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stirring the lees with james molesworth

From the City to the Countryside

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 27, 2007 4:07am ET

On our last night in Florence, Nancy took me to one of her old favorites (she knows the town well), Cammillo Trattoria, on the Borgo San Jacopo. It’s a comfy set of small tables in a series of low-ceiling rooms. The kitchen is up front and we got a nice quiet table all the way in the back.

We started with some beef carpaccio with arugula and parmesan. Our next course was pasta—the classic tagliatelle with porcini for Nancy and tortellini in curry for me—a nice change of pace that rewards those adventurous enough to order it. Some fried coniglio followed that, and we chased it all down with a bottle of Antinori Toscana Tignanello 2003. On its own, the Tignanello was sleek and pure, with very refined tannins and a silky finish. With the food, however, it took more of a back seat, rather than the lead.

That got Nancy and I debating the merits of California versus French versus Italian wines and food. My hypothesis was that California wines dominated food—maybe a 70/30 split with the wine leading the way. Not necessarily a bad thing but just the way it is. You could liken it to the lead guitar in a four-person rock group.

French wines, with classic pairings like Châteauneuf and lamb or red Bordeaux and prime rib, are great matches because the flavors in the food and wine play off each other. More of a 50/50 split. Like a Max Roach drumline working with a hard bop horn section.

Then, looking back on all the meals we had so far this week, I felt that Italian wine melded into the food more. It matched well but seemed content to play a more supportive role, as with the Tignanello. Maybe even a 30/70 split the other way—the opposite of Californian wines and just shy of the role of French wines.

Nancy agreed but argued that was the strength of Italian wines: They amplify the food without intruding. A contrabass to an orchestra’s string section, if you will.

Of course it's silly to lump the wines from all three countries into such basic groups, as there will always be plenty of exceptions. But as a general theory, I’d be curious as to how you perceive the food matching abilities and qualities of Californian, French and Italian wines. Is one inherently better, or are they all different in how they display their various strengths?

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Bacchus knew how to party back in the day. I’m hoping to honor that tradition this week in the hills of Tuscany.  
After a morning visit to the Bargello, where I took in a few different sculptured versions of Bacchus, including Michelangelo’s, we headed out for our villa in Casole d’Elsa. To earn his keep, I sent my dad to the enoteca to pick up some white wines, including a bottle of the Terre del Principe Pallagrello Bianco Terre del Volturno Fontanavigna 2005 (Pallagrello being one of the ancient grape varieties that is drawing increasing interest here). It was fresh and full of citrus and melon flavors, with a slightly oily texture.

We also cracked into the care package waiting for us (courtesy of my colleague James Suckling). We really enjoyed the Renzo Marinai Chianti Classico Riserva 2004, a super fresh, racy red with lots of dark cherry fruit, an underlying leather hint and velvety tannins. It was ideal with the tagliatelle and wild boar that we had, courtesy of a chef we hired in for the evening. The whole menu was classic Tuscan: a mixed assortment of bruschetta, white bean and shrimp salad, the pasta and torta della nonna, a light almond cake that earned a second helping from my eldest daughter.

I prefer where we are now—in the quiet hills above the town, ensconced in a spacious villa surrounded by vines and olive groves—to the tourist-driven bustle of Florence. After putting the girls to bed, we lingered over a bottle of Mauro Vannucci Carmignano Piaggia Riserva 2003, a sleek and lush red that had everyone oohing and ahhing—and in turn giving me grief for not loving Italian wines more. I should probably get used to that, since I’ll be hearing about it all week.

James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  August 27, 2007 11:33am ET
James, it sounds like you deserve the grief, so you might as well suck it up and bear it. As for your food-wine matching game, it is my general belief that Italian wines (particularly the red) are simply meant to be paired with food. I have no problem opening my French wines to sip and enjoy as a stand-alone, but I usually will not open an Italian to just have a glass or two. For example, I recently opened a Paolo Scavino 1999 Barolo Carobric that I could only bring myself to drink with food (and it was fantastic). As for CA wines, I am still rather ambivalent after living in Europe for so long. Continue to enjoy your trip. You are spurring great memories of our time there. - Jim
Filippo Recchi
Florence, Italy —  August 27, 2007 12:55pm ET
James,

Before I get to the food/wine fight, please let me comment on your restaurant selections in Florence..and please don't be mad at me! And also please keep on giving me your great advice on the developing phases of Rhone wines!

I was born and raised here in Florence, and live steps from the mentioned restaurants. I also lived in the US for 4 years, so I like to think that my view is not too home-biased (i.e. Florence-good, rest of the world-bad).

I Ghibellini, Cammillo, and Acqua al 2 do not represent, IMHO, what Florence has to offer food-wise. I think these places do not make justice to our food/wine scene.

I Ghibellini is an ok place but nothing more.

Cammillo is IMHO a place that used to be very good but it's not anymore. I dined there recently and found the food good but totally unexciting, the decor stale, and the check totally out of proportion. Would you agree?

Acqua al 2 is a fun place (and it serves dinner until 1am, which comes handy, and I think US students in Florence agree with me) with good simple food, but hardly a place where I would spend one of my few nights in Florence. I have been there countless number of times, and in several occasions I was the only Italian speaking customer.

Latini on the other hand is a very nice place: chaotic, yes, loud, yes, but also a lot of fun and with good food & wine.

The Mercato Centrale: outside is pure tourist souvenir cheap bad. Inside, on the other hand, a great great great place and, as with most things that have not become too touristy (and the Mercato has become a lot more touristy in the past years than it was before) 90% closed in August, which is Italy's vacation month, when many nice places are closed, tourists outnumber Italians (happens also in the rest of the year but not so badly) and it's just very very hot.

If you remain here a bit more, I'd be honored to give some advice. Filippo
Robert West
Tomball, Texas —  August 27, 2007 1:50pm ET
Interesting observation about the relationship of regional wines to food, but perhaps your observation says as much about the food as it does the wine. One thing for certain is that California wines sometimes dominate with alcohol, making it more difficult to enjoy, perhaps, the end of a meal. In Italy, I have been able to enjoy meals started with Prosecco, different wines with different courses, and still be able to finish with Grappa. It is hard to imagine making it to the Grappa or Cognac with an Italian or French length meal and an all California wine lineup.
Tony Wood
Brighton U.K. —  August 27, 2007 2:15pm ET
Hi James,So what goes best with bitter arugula,salty parmesan,porcini,curryand fried coniglio? why not try Lea & Perrins Worcester!Forget the wine, liver salts in a little water.
Antonio Nieto
celaya —  August 27, 2007 2:44pm ET
Ciao Fiippo, I don't know about James, but I could take some advise on Firenze. I am from Mexico and my family and I love Florence so we try to visit it as often as we can, so some good advise on restaurants is always wellcome.I will also appretiate tips on night life and barsregards!!antonio
Phil Talamo
Bron, NY —  August 27, 2007 2:44pm ET
James - do i get the feeling that you earlier statement about having "little interest in Italy" might be at least slightly modified in the future? sorry, I can't read your blog anymore while you are there - it makes me too hungry and jealous!!! BTW - have you looked into playing any golf out there? i know its hard to come by but was curious to see what options you have have found. Buona Vacanza!
James Molesworth
August 27, 2007 2:55pm ET
Filippo: Sorry the locals don't like my restaurant picks. Yes, they're simple, hearty, loud and full of tourists. But the whole town is full of tourists - the locals are outnumbered nearly 30 to 1!
James Molesworth
August 27, 2007 2:57pm ET
Phil: No golf this time around. My wife is already steamed enough that I'm blogging. I told her Marvin made me do it...
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  August 27, 2007 3:25pm ET
James,I agree with you (as a vast generalisation) on the food/wine pairing issue. As evidence of how food and wine go hand in hand in France, just last night I was watching an old French film where Gerard Depardieu is on a date, and has just finished their first bottle of wine (served in a cradle of course) and looks frantically for a server saying, "I can't finish my food without wine!" I love it!However, my experience of Florence was vastly different. Perhaps because 1) I went in early April instead of August and 2) I did my best to avoid the normal tourist pathways. If I had to pick one city to spend the rest of my days in, Florence could be it.My advice? Talk to Filippo next time.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  August 27, 2007 4:49pm ET
and they say i am a conservative when talking about wines....... thanks james hehehehehehe!!1
Filippo Recchi
Florence, Italy —  August 28, 2007 3:39am ET
James,

The town is full of tourists for most of the year (hence the impossibility of finding a restaurant without an english menu, which used to be a very good rule of thumb). And it's far worse in August when most of the locals are away on vacation. But if you avoid just by a few blocks the most touristy areas there are still many spots of real Florentine bliss to enjoy.

I love hearty and loud places, but not every night, and Florence can offer many other dining choices and styles....and with better wine lists. Since you are in the countryside now (a great choice if I may add), you will find many very good places where your won't feel "surrounded" by tourists so badly.

Regarding the wine/food balance, I agree with you 100% when dealing with "traditional" Italian wines, but I think the more modern ones are more 50/50 than 30/70.

I was at a tasting at a friend's house two weeks ago and we had Cabs from all over. The Italian Cab was Maestro Raro from Felsina, I wine that I love and consider quite masculine and structured. Well it tasted watery when compared with CA Cabs, especially a few ones over 15%! WA Cabs were somewhat more food friendly. What can I say, that's just the way it is, we just need to be aware of it in our food/wine pairings. And btw, I loved the WA/CA Cabs.

Antonio:
Restaurants: Buca dell'Orafo, Enoteca Fuori Porta, Santo Bevitore, Oliviero, Fuor d'Acqua, Antico Ristoro di Cambi....
Bars: Capocaccia, Dolce Vita, Zoe, Fusion Bar....
Michael Culley
August 28, 2007 11:32am ET
JM, we lived in Casole d'Elsa for four years and I was wondering if the enoteca you referred to was there(where you found the Pallagrello). It's a great little spot and Sirio always had a good stock of fresh whites from A.A. and Friuli. It's difficult dining any where here if you haven't been before to search around. After six years we still get tripped up from time to time. My only comment about the wine/food match is pretty general...European wines seem to accompany food and I have always jokingly said that California wine is 'cooking' wine....to be drunk WhilE preparing food.
James Molesworth
August 28, 2007 12:08pm ET
Michael: The wine shop doubles as a restaurant - and it's called Casolani...it's in Casole...
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  August 28, 2007 3:57pm ET
Ah, I was going to recommend Fuori Porta to James but was afraid with a local Florentine lurking about. I had a fantastic time there! And I remember buying a bottle of Falesco Montiano in the restaurant for a great price, less than in a wine shop here!
Michael Culley
August 29, 2007 11:01am ET
James: you're lucky that Sirio and Nicola had it since it's the only enoteca in town...that's all. It's a pretty good deal money-wise eating dinner there too. It's around 18 euro for four courses...or was.
Bert Pinheiro
Baltimore Maryland —  September 4, 2007 10:39pm ET
I just left Tuscanny in July and all of you aremaking me want to go right back! I just want to go back and sit at the top of Cortona with a bottle of brunello,some cheese, and some prosciutto at sunset with my wife and friends andsee you in the morning.

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