In my decade of visiting VinItaly — one of the largest wine shows in the world — I have come to look forward to the meals as much as the wine. Dinners, street vendors, business meetings, regional showcases all incorporate food. And while the Italians are serious about quality and freshness, there is a delightful absence of pretence.
My penchant for grazing is more than satisfied over the course of numerous meetings. An assortment of antipasti, salami, cheese as well as regional munchies all casually appear to accompany the wines presented by each producer. Each year I arrive in anticipation of the addictive brisolone (a big crumbly cookie with nuts) that Daniela Bussola serves with Italy’s best Recioto della Valpolicella, produced by her husband Tommaso; and the sweets from the local Veronese bakery that Nicola Fabiano serves during our meeting, not allowing us to leave until we have cleared the plate; or the Parmiggiano-Reggiano, that tastes fresher than anything imports we get in Canada, served with the Proseccos of Ruggeri’s Paolo Bisol; the classic Sardinian thin crisp flatbread (carta da musica — “music paper”) at S. Maria la Palma; and the delectable accompaniments warmly pushed upon us (it doesn’t take a lot of arm twisting) by Iliana Brero to enjoy with the wines of her boyfriend Mauro Gallo who is too young to be producing wines this good. And this is just during the meetings.
Uniquely presented risotto a baccala (risotto with salt cod) made with no butter or oil, but just with the scales of the fish; caprese salad with bubbles of mozzarella, tomato and olive oil whose flavours explode in your mouth; and a delicious mushroom risotto served in a martini glass: the risotto is actually a foam (that really does taste like risotto) layered on top of a mushroom purée. All dishes brought a new twist to the typically flavourful, yet simply prepared Italian cuisine.
Two of the producers for whom I have great fondness and respect are Nicola Fabiano and Paolo Bisol of Ruggeri. As coincidence would have it, they each held a dinner on the same night. Discovering that the respective restaurants were only two blocks apart, and not wanting to turn down an invitation to either, I saw the opportunity for a story. So with the enthusiastic approval of Fabiano and Bisol, I set out to attend both dinners — simultaneously. Between 8 pm and 12:15 am, I indulged in ten courses and logged a few miles as I zipped back and forth between the Filarmonico Caffe and La Trattoria di Giovanni Ranna in Verona’s Piazza Bra, not missing a course.
Both dinners were seafood menus. Lucky for me (much easier to consume ten seafood courses than ten courses of boar, beef, venison and guinea hen). Over the course of the evening, word spread amongst the more than sixty guests attending the dinners as to what I was doing. I was met with cheers as I entered the dining rooms for each subsequent course and challenged to finish an entire glass of wine with each dish. More than anything I think they appreciated my explanation for why I was undertaking this seemingly loco task — to show that great food and wine can be very fun and a little silly and that it shouldn’t be intimidating, stuffy, and pretentious.
Producers from outside the Veneto often bring ingredients from their respective homes to prepare traditional regional dishes. Such was the case with an amazing dinner held by De Angelis at the Enoteca de Valpolicella. Most of the ingredients were brought from the Marche. Fresh ricotta with apple mostarda; the sweetest and meatiest scampi with fresh tomato, basil and olive oil; Maccheroncino di Campofilone pasta (made with egg and flour only) topped with squid, clams and shrimp fresh from the Adriatic; and an incredible selection of non-pasteurized cheeses from artisan Marche producers all allowed De Angelis’s Quinto Fausti to present the food of the land with the wine of the same land — the way it was meant to be.
One of the simplest and tastiest dinners I was lucky enough to be invited to was the barbecue at Tommaso and Daniela Bussola’s winery/home in the hills of Valpolicella just outside of Verona. Peppers, eggplant, zucchini and radicchio grilled alongside an assortment of succulent meat with an abundance of local cheese and cold cuts. It was simply a small family barbecue with about thirty friends and clients from around the world to share good food, good wine and good stories. Not an unusual occurrence with so many family-run wineries in Italy.
Beyond the organized dinners of VinItaly lies a local food scene that gets kicked up during the fair. Vendors line the streets outside the Verona Fiere exhibition grounds with their grills, flat-tops and fryers, putting out thousands of panini, piadinas, and patate frite. Regardless of the amount of grazing over the course of the day or any dinner plans I may have, I have to stop for the panino alla porchetta (a grilled pork cutlet topped with your choice of grilled onions, peppers, mushrooms, etc., served on a ciabatta roll) or the piadina con salsiccia (a sausage that has been butterflied and flattened on a flat-top, topped with grilled onions and peppers, all rolled up in a flatbread resembling a tortilla). Walk up the street a little further to find the cart with marzipan, cannoli and every other sugar-laden Italian delight to satisfy even the most insatiable sweet tooth. This is real street food.
So whether you are a lover of food or a wine lover (although I don’t understand how someone can be one and not the other), a trip to VinItaly is a must — at least once. Think of it as more than just a showcase for Italian wine. It really is an opportunity to experience, embrace and enjoy some very basic elements of Italian culture. Go with an open mind and open heart … and don’t forget your appetite.