For those who love Italian wine and food, this truly is the best of times.
Call it kismet or karma. Whatever the terminology, Minneapolis this summer is the right place at the right time for those of us who love Italian food and wine.
No fewer than three ambitious Italian eateries have opened in town over the past month or so, with seriously creative chefs and beverage directors at the helm. At the same time, several stalwart wholesalers have brought to this market a fantastic array of wines from Italy’s Alpine head to its island toe, which is far different from the days of that country being represented universally by a bottle of mediocre Chianti bound by straw (which, fittingly enough, is called a “fiasco”).
“My first surprise was that there was so much great Italian wine in the market,” said Mary Kole Macdonald of Parella, in Calhoun Square.
Macdonald had moved here with chef/husband Todd from New York, where just about anything and everything from Italy is available. She expected a struggle in finding distinctive wines. Instead, she found a “large, vibrant” range of offerings, which helped her easily meet her goal of curating a wine list that’s 100 percent Italian.
This bounty from local importers and distributors also allowed Il Foro’s Kristopher Barto to fulfill his aim: “Taking it upon myself to evangelize Italian wines.”
And it afforded wine consultant J Henahan of Monello, in the Hotel Ivy, an opportunity to craft “a wine list to be in service of the food and the atmosphere.”
All three wine buyers shared a common goal. “At the end of the day,” Barto said, “we’re very, very focused on what the chef is putting out of the kitchen.”
It’s hard to get more Italian than that.
Here are snapshots of how and where these wine lists landed, plus a glimpse at a couple of holdovers:
Parella: Macdonald said she wanted to celebrate all the classic grapes that are uniquely Italian. But it’s unfathomable to have all of Italy’s 2,300 native grapes in one book, and many Americans are more comfortable with Italian wines made in what’s called an “international” style (think fruit-forward, with soft tannins and acids).
So she split the difference “between celebrating Italy for what Italy does best and also giving people a snapshot of wines that are more like something they’re familiar with.” After spending months of tasting at trade events and with local sales reps, her list was complete. With one major surprise.
“I had picked so much Sicilian wine that I was totally blindsided,” she said. “They have that warmer climate that’s accessible to people. The grapes are mostly native, and they have these interesting expressions that are so layered, so many where I felt like there was really strong terroir aspect. I found myself having a love affair with Sicily.”
Il Foro: Barto tried to avoid going in the other geographical direction. “I could easily have 150 selections from northern Italy,” he said, “from that high altitude and so beautiful with food. The only real spot of trouble was reminding myself daily that I needed to taste wines other than from northern Italy. ”
He ended up with a list that’s about 60 percent Italian, mostly from the northern and central regions, plus some “crowd pleasers” from California (Rombauer, J sparkling wines, Frogs Leap).
Like MacDonald, Barto found himself smitten in the process, but with a grape rather than a region. “I absolutely fell in love with trebbiano,” he said. “I just can’t get enough of it. It’s amazingly versatile with food.”
In the end, unearthing gems that would work with chef Joe Rolle’s food “was the most fun I’ve ever had doing a list.”
Monello: Henahan has plenty of Italian experience — his full-time gig is at I Nonni — and also a longtime relationship with Mike DeCamp from their years at La Belle Vie. But his was not a straightforward task, since stellar bar manager Jesse Held wanted to emphasize vermouth and DeCamp would be delving heavily into crudo (raw dishes, mostly seafood).
“We were at pains to put an identity to the list, a particular point of view,” Henahan said, “and the phrase we came up with was that the food has a ‘complex simplicity’ to it, and so, too, should the wines. The emphasis on crudo helps, where I look at coastal regions, and wines not with sheer power, but deftness, distinctiveness, provenance.”
In addition, he said, “we were looking for Italian spirit elsewhere in the world.” They landed on a 50-50 split, all the way down to having the Italian wines in each category (rosé, sparkling, white, red, even the trendy “orange” wines) and the same number of non-Italian offerings on facing sides of the menu “so that the wines are in conversation with one another.”
Oh, and there are 15 vermouths, all available by the glass.
Elsewhere: Minneapolis’ already established Italian restaurants also are taking full advantage of the copious offerings available to them.
At Arezzo, owner Adam Smith has compiled a fabulous portfolio of half-price Italian wines for Thursday evenings, ranging from the crisp and refreshing Rocca delle Macie Orvieto at $15 to the robust, beautifully balanced Sette Ponti Crognolo Sangiovese at $41.
At Broder’s Pasta Bar and Terzo, part of a culinary triumvirate that has some folks calling its intersection “50th & Broder’s” rather than 50th & Penn, Charlie Broder is merely tweaking the already all-Italian lists.
“What we’re trying to do is continue to curate a wine program that’s consistent as well as ever-changing,” he said, “with small independent producers, a focus on sustainable, organic and natural wine and traditional expressions of Italian wine. The challenge is for them to speak of Italy.”
Which is easier than ever for Minneapolitans to do, both in terms of wine and food. Viva Italia!
Bill Ward writes at www.decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.