Assisi, Perugia and Spello!





Journey to Italy Day Three Continued: Florence

27 05 2010

May 27, 2010 continued

So despite a lack of sleep I managed to get up on time and head off to meet the rest of our group at breakfast at about 8am and then head along in a Mercedes Benz “van” if you could call it that to Chianti Rufina.  There is a lot of diversity within what the consumer may just know as “Chianti” and Chianti has very little to do with the fiasco, or the woven bottle that you would put a colorful candle into.  The wines of Chianti have always had renown, partially due to the fact that this Tuscan wine growing area is very close to Florence, a major area for banking and a traditionally wealthy city.  Chianti Classico, the original area and a separate DOCG, is just one of multiple Chianti regions, for example Chianti Colli Senese (the area near Siena), Chianti Fiorentini (on the hills near Florence) and Chianti Rufina, not to be confused with the brand named Ruffino which is a totally separate thing.  Maybe I am tired…  It’s really not that confusing, it’s just that each of these regions has different characteristics that make the wines taste different so they are kept separate, the concept the French call “terroir”.  We headed out to Rufina which was an easy 30 km drive northeast of Florence, to Castello di Nipozzano which passed hands in 1877 to the noble family of Frescobaldi when Angelo de Frescobaldi wed Leonia Albizi.

First we visited the famed estate vineyards that range in altitude from the Arno River at 250 meters in elevation to the crest of the hill at 500m.  Soils change as you get futher from the river with sand close to the river, ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, calcareous clay mid-slope, great for Merlot and the famed soil of the area, galestro, a schistous compressed clay soil towards the higher elevations, ideal for the picky Sangiovese.

Sangiovese is a difficult grape to grow as many California producers have noticed, due to the fact that it has a lot of vigor, it grows and grows, so rocky soils with less nutrients are ideal for it.  These vineyards are at the foot of the Appenine Mountains that run down the spine of Italy from North to South offering cooling air at night to retain aromatics and finesse in the wines.  We met with winemaker Niccolo D’Afflitto at the vineyards and he also guided us through the cellar explaining how he keeps the pumpovers in the winery under close guard by keeping the system closed and only adding oxygen as needed to retain aromatics.  He said he does not ever want to walk into the winery and smell wine, he would rather save that beautiful smell for the consumer when they open the bottle to enjoy it!

We entered the villa and were met by Leonardo Frescobaldi, the President and tasted through the Mormoreto 2006, 2007 and barrel samples of the 2008 and 2009.  The wines are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot which seems strange until you learn that these grapes were grown on the property for ages.  Due to unfavorable relations between the Frescobaldi family and the Medici some Frescobaldis left Italy for a time and spent time in France.  One of these ancestors was famed for bringing back these grapes in the 1850s along with some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay now planted in the neighboring area of Pomino.  The Colors of the wines were intense hues of magenta and just as Niccolo had suggested the aromatics were astonishing.  Aromas of mulberry, blackcurrant, resinous herbs jump from the glass and despite the Bordeaux varieties have no resemblance to Bordeaux.  Lifted by vibrant acidity and balanced in their oakiness (the Marchesi de Frescobaldi says “If you like vanilla go buy a vanilla ice cream”) these are wines great for a meal.

We left our wines to open up with some more air and took our “van” up to the nearby estate Castello di Pomino.  This area used to be connected to the Chianti Rufina appellation but has no resemblance to it in either soil or climate.  Way back in 1715 it was demarcated as significant wine growing area, and in 1983 was separated from Chianti Rufina.  The Frescobaldi family are the largest landowners and producers in the region, so it is almost a monopole.

The minute you start winding up the hills to reach this region (a mere 15 minutes from Nipozzano) you feel like you are in a different country.  Leonardo Frescobaldi joked with us to be sure we had our passports!  It really did feel more like an alpine region as pines and different vegetation became visible.  Vineyards here sit at higher elevation, 400-750 meters, so different vines are at home here.  It is named after apples, grown here on the gravelly, acidic soils.  Of course with the different microclimate the grapes grown are also distinct including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Moscato.

Most exciting for me was the Vin Santeria, or the room where Vin Santo is produced.  Here they take harvested Chardonnay and Trebbiano grape bunches and hang them from wooden rafters with hooks.  The grapes stay there for about three months, in the fall and winter and most importantly this room is up high and has windows that are opened to allow for breezes, always strong in Pomino, to dry the grapes and also prevent spoilage.  After pressing the juice is put into exile in barrels (Caratelli sigillati) 2/3 filled where it ferments slowly.  They close these barrels with wooden tops and try to forget about them for four or five years (they cannot reopen these to check on the wine.)  When they revisit the wine it has evolved into a coppery toned elixir that is sweet (180 g/l residual sugar) and luscious.  We tasted a Chardonnay that they oak and lees stir to produce Benefizio and also a Pinot Noir out of barrel that had a tart cherry nose and a concentrated core of fruit but was unique to Pinot Noir from other wine regions.

After visiting the newly restored chapel frescoes we jumped back into our “van” and zipped back to Nipozzano where we enjoyed lunch with Marchesi de Frescobaldi and Tiziana Frescobaldi Board Member and Director of Press Relations.  We enjoyed a ricotta puff pastry on a bed of spinach drizzled with pesto, which was perfect with the Pomino Benefizio 2007, Capellini pasta with a simple and delicious tomato basil sauce, with Nipozzano 2007 Chianti Rufina Riserva (90% Sangiovese with the traditional grapes completing the blend) and then a Gallentine en Pollo (stuffed chicken) with rosemary potatoes and cauliflower with Montesodi Riserva Chianti Rufina 2007 (100% Sangiovese).  We finished with an almond cake and Vin Santo.

After saying goodbye to the family we toured the old wine cellar where the family’s ration of wines are stored in anticipation of their use when they are born and then headed back to Florence.

Upon entering the hotel I was met with the effusive smell of jasmine, did a quick change into shorts and FitFlops and hit the city of Florence hard (I only had three hours).  I made a bee line to the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella at 16 Via della Scala www.smnovella.com.   Santa Maria Novella is one of the oldest pharmacies in the world founded by Dominican friars after 1221 who made medications from the herbs grown in their gardens.  Amazingly it has been open to the public since 1612.  For anyone that loves perfume and scent this place is mecca.  When you open the doors you enter a marble corridor and are immediately greeted by an intriguing mix of aromatic essences all of which mingle into a unique scent reminiscent of light top notes of fields of flowers but also incense and heavier aromas.  The main room is gorgeous and impossible to capture on film despite the numerous tourists who are there trying.  It seems almost sacrilege to try to photograph this ancient site and the filtered light gives a very serene calm to the place.  Three rooms house the wares, one for the edible items, one for the home fragrances and accessories and the main room for the essential oils and perfume.  Scent strips are available and you can peruse the list in multiple languages and ask to smell anything you wish.

After enjoying Santa Maria Novella I hoofed around in search of leather goods and found them over at the boar where you can rub its snout.  I ended up walking all the way to Santa Croce and then walked across the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio, focal point of the city, over to Palazzo Pitti and Santo Spirito and then back across and yes, back to Santa Maria Novella to revisit an aroma and ultimately back to the hotel.

Dinner was at Cibreo where we were treated like royalty (I guess that is what happens when the Frescobaldi family makes your reservation).  Waiters here have no written menu but sit with your table for consultation, many extra dishes were brought to taste.  We drank Luce della Vite, a more modern style wine coming from the Montalcino area  and 2005 Mormoreto.  Dishes were too numerous to mention but the highlights included pickled carrots and zucchini, a flan with meat sauce and parmesan, spicy tomato aspic, a minestrone with amberjack (a fish) that was killer, and my entrée, rabbit in a dark chocolate sauce with spices including cumin and raw hazelnuts.  The dish was so intriguing and made me think of mole from Mexico.  It was truly delicious and made me wonder how these cultures melding created this dish that son of owner Fabio Picchi said has been passed down through his family for generations.

Overall it was a great day, fueled by adrenaline and vibrant sights and smells I never even lagged.  I tried to write when I returned to the room, but fell into a happy slumber and awoke this morning at about 5:25 eager to write and hearing all the glorious birdsong that’s just a bit different than that in the US.  Stepping onto the balcony I got a strong waft of the just extinguished waxy smell of the citronella candles on the cool morning breeze, kind of a mix of summer picnics and church.

Today we leave Florence and head to Umbria.

Cibreo Ristorante Via A. Del Verrocchio, 8 r Florence 055 234 11 00

http://www.frescobaldi.it

Santa Maria Novella Via della Scala, 16, Firenze http://www.smnovella.com





Journey to Italy Day One, Two and Maybe Three

27 05 2010

May 25-26, 2010

Always one to cut things close, I decided that it would be no problem at all to roll three projects into one the last two weeks of May.  That’s not including a huge tasting of 115 Ribera del Duero wines earlier in the month and multiple other business such as the launch of the SF Chefs 2010 website and ticket sales and a few wine buff commitments.  Overall I knew I was making the month insane for myself but I can’t very often say no and surely I was not going to say no to a trip to Italy to visit Luce, Frescobaldi and Arnaldo Caprai.

So May 18 is really when my crazy journey began.  I packed two suitcases (more like lots of planning and then tossing everything into two bags and hoping for the best)  one which traveled with me and the other that my husband was going to exchange with me later in the week (Southwest doesn’t charge for two bags!  I flew Virgin America to LAX).  I flew into LAX where I picked up a rental car for my journey to the Inland Empire to judge the Los Angeles International Wine Competition (May 18-21), stay the weekend and run the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition (May 23-25).  Both were a blast and filled with lots of partying and great people, and luckily my husband helps me with spirits so I was able to see him again (and exchange bags) before heading off, same day as the end of the competition, to LAX for my flight to Munich/Florence.  I arrived at the airport at 4:30 for a 9 pm flight (way too early in my opinion) and was greeted by the fact that there is very little to do at LAX Int’l terminal.  Had a wedge salad and a beer at the Daily Grill, it was acceptable only because of the double power outlet next to me and a friendly waitress, but otherwise uneventful.  At least LAX has free wireless out there.  In true Chapa fashion more beers were had at the airport bar to allow for plane sleep.

I flew Lufthansa, suspiciously comfortable and easy despite the lack of seat pockets for my stuff.  I watched the Princess and the Frog (made me cry when the firefly died) with my meal, enjoyed some Nero d’Avola/Syrah and dozed off watching Up in the Air.  I found myself rudely awakened by a jerky guy who decided he wanted to wake up the plane by opening his window shade, but luckily another 45 minutes later they were serving breakfast (finished watching the movie, all movies are available at your leisure and can be stopped or fast forwarded which was cool) and we were almost there.  Despite my aisle seat and no neck pillow I awoke all chipper and happy, so of course there would need to be some type of crazy twist right?

Got to Munich, relatively easy deplaning and rechecking and then I walked into their gorgeous terminal complete with luxury cars on display and boutiques, Kiehls, Jo Malone and MAC right when you enter, got some free lotion to revive my dried out body and then went to the pharmacy where they had my favorite shower gel, Korres Basil Lemon, which I have been missing since I forgot to pack it a week ago.  Things were great, I grabbed a Weissbier (ya gotta when you are only in Germany for an hour.)  So things were clearly too good to be true.

My flight was completely cancelled due to equipment failure so they are routing me through Bologna and then taking me on a ground transfer to Florence.  Only adds another three or four hours to the trip, but at this point does that really matter?

I am trying not to let it get me and instead I am taking the opportunity to explore the airport.  Nothing like the smell of the duty free store to refresh you after a long trip, wish I had my perfume books on hand so I could do some investigating.  The good thing about this airport is they may not have wireless but they do have the Allianz Arena, a news lounge open to all passengers where you can visit news sites.  Although I couldn’t get onto my Earthlink webmail, but apparently they think that Facebook and Twitter qualify as “News”.  I was able to connect to my friends/family although at first it tried to bump me off.  The keyboard wasn’t so easy to type on with the y and z interchanged and so while they had Word Press too I opted to write this on my laptop instead.   The also bump you off after about 20 minutes, but there seem to be plenty of terminals.

Another great feature of this airport is multiple free coffee and tea stations!  Although I had vowed to wait until Italy for a coffee, I have to say that automatic machine makes a mean espresso macchiato, so despite the 14 hours of travel I am still relatively awake and hopeful that this is an adventure not a debaucle through Bologna.  See you in Firenze.

May 27, 2010 1:33 AM

Well I finally made it to Florence after more than 25 hours of travel.  I arrived in Bologna around 10:30 and had to wait about an hour for a bus to take us to Florence which took at least an hour.  Of course there was no one waiting so I had to grab a cab and get cash before I made it to my hotel, Grand Hotel Villa Medici, but luckily the hotel was still open (at about 1am) and very friendly and I came up to my room to find a delicious fruit bowl and a bottle of Frescobaldi Bubbles.  I quickly jumped into my bathing suit and ran down to the piscine (pool) and hopped into some pretty cold but invigorating water.  That along with the bubbles is washing all the worries of my travel away, but I have an early day tomorrow so I must crash ASAP.   Grand Hotel Villa Medici was a palace in the 1700s and now as part of SINA Fine Italian Hotels it meshes historical ambiance with contemporary comfort.





New York

1 03 2010

I moved to San Francisco back in 1996 and since then my visits to New York have been infrequent.  I occasionally visit my family who still live in Rye about 45 minutes north of Manhattan by train, but usually once I am there I am held captive by my mother who does not want to share me.  So the rare occasion when I can actually stay in Manhattan and experience the unique feel of what we call “The City” is a real treat.

Recently I visited New York on business and was happy to stay in my favorite hotel, The Hotel on Rivington.  I would have to say that this hotel is not for everyone, but if it suits your sensibilities then you will be a loyal follower and anywhere else will seem really substandard.  What I like about it most is that the rooms (not the bar mind you) are very comfortable and unpretentious.  The furnishings are sleek and modern and the all black bathrooms while a bit trendy offers comfortable elegance.  The beauty of the space is that each room is weirdly different.  I have stayed in rooms where the shower has a clear window facing what appear to be lawn chairs that are set up facing said window.  Upon checking in I noticed this and when I returned to the room that night there was a small party on that rooftop as guys waited for new check ins who were perhaps not as aware as I was (they do offer a privacy screen which I promptly called for.)

The Tempur-pedic mattress and amazing soft and simple white bed linens and fluffy down comforter and pillows captivate you from the minute you check in as a video of sheets being manipulated in many ways that plays behind the front desk.  The bed is just plain sexy, and incredibly comfortable, but be forewarned that sometimes you may not even realize someone is sleeping next to you when you get an elbow to the eye in the middle of the night (I unfortunately know from experience and the black eye from my husband’s elbow in the middle of the night, of course I had to attend a wedding that day).

The best part about the Rivington is that when you leave you are smack dab in the middle of one of New York’s most interesting neighborhoods, the Lower East Side.  This area was settled initially by multiple groups of immigrants and is known for being a hub for American Jews.  For a very long time it seemed separate from other city neighborhoods.  When I was living in Manhattan in the mid 90s no one really came here but now it is the enclave of the hip and young urbanites.  Still you see the local culture melding with the younger people and the amazing thing is that despite the influx of trendiness there is a cohesive style to the area.  Somehow it all works and you find that it’s a great melding of both sensibilities.  Additionally it’s easily accessible to the East Village, SOHO and other fun neighborhoods to visit.

At the Hotel you are steps from Lower East Side culture as you hit the Essex Street Market.  Half of the market stalls remind me of markets I have seen in Mexico, but maybe cleaner.  Just the utilitarian products you would get from unique vendors, a butcher, a fishmonger, a sundries store, it’s amazing to see the locals shopping here for their daily foodstuffs.  Within this group are a few cool foodie places.  Saxelby Cheesemonger, a bakery, Roni Sue’s chocolates (I bought the bacon tea lollipops), a cupcakery and the pinnacle of the market at the far end, Shopsins General Store.  With about 4 counter seats and three two-tops in the restaurant the place is tiny.  They also serve at three additional two-tops in the front of the store.  I must say that I was incredibly intimidated after reading all the yelps.

They call Kenny Shopsin the “real” soup nazi.  But having come from a restaurant background I understand his issues.  It comes down to supply and demand.  He has limited seats and he is putting out an incredibly large and intricate menu and no he doesn’t really need to serve people that bug him.  There are tons of people wanting to eat there, so…  The rules are simple.  Don’t be an asshole, don’t bring more than four people total, don’t be overly touristy, don’t use your cell phone, don’t mess with Kenny or his son, order politely and know what you want and don’t ask a lot of questions.  I had the macaroni and cheese pancakes, maple glazed bacon and an Orange Julius.  I went at 10 on a Thursday and it was quiet with regulars and a few touristy folks (and by touristy I mean NYers who’d never been before).  Kenny is not a man of small stature, and he sits in a chair by the front of the stand basically completely blocking the entrance so he can watch over the whole operation.  He was nice enough to me and when I left and said thanks he said thanks too.  He was chatting up his equipment guy.  There was another guy at the bar and they spoke about politics.  He talked a bit about suck and blow and the difference and there were a lot of F bombs thrown about from Zachary in the kitchen to his dad in the chair.  He said “Jesus Zack, you’re F-in’ going to get us an R rating here!” as two elderly New Yorkers sidled in to a deuce and grinned.  I heard the wife tell her husband, “Now you cannot list every thing on the menu, behave!”, to which he replied “But honey there are seventy-two soups!  Seventy-two soups!”  I cringed when she asked questions about eggs and bread options but server Luke was very polite.  It was sadly extremely uneventful, no tears, no one thrown out, I wanted to return to see they mayhem at lunchtime.  My Orange Julius arrived in an icy silver shake can with a super duper bendy straw that had extra bend to it, fancy!  And it was delicious, frothy and light.  Soon a plate of curled bacon atop some lettuce came sizzling hot followed by my Macaroni and Cheese pancakes, they looked orangey as a thin layer of orange cheese glistened but when you sliced into them the bottoms were like regular pancakes.  It was much more about the cheese pancake combo and the macaroni was in the middle and not really a player except to add girth to the cakes. The top part was lightly crispy like that edge on a grilled cheese that scoots out the side of the bread and the cakes incredibly soft served with both maple syrup and hot sauce.  A decent combo!  The bacon was a bit too hot at first as the maple was almost candied and stuck to my teeth and then they became crispy little rings of pork, almost like pork rinds but meatier.  Really good.  All of this was $25 (I got a half stack of pancakes).  I cannot stop thinking about the hundreds of other amazing options waiting to be discovered there and can’t wait to return.  http://shopsins.com/shopsiteyellow/shopsiemenu.pdf

There are multiple options for food in the area, and just exploring the surrounding streets filled with boutiques and cafes is great.  I recommend a jaunt through Little Italy and Chinatown as well and of course hit your favorite deli before you head home.

Other great places to go:

FOOD SHOPPING

Essex Street Market 120 Essex Street at Delancey: Multiple Vendors

Roni-Sue’s Chocolates: #24 Essex Street Market http://www.roni-sue.com

Maple/Bacon Lollipops with fresh brewed smoked tea, and maple syrup, Absinthe chocolates, Buttercrunch and Bacon Buttercrunch, Pig Candy (Chocolate covered bacon), BaCorn (Caramel popcorn with bacon bits and chile pinon nuts)

Katz’s Delicatessen of Houston Street, Inc.: 205 East Houston Street corner of Ludlow 212 254-2246 http://www.katzdeli.com

I picked up a huge Corned Beef on Rye for the flight home with extra pickles (two kinds, I preferred the bright green ones, the others I think were more pickled and had more dill) and the sandwich lasted a good way through my flight.  The overwhelming pickle odor was probably not welcomed by my seat mate but he was already well into four scotches and three beers, so I do not think he noticed.

Russ and Daughters: 179 East Houston Street http://www.russanddaughters.com

If you don’t drop in here to buy bagels for your friends and family then you are heartless.  The bagels are cheap and they even offer ice to keep the cream cheese cold.  I tried not to be tempted by all the kinds of smoked fishes, pickle barrels, amazing looking foods.  Next time I will go there first.

Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy: 211 Grand Street 212 966-6370 http://www.kamwo.com

While traipsing around Chinatown in the snow I stopped in as I saw the amazing jars of tea from the street.  This traditional Chinese pharmacy offers all sorts of curative products and a large selection of teas.  I was most intrigued by the rolled balls of flowering tea, add them to a clear tea pot or crystal wine glass with hot water and they unfold into beautiful “flowers”.

Economy Candy: 212 254-1531 108 Rivington Street http://www.economycandy.com

Remind yourself of all your childhood memories at Economy Candy.  Want candy corn in February?  They have it.  They also have Halvah by the pound, and my favorite, Albert’s Ice Cubes (it’s all about the texture with these soft chocolatey squares) and if you can’t go they sell online.

Ferrara Cafe: 195 Grand Street between Mulberry & Mott

I always thought how funny it is that Chinatown and Little Italy are so close together both in New York and San Francisco!  To get your fix for Italian style pastries to go or eat in head over to Ferrara.  I took a selection of cookies home including the filled apricot cookies dipped in chocolate and rainbow cookies.  Fun to snack on on the flight home.

Vosges Chocolates: 132 Spring Street between Greene & Wooster

If you find yourself in SOHO on a snowy day what better spot than Vosges for a fancy hot chocolate.  La Parisienne (classic), Aztec Elixir (ancho & chipotle chili, cinnamon and vanilla bean with dark chocolate) and Bianca (Australian lemon myrtle, vanilla powder, lavender and white chocolate).  Then drop in to browse one of the coolest stores on the planet, Evolution Science & Art: 120 Spring Street 212 343-1114 theevolutionstore.com full of interesting bones, bugs, butterflies and taxidermy.

RESTAURANTS

WD-50: 50 Clinton Street 212 477-2900

Lupita

Chef Wylie Dufresne is more than your average celebrity chef.  I have been to the restaurant three times, and each and every time he has been at the helm.  You can see him immediately upon entering the restaurant standing in the doorway of the open kitchen in the back.  Known for his molecular cuisine he rides the line between outrageous and innovative and I have found that he is able to keep grounded.  What I mean is that even though the flavor combinations and the way they are delivered are very unusual the actual dishes are tasty and satisfying.  I enjoy sitting at the bar, and actually decided to eat there alone this time.  In the middle of my meal I was actually really happy that I opted to do so as the food really requires some attention, although it would have been nice to try more things.  I started with an amazing cocktail crafted by barman Tona, called the Lupita.  It was Cazadores silver Tequila, green apple, green tabasco and yuzu, and I noticed him adding a splash of St. Germain elderflower liqueur.  It was really tasty and not overly spicy but definitely had a kick.  For starters I had “cuttlefish, cashew, root beer, watercress”, you will find that most of the menu descriptions are vague such as this, but every server, runner, bartender knows the food expertly and describes it to you in advance if you wish or when they deliver the item.  This was actually cubes of cuttlefish stacked with gelatinous cubes of root beer and dollops of watercress sauce.  I really enjoyed it, but the texture might not be for everyone (I love having Ika sushi, so it suited me even though it was not raw).  Tona knows wine as well as cocktails and suggested I have the Thurnhoff Goldmuskateller from Alto Adige and it was perfect.  Next course was “cold fried chicken, buttermilk-ricotta, tabasco, caviar” an extra sent to me from the tasting menu.  The chicken was wrapped in a breading and the buttermilk-ricotta seemed like potato on top with a tabasco syrup and salty caviar.  It was delicious.  I took another suggestion for the entree, the Kamoizumi Red Maple Sake 2 year namazume (18.5% alcohol mind you) to have with the “scallops, pine needle udon, grapefruit dashi, Chinese broccoli”.  At this point I was waxing poetic and wrote in my notebook, “The pine-infused noodles taste like Christmas, I love it!  It makes me wanna cry or is it being in New York with 18.5% sake and a tequila drink and a wine.  The noodles are everything I hoped they would be.  This dish fulfills all my holiday memories without all the requisite pulling out the tree, cooking, baking, lights, stress, family.”  Seriously delicious and how do you make something taste like pine without crossing the line into cleaning products.  Ah.  By that time I was stuffed, and opted out of dessert sadly (I have heard they are as incredible as the savory courses) but was served a ball of sweetened condensed milk frozen and rolled in chocolate shortbread and a cocoa packet.  It was a gelatinous cocoa packet that when you bit into it was filled with crunchy cocoa pieces.  I can’t wait to return.

Pine Infused Udon

Schiller’s Liquor Bar: 131 Rivington Street 212 260-4555 http://www.schillersny.com

I arrived in Manhattan at 12:30 on a Sunday night panicking that there would be nothing to eat, but multiple restaurants in the area were open according to Yelp.  I still didn’t believe them and ran over to Schiller’s expecting to have to beg for food, but when I arrived it was bustling.  I had a hangar steak with Bearnaise sauce.  They have a great way to promote the wine selections,  1-Cheap, 2-Decent, 3-Good and the selections were great, but I had a beer.  It has a comfortable atmosphere and tasty food.

Il Buco: 47 Bond Street http://www.ilbuco.com

I took my friend here and she thought I was taking her on a wild goose chase as we passed all the Bowery restaurant supply stores with piles of old restaurant sinks and such lining the sidewalks.  Even as you approach the restaurant door it seems sketchy and then you are transported into the most gorgeous room.  It feels as if you just walked right into Nonna’s kitchen in the old country.  Farmhouse tables, chairs, mismatched and set in groupings that are not quite traditional.  We had the charcuterie and some amazing rose.  She ordered the Porchetta panini with fennel pollen, come to think of I forgot to taste it because I was so enamored by my gnocchi with lemon butter, and a chiffonade of mint and brussels sprouts.  A great way to prep for an eight hour meeting.

DBGB Kitchen & Bar: 299 Bowery 212 933-5300

Great bar scene and a beautiful dining room.  I haven’t explored the extensive sausage menu, but the food is great and they have an incredible selection of beers including one of my favorites, Hitachino Nest White Beer from Japan on tap.  Seasonal beer offerings are fun as well.

Bar Boulud: 212 595-0303 1900 Broadway at 63rd

If you must be uptown this is a great place to go.  Amazing food, a great prix fixe menu at lunch time, great wines, friendly service.  All that you could hope for.  I had a “juicy” ladies lunch here, so my notes are sketchy but it was great.  The pork rillettes were my favorite.

pork rillettes Bar Boulud

Rayuela: 165 Allen Street 212 253-8840 http://www.rayuelanyc.com

Great dinner here including cocktails by famed bar chef Junior Merino.  My entree was incredibly memorable, a corn arepa with duck.  Really amazing.

Mercer Kitchen: The Mercer Hotel, 99 Prince Street

After shopping in SOHO hit this trendy and classy restaurant at the Mercer Hotel.  Great food and great selection of wines from the Jean-Georges group Wine Director Bernie Sun.

Spitzer’s Ludlow & Rivington Corner 212 228-0027

Lots of great beers, friendly staff, comfortable bathrooms.  Great beer descriptions and friendly staff will find you your new favorite beer.  I discovered Ithaca Flower Power IPA (8%), I tried it because of the Ithaca/Cornell connection and it was delicious!  Kindly they list the alcohol percentage to prevent you from a hangover, the Samiclaus is 14% whereas the Hitachino a mere 5%.

Pegu Club: 77 West Houston Street

Possibly my favorite Manhattan cocktail bar.  Try the Earl Grey-tini.

Flatiron: 37 West 19th Street 212 727-7741 flatironlounge.com

Ok, my second favorite Manhattan cocktail bar, with ties to Pegu.  Creative drinks but be careful, some pack quite a punch.

The Summit: 133 Avenue C

Really friendly vibe without any attitude.  My friend who is not in the industry suggested we hit this relatively new spot before going to Sing Sing for karaoke (in a room, just the two of us, for THREE hours, does that reflect on how good the drinks were?  Perhaps.)  I was comforted at once when I saw Jill DeGroff’s book on the backbar and even more encouraged when I heard the clink of Kold-Draft ice in the glass.  He had the She Loves Mei She Love Mei Not (Barsol Pisco, muddled edible Ecuadorian rose petals, Szechuan peppercorn infused agave, fresh lemon, egg white) which was delicious and I had the Shu Jam Fizz (DH Krahn gin, apricot jam, fennel infused agave, peach bitters, fresh lemon, soda) which was AMAZING.  We noticed that each drink had an interesting and sometimes seemingly strange ingredient, but they clearly know what they are doing.