Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of how radically wine lists in restaurants have changed over the past, oh, fifteen years or so. I've been on a sort of Italian-resto-spree lately, and I'm coming out of it thinking that I'm either dreaming or I'm living in a golden age of Italian wine and food here in NYC.
Example One: Scarpetta. I've been a fan of Scott Conant's cooking since the first bite I had of his luscious polenta with wild mushroom fricassee at L'Impero, a dish which, I'm thrilled to find, he's replicated on the menu at his new restaurant, Scarpetta. I've been here a few times in the past month or so, and it's quickly becoming one of my favorite spots in the city, partly because it seems like Conant has finally landed in a place where the ambience of the room is of a piece with the character of the food. I loved L'Impero, but it was a tad formal for my taste; Alto was like watching Cezanne try to paint like Tintoretto or something; Scarpetta nails it. And besides the presence of things like Conant's signature capretto (roasted baby goat, and mighty darn good it is), there's also the smart, adventurous, and fairly priced wine list. We drank a terrific white, the 2006 Vadiaperti Fiano di Avellino, about which I know nothing but that it's packed with flavor and focused all at once. Next, a bottle of the 2006 Hofstätter Lagrein. Its bright acidity played foil to its dark, chewy fruit, and both went ideally well with Conant's rich duck-and-foie gras ravioli, not to mention his fall-apart-tender short ribs.
Example Two: Bar Milano. First off, if you're lucky, then partner Tony Abou-Ganim is going to be behind the bar mixing drinks here, as he was the night I stopped in. I asked him to make me something interesting with rye. He replied with a Rattlesnake, which, according to the 1947 edition of Trader Vic's Bartender's Guide is one ounce of rye, two dashes of Pernod, a teaspoon of lemon juice, a half-teaspoon of powdered sugar, and half an egg white, shaken with cracked ice and (in my case) strained onto rocks. Sublime on a steamy evening, and a good lead-in to poking around Bar Milano's all-Northern-Italian wine list. I bypassed the exceptionally weird 2005 Movia Lunar—I love Ales Kristancic's wines, but this stuff is odd to a fault—and instead settled on a bottle of the 2006 Grosjean Freres Cornalin from the Valle D'Aosta. This is the kind of wine that never, ever, in a million years would have appeared on a wine list back in, say, 1985 or even 1995. Utterly obscure, it was also mighty darn delicious—bright red fruit, potent but not weighty, distinctive and very fresh. Good with duck, you might think. I did, and it was. Plus the duck itself was superb, the skin crisp to a just-so toothsomeness, the meat tender and deeply flavorful (Pekin from D'Artagnan—good to know), the rhubarb compote that came with it a nice tangy-sweet touch as were the earthy, savory lentils.
Example Three: Dell' Anima. One thing I like about this place is that practically every bottle that wine director Joe Campanale offers probably wouldn't have appeared on a wine list back in 1995 (with maybe the exception of some of the Tuscan & Piedmontese wines). The list is like a playground for Italian wine fanatics. In the mood for a little Fumin? A glass of Cesanese del Piglio? Or maybe some Petite Arvine—I was, for the latter, since I was still on my Valle d'Aosta kick. The 2006 Grosjean Freres Petite Arvine (those guys again!) was unctuous and rich; lots of texture, lots of minerality, and very good with avocado & preserved lemon bruschetta, a snack which wasn't exactly Italian but somehow very much was, all at the same time. Next up was a 2007 Romano Clelia Fiano d'Avelino "Colli di Lapio", about the best Fiano I've run across (including the Vadiaperti, much as I liked it). Melony, aromatic, and long, it was substantial enough to go with chef Gabe Thompson's intensely woodsy Garganelli with mushroom ragu (a died-and-gone-to-heaven dish for mushroom fanatics) yet graceful enough to also go with something as evocative of springtime as Thompson's farfalline with asparagus, ricotta salata and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.
And I forgot to mention: we started off at Dell'Anima with a bottle of white Lini Lambrusco, which is made from red Lambrusco Salamino grapes, just to make things even a tad more complicated. It was like drinking lightly sweet flowers.
Man, this Italian wine-list thing. Esoterica everywhere. But it sure is fun.