DINING AT THE WINERY

Up in the hills is an agriturismo slash winery. Or is it winery slash agriturismo? Every so often, they host dinners in their cantina … and we were invited. You drive up into the foothills, arrive along a cypress-lined road, park next to some vines, and walk along the gravel path straight into the cantina … a golden retriever sleeping near the entrance … a most inviting benvenuto.

You immediately feel at home, feel welcome … large stainless steel barrels are everywhere, walls painted a typical warm terra cotta color. We didn’t know this winery … Agricola La Matteraia … so were excited to be trying their offerings. That’s part … a big part! … of what we love about Italy. Sipping and sampling, eating and enjoying, dining and discovering. Everyone thinks his or her region’s food the best, and whenever we say we’re touring beyond Tuscany, the response is, Si mangia bene li … one eats well there. They are right. The secret is to eat and drink locally … no drinking of Chianti in Aosta, no eating of Tagliatelle Bolognese in Sicily. (The exception to the rule, of course, is pizza … and then Italians often opt for a birra Moretti.)

Long tables had been set up, as they usually are for these events. But what set this setting apart was the real plates and bowls and glass wine glasses. You sit, family-style, with friends and strangers, shaking hands and exchanging names and commenting on how hungry you are. We are always talkative … David’s mom said he has the gift of gab … and everyone is always curious how — and why — two Californians are living in their neck of the Italian woods.

The meal began with antipasti. But not the usual suspects of prosciutto and salumi and fegatini. The plate had four offerings, three flavors. Two crostini had minced and sauteed mushrooms (what the French call duxelles), then topped with an anchovy … adding an unusual and nice burst of saltiness. There was eggplant sauteed until meltingly tender in tomato sauce. And warm, golden polenta, smooth and medium creaminess (rather like Goldilocks … not too liquidity, not too firm) topped with soft gorgonzola dolce and sauteed onions. I’ve used that combination as a topping for pizza, and I always like when my ideas are used by other chefs. Needless to say, that was my favorite …

Then came lasagna. And not just any old lasagna, but one with layers of very thin pasta, soft slices of cooked zucchini, and rich besciamella, lightly browned and not quite bubbling. I was served a corner square, a piece I would not have selected for myself, but I really enjoyed the crispy edge, pasta curled up and caramelized and crunchy from the heat of the oven … contrasting the softness of the main lasagna-ness. It was subtle and simple and so good.

Since it’s a winery, we drank white wine … Pigolo. Made with Muller Thurgau grapes that are usually grown in Trentino, a more northerly region, this winemaker has found that they grow well in this microclimate, too. Hearty at 13%, it had a nice assertiveness without being too alcohol-y or too acid-y.

Much to our surprise and delight, they brought out tortelli. Ravioli. Pale green, the little squares were filled with ricotta and what I thought was spinach. But I was wrong. One of my tablemates, Sabrina, said it was ortica. I hadn’t recognize that word, that vegetable, her description … and she was nice enough to go outside for a better internet connection. Coming back, Sabrina said it was nettles. It was terrific, with a gentle flavor. Tossed with butter and sprinkled with parmigiano, I cut each one into a couple of pieces so I could savor every bite. A platter appeared with more, and no one could resist taking a second helping. Ok, just one more. Or two.

And we switched to red wine … Cosimo I … made from Rebo grapes. Another Trentino transplant, the wine was light with red fruit that paired well with the flavors of the ravioli.

We sat and chatted, and my stomach would have been satisfied if the meal were over … but happily for my taste buds, it was not. Platters of meat arrived. One had thin slices of stuffed chicken, the other similar slices of stuffed rabbit, both drizzled lightly with pan juices and slivers/needles of rosemary. One juicy bite told me that the stuffing was pork-based. I asked one of the waitresses, and she said it was a combination of beef, sausage, pancetta, breadcrumbs and parmigiano, plus egg to bind the mixture. Pork, pork and more pork.

Mixed vegetables, cooked until very soft as preferred by many Italians, reminded me of the bounty of David’s garden.

We now drank the flagship wine … M 300. Also made from rebo grapes, this was well-balanced and big, but not overwhelming, with a nice stewed red fruit flavor, and a great complement to the meats. This was the Wine of the Night, as we sometimes call our favorite.

Dessert. Let’s not forget dessert. It was a strudel-shaped slice of buttery crust, more pie-like than flakey, and filled with apples and raisins. Room temperature, it shared the plate with an oval scoop of fiore di latte gelato. My guess is that since this winery grows grapes from Trentino, they also grow apples … because apples also grow well in the far north region.

As we sat and savored, some music started playing. It was one of our zumba songs … and we couldn’t resist busting a move. But the wait staff was still working, clearing and coffee-ing, so we sat down to chat with our friends. But my feet danced under the table and I made the arm gestures with just my hands.

The evening drew to a close. We talked with our hostess, and asked her to please remember to include us on the guest list for the next event … all future events. Maybe truffle season … that’s what I’m thinking and hoping as I write this. Hint hint if they are reading this.

The stars were out … everyone walked slowly back to their cars. Until the next time.

Agricola/Vignolo La Matteraia, Vicchio (FI).

RATATOUILLE

There are as many recipes for this dish as there are French grandmothers. The secret is to brown all the vegetables well to bring out their individual flavors … and, of course, use garden-fresh ingredients. Make as much or as little as you need, adjusting the amount of each vegetable based on your preference (or availability).

Eggplant … cubed
Zucchini … sliced
Onion … chopped
Garlic … minced
Tomatoes … diced
Olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

- In large frying pan, saute eggplant in olive oil. When it is partially cooked, add the zucchini and onion. Drizzle with more olive oil, if necessary.
- When the vegetables have started to brown, add the garlic, salt and pepper.
- Once all of the vegetables are nicely browned and 99% cooked, add the tomatoes and a little salt, and continue to cook until they are soft. If the tomatoes are not very juicy, partially cover the pan to retain the moisture.
- Serve hot or warm or room temperature (never cold). It is very versatile, and you can use it as an antipasto (crostini, bruschetta, puff shells … filling for mushrooms, tomatoes, endive, peppers) … light lunch with tuna … pizza topping … pasta sauce ... side dish with chicken or fish.
Enjoy!

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Linda Mancini … A Forkful of Italy

Linda Mancini … A Forkful of Italy

Life … and cooking … in the Tuscan countryside.

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