In a time when dining out itself has become controversial, the value of hospitality and the ability to make guests feel comfortable has never been higher. At Vinatería in Harlem, N.Y., those principles are deeply ingrained in the business, founded by Yvette Leeper-Bueno, a 17-year resident of the neighborhood. A community-focused spot, Vinatería is a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner with an approachable menu fusing Italian and Spanish cuisines.
“It means so much to me to be able to contribute to my neighborhood,” says Leeper-Bueno, a lifelong New Yorker. The natural host frequently invited guests to her and her husband’s townhouse, for everything from fundraisers to wine-tasting dinners, before she decided to turn her passion for entertaining into her profession. “[We thought,] ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a place that we could entertain, but it didn’t have to be in our home?’” she recalls.
She opened Vinatería in 2013, building the concept from conversations with area residents about what they wanted to see in a local restaurant, as well as what she believed was lacking from the scene. “There were restaurants in the neighborhood, but nothing that spoke to exactly what I had in mind: A restaurant with a huge wine focus, approachable yet elevated,” says Leeper-Bueno. “It was always meant to be this warm, welcoming neighborhood restaurant.”
She traces her knack for hospitality back to the experiences of her childhood, watching her mother run a children’s clothing boutique on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “It was always about customer service being the most important thing,” Leeper-Bueno says. “She very much operated her business as though you were coming into her living room, as though you were the most important person and that we were here to do everything we could to give you the best experience possible.”
As its name suggests, Vinatería did indeed turn out to be the wine destination Leeper-Bueno envisioned, with a global list of 130 wines, emphasizing Italy, Spain and France. When the coronavirus crisis struck, wine director Franco Scalzo returned to his home country of Italy to be with his family but, Leeper-Bueno says, “He’s here in spirit.”
“We worked in tandem … and we often tasted together as part of the culture of the restaurant, so he is definitely missed right now,” she says. “But we still feel that wine is absolutely integral."
Italian chef Diego Negri, whose impressive background includes a stint at Grand Award winner Eleven Madison Park, has recently taken the reins in the kitchen. For a fall recipe, Negri chose a boldly flavored vegan dish that’s intentionally accessible and affordable during a time that’s tough for many. “I thought about vegetables that we find in this season, something spicy, something stronger-flavored,” he says.
Eggplant, zucchini and potato are cooked down with garlic and spices, mixed with fresh herbs and mashed together, resulting in a flavor profile that Negri says evokes memories of the forest. (You can swap some of the vegetables, but Negri says to avoid ones with high water content and suggests keeping eggplant in the mix for taste.) Breadcrumbs are stirred into the mixture before it’s cooled in the fridge, formed into balls and pan-fried. And that’s it.
“This recipe is very, very easy,” Negri says. All you need to do to ensure success is make sure the mixture has the right consistency for rolling it into balls by hand. If the mixture is too wet, add in some more breadcrumbs; if it’s too dry, add a splash of water. As Leeper-Bueno says, “There isn’t a way to mess this up.”
Here the “meat”balls are accompanied by a simple sauce that captures the essence of red bell peppers, which are sautéed with onions in olive oil. It’s thickened with xanthan gum, a molecular gastronomy ingredient that’s common in professional kitchens, as well as gluten-free baking, and it’s readily available online and in the baking aisle of specialty grocers.
Leeper-Bueno and Negri tasted several options to find the right wine pairing, landing on La Rioja Alta Rioja Viña Ardanza Reserva 2010, which they describe as full-bodied enough to stand up to the paprika and cumin in the dish, but still easy-drinking. “Essentially it’s an accent, but you don’t want to come in competition with the strong flavors,” Leeper-Bueno says. The Spanish selection is one of many under-$100 bottles on Vinatería’s well-priced list—part of Leeper-Bueno’s mission to create an inclusive, comfortable environment and make enlightening wine experiences accessible for all. For additional options, below, Wine Spectator shares nine more complementary red wine picks from Spain.
Vegan Meatballs and Red Pepper Sauce
For the sauce:
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1/2 Spanish onion, roughly chopped
- Black pepper, freshly ground
- 1 1/2 red bell peppers, roughly chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
For the meatballs:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for frying
- 3/4 pound eggplant, peeled and cubed
- 3/4 pound zucchini, peeled and cubed
- 1/2 pound potato, peeled and cubed
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- Black pepper, freshly ground
- 2 tablespoons fresh oregano, stripped from stalk
- 2 tablespoons thyme, stripped from stalk
- 1 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 cup flour, for breading
For the red pepper sauce:
1. Heat a small saucepan over medium heat, then add in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and let it come to temperature. Add onion and season to taste with salt and pepper. Once the onion begins to brown after about 5 minutes, add the red pepper and cook for 5 minutes more. Add 1 cup water to onion and pepper mixture. Simmer until water reduces, approximately 12 to 15 minutes.
2. When the mixture is slightly reduced and the vegetables are soft, place into heatproof blender and blend until roughly combined. Stream in 1/4 cup olive oil and add xantham gum to emulsify and thicken your sauce, and blend for another 2 to 3 minutes until fully combined. Place sauce into the fridge to thicken.
For the vegan meatballs:
1. In a medium-size pot, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Once at temperature, add in eggplant, zucchini, potato and garlic, and season with paprika, cumin and salt and pepper to taste. Sauté vegetables until slightly browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. Reduce heat to low-medium and continue simmering until the vegetables are softened and cooked through, about 3 more minutes. Add oregano and thyme and stir to combine.
2. Add 1 cup of water, cover pot and let simmer over low flame for about 10 to 12 minutes. Once the vegetables are soft enough to mash, use a potato masher to combine all of the contents in the pot, letting the liquid reduce until the mash has slightly dried out. (If it’s not mashing easily, add a touch more water. The mixture should end up homogenous.) At this point, add breadcrumbs, and continue to cook while lightly stirring to combine. Taste your mixture to check the seasoning.
3. Take the mixture off the heat and pour onto a baking sheet. Refrigerate to cool, for a minimum of 30 minutes, until chilled and slightly set. With slightly wet hands, start forming mixture into balls (size to your liking), and set them aside on a plate or cookie sheet. Preheat a large frying pan with 1 inch of olive oil over medium heat. Fill a shallow bowl with flour, place the balls into the flour and dust slightly. Tapping each ball lightly to shake off any excess flour, drop balls into the pan and cook for 2 to 3 minutes on each side until all sides are browned, about 8 to 10 minutes total. Remove balls from pan and let rest on a plate until ready to serve.
Remove red pepper sauce from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. Pour sauce on bottom of plate and top with veggie balls. Top with olive oil or fresh herbs, or enjoy as is. Makes 12 to 15 meatballs; serves 4.
9 Full-Bodied Spanish Reds
Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
Rioja Reserva 2014
Score: 92 | $17
WS review: Rich and expressive, this red delivers bold flavors of plum, blackberry and licorice, balanced by graphite, black tea and forest floor notes. Tangy acidity offsets the firm tannins. Exuberant. Drink now through 2028. 40,000 cases made.—Thomas Matthews
Ribera del Duero Reserva 2014
Score: 92 | $35
WS review: This red is dense yet lively. Blueberry and blackberry flavors mingle with espresso, leather and loamy earth notes, set in a polished texture and supported by firm tannins and fresh acidity. Drink now through 2030. 20,000 cases made.—T.M.
Rioja Fincas de la Villa Reserva 2014
Score: 91 | $20
WS review: This generous red offers a broad, dense texture, with well-integrated tannins and orange peel acidity. Fresh and dried cherry, bramble, tobacco and spicy flavors give this a traditional character. Balanced and lively. Drink now through 2026. 10,000 cases made.—T.M.
R. LÓPEZ DE HEREDIA VIÑA TONDONIA
Rioja Viña Cubillo Crianza 2010
Score: 90 | $32
WS review: Lively and expressive, this red delivers berry, dried cherry, orange peel and vanilla flavors. The supple texture is fueled by mouthwatering acidity and backed by well-integrated tannins. Traditional style. Garnacha, Tempranillo and Viura. Drink now through 2024. 7,500 cases made.—T.M.
Rioja Bordón Reserva 2014
Score: 89 | $20
WS review: Cherry and plum flavors mingle with tobacco, licorice and spice notes in this plump, juicy red. Orange peel acidity keeps this lively, while light, firm tannins impart focus. Drink now through 2024. 9,584 cases made.—T.M.
Rioja Gran Reserva 2011
Score: 89 | $35
WS review: This supple red shows a traditional character, with dried cherry, tobacco, orange peel and spice flavors that mingle over light tannins and lively acidity. Harmonious. Tempranillo and Graciano. Drink now through 2025. 19,000 cases made.—T.M.
BODEGAS CARLOS SERRES
Rioja Gran Reserva 2011
Score: 89 | $26
WS review: Maturing flavors of dried cherry, forest floor, tea and leather mingle over light, firm tannins, while orange peel acidity keeps them lively. Gentle, but has enough grip for food. Traditional style. Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo. Drink now through 2025. 3,000 cases made.—T.M.
Rioja Reserva 2014
Score: 88 | $20
WS review: Red plum and dried cherry flavors mingle with licorice and forest floor notes in this lean red. Firm tannins and orange peel acidity give this focus. A bit angular, but lively. Drink now through 2022. 6,666 cases made.—T.M.
Rioja Reserva 2014
Score: 88 | $20
WS review: Aromas of cigar box, dried herbs and lilac give way to currant, licorice and loamy earth flavors in this supple red. Light tannins and balsamic acidity impart focus. Harmonious, in a savory style. Tempranillo, Graciano and Mazuelo. Drink now through 2026. 60,000 cases made.—T.M.