I never set out to be an Italophile. I never set out to focus my career on the world of Italian wine and food. Perhaps it was pre-saged by my first restaurant job in an Italian cafe back in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. But after that, most of my training tended to the Asian, or, as is now the current correct term in the field, Pacific Rim, cuisine. Somehow or other, a couple of years ago, I found myself back in an Italian restaurant.
Part of my job, amazingly, turns out to be to spend a week in Italy each year at the annual “VinItaly.” This extravaganza of (primarily) Italian wine is one of the largest exhibitions of grape alcohol on the planet. The best part of it, however, is exploring the town it is set in each year – Verona.
Verona has some great places to eat. During VinItaly it’s near impossible to actually get in to any of them. You know you’ve truly scored big when you snag a table during dinner hour at Bottega di Vini – great food and one of the most incredible Italian winelists you’ll ever see. You have to know someone to get in during this week. If you don’t, do what most of us do and eat somewhere else.
This is not really a bad thing. Verona’s trattorias are among the best that I’ve found in Italy. The people are incredibly friendly. The service, while generally one step beyond laid back, makes you feel right at home. And the food and wine of the region will keep you coming back.
Verona’s proximity to the mountains ensures a regular supply of trout and other freshwater fish, the prime staple of local cuisine. Polenta and risotto are the main grain based products. Radicchio is used in everything. Two local oddities of cuisine are the use of horsemeat–either dried, shredded and served with lemon juice, or braised in local red wine; and hops – the plant used in beer-making, here used as a favored herb.
The wines of the region are widely varied and too numerous to sum up easily. On the white side – Bianco di Custoza, Soave, Lugana, and Pinot Grigio are popular. The reds concentrate on Bardolino, Valpolicella, and Amarone.
If you want to do something in Verona besides eat and drink (and you’re a bit of a history buff) make sure you see Romeo’s house (a bit dilapidated these days); Juliette’s house (complete with balcony, and the worldwide center for “Jimmy loves Joey” type graffiti); and Juliette’s tomb. There’re also Ancient Roman towers, a huge arena, churches galore, and a beautiful river walk.
You need more? Try walking through the old quarter and shopping in the little arcades. If you run out of things to do in Verona, it’s only an hour’s train ride to Venice.
In the meantime, a little food and wine to keep us going…
Amarone & Radicchio Risotto
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
2 cups Amarone
4-1/2 cups stock (vegetable or beef)
8 ounces radicchio, shredded (about 4 cups)
2 tablespoons parmigiano cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and the oil in a heavy pan (4-quart or bigger) over medium to high heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until they soften, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains well with oil and butter. Allow to cook for another few minutes, still stirring. Add the radicchio and mix well.
Risotto requires a bit of attention. Start adding the wine, a half cup at a time. After each addition, continue stirring until the liquid has been absorbed – then add the next half cup. After the wine, continue the same process with the stock. The process should take about 20 minutes, at which time the rice will be firm but sort of creamy.
Remove from the heat and add the remaining tablespoon of butter, the cheese, parsley, and then salt and pepper to taste. This is a great accompaniment to sautéed chicken livers. Serves 4-6.
Any local red wine is a great choice. My personal favorites, ranging from lighter to fuller bodied, are any of the Valpolicellas or Amarones from Quintarelli, Dal Forno Romano, Zenato or Allegrini. Truly hard to find is the Allegrini “La Poja,” a single vineyard, single varietal “table wine” from one of my favorite producers. And a really cool bottle to boot.
Q San Francisco magazine premiered in late 1995 as a ultra-slick, ultra-hip gay lifestyle magazine targeted primarily for the San Francisco community. It was launched by my friends Don Tuthill and Robert Adams, respectively the publisher and editor-in-chief, who had owned and run Genre magazine for several years prior. They asked me to come along as the food and wine geek, umm, editor, for this venture as well. In order to devote their time to Passport magazine, their newest venture, they ceased publication of QSF in early 2003.