Travaasa Austin Certified Sommelier, Edward Morgan, embarked on a two-week long journey through Italy, learning the intricacies of Italian winemaking along the way. His adventure thus far has taken him through Piedmont, Veneto and Verona. Here is an excerpt from his incredible Italian saga highlighting his time in the Emilia Romagna region.
Just southwest of the Veneto lays an area of wealth and development that surpasses much of the country and places it in the top bracket for its quality life. Emiliaa Romagna is the land of artisanal pleasures, the papacy and fast cars. It’s the birthplace of Frederico Fellini, Luciano Pavaroti and Pope Benedict XV and home to super sport automobile manufacturers Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati. Perhaps Marcus Aemilius knew something of the future when paving the long road home from this northern province, which spans the breadth of the country from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean.
We departed from Verona just before 10am. Our first stop along the way to Reggia Emilia was a restaurant just outside of Verona near Lombardia called Alla Pergola, known for its boiled meat carts, local grappa and Prosecco on tap.
We arrived and were greeted by the proprietor, chef and lead service staff member, Roberto. He and his father have run this place for over 20 years and much of the staff seemed to have been here just as long. As per the usual, a table for 10 was waiting fully equipped with a multitude of glassware and a blank charger at each setting.
Since we were in such close proximity to Lombardia, the birthplace of the lovely libation known as Lambrusco, it was only fitting to don the table with this trite little treat; but, not before its neighboring Venetian counterpart, Prosecco had its 15 minutes of fame. A few sips of the Vergilius Montevano stimulated the conversation and spurred the usual candor – a bottle aptly named for the famous poet laureate who originally penned The Aeneid. This only exalted the experience seeing as we were in the motherland and in the midst of writing a triumphant tale of another kind.
Roberto’s assistant started us off with a selection of tortellini ripieni di caprini, goat stuffed and butter sage squash tortellini. Keep in mind, there is a very good reason no one ever uses the term, “good” when describing pasta here. In Italy, every string of pasta is handmade; the word just isn’t appropriate when used in this context. To the Italians, it better be really good, – it’s pasta for goodness sake.
Over the centuries, this varietal’s namesake has cultivated an opinion that is defined quite literally by its Latin translation, “wild.” Many styles of Lambrusco exist due to the enthusiastic cross-pollination that predicated the vineyards for centuries, bringing to date nearly 60 varieties within this Viniferous family. Vintners simply adjust amounts and additions of a select few varieties in order to create a spectrum of wines that span from sweet to dry and sharp to sumptuous.
The intermezzo consisted of a salad cart of arugula, boiled potatoes and fresh mixed peppers so fresh the spice jumped off the plate and into your mouth before you could put a fork to it.
As Roberto retired to the kitchen to assemble the main course, one of the staff members staged the table with the holy trinity of Pergola sauces: a horseradish, or Raffano, a Moustarda (mustard and sugar macerated pear compote) and a salsa verde of garlic and parsley, each designated to their specific protein and in turn its specific preparation.
Roberto emerged from the kitchen, grabbed his apron and parked a stainless steel cart of boiled and roasted meats just off the main stage of our table. The service style and presentation had a vague reminiscence of how I enjoy dim sum on a Sunday afternoon, at a restaurant of course where I am the only Caucasian gentleman in the building. Among the attendees of this stellar performance of satiation were boiled head cheese and beef tongue while its counterpart of roasted meats was a turkey that would put most thanksgiving dinner tables to shame in the states. Prosciutto and a spicy cured pork shoulder brought up the rear.
Roberto explained the sauces, as Lars translated, and how the Verde may work better with the boiled selections and the Raffano and pear moustarda could better service the roasted assortments.
Not being one to turn down an opportunity for a local experience, I asked for a mix of everything, including the pork snout and beef tongue. I found that putting aside the once functional aspects of these delicacies while marrying them with one or all of the three sauces afforded me the ability to marginally enjoy the taste and texture of this local delicacy. It all went down smooth though with a long, rich sip of that Lambrusco.
We finished up the main course, and it was, once again, time for something sweet to finish us off. A third and final cart emerged from the kitchen armed to the teeth with tiramisu, crème en glace and a hazelnut meringue. I could see we weren’t about to break precedent. Lars immediately went for a flaky baked mound of buttery goodness, a type of almond cake. “Spriciolina prefierre,” he said to Roberto. “Ahh,” he smiled, immediately revealing a bottle of Amarone Grappa and dousing the pastry generously before handing it over. “Duo” I said holding up two fingers. The butter and rich sugar homogenized with the earthy flavors of the grappa, while the finish of hot herbaceous alcohol cleared the senses for the next bite. I wouldn’t say it was my favorite dessert, but any opportunity to marry sweet with solvent should never be missed. I soaked up the puddles of grappa on my plate to help soften the texture of this baked delight and washed it all down with the remnants of my glass.
Just before espresso went down on the table, Martin, a fellow Somm from Seattle, inquired as to what “local alcoholic beverage selection was customary in this neck of the woods.” An easy connection put us in touch with two distinct bottles of Grappa: Storica Nera and Le Raggose – both equally good for different reasons. Storica is the more feminine of the two; however, to someone like myself that doesn’t drink turpentine every day, they both seemed a bit from the rough and tumble. This was grappa country, so I tendered my tulip-shaped glass and put it back as fast as it was poured.
As we exited the restaurant into the blinding sun, Roberto and his father bid us a fine farewell and thanked us for stopping by.
There is a famous saying about Emilia Romagna penning this region.
“A place for people who wish to abandon themselves to the slow pleasures of life.” No one moves fast through a meal like this; nor do they attempt a swift departure following its enjoyment – you just don’t have the ability or the wantonness to do so.
It was now off to Reggia Emilia to enjoy an evening with the wine makers of Albinea Canali and enjoy a little more Lambrusco from the valley of its birthplace.