When the opportunity arises to try food and wine from a region I’ve not visited, I will drop everything and go.  Once, I flew from Bellingham, Washington to Anchorage, Alaska  just to have lunch at a pizzeria and brewery, and flew back the same day.  Back in May, while I was visiting San Diego, I had a similar situation present itself. So, back to Portland I scampered, and a couple of emails later, I was on a flight to Brindisi, Italy.

Brindisi is a port city located in Puglia, often referred to as the Salento, and sometimes known as the boot heel of southern Italy. This was not my first trip to Italy, but it was my first trip to southern Italy. They make delightful wines and the region has been a favorite of mine since the eighties.

As for food, a lot of Italian food recipes made by home cooks in the United States are usually dishes descended from Italy’s southern region, Puglia.  My impetus to make this long arduous, painful journey was a cookbook that has brought me an abundant amount of joy and inspiration. And this isn’t any ordinary cookbook, but the wonderful ‘La Bella Cucina‘ written by San Francisco born writer Viana La Place.

This cookbook brings together the best recipes and the true essence of Italian cooking—bringing to life the way Italians cook, eat and live. It was La Bella Cucina that introduced me to the wonderful pastas made by Benedetto Cavalieri. Getting to meet the man behind the pasta probably meant a lot more to me than most.

Benedetto

Benedetto

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Mr. Benedetto Cavalieri, the man behind the wonderful pastas

Much like in the recent movie Burnt, the main character sentences himself to shucking one million oysters at a bar in New Orleans; I too, once sentenced myself to punishment in a restaurant. My punishment of choice was working sauté at the original Papa Razzi in Back Bay, Boston, where I made two or three hundred dishes of pasta a night for a couple of years.

Consequently, I might be a little fanatical about noodles, so meeting Benedetto Cavalieri was monumental to a pasta primadonna like myself. Cavalieri’s pasta is made by artisans for artisans to use as their medium for their artistic pasta expressions. I truly believe one of the best human achievements is the combination of pasta and sauce; when done right, it rises to art in an edible form.  I’m pretty sure the entire Cavalieri family, and apparently the production staff, also had the same sentiments for pasta.

In the sunny, windy hills of Puglia, they produce some of the finest quality durum wheat on the planet. This wheat is so special, that the only other ingredient needed for perfect dried pasta is pure water. The water for this magnificent pasta is sourced from a spring of the Sele River.

This source of water and the wheat from Puglia are the only two ingredients used to make Benedetto Cavalieri pasta. Benedetto and his son, Andrea, make these pastas in Lecce, Italy. Try Cavalieri pasta the next time you’ve made a sauce that deserves the best. At the recent grand opening of Eataly in Boston, I was elated to see Benedetto Cavalieri pastas on the shelves. You can order them from Eataly online or pick them up at their stores in New York, Chicago, and Boston; they are also opening a new store here on the West Coast in Los Angeles soon.

In Portland, Oregon you will find these pastas at Zupans locations. However there is nothing like witnessing the pasta freshly made and picking some up at the production facility, so go to Puglia and visit Benedetto Cavalieri. I also highly recommend visiting the city of Lecce in the Salerno; it’s the perfect place to experience the traditional Italian passeggiata.

Speaking of strolling in the evening, I had the pleasure of taking a passeggiata with several world renowned sommeliers and Lorenzo Zonin of Podere San Cristoforo at one of the most unique settings imaginable, at the La Cutura Botanical Garden.

As the sun waned, the light shifted through elements of color that evoked an emotional responsethe kind usually experienced only when viewing an exquisite piece of art or while listening to a heartfelt cut of music.

cactus

Cactus in Puglia, who knew?

This magical setting is also the home of La Cutura Giardino Botanico De`jeuner sur l’Herbe, the understated house of gastronomy inside the gardens.   I can think of no other locale as enchanted or fitting to indulge in the culinary excellence of Spaghettoni with Parmesan, lemon and Massaeria Altemura Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Of course, the dish was made with Benedetto Cavalieri’s dried artisan pasta.

marc-hinton

I really enjoyed making pasta with the Massaeria Altemura gang!

Our host Lorenzo Zonin paired a wonderful 2012 Aquilis, Friuli Sauvignon Aquieleia from his family’s winery Tenuta Ca Bolani. The pairing was phenomenal. This simple pasta paired with this wine was as beautiful as the setting where the dish was consumed.  No meal in the Salento should be limited to only one pasta dish, and this gastronomic experience was no exception. Our second course was another of Benedetto’s exceptional pastas. This cut of pasta, Ruote Pazze, seldom graces the dinner table here in the United States. The name translates to ‘CrazyWheels’ and would be a good shape to serve to children.

La Cutura Giardino Botanico De`jeuner sur l’Herbe

Restaurant La Cutura Giardino Botanico De`jeuner sur l’Herbe

Our dish combined this pasta with roasted vegetables grown in the gardens at La Cutura. Accompanying the dish was our secondi, meatballs, vegetable fritters, and one of my all-time favorite Italian vegetarian creations, Involtini di Melanzane. For this course, Lorenzo pulled out the big guns—three different red wines from three of his family’s wineries, Feudo Principi di Butera, Rocca di Montemassi, and one of my longtime favorites, Castello d’Albola.  I’ve consumed Chianti from this property for more than four decades, and never had a bad vintage.

zonin wine

The wines paired with dinner. Delicious.

With the meatballs, I preferred the 2013 Deliella a Nero D’ Avola from the Sicilian producer Feudo Principi di Butera.  This wine is produced from low yielding vines that insure high quality fruit. The 2013 Toscana IGT from Roca di Montemassi is primarily a blend of Petite Verdot with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot rounding out the balance. This smooth, luxurious wine is from the Maremma region of Tuscany and it paired well with the eggplant rolls and also the Ruote Pazze. I love Sangiovese, especially when it is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2013 Acciaiolo from Castello d’Albola represents both of those grapes well. Of the three red wines, Acciaiolo went with everything including chocolate.

That worked out really well as our desert course just happened to be chocolate cake made by Vincente Maglio. This wasn’t any ordinary chocolate, but Maglio Chocolate in the form of a flourless chocolate cake with chocolate ganache icing.

Cake

Maglio flourless chocolate cake with chocolate ganache icing

As the meal was winding down, I sat in La Cutura’s courtyard sipping a Moscato d’ Asti DOCG made by Castello del Poggio.  Surrounded by such talented and gracious company, I contemplated the vast amount of information about this region that was bestowed upon me.

I then pondered, how can I help others learn about this sometimes undervalued and overlooked region of Italy?  The food, the wine, and the people, combined with the natural beauty of the Adriatic Sea’s brilliant coastline, made this excursion a memory I will always hold dear to my heart.

beach in Italy

The Adriatic Sea’s brilliant coastline

Because many of us here in the United States are planning holiday meals this time of year, my hope is to inspire your next celebration meal by showcasing these wines and dishes. Perhaps your next feast will become a celebration of life, while serving your friends and family the best wine and food in the true spirit of hospitality.

The Zonin family knows how to celebrate hospitality with pride and rightly so. They have been doing it since 1821.  Gianni Zonin ran the company from 1967 to 2014, transforming the business from a local producer from the Veneto Region, to becoming one of Italy’s most important wine producers.

The Zonin family’s portfolio now includes nine wineries located in seven of the most renowned wine regions in Italy and two here in the United States. As the Zonin family winery estates expanded, Gianni Zonin’s nephew Lorenzo has become the brand ambassador. His relentless dedication to using social media and other modern marketing tools for brand management awareness has catapulted the Zonin brand into the limelight.

Lorenzo conveys a passion for achieving the highest quality experience possible at all of the family’s properties through hosting these Gastronomic Experiences.  Proving once again just because you are a large company, it does not mean you have to lose your competitive edge or unique individuality.

The culmination of experiencing all of these producer’s fabulously tasty products after visiting their facilities was an unforgettable meal served in the most surreal of locations—a botanical garden filled with Cacti.  Cactus in Puglia, who knew? Fortunately for me, I did not have to return to Portland the next day like I did on that Alaska trip!

Stay tuned for more upcoming posts about the Gastronomic Experience, and the wines from Zonin1821.