Eat and Drink Like a Roman
I arrived in Frascati to the scene of a murder. That is, the cinematic scene of one, as the grand, 17th-century villa-turned-hotel where I was staying had been taken over by an English film crew shooting a dramatization of one of writer Michael Dibdin's mysteries. I handed over my credit card to the sound of gunshots; then, going around a corner, I nearly got bashed by a guy moving a big light. Upstairs, my room was adjacent to that of the film's detective, Aurelio Zen. I knew this because there was a paper sign on the door that said, simply, "Zen." How ironic, I thought. Little did my next-door neighbor know that I was here in the Castelli Romani, the serene hills south of Rome, to investigate a few mysteries of my own.
© John Kernick
The Castelli Romani are part of Lazio, a fascinating wine region that encircles one of the world's great cities, Rome, but somehow remains relatively untouristed. I wanted to know: Why do so many travelers ignore Lazio? Where I was in particular, in the hills, there are stunning villas to see, some of the best food in Italy and—most exciting, if you're a part-time wine detective like me—newly ambitious wineries to visit. The weather is mild; the swallows swoop prettily, as swallows have done for thousands of years; and every mile or two, there's a roadside truck selling porchetta (a whole pig stuffed with herbs and spit-roasted, served sliced on bread), which pretty much trounces any other street food I've ever had. And all of this is only 45 minutes or so from the Spanish Steps. As they say in some of New York's rougher wine bars, "Go figure."
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Anyway, all that brought me to mystery No. 2, which was a straight-up murder. Who—or what—had killed Frascati? I should probably clarify that I don't mean the town of Frascati. The town of Frascati is fine. The town is full of happy Italian families eating porchetta. The town, for that matter, is home to the lovely Antico Forno Molinari, a bakery where, since the 1800s, shoppers have been able to pick up the delicious brutti ma buoni "ugly but good" cookies, as well as the rather odd bà mbola frascatana cookies, which are shaped like a woman with three breasts—two for milk and one, apparently, for wine.
No, I meant who killed Frascati, the wine. But killed its reputation, not its production: There are still millions of bottles of Frascati produced each year. But Frascati used to be more respected, even famous. Roman senators prized it (or at least a similar wine, since it wasn't yet known as Frascati at that time). Renaissance Popes drank it. Frascati was one of the first wine regions awarded DOC status, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata, a kind of imprimatur of quality from the Italian government. And the wine is clearly important to the Lazio region—in the village of Marino, the locals go so far as to pipe Frascati through the plumbing system for their annual harvest festival so that streams of it, free for everyone, flow out of a fountain in the center of town.
© John Kernick
To find out what happened to Frascati, I spoke to Mauro Merz, the director of Fontana Candida, which is the largest producer of Frascati and makes about 250,000 cases per year. Under Merz's direction, it has also been a key player in trying to change the image—and the quality—of the wine. Merz grew up in Lazio, and talking to him, one senses that his quest is as much personal as professional. "In the last five years, I've been working hard to relaunch the perception of Frascati," he told me over lunch at the excellent Osteria Fontana Candida. "It was damaged by the commercial success it had in the 1980s and '90s." Wineries were producing far too much wine, he said, "Plus they were planting higher-yielding varieties. Malvasia di Candia, for instance—Malvasia di Candia bunches are the size of a small baby." He estimated this with his hands and frowned. "It is...not so elegant." (The less fecund, more complex Malvasia del Lazio is also used in the Frascati blend, as are Trebbiano, Bombino Bianco, Bellone and others.)
Overproduction, not to mention the use of baby-size grape bunches, is a great way to kill both the quality and reputation of a wine; it has happened in many other places besides Frascati. But Frascati has its own distinct problem. Fabrizio Santarelli of Castel de Paolis, one of the other top wineries in the region, explained the issue to me in one word: "Rome."
We were on the terrace at Castel de Paolis, looking over his vineyards into Rome itself, so close that I could see the dome of St. Peter's winking in the sun. Santarelli's point was clear—20 million people visit the city each year. What better to serve them than a cheap, unobtrusive, convenient white wine? And who better to provide it than the winemakers of Frascati?
Yet Castel de Paolis's Frascati shows that this wine doesn't have to be nondescript at all: Fragrant and lithe, it has the scent of white flowers and the flavor of white peaches. Even better is Fontana Candida's newly released Luna Mater, which takes those qualities and bolsters them with a flinty strength. It's as good a white wine as anything in Italy.
© John Kernick
The detective in me finally figured it out: There were two Frascatis. One was insipid and dull, the other vivacious and exciting. And the first was the villain I'd been hunting. Thankfully, though, there were heroes in the picture, too: the best producers in the region, the ones at the vanguard of a huge leap in quality, making wines that only the most callow tourist could ignore. They had rushed in to save that second Frascati, the exciting one, at the very last minute.
But all of this just led me back to mystery No. 1: Why don't Americans visit Lazio? So what if it has a wine with an image problem? White Zinfandel has an image problem; has that ever stopped anyone from going to California.
No, I thought, as I visited the region's extraordinary villas, sipped espresso at the uncrowded cafés, and listened to every single person speaking Italian around me. Maybe the reason is that Lazio is even more Roman than Rome. In a way, Rome belongs to everyone, and Lazio belongs only to the Romans.
The one exception to that might be a small, trend-obsessed group of American chefs. I'd been spending a portion of my time in Lazio with Shelley and Greg Lindgren. (Shelley, the co-owner of San Francisco's SPQR, was researching a book about central-Italian wines.) But when we got to Osteria di San Cesario, in the little town of the same name, Shelley found out she wasn't the first American restaurant owner to drop by recently. Or the fifth. Or even the 10th. "Twelve, I think," Emilio Ferracci, the son of chef Anna Dente, told us. He made one of those distinctly Italian gestures that seemed to mean, Who knows? "Maybe 13. They all come."
The reason they come is that Roman cuisine is having its moment in the US, with chefs around the country opening Roman-style restaurants, from Mark Vetri's Amis in Philadelphia to Craig Stoll's Locanda, scheduled to open in San Francisco in December (Stoll was one of the chefs who'd come before us). And the reason that's happening is because Roman cuisine is terrific. Plus, the quinto quarto style for which Dente is acclaimed is a kind of 19th-century Roman slaughterhouse version of the "whole animal" cooking that has captivated hipster chefs lately. This occasionally means offal-centric dishes like rigatoni alla pajata, pajata being the intestines of an unweaned calf, still filled with the mother's milk, which coagulates when cooked (yikes). But mostly it means insanely good, as in Dente's pasta all'Amatriciana, with guanciale—cured pork jowl—giving it a porky intensity and purity of flavor that made me want to jump up and run around the table in circles. It's a simple dish. As Emilio said, "There's no secret. Just the guanciale we make ourselves. The true Roman pecorino. The true tomato, from between Naples and Sorrento. The pasta, which we make. And no oil. And no salt."
Simple, yes. But not for nothing is Anna Dente known as the Queen of Matriciana; not for nothing did a baker in one of the towns I visited tell me, "Like the best songs, the best recipes have few ingredients." And not for nothing, third-rate detective that I am, am I still utterly perplexed as to why everyone I know isn't on their way to Lazio right now.