The Wineries of Northern Italy – La Valpolicella and Villa Monteleone

The second stop on our tour of northern Italy’s wineries was Villa Monteleone, where we talked wine, politics, culture and travel with owner and wine producer Lucia Duran Raimondi over a splendid lunch in the estate’s protected historical garden.

Stefano and Lucia met in Minneapolis in the winter of 2012, when she was in town promoting her wines with her distributor, Wirtz Beverage Group.  Stefano and Filippo of the Butcher Block organized a spectacularly successful wine dinner, and months later when we were planning our trip to Italy, we knew that we would take Lucia up on her offer to visit Villa Monteleone.

Villa Monteleone is located not far from the town of Verona in a tiny town called Gargagnago.  A beautiful 17th century villa serves also as a bed and breakfast, and a separate two-story apartment in a historical building located on the estate is also available for travellers.  The estate’s gardens are lovely, and the view of the vineyards and surrounding villages is breathtaking.

This part of Italy is called la Valpolicella, a hilly area within the Italian region of Veneto, long known for its wine production, and especially for the production of Amarone Classico, a prestigious Italian red wine with D.O.C.G. status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), made from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes.  Amaro means ‘bitter’ in Italian, but Amarone is far from bitter; instead it is a ruby red, full-bodied, dry rich wine, unquestionably one of our favorite Italian reds.  It earned its name to distinguish it from another, slightly sweeter local wine, Recioto.

Villa Monteleone produces five wines: a Valpolicella, a Ripasso, two Amarones, and a Recioto.  Each is excellent, but our favorite was unquestionably the Amarone della Valpolicella D.O.C. Classico Riserva Campo San Paolo.

Lucia’s story is both fascinating and inspiring.  She grew up in Bogotà Colombia, raised her children in Chicago together with her husband, the American pediatric neurosurgeon Anthony Raimondi, and then moved to la Valpolicella with him in the 1980s to make wine, an activity that Lucia oversees on her own today.  She is strong, yet sensitive to the history and traditions of the land and the people that have given us some of the world’s best wine.  She is a business woman, but she is also a passionate defender of authenticity and quality in Valpolicella Classico wines.

But she’s the best one to tell you her story, perhaps over lunch in her garden or with a glass of wine on the villa’s terrace during your, overlooking the vineyards of la Valpolicella during your stay at the Villa Monteleone Bed and Breakfast.

The Wineries of Northern Italy – Tretino-Alto Adige and Alois Lageder

After a week of fun in Rome, we borrowed Stefano’s brother Marco’s Toyota RAV4 and headed north, for a spectacular, 6-day tour of northern Italy.  Our itinerary included tours of 4 wineries, each distinct and unique from one another, but all 4 producers of some of Italy’s best wine, and excellent examples of Italian hospitality.

Our first stop was in Trentino-Alto Adige.  Located in the Dolomite mountains on the border with Austria, this region, also known as Trentino South Tyrol, is heavily influences by its Austrian-Hungarian roots.  We stayed in a tiny city called Cortaccia, located along a road called La strada del vino, or the road of wine.  Even though we were still in Italy, this area was culturally much more German than Italian; many people we encountered were bilingual, but at our hotel we had to resort to English on several occasions because the German-speaking staff did not speak Italian.

Cortaccia sulla strada del vino is located just south of Bolzano, in the Dolomite mountains in an area known as South Tyrol.

The German influence is evident in the architecture of Cortaccia.

Nonetheless,we were welcomed and well-treated at the Turmhotel Schwarz-Adler.  The morning view from the balcony off of our room was lovely, and the boys enjoyed the swimming pool with its view of the mountains in the distance.

The view from the balcony of our room at Turmhotel Schwarz Adler

Just down the winding mountain road from Cortaccia is a sleepy little town called Magrè.  One would never suspect that it is home to the Alois Lageder winery, a sophisticated wine production facility designed in accordance with sustainable and ecological building practices.

We arrived in Magrè and even though the village it tiny, had to ask a local where the winery was.  Nothing about the town suggests that it is home to such a modern production facility.  However, Paolo our host walked us through the archway into the Löwengang estate, and we discovered a beautiful wine-producing complex.  The office space has a remarkable ceiling system that allows sunlight and cool mountain air to penetrate the space.  Commissioned artwork fills the walls and the open spaces, the most notable a permanent exhibit of three large, square glass containers containing the soils and plants of the three primary microclimates that produce the grapes used to make Lageder wines.

Entering the Lageder wine production facility with our host, Paolo.

The roof of the Lageder office space lets in sunlight and the cool mountain breeze.

A living art exhibit captures the soils and plants from the three main microclimates.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Lageder winery is how the vinification facility was designed to leverage the force of gravity in the handling of the grapes, must and wine, to render the winemaking process as efficient, gentle and ecological as possible.  This was done through a 17-meter tall vinification tower located at the heart of our winemaking facilities.  Grapes are deposited into the top of the tower, and are cellared in free fall, with gravity pulling the must down into tanks below without the use of pumps or other mechanical transport systems.

Lageder vinification tower. Photo from http://www.aloislageder.eu/en/cellar

Two labels make up the portfolio of Lageder wines.  The Alois Lageder label includes wines made partly from grapes grown in Lageder biodynamically farmed vineyards, but predominantly from grapes purchased from local growers.  The Tenutæ Lageder wines are made entirely from grapes that are grown in the Lageder estate vineyards, which are all biodynamically farmed.  Lageder produces an unusually high number of wines, mostly whites such as Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, but their Pinot Nero is notable, as well.

At the end of our tour, Paolo guided us through a tasting of nearly 20 of those wines and came home with a 2009 LEHEN Sauvignon, a 2011 BETA DELTA Chardonnay – Pinot Grigio, a 2008 KRAFUSS Pinot Noir, and a 2000 COR RÖMIGBERG Cabernet Sauvignon that Paolo pulled out the Lageder cellar for us.

Magrè is home one of the 3-4 oldest vines in the world, dating back to the 1600s.

Read more about Due Spaghetti’s trip to Italy in our previous posts: Date Night in Rome, and Il Cinquino di Zio Marco and Ciao, Roma!, and  check out our Due Spaghetti Facebook page for more trip photos.

Date Night in Rome

Date Night in Rome – cheap wine, an ancient Roman garbage dump, and butchered animal scraps.

The boys were more than happy to stay home with Nonna and eat a big plate of her pasta e fagioli, while Stefano and I enjoyed a rare evening out together – even more rare in that we are in Rome.

Date night in Rome is a definite treat.  The setting sun illuminates the pastel facades of the city’s palazzi, making the everything glow with intense color.  The air finally cools, a breeze picks up and people emerge from their homes and offices to enjoy their marvelous town.  Restaurants and bars buzz, and the many outdoor concerts and festivals are jammed with people.

We decided on dinner at an osteria that we’ve heard a lot about lately – Flavio al Velavevodetto. We first read about Flavio al Velavevodetto in London’s Guardian newspaper.  Then, Kathy from a Food Lover’s Odyssey wrote about it.  Researching it further, we discovered that food writer Elizabeth Minchilli featured it on her blog, as well.  We used to be suspicious of local places that had been reviewed and publicized by the Anglo world, but we’ve come to realize that some of these food reviewers really know Rome, and Roman cuisine.  Plus, the name itself is playfully fun – velavevodetto is Roman slang for, “I told you so.”

As it turned out, they were right – it is a fabulous place!  But before we jump right to the end of the story, we need to explain a few things about date night in a Roman osteria.  You see, it involves cheap wine, an ancient Roman garbage dump, and butchered animal scraps.

Osterie Romane
Osteria comes from oste, or ‘host’ in English.  Traditionally, osterie served wine and very simple food.  More recently, osterie have simple menus and are usually known for serving traditional dishes in a relaxed, neighborhood atmosphere.  They have slightly more informal origins than trattorie, although the two have in common that they feature local food and are usually less expensive than a ristorante.

Monte Testaccio
Some of the best osterie are found in the ancient Roman neighborhood of Testaccio.  Testaccio takes its name from Monte Testaccio, a man-made hill 35 meters high made up of broken clay pots called anfore in Italian or ‘amphorae’ in English, that date back to Ancient Rome.  The amphorae contained olive oil, and were broken and discarded in an orderly and systematic way on the hill.  According to wikipedia, the remains of up to 53 million olive oil amphorae make up Monte Testaccio.

Flavio al Velavevodetto is located along Via di Monte Testaccio, and its dining room rests up against Monte Testaccio.  At the back of the dining room, three arch windows were cut out of the wall and covered with glass to display the amphorae behind them.

La Cucina Romana
Offal (noun).  The internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal.

Throughout history, Rome has been an important city gastronomically.  However, as social classes formed and became increasingly disparate, Rome’s poor became skilled at making good use of what is called il quinto quarto, or the ‘fifth quarter’ of meat, referring to the organs, entrails, brains, of the animal as well as less prestigious cuts of meat such as oxtail. These are carefully prepared, often in umido, stewed for hours in seasoned tomato sauce.

The menu at Flavio al Velavevodetto was typically Roman, and the atmosphere was one of a true Roman osteria, albeit one with a Michelin recognized kitchen.  There were a few tourists, but the place was packed with Romans of all ages, too.  The cute couple next to us who looked no older than their late teens conversed as they ate their generous plates of oxtail in tomato sauce, while two middle-aged Roman women finished off their dinner with a glass of amaro, a bitter, after-dinner herbal liquor that serves as a digestif.

Here were our choices:

I primi piatti
Stefano ordered a first course of rigatoni con la pajataLa pajata is made from the intestine of a veal that has been nourished with its mother’s milk only, and is a delicacy only a true Roman can appreciate.

Cara ordered ravioli alla velavevodetto.  These were filled with fresh cow’s milk ricotta and spinach, and served in a sauce made from minced herbs (mint, mentuccia romana, basil, oregano, thyme, and majoram) blended with ricotta salata, garnished with split cherry tomatoes and a dollop of ricotta.

Our first courses were so good that had the meal ended then we would have gone home satisfied and happy.  But alas, there was more…

I secondi piatti
A true Roman, Stefano ordered trippa alla romana (tripe), the culinary term for the lining of the first chamber of a cow’s stomach  Cara ordered the misto umido, which consisted of one meatball, one oxtail and one involtino alla romana (a thin strip of beef rolled tightly together with herbs and a piece of prosciuto), all slow-cooked in a delicious red sauce until tender and savory.

Contorni
We ordered a delicious side dish of escarole that was boiled and then sautéed with black olives, capers and pine nutes, and a salad of mixed baby greens with a side dressing of olive oil and anchovy paste.  The side dressing was actually designed to dress le puntarelle, a delicious Roman chicory, but sadly there were none that night.

Vino
There is no wine list at Flavio al Velavevodetto.  Instead, patrons are invited to walk right up to the shelves storing the wine selection and choose a bottle that suits them.  The quality and selection of wines was inpressive, and the prices were very reasonable.  Cheap wine, in other words, but very good wine.  We chose a 2007 Poliziano Asinone, and were delighted.

Dolce
We’d heard about Flavio’s variation on the classic Italian dessert tiramisù, and decided that we had to share one to try it.  Absent were the savoiardi and liquor characteristic to the traditional tiramisù recipe.  Instead, a very smooth, very eggy mascarpone cream sat on top of a tablespoon of espresso on the bottom and a crumbly cookie in the middle of a simple Italian water glass.  Pieces of fudgy dark chocolate floated in the middle of all of that goodness, while a pool of chocolate rested on top.

Stefano told the friendly and helpful waitstaff that second to his mamma’s dinners, it was the best meal he has had since returning to Rome.

Il Cinquino di Zio Marco

A few months back when the new Fiat 500 was released in the States, we test drove it and gave it our review.  As it appears, the car that we really have our hearts set on, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, may not make it to the States at all, or if it does it may be released as a Dodge Dart.  Nothing personal, Dodge.  But when you really want an Alfa, a Dodge Dart just won’t due.  Sergio Marchionne, are you listening?

The new Fiat 500 Abarth is now out in the States.  It’s sporty and fun, so we just may need to look into that, instead.

Here in Rome, we’ve been having fun with Stefano’s brother Marco’s original 1969 Fiat 500, affectionately known in Italy as il cinquino.  Refurbished and running like a charm, it’s Marco’s get-around car.  The only trick to driving it is knowing how to do la doppietta, a double-clutching technique that prevents the gears from grind when shifting up and down.

La doppietta works like this:

  • Press the clutch down and pull the gear into neutral.
  • Release the clutch.
  • Quickly press the accelerator up and down once or twice to bring rev up the motor.
  • Press the clutch again and gently move the stick shift into the correct gear.

Here’s our photo shoot of our evening of fun in Zio Marco’s cinquino.

Ciao, Roma!

Ciao, Roma!  It’s been too long.

We had a perfect day to visit our favorite city – it was hot but not sweltering, and a cool breeze competed with the splendid sun, offering us reprieve from the heat.

Via Condotti e Antico Caffè Greco
We took the Metro to Piazza di Spagna, and then worked our way down Via Condotti and Via Borgognona, strade romane dotted with the flagship stores of Italy’s most famous designers.  Window shopping for alta moda is hard work, so we took a break and ducked into Antico Caffè Greco, the oldest bar in Rome, for a coffee.

Il Pantheon, Caffe’ Sant’Eustachio ed Enoteca al Parlamento
A trip to Rome’s historical center must include our favorite monument, the Pantheon, a temple originally built in 27-25 B.C. and dedicated to the goddess Olympia.  It was as magnificent as always today!  A quick stop for pizza al taglio was really just an excuse for another coffee, this time a creamy Gran Caffè  from Caffe’ Sant’ Eustachio, arguably the best coffee in Rome.  We found Sant’Eustachio surprisingly calm, and were happy to not have to press up against the other Romans and tourists to work out way to the bar.  Caffeinated and energized, we headed toward Piazza Navona and came upon Enoteca al Parlamento, a historical wine shop and bar filled from floor to ceiling with dusty bottles of Italian wine (some of it very high quality), along with preserves, spreads, candies and other delicacies.

Piazza Navona e Gelateria del Teatro
After browsing the artist stands and admiring Bernini’s famous fountains in Piazza Navona, we headed down Via dei Coronari toward one of Rome’s best gelaterie, Gelateria del Teatro.  This is the epitome of gelato artiginale, hand-crafted, inventive gelato made from all natural ingredients.  The Pistacchio and Ricotta, Fico e Mandorle Tostate (Ricotta, Fig and Toasted Almond) cone was spectacular, and we made a mental note to return for Pesca Bianca e Lavanda (White Peach and Lavender).

Il Tevere e la Grattachecca
It didn’t matter that we’d just had gelato.  We were really craving a Roman grattachecca, hand-shaved ice drizzled with syrup and adorned with fruit.  The grattachecche vendors are typically found along Lungotevere, the road that winds alongside il Tevere, or the Tiber river.  As predicted, we came across one at Ponte Umberto I.  We chose a black cherry and a mint one, and agreed to bits of fresh coconut on top.

The grattachecche gave us just enough energy to walk back to the Metro at Piazza Barberini and ride home in the cool and fast-travelling underground train…just in time for our nephew Davide’s 3rd birthday party, which lasted well into the night.  Stay tuned for birthday parties, Italian style!

Sugo di pomodoro fresco

We’re all packed for Rome.  It didn’t take much – with this heat there simply are not that many clothes we need to bring.  Our weather app showed 100°F/38°C in Rome today, and 97°F/36°C tomorrow.  It’s sizzling.

It doesn’t matter – we’re excited to go!  We’ll take Due Spaghetti on the road, taking foto of the foods we eat, the places we visit, and the people we meet. From Stefano’s mom’s apartment, to our favorite places in Rome, on our road trip through northern Italy’s wine country, and concluding in the Cinque Terre, we’ll chronicle our travels and take note of our favorite finds.  We’ll update the blog as time permits, and tweet in between.  Join us!  We’d love to read your comments, learn of your suggestions, and answer your questions.

It seemed appropriate to make a simply fresh tomato and basil sauce for the final meal before we leave.  Called sugo al pomodoro fresco in Italian, there are no canned tomatoes needed.  Instead, this sauce is made from the fresh, flavorful, tomatoes of summer.  Fresh and light, it is a perfect way to dress pasta.

You will need a food mill to make sugo al pomodoro fresco. Our favorite is made by Oxo, and can be found in most kitchenware stores, or on our Due Spaghetti aStore.

Ingredients
8-12 medium San Marzano or on-the-vine tomatoes
one small bunch of basil
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste

Directions
Slice the tomatoes into quarters.  Remove the cores and seeds, and place the tomatoes into a sauce pan.  Cover, and cook on medium-low head until they deconstruct, approximately 10-15 minutes.  Pass the tomatoes through a food mill to remove the skin and any sinewy parts, and back into a saucepan.  Simmer over low heat with the olive oil for another 10-15 minutes. Salt to taste, and add the basil during the final few minutes.

Toss together with your pasta of choice cooked al dente, and serve with a grating of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Arrivederci!  Ci vediamo in Italia.