Tuesday, November 30, 2010

my return to the peel

firing my oven
I have returned to Flagstaff, resettled, fired the oven, and begun to organize all the notes, photos, and thoughts that I've collected during my time in Italy (there are a lot!). As you can probably imagine, this blog has been only a snapshot of my trip. As such, I will be posting my Italy 2010 daily log at pizzicletta.com. I posted my daily notes from my trip in 2007 and I received great feedback from fellow cyclist and foodies, so I plan to also provide more details of my 2010 trip. So this post is sort of a "head's up" to keep your eye on the above mentioned website if you want to read more about the trip and it will be a short summary of some highlights of my return to Flagstaff, which includes, pizza, wine, and bread... all themes that were so prevalent during my trip that I feel they could be included here. As I mentioned in my last post, I was excited to return to Flagstaff. As those who live here or have visited know, its a special place for a countless number of reasons.
Finally, I wanted to mention that I will be starting a new blog on the pizzas and breads that I will be making over the next few months. I'll provide a link on this post in the future and will keep people in the loop on Facebook too.
my Mom and I in Sedona, my backyard
Now before I go on about my return, I'll reflect briefly on my time in Tuscany. When I was at Sesti, Elisa told me that a meal in Tuscany must include three things: bread, olive oil, and wine. This includes breakfast (which in the countryside is around 10 AM after many hours of work in the field). In my opinion, its hard to beat this combination as a meal and while I have not fully embraced this concept, my return to Flagstaff seems to be full of these three components of a meal. Another conversation I'll briefly reflect on was my time at Podere Ciona with Franca and Franco during which I had the pleasure to spend the afternoon with Franca in her kitchen. I asked Franca what she thought about the term "Italian cuisine." In general, my thought is there is no national cuisine of Italy because of the focus on regional specialties. Franca's response was that Italian cuisine is "what our mothers and grandmothers taught us." I really liked this answer because it really speaks to how Italians pass on traditional cooking. Yes, there are cookbooks in Italy, but learning from one's Mom is the most common introduction to food and cooking.
Okay, now back to my return home. I'll start my discussion with wine. My Mom (Laura) and her friend, Gary, were here this week for Thanksgiving and we decided to head to Sedona and Page Springs Cellars (PSC) for some the sights and some wine. Gary had never been to Northern Arizona and the red rocks of Sedona is a must for any visitor. Since we were in the area we decided to have a tasting at PSC (this also gave me the opportunity to pick up my quarterly wine release). PSC is a small vineyard in Northern Arizona that focuses its production on Rhone-style wines. Their wines reflect many you can find in the southern Rhone of France.
PSC grow a lot of syrah, mourvedre, and grenache, which are the main varietals you'll find in the Rhone. Most of their wines are blends and could be classified as fairly rustic with the heavy use of syrah. I really enjoy this style of wines and my time drinking wine at PSC was really was what tipped me into the oenophile category from the casual sipper.  Another aspect I really enjoy about PSC is their staff in the tasting room. I know most of these folks by their first name and they always make me feel like a king when I am there. It was a great afternoon and it was really interesting to compare the wines with all I had been drinking in Italy. Overall, the spice I tasted in these wines (mostly from syrah) was a bit of a shock in my mouth. Thinking about it more, I had realized that I didn't drink a single syrah in Italy, so this perception shouldn't be too surprising.
From wine, I'll proceed to bread. With the construction of my oven a few years ago, I've really enjoyed making hearth breads in addition to pizza. I think this is an internal craving I have from my time at Lorenzo's. Unfortunately, there are no good bakeries in Flagstaff baking traditional hearth breads, so I crave it and will purchase it whenever I have the chance. With my oven, however, I can bake my own. I've started a tradition on Thanksgiving of baking and delivering hearth breads to friends. Essentially, I spend half of Thanksgiving day preparing the dough, firing the oven, and baking. Then, I make some deliveries and return home for dinner. I really enjoy providing something unique to friends in town and they too really appreciate it. This year, I made three different types of bread: Rustic Bread, Potato Bread, and a 100% Whole Wheat Bread. They all turned out pretty good and everyone was thrilled to receive a loaf. The Rustic Bread was a new one and it was my favorite. It had a nice hearty flavor from an addition of rye and whole wheat flour.
a loaf of my Thanksgiving Day Potato Bread
Since I was firing the oven and I've been itching to make some pizza, I decide to make a few pies on Thanksgiving as well. As I've mentioned, this was Gary's first time to northern Arizona and its hard to not make pizza for someone who just met a guy who had built his own pizza oven in his backyard and had spent over a month in Italy researching pizza.
For those who know me in Arizona, I've kind-of become the local pizzaiolo so it just seems like a must to make pizza for any guests I have. Of course, my time in Italy was incredibly inspirational with respect to pizza, so it didn't take much convincing for me to make some pies. I've been ithcing to try some new dough prep techniques, topping combinations, and serving styles.
I made a few margherita's and my version of the mister, the pizza I had at Il Portatico in Venosa. The pies were good but, as usual, I found something I would have liked to improve. Specifically, these pies did not have the char and leopard-pattern on the crust that I strive for. The flavor and topping combinations were great, nonetheless.

my version of the Mister... tomato, mozzarella, prosciutto,
arugula, cherry tomato, and grana padano
And now the olive oil... While there is nothing specifically olive-oil focused upon my return, I have found myself in the kitchen a lot and making heavy use of this wonderful nectar. This past week, I found myself in sort-of a reverse role with my mom. Of course, she fed and cooked for me all of my youth and I had the pleasure this past week to make her a few dinners, pizza, and hearth breads. With this opportunity, I decided to make some of the dishes I had enjoyed in Italy. Most were fairly simple. For example, fresh, thinly-sliced fennel lightly dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar or gnochi with olive oil and grana padano. All the dishes were amazingly simple, which is a hallmark of most Italian dishes, and I served them with fresh hearth breads. It was really great to spend time with my Mom and Gary in the kitchen... and it made me think back to what Franca told me about how Italians pass on the teachings in the kitchen.
a loaf of Rustic Bread... the crust of this bread was exceptional.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Signing off from Bologna

This will likely be my last post of the trip. If I happen upon some amazing pizza tonight or during my travel back (Madrid?), than I may have to add one more. Hopefully there will be no need to break out a kleenex for this one... but maybe I will.
a simple meal allowing for old friends to catch up
Ending my trip is Bologna has been an extra bonus. The town has a lot to see and catching up with my friend Martina has been a real treat. Its been almost six years since we'd seen each other. Martina has lived in Bologna most of her life and has spent a few years in the states. We shared a meal and some wine (the Sesti) together last night. The meal was simple and light... bread and cheese and a salad that Martina made. The salad was made with pear, pecorino, and honey. Also very simple and with a little sweet and a little salty. It was awesome. After many hours of talking, Martina then made a ricotta-based cake. It was  sweet and really moist. Yum! I slept well!!
Our conversation during the meal was what you might expect between friends who have not seen one another in a while... memories, questions about mutual friends, our current work and life, and the like. We talked about my trip and the pizza I've been enjoying. She made one comment that really kind of hit home, I thought. During her first time to the states she went to a Pizza Hut and ordered a couple of slices. When she saw the two pieces, she thought, "this will not fill me up." But actually, she could not finish it because the loads of processed cheese, thick crust, and greasiness were so filling. In Italy, finishing a whole Neapolitan pizza is no problem for most folks and it doesn't leave you feeling like you've overeaten (and a Neapolitan pizza is about twice the area of two Pizza Hut slices). The fresh ingredients and light crust of true Neapolitan pizza really is a whole different world compared to the typical American slice. This is definitely a point to bring home and one I thought worth mentioning here.
Torre Garisenda and Asinelli in Bologna
In Bologna, I also walked the centro storico. It was an absolutely beautiful day (could've used this one yesterday!). The town has a lot of great little shops that I enjoyed walking through and seeing all the local specialties. It was kind of like Eataly... the newly opened market in NYC that is modeled after the real thing. There are official Eataly marketplaces in Italy, but the model is one that you can find in many Italian towns. Basically, think of finding local produce, bread, wine, treats all under one roof and you have Eataly.
In the center of town there are two towers, Torre Garisenda and Asinelli. Asinelli is the taller one in the photo, on the right. You can huff it to the top of it, which I did. It was a workout as my legs still feel like jello from yesterday. From the towers, the town radiates out along twelve main streets. Each one leads to one of the twelve porti (entrances) into the centro storico. So Bologna kind-of resembles a bike wheel with the spokes radiating from the hub. appropriate, I thought. I picked up some local focaccia-style bread called crescente for lunch. During the day, I felt half-tourist, with my camera close by, but also half-local... I knew the routine of ordering food, of navigating the streets, and the hours I could expect all the the restaurants and bars to be packed with eberyone taking their lunch brea.
My flight is early tomorrow morning and I will soon find myself back in the comforts, community, and embraces of friends and family in Flagstaff. I am happy to be coming back during the week of Thanksgiving. It seems very appropriate. The first reason being that my trip has once again been flawless in the sense of safety, major incidents, or any other trip-stopping problems. I had one flat! I am not a religious person, but I do believe that the world has a spirituality that keeps watch on us. Perhaps I too was cared for and held up the winds of the world, even if they were blowing in my face half the time. So, I give thanks to the winds that blow.

the stairs of Torre Asinelli
 The second reason I'm glad to be coming back during Thanksgiving is that, of all our holidays, I believe it is the one in which Americans emphasize food and sharing meals with loved ones. These are concepts so interwoven into Italian culture that, in some ways, retunign now makes this next week an extension of my trip... just substitute the turkey for the pasta. I'm very happy to have my mom in town for the holiday as well and what a better time to share the stories and photos of the trip.
As this is the final post, I wanted to conclude with the number one take home message that I learned during my time here. Yes, I ate lots of pizza, picked up great concepts, drink many glasses of wine, and met amazing people, but these things do not summarize my trip in my mind. Rather, its that belief in one's self is an amazing thing. Before and during the trip, I was constantly asked if I was scared or worried about being in the country alone and traveling by bike. My typical answer was no and that I felt well prepared. But deep down, yes, there was concern and anxiety. However, and more importantly, I really believed that I could make this trip successful in all the aspects I wanted to (e.g. seeing as much as I could and creating partnerships with Italian food producers). I knew I'd have to work hard on the bike, be flexible with my schedule, speak from the heart, and listen rather than just hear. When the time came, I delivered on these points and it allowed me to make the most of my daily destinations and meet and hear the story and culture of many Italians.
As many of you know, I have ambitious plans for the near future. Again, deep down there is fear and anxiety about making it a reality and from Italy, I bring back many concepts, recipes, and stories that will be amazingly valuable. But of greater importance and something that is invaluable, I bring back a deeper sense of belief in myself and in my hopes for bringing something unique to our community. I know I am excited and I hope you are too.
Ciao e grazie to all of my dear friends and family. Your pizzaiolo is heading home.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Passo della Futa

Today was the last day on the bike. Perhaps most appropriately, it was a battle the whole day. I loved it. I hated it. Through it all, I was feeling and when not breathing too heavy, shivering too quickly, or taking quick glances through the gazetteer, I was reflecting on the trip.

crossing into Emilia-Romana
The ride was about 115 km. With all the ups and downs, I estimate that there was roughly 4000 ft of climbing. I had to pass over the Mugello Mountains, which is the mountain range separating Toscana and Emilia-Romana. To do so, I went through Passo della Futa, about 903 meters a.s.l. I really wanted to get a nice shot at the pass, but the pass was completely socked in with fog and rain. At the pass, I'd estimate temps around 35-40 F. I wasn't sure if I'd see snow or not.
So one thing I thought about on the bike today is how the days spent cycling were really rewarding. Every night, looking at the map to see the ground I covered. That was a good feeling. But also, how I feel like I saw a lot each day. And, as I've mentioned previously, this is not a lot of famous or cool sites, but the details. When you plan a trip, you really don't think about these kind of every day occurrences. You structure your trip around cities and sites you want to see. Basically you identify destinations and this is a good way to plan a trip for logistics. I plan my own trips in the same way. So one thing I thought of today is how it'd be great to make the trip the destination. I think I have managed to do that here, even with all the prearrangements I had. One way was to cancel those reservations! but also to just go with the flow, take time to smell the flowers, and stop more often for photos or some pastry that I just couldn't pass up. In this way, maybe I saw something I would not have, met a little old lady baker that made me smile, or be questioned by old men in the street about my bike or the trip. This were those little things that we have no control over, but also have to be open to.
Well, just a short post today to comment on some thoughts during the ride. It was definitely bittersweet to arrive in Bologna. Here a few pics from the ride that I'll leave you with for the day.
Purty country.
Back side of Passo Futa. Nice roads! but wet today.

post ride caffe and raisin-pecan crostada

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Some new pizza discoveries in Firenze

Me and Piazzale Michelangelo, looking west over Firenze
My time in Italy is nearing its end (for this trip, that is). Bologna is one day away. One hard day, I should say... climbing out of the Arno River valley, over the Mugello mountains of northern Tuscany, and into Bologna. I fly out of Bologna on Saturday. Tonight, I was in Firenze (Florence). I was here for two days during my '07 trip. I remember it being packed and I was itching to leave. That was in May. Not the case in November, which I am very pleased about. I spent the late afternoon walking the town to see the sights. The colors with the setting sun and the views from Piazzale Michelangelo (on the much-less-visited-southern banks of the Arno) were awesome. Florence is another one of those places, like Siena, that is not to be missed. The art and museums are the best in the world. This is the cradle of the Renaissance and of many inventions, ideas, and architecture that are interwoven into the fabric of modern civilization.
LP says this is the best "quick snack in all of Europe."
Kind of a stretch in my opinion.
The food scene is also quite good. There's a lot of competition and most places appear to stick to tradition, so you can usually bet that you can eat really well even with a budget. For lunch I went to I Fratellini. Its a little paniniteria that is kind-of famous. They crank out a panini in about 10 seconds, fresh. I visited there in '07 and I wanted something quick, so I set about finding the place. It wasn't too difficult and it didn't hurt that there was a swarm of people around the tiny little shop. I was expected to have to wait awhile... but nope, with 20 people in front of me, I had a panino in about 4 minutes.
Piazzale Michelangelo, looking east. No this pic hasn't
been photoshopped.
With food on the mind, I was rather excited about dinner too. During the past week and a half, I have not come across many pizzerias that look remotely promising. Most were gas and the pies just seemed to be missing something. As a result, and also to save some dough (money, not the pizza type), I have been mostly self-catering breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was not a bad thing. In fact, I enjoyed getting to chose both what I would eat, and where I would eat it. My favorite spot being the Il Campo in Siena. But I am again getting away from my main post theme... which was my return to pizza. This is also likely to be my last pie for this trip, so I wanted to find a good one. Firenze is littered with wood-fired pizzerias. So during my walk around town I went into a half-dozen pizzerias, looked at menus at two dozen, and narrowed it down to two or three. I settled on The Clubhouse. It was actually the most modern looking pizzeria I came across. Kind-of like some trendy place in Phoenix. This isn't my typical style or selection, but it had a good vibe so I went for it. I came back at 7:30. The place was fairly empty, but I knew I was out early for Italians. I had a seat and ordered the Covaccino. It had bresaola (similar to prosciutto, but made with beef), arugula, gran padano, and cherry tomato.
The Clubhouse in Firenze.
I learned a couple of things during this meal which at first I was upset by but quickly got over. First, Cavaccino is not pizza. Its basically a style of Tuscan foccacia that is brushed with sea salt and olive oil. This was obvious by the lack of loft and also the holes in the crust (implanted by a roller with spikes on it). None of the toppings where baked with the dough (or what I would call bread in this case). Nonetheless, throw the rest of the ingredients on the Cavaccino, and you still have one tasty meal, and still an excellent definition of "fresh ingredients on good bread." In fact, I couldn't finish it, which is a first in a long while. Perhaps I was most excited about this pizza because of a concept I first thought of at Vecchio Forno, in Tropea. I look forward to sharing this idea with many folks soon, as I think its a good menu option.
From this pizza, I also discovered bresaola. Wow, its damn good. As you might have picked up from my previous posts, I love good prosciutto crudo. Bresaola has a very simlilar flavor and is from cattle. I've never seen it in Arizona, but I've also never looked. It'll be something I'll keep an eye out for from now on... its really good. The day is coming to an end in Firenze and tomorrow will be bittersweet. I need to rest up. Ciao!
The Cavaccino... not pizza, but damn good.

Podere Ciona

Perched on a hill overlooking the Chianti region of Tuscany, Podere Ciona is in a dramatic setting. Once I saw the aerial photo on the website, I knew I was in for tough ride up to this little hamlet but that I would likely be rewarded by another unique opportunity to hear the story behind this vineyard's origin. Before I dive into the wine, the warmth of Franco and Franca, and another one of my fondest days in Italy, I'd like to give you some background on the region and Podere Ciona. Il Chianti is the region of Tuscany between Firenze (Florence) and Siena. The landscape, cuisine, and wine is probably what many Americans think of when Italy comes to mind. This is not by accident, but rather amazing marketing of the region. I've spent a fair amount of time cycling through the Chianti region and so I can tell you first-hand that there is a vineyard around every hairpin turn (and there are a lot of those). Because so much wine is produced in the area and its so popular around the world, quality can suffer. I think most people would agree that small businesses, restaurants, or vineyards allow for greater quality and consistency. So, I was very excited when I arranged visits through Small Vineyards, which is an importer of Italian and Spanish wine based in Seattle. Podere Ciona is a vineyard with about 100 acres of land, of which 10 acres are used to grow grapes (about 2.5 hectares). The vineyard is about 7 km north of Gaiole in Chianti. Gaiole is famous for a cycling event that takes place every October, L'Eroica. The ride involes dressing in vintage cycling attire and riding around Chianti on a vintage bike, drinking wine and enjoying the mutual love of bikes and wine. Sounds fabulous... I think I will have to return.
Let me refocus.. the land of Podere Ciona was purchased by Franco and Franca Gatteschi in the 70's. They spent 3 years restoring the estate and then planted vines. The first wines released was the 1997 Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG. So, it took about 15 years to produce wine for release after the purchase of the estate. Since then, Franco has kept yields to a minimum of about 1 bottle per plant to insure consistency of his wine.
For my visit, I was to arrive at noon on Monday, the 15th. The vineyard was about a 40 km ride from Siena. Franca had sent me directions that includes descriptions such as "look for a stone under a Madona shrine with 'Ciona' written on it." Hmmm, I dutifully copied all the notes directions into my journal and hoped for teh best. Actually, the directions were spot on and I arrived promptly a few minutes before noon. I was greeted by Franco and the two family dogs. Franco was much kinder than the dogs and invited me into his home to talk and rest before the tour. The house was warm with beautiful views overlooking Gaiole in Chianti with Siena in the distance. I was not the typical guest to Ciona as I was arriving on bike and also, as Franco told me, they were expecting someone much older. I told him my age, whch was a surprise, and then explained why I was in Italy (Franco and Franca both speak perfect English so our dialogue was able to be in-depth). I told Franco I was wanting to identify small wine producers, learn their story, and share this experience and his wines with my community. I explained and related mu knowledge of wines produced by small vineyards, and how they've been some of the best I've had. I knew I was successful in making my point as Franco replied, "Ah, this is very good" and thus the tour began. 
Franco took me to the tasting room, the cellars, the bottling area, and around the vines. He told me which vinese were which grapes, the history of his time here, the history of Chianti wine, and of L'Eroica, the vintage-cycling event. During the tour I asked about how he handles the grapes during the different stages (e.g. harvest, grape selection, fermentation, aging). I also learned that his son works with Small Vineyards in New York and always returns home to help with the harvest and that the concept of the US importer all started here at Ciona. In short, I learned a lot about how Ciona came to be through the work of Franco and Franca. Towards the end of the tour, Franca returned from town and the markets:
"Ah, Caleb, so glad you are here. You must stay and have lunch."
"Great, I brought some bread and cheese for us to have with the tasting." 
Well, little did I know that Franca is a professional cook and hosts cooking classes all over the world. Tutti a Tavola is her business name. Check it out, they have a nice website. My bread and cheese would be returning to Siena with me that night. Its the thought that counts, right?
We finished the tour and headed back into their house for the tasting and lunch. Franca was busy in the kitchen and we chatted about her travels, the local Tuscan cuisine, and her business. I talked about pizza in the US, Pizzicletta, and my travels. It was another great moment of connecting with someone very passionate about their own work. For lunch, we would have gorgonzola ravioli drizzled with butter and Gran Padona, pugliese-style brea with a selection of about 7-8 cheeses, Franca's homemade gelato topped with her homemade lemoncillo, and caffe to finish. Oh, and let us not forget the wines. I was seriously beginning to wonder if I'd be making it back to Siena tonight or if I need to ask for a room in their agriturismo.
So onto the wines. We tasted four wines and I made heavy use of the spitoon (Siena was still 40 km away and the sun was on its descent). I started with the '09 Rose I.G.T. Its 100% Sangiovese. Sound familiar? Yes, I'd had a similar Rose at Sesti. Roses are growing in popularity here, and to a lesser extent, in the US.This one was nice and refreshing with a tang of acidity to finish. Next, was the Vino da Tavola. This unlabeled bottle was 100% Sangiovese. Transparent, medium bodied, and with a bit more tannins that the wines I'd had at Sesti. I believe this too was the everyday wine here at Ciona.
Then I moved up to the '06 Chianti Classico DOCG. Its 95% Sangiovese, 4% Merlot, and 1% Alicante Bouschet. Its fermented in medium-sized French oak barrels and aged for 18 months in French oak and 1 year in the bottle. With all the oak, I thought the vanilla flavor would dominate but it was nice and balanced with the full flavor of Sangiovese still present.
Finally, I had the '05 Le Diacce I.G.T. This is Ciona's flagship wine. Its 90% Merlot and 10% Alicante Bouschet. Again, fermented in medium-sized French oak but aged in French barriques. This was a big one with the Merlot coming right out at you. Strong tanins and the wine was nearly opaque. A wine that kind of felt like a meal on its own.
We spent well over an hour tasting and having lunch, during which time there were no quiet moments. I felt very honored to share this meal and their wine in such an intimate setting. Truly, this trip has allowed me to meet amazing people and has taught me a lot about how creating partnerships. One thing I think I've learned is how important sharing a meal together can be. In America, we often meet to discuss business, relationships, travels, etc. over coffee. Here in Italy, you break bread together. Perhaps this is a natural outcome when a country places such a high value on their food. Whatever the reason, its one I will adopt myself.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


earlier today at San Galgano, a 13th century Abbey
No, this is not a post about a gentleman's club pizzeria, although I am thinking about trademarking the name. Nope... sorry guys. This is a post that is essentially a photo collection of wood-fired ovens (forno) that I've spotted along my trip. Someone got away with Food Porn, so I figure I could use the photo-concept here. Hopefully, I have not insulted or disgusted you, but rather have hit some Freudian-desire to read on.
In Italy, wood-fired ovens (herein referred to as forno or forni) are everywhere, and I mean in both space and time. I've seen forni in the south and in the north, in backyards and in pizzerias, and in communities and structures built thousands of years ago to some built in the last ten years. I love this fact. Such an ancient way of cooking that has lasted so long and is still in use so widely and frequently. I suppose I have a special affection for forni and for the masons behind their construction because of my own blood, sweat, and tears that went into the construction of my forno. So, enough of the fornoplay, I give you PornForno. The images are, to the best of my abilities, in chronologic order of their construction.
Pompeii, circa 1 AD
Pompeii, circa 1 AD (rotate head... sorry)
Pompeii, circa 1 AD
Pompeii, circa 1 AD
San Galgano, circa 1300 AD
Sesti estate, circa Renaissance
da Michele, circa 1870. The oven is in the background. Actually, I don't know the oven's age but the pizzeria has been there since 1870.
Vecchio Forno, circa 1990
Vesi, Napoli, circa 2000
Il Portatico, Venosa, circa 1995
Cibo, Phoenix, circa 2005

Flagstaff, circa 2008

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Brunello di Montalcino... cobwebs and all
Its Fall in Tuscany and Its glorious. The colors and calmness of this place warms my soul. I've arrived in the wonderful city of Siena. This is one of my favorite towns I've been to in Italy. But before arriving here, I spent two nights in Montalcino, about 45 kilometers south of Siena. The hills surrounding Montalcino host the vines of what is locally called Brunello and is more commonly referred to as Sangiovese. Brunello di Montalcino is considered to be the most prestigious of Italian wines. It was the first to receive DOCG status. The hills of Montalcino are also home to Sesti. Its a small estate (8 hectares of vines... thats small) and the estate shares the grounds of Castello di Argiano. Its a 12th century castle that has a wealth of history. I wish I had more time to discuss the fascinating tale of this little Hamlet. Its extraordinary. For now, I am going to fast forward to the present and discuss the amazing things going on there. In all my time in Italy, yesterday's visit to the estate has stood out as one of the most engaging, educational, and truly-enjoyable days. I really can't say enough about this place.
I had arranged to visit Sesti during a Kermit Lynch wine tasting at the Wine Loft. Kermit Lynch (KL) is a wine importer of mostly French and Italian wines. I am a big fan of KL and some of the Sesti wines are available to us in Flagstaff. Lyle, who was pouring from KL and I had a discussion about my trip and I inquired about possible vineyard visits. He immediately recommended Sesti and the location (about 15 km south of Montalcino) was perfect for my itinerary. He arranged it all with Elisa, who is the daughter of Giuseppe Sesti, who founded the vineyard in the seventies.
Brunello aging in medium sized oak barrels
I stayed in Montalcino the night before. I highly recommend going here. Its a quaint town on top of a hill in eastern Tuscany. The views of the morning fog and the surrounding landscape is captivating. I decided to go on a little self-guided tour of the local vineyards before arriving at Sesti. My appointment was at noon so I planned a 50 km loop to end there. Well, it was hilly and I got a flat tire... I felt bad showing up 30 minutes late and I was also rather filthy after having to change my flat, but Elisa was most welcoming. Elisa's mother is English while Giuseppe is Italian. She speaks perfect English and this really made the visit great as we were able to have in-depth conversations about wine and recent trends, the history of Argiano, terroir, Italian and American life, cycling, pizzicletta, life, relationships, etc. I was at Sesti for about 4 hours and I feel I could have stayed a lifetime. I was completely taken by the passion that Elisa exuded about Sesti wine and the history of the her family and Argiano.
Elisa first gave me a tour of the estate. We went to the fermentation rooms. We also visited the aging cellar which is under the tower of the castello. The views from the estate were breathtaking. The entire estate is actually 102 hectares and they have chosen to keep about 90% of it to the forest and wildlands. This helps buffer the vines from the other vineyards that may be using chemicals on their vines and it insures a natural environment for the grapes.
We ended the tour back at the tasting room. This was a room filled with wine barrels, a big oak table, and bottles of earlier vintages. Its kind of what you think of when you picture a Tuscan farm house. Elisa opened five bottles for us to taste. I felt entirely spoiled... and then she brought out a board of cheese and bread. "You've been biking, you must eat."
I will go through the wines in the order we tasted.
We started with the '09 Rosato I.G.T. Its a rose made with 100% Sangiovese... very untraditional. In fact, Giuseppe decided to make this mostly because 2008 (the first Rosato vintage) was a hot summer and the family was craving a rose. When the wine was shared with others at VinItaly, it was a hit. It was chewy and very crisp. The acidity of the Sangiovese was shining through at the finish. It hit the spot after the long bike ride.
All vinticulture at Sesti is done in relation to the cycles
of the moon. This is a book Giuseppe wrote on the subject.
We next moved to the '08 Graniovese I.G.T. (in the US it will be called Monteleccio). A quick sidenote. I.G.T. wines must be named by the vintner and cannot simply take the name of the grape. Therefore, Elisa and Giuseppe have very much enjoyed the play on words with there wines (Grang = big, -iovese = from sangiovese) and (Monte = mountain, leccio = a local tree). They try to derive the name from the landscape and the grape, which is, after all, what they want to express in the wine. I liked this as pizzicletta is its own play on words. Okay, so the wine. The Grangiovese is 100% Sangiovese. Its aged for 12 months in medium-sized oak barrels. Its the everyday wine of Sesti. It was nice and easy drinking. Medium-bodied, transparent in the glass, and having subtle tanins. Yum.
Now we moved up the '05 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. I ended up buying a bottle of this. This is a classic wine. Some say the best in Italy. By law its 100% Sangiovese, aged for 4 years (in medium-sized barrels at Sesti), and one year of bottle aging. It was a full-bodied wine, still transparent in the glass, but the tanins were still subtle and the acidity nice and sharp. The subtle tanins contrasts with other full-bodied wines (e.g. Cabernet or Merlot) that typically have more tanins.
one of the prints from the 1999 phenomena...
hey, I'm a Leo!
Taking it up one notch, we had the '04 Brunello di Sangiovese Riserva DOCG. This is called the Phenomena by Sesti. Each vintage label is a tribute to a celestial phenomena occuring during the same year. They are beautiful labels. This wine is the cream of the crop folks and wow did it impress. Its aged for 5 years in medium-sized barrels and 1 year in the bottle. Again, it was transparent in color but had still more body to it than the color would suggest. Crisp tanins and a tad-bit more oak, which I pointed out. Turns out, they used a new oak barrel for the 2004 vintage, which the wine can extract more vanilla flavor from. Again, there was a nice acidity in the finish. With the greater oak aging, its likely to improve in the bottle over time.
Finally, we had the '06 Castello Sesti. Its a blend of 60% Cabernet and 40% Merlot. Giuseppe grew up drinking wines with these grapes and he wanted to see how they would do in Montalcino. It was a traditional full-bodied wine. This time not transparent and lots of tanins.
the olive oil on the left was picked and pressed yesterday
All and all, these were some of the best wines I've ever had. It was one of the most pleasant experiences to share with Elisa. She is clearly amazingly knowledgeable and passionate about Sangiovese. I could go on, but I will have to share more with you later, perhaps over a glass of Brunello.
We did one more tasting before I left.... the estate olive oil. This was an entirely new experience for me. They had just picked and cold-pressed a batch the day before so I was really in for a treat. We also tasted last year's pick. Wow, talk about a mouthful. So creamy and then a nice peppery kick at the end. I stated that I felt I could actually taste the color green. "Freshness" is just not enough to explain the flavor.
Elisa gave me a final tour of the church and the two farmhouses. There is so much detail and history here. The different shapes and cuts of the stone corresponding to different eras, the patterns in the flooring, the arch architecture... I felt so humbled by a place with so much history and I felt so encapsulated by Elisa's passion for her home and Sangiovese. The final stop was at the wood-fired oven. Elisa knew I would like this. It was built in the Renaissance and is still used today by the family. I wished so much for my peel and dough, but my time to depart was nearing as the light was fading and I had about 15 km of uphill riding to do. Hugs and kisses were shared and a most sincere goodbye. The memory of this place will be one I will constantly return to, especially when I toast a glass of Sesti.
the wood-fired oven at Sesti

The balance of a great Neapolitan pizza

Neapolitan pizza is best summarized by the short description, "Fresh ingredients on good bread." Its really a simple concept. Yet, because of the focus on the basics, the room for perceived error is small. Other pizza styles that may be heavily topped or have many components can hide inconsistencies in the dough or the sauce or the cheese. I've eaten a lot of Neapolitan pizza and prepared and baked a countless number of pies. Now in Italy, I feel completely in my element concerning my ability to discuss and compare pizza. Its a lot of fun... and oh so tasty.
So, when it comes to casting judgement on pizza I've been eating I do take it seriously. The last two pies I ate are a good case-and-point of how I identify a good pie.
This past Sunday I was back at Oi Mari in Matera (exactly one week from my first visit). The place was much less crowded but the cavernous atmosphere and low lighting ambiance was all there. I was excited and very hungry after a long ride from Alberobello. I ordered the Capriocciosa (tomato, mozz, prosciutto, and artichokes) and their house wine, which was made with local Negroamaro grapes.
The pizza arrived in about 10 minutes. The crust looked fantastic, and it was. I do think it could have used another 15 seconds in the oven, but it was still tender and the cornicione was quite lofty. The flavor was spot on. However, the toppings were underwhelming. The tomato was all right, kind of plain, the mozz was good, but the prosciutto cotto and the single piece of artichoke was well, not that good. After eating prosciutto crudo, cotto is like having that slimey ham you find in plastic ziploc bags in US groceries. I really don't think it belongs on pizza. I almost picked it all off. As far as greens go, I don't think they should be there for show. A single piece of artichoke  on the center of a pie is just teasing and probably has been the source of the eventual break-up of a few relationships. So, my second visit to Oi Mari was not all I had hoped for but the crust did cause me to think it was in the top 40 pies I've ever eaten.
the oven at Il Portatico
The next pie I'll discuss was from Il Portatico in Venosa, Basilicata. I was in Venosa on Monday night... yes, pizza two nights in a row. I actually did not plan pizza that night but when I found Il Portatico I had to give it a try. I was on my daily post-ride/exploration walk and peeked into a small door that had a Vera Pizza Napoletena sign (how could I not?). The door was unlocked, so I went in. I was met by Marcito, who was eating an ice cream and firing the forno. I had a strong suspicion that he was the pizzaiolo and the owner. I looked at the menu and he was very polite and stated he'd be open at 7:30. "Va bene." The menu looked good and the price right for my budget. Pizza, by the way, is one of the cheapest meals you can get in Italy. Is this heaven or what? I returned at 7:30 sharp and had a seat. The place was tiny... four tables total. Half of the pizzeria was taken up by the pizzaiolo station and the oven. Simple, just like Neapolitan pizza.... the anticipation was building. I ordered the "Mister." I was hungry and it sounded awesome... tomato (pureed). Mozzarella di Bufalo, Pomodori (sliced tomato), arugula, prosciutto crudo, and gran padano. Wow!
While waiting, I went and chatted with Marcito. Indeed, it was his place and he was the sole pizzaiolo. I got some photos of the oven and we chatted pizza and my own time with the peel. Finally, before going back to my seat I noticed he was using the red bag Molino Caputo flour.
the Mister at Il Portatico
The pie came out and the toppings looked phenomenal. All I could hope for. However, before the pie even arrived at the table I knew the crust would not live up to my hopes. Very little loft in the crust. It was stiff and not at all tender. The underskirt had no char. The toppings were some of the best I have had in Italy. For a moment I thought maybe it was too many toppings preventing a good crust, but a quick glance around at the other pies being enjoyed confirmed that it was the dough... not the heavy toppings. So, I was sitting there thinking that I want Oi Mari crust and Il Portatico toppings. But I did eat the whole pizza and was wanting more, so please don't think I am complaining.
So there you have it. Two examples of great pizza and how the subtilties of the individual elements of a simple thing can really stand out.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Performance Enhancing Drugs

My next two posts will be about food since lately I've been writing about the cycling and logistics. So, here is the first one I call "Performance Enhancing Drugs." Its more of a slideshow than anything else.
We all know how cycling is plagued with drug doping. Well, I do drink vino or birra with most dinners... but I don't think anyone has ever claimed that they are performance enhancing. So, to keep me going out there, here are a some photos of what I might find cranking in my veins. View and weep.
pane al pescatore.. a local specialty in Matera
I must've eaten half a dozen of  these
a panina in Foggia.
I was so hungry when I got this in my hands.
Me: 1 - Panini: 0
focaccia con pomodori
some of the best grapes I've eaten...
these in Lecce
crostada di nutella. this should be made illegal.
enjoyed this one on the very bottom of  the heel in Puglia
the Italian breakfast of champions
a croissant jam-packed with nutella
the outside of this panini had this dusting of sea salt and olive
oil that left me licking my fingers for hours.
these little nuggets have a nice, olive rich surprise inside

this panini had a tomato, cipolla (red onion), and olive tapenade in it.
very savory. I think it was lunch in Lecce.