I often talk about my mantra “Eat what the winemakers eat,” but today let’s talk about “Drinking what the winemakers drink.” I recently went to Vinitaly, the annual wine expo in Verona, Italy. While there I met up with my fabulous friend Ludovica Fabbri of Savignola Paolina in Chianti. Ludo is the co-conspirator in many crazy-fun adventures in my life—a blowout party on the balcony of her villa overlooking her vineyards, a crab feast in Virginia and late night champagne-filled bacchanalia.
This time we were meeting for dinner during the impossibly frenetic week of Vinitaly. Imagine a gazillion wine and food geeks descending on a town of a quarter of a million people. The restaurants and bars must cringe and lick their chops at the same time. I mean they probably make their target receipts for the year on that one week alone. Crazy wine nerds spill out into the streets in popular quarters and reservations for both hotel and restaurants are incredibly hard to come by. Planning ahead is essential. So how did I fare with only a small amount of advanced planning? On my own, I did ok. My restaurant choices were fine—correct—as one says in French.
But with Ludo’s help we ate like locals and drank like—well, we drank like valued friends, assuming those valued friends like champagne—which for me is a total plus. It is no secret; rather it is a well-publicized fact that I love champagne with every white-hot fiber of my being. I love champagne like Homer Simpson loves beer. Because this is true, many of my friends have to suffer (as it were) with a lot of champagne talk and champagne consumption if they want to hang out with me. The majority of them seem to be able to buck up under the pressure of my champagne despotism.
On this night, in the midst of the chaos that is Vinitaly, Ludo and I had agreed to meet at her favorite restaurant in Verona--Osteria Sottoriva. “They don’t take reservations,” she told me. “Its ok. We will have an aperitif and then we will order appetizers and then we will get a table and eat.” I was trying to picture how this was going to happen. I don’t feel like Italian restaurants encourage just arriving and seeing how things play out, but I completely trust any thing Ludo says.
I strolled from my hotel to dinner, taking my time, enjoying peering in shop windows. The Osteria was under a peach colored stucco portico with wooden tables and chairs squeezed into the space on the sidewalk. Ludo flagged me down when I walked in, already ensconced at a rather rickety table with one of her friends. I must admit that even then, I still had a few doubts. Then she said, “Let’s have champagne.” Frankly, this did nothing to assuage my fears. Champagne is obviously not Italian and my experience is that you get kind of uninspiring champagne in most places in Italy. She gestured to a large handwritten sign thumbtacked to an easel with about 12 wines on it. I realized it was all champagne: Billecart-Salmon, Jacquesson, Perrier-Jouet and even Bérêche, among others, four of them by the glass. They even had 5 different champagnes in magnums. Crazy!!!! I mean this Osteria had about 25 seats outside on the sidewalk and 15 inside. It was hardly what one would call sizeable. It had no real menu to speak of, some appetizers (the fried stuffed zucchini blossoms were amazing), one soup and some local main courses: shredded horse, braised tripe and delicious steak tartare. Tables were communal and the service was scattered. Sometimes you ordered tableside and sometimes you needed to go in and order at the bar. The sign on the wall explained it all. “Avvertenze – Tavoli si Condividono e il servizio è lento….. Warning: The tables are communal and the service is slow.” This was a neighborhood osteria—not a chic New York or Paris Bar. It was an authentic spot that perfectly reflected the quirky personality of Franco the owner, a guy who likes to hang with his friends, eat good local food and drink good wine—champagne in particular. Just my kind of place—in fact, I may have worked at a place like that in another life!!
Even though there was nothing I wanted to drink more in that funky cool atmosphere than champagne, I made a valiant effort to resist. “Ludo.” I said. “Champagne isn’t local. You know I ALWAYS drink local.” She countered, “I thought you were all about drinking what the winemaker drinks. This winemaker drinks champagne.” So that was it. We drank champagne and lots of it. Two bottles of Perrier Jouet (and a bottle of Valpolicella) and later a few blocks away at Antica Bottega del Vino we joined the masses of other wine geeks in the street and drank some more champagne (which was, as predicted, uninspiring).
Oh and by the way, the food at Sottoriva was great. So Ludo’s perfect record is still intact.