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Inspiration and Contraband

Whenever I am fortunate enough to return to Italy for a month or a week, I always return inspired and ready to hop behind the stove. Usually, this means a few tricks up my sleeve and some contraband rice or tuna in my suitcase. One of my steadfast traveling mottos remains, “Whatever customs doesn’t know won’t hurt anybody.” During the colder months, whenever my luggage won’t be spending prolonged periods in the heat, I stuff several large chunks of cheese and even a salame in my bags amidst copious wine bottles.

With a bit of insulation and some time to breathe upon arrival, I successfully transported some 20-plus bottles of wine in my checked suitcases. In addition to costing significantly less in their home country, purchasing in situ allows me to directly support the producers and introduce Tim and Tracy to new, upcoming winemakers I’d love to feature at the shop. We only have so much room on the shelves. We prefer to dedicate that space to smaller, fledgling operations that adhere to our rigorous environmental standards. As I mentioned in a previous dispatch, what is marketed stateside as authentic and natural might be a vastly different reality.

Meals to Remember

Through various difficulties in importing and distribution, most of the best natural wine never leaves Italy. Instead, this delicious juice is destined for tables at nearby trattorie and osterie, where locals pay minimal surcharges and can pair these treasures with the native cuisine. Throughout my travels, I constantly marveled at the innate ability of nearly every cook to marry simple, seasonal ingredients with perfect technique to create a sublime finished product. Alongside these culinary wonders was the wine, that perfect accompaniment capable of elevating already outstanding food to another level.

While in Mantova, I had the fortune to dine at a steakhouse specializing in the prized, local breed of cow. This Piemontese variety is known for its exceptional flavor and marbling due to its almost excessive fat content. The thing that remains etched in my memory, even more than the succulent, perfectly seared T-bone I enjoyed that evening, was the pairing with an effervescent, barely sweet Lambrusco! I had never imagined serving sparkling wine with red meat, let alone one with a lingering, residual sweetness. Contrary to my expectations, the combination was extraordinary and changed my mind about pairing possibilities.

Another element of my gastronomic experience in Italy that was truly inspirational was my various stops at the trattoria dei camionisti or roadside diners. These culinary gems are scattered alongside the major thoroughfares and usually maintain agreements with the big transport companies to expense the food for the truck drivers. And what food it is! These hardworking road warriors are treated to three and four-course meals consisting of fresh pasta specials and local meats and cheeses, all in abundant portions and for a total that never exceeds fifteen euros.

My friend Alex, the importer from Natty Wine, is a specialist on these diners and is compiling a Lonely Planet-style guide for visitors looking to capitalize on Italy’s roadside culinary potential. He recommended a spot outside Bra, the slow-food capital of Piedmont, where I tucked in alongside burly drivers to overflowing plates of tagliatelle bolognese and bocconcini di cinghiale. This latter dish consists of chunks of fresh and local wild boar stewed in a spicy red wine tomato sauce and was complimented by a tall glass of the crisp white wine from Soave. I washed all that down with an espresso and tiramisu for a grand total of thirteen euros, with tip!

The Italian Dispatch #3

The Italian Dispatch #3

Cellar Stank and Citric Acid I left you on a harvest break, relaxing in the grass with an overstuffed mortadella panino and a sawed-off plastic water bottle of crisp, orange wine. Not a terrible way to unwind before moving from the field to the cellar, where things...

The Italian Dispatch #2

The Italian Dispatch #2

Goats, Biodynamic Apples, and Drought Upon arriving in Northern Italy, I found a frighteningly arid landscape dotted with obvious signs of drought. Half the country had received no more than two solid rainfalls throughout the entire calendar year. Climate change is...

The Italian Dispatch #1

The Italian Dispatch #1

Introductions and Footwear Preferences My name is Evan, and you may know me from the shop where I hold down the fort on weekends, espousing my love for all things natty, usually in a reissued vintage pair of Nike Air Max. I recently spent the harvest season in...