Saturday, May 19, 2012

Chianti Classico: Italian reserve

Tommaso Marrocchesi Marzi, dapper in a three-piece, pin-striped suit, is pouring his wines at the Cheese Cellar, at the foot of the Space Needle. He and his brother, Federico, are the fifth generation of the family-owned Tenuta di Bibbiano estate in the Chianti Classico hills of Tuscany, midway between Florence and Siena.

It's a 500-acre estate in the rolling hills of Tuscany, full of olive trees and vineyards. Young Tommaso, with a degree in business and economics, has been in charge for the past 12 years.

From the 50 vineyard acres in production, Bibbiano produces roughly 10,000 cases of wine, the best part being about 15,000 bottles a year of Chianti Classico Riserva from the vineyard called Vigna del Capannino. It's named for the family's shooting blinds on the steep hillside; grandpa, it seems, liked to bang away at pigeons.

The wines are what you'd expect of long-established Chianti Classico vines: the rich, plummy flavors of Sangiovese Grosso grapes, 16 months of oak aging, a textbook Chianti Classico. What's unexpected is the price: $28. It could be the best bargain in Seattle.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Godfather moves on. Ciao, Luciano!

It was mid-morning on a Tuesday, and Luciano Bardinelli had just lit his first cigar of the day, On Sunday, Mother's Day, he'd served a full house; on Monday, he'd packed up his files and belongings. After a lifetime as an owner, headwaiter, manager, occasional line cook, waiter, busboy, Luciano was not going to work in one of his own restaurants. "My first day as a free man."

Luciano (no one calls him Signor Bardinelli for long) had come to Seattle exactly 30 years ago, in 1982. There was no Tom Douglas, no Ethan Stowell. There were no websites to chronicle the comings and goings of platoons of energetic young chefs, no, no Voracious, no ChowHound.

Born on the shores of Lago Maggiore, in the northern Italian Alps, Luciano had already managed exclusive restaurants and private clubs in Las Vegas and the Hollywood Hills. One fine autumn day in 1981 he happened to pay a call on a friend in Seattle, and found that the landscape of red and yellow leaves reminded him of home. Within months, he had left the desert and driven to Seattle, the radio of his U-Haul tuned to the Kentucky Derby. ("The winner was a long shot named Gato del Sol," he recalls.)

Luciano became the Godfather to Seattle's Italian restaurant renaissance. He was not a chef by training or temperament; his strong suit was Armani (topped these days by a full head of white hair), served with an urbane elegance. French was the cuisine of prestige back then, but Settebello, his first Seattle restaurant, on Capitol Hill was decidedly Italian. Not low-brow, Spaghetti House meatballs-in-red-sauce but classy, suave northern Italian: osso buco, agnolotti stuffed with veal, tiramisu. In the course of its ten-year run, it changed the way Seattle thought about food--not just Italian food, but restaurant food in general.

One of his cooks was Scott Carsberg, who'd fallen in love with Italian food, and went on to start Lampreia and Bisato; he's the exception: a chef who really knows and understands Italian cooking. A mutual friend says, "Luciano has a point when he says that these Americans go to Italy for three months and think they know how to make pasta and cook Italian food. The soba masters in Japan study the art of making noodles for 15 years, and then spend the next 30 perfecting it. You can't just order it frozen from California." In an interview for the Seattle Times five years ago, Carsberg returned the compliment: "Luciano was the best front man in the Italian genre. He brought modern Italian cuisine to Seattle."

Vancouver, BC, had a similarly gregarious Italian promoter named Umberto Menghi, who'd started building a restaurant empire ten years earlier. Word got around, and pretty soon Umberto sent down his associate, Carmine Smeraldo, to open an outpost in Pioneer Square. Umberto withdrew within a couple of years but Carmine remained; he and Luciano became best friends.

"Carmine and I were the same age. We were like brothers," Luciano told me this week. "After he died in January, I thought, it's time to scale down and do something else." (There's a third "brother," Raffaele Calise, who's still working at Picolino's in Ballard.)

What Luciano has been doing for three decades, of course, was opening and running restaurants. A string of them after Settebello: Stresa, Sans Souci, Italianissimo, among others. Sometimes he'd become a minority partner and help out a friend; sometimes he'd make bad bets on a location or a concept; sometimes he'd become distracted by marital problems. His last place, Ristorante Luciano, had a great location, Bellevue Square; a landlord, Kemper Freeman, with a reputation for being hard-nosed; and a clientele of Yelpers quick to complain about high prices and a mis-fired dish.

"I owed a lot of money, but Mr. Freeman released me. And he gave me a going-away party. He paid for 60-70 people." In attendance: Eastsiders who'd been coming to the restaurant regularly, along with a few Seattle diners who'd remained loyal.

At Bellevue Square, a new tenant is already lined up: Spice Route Cuisine, a mid-market Indian restaurant, currently at Crossroads. As for Luciano, after taking some time off for a trip back to Italy, he'll resettle in Morro Bay, Calif., where he has his eye on a little house (the Beach House Bistro) overlooking the Pacific. "Twenty seats, retired people who come in two-three times a week. I'll go to the market for produce and fish and fix a fresh menu every day." He hopes to be open by mid-summer.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Glamor on the Mediterranean

Ya gotta hand it to the Italians: no sooner do they crash a fancy boat but they get their folks to buy another one. You remember the Costa Concordia, no doubt. The house arrest of the skipper, Francesco Schettino, was just reconfirmed by a magistrate, while the investigation into crew members and company execs drags on. But that didn't stop the Costa Crosciere line (owned by Carnival Cruises, in case you forgot) from launching a fancy new replacement, the Costa Fascinosa, in Venice this morning. The president of the company told well-wishers that bookings are back to normal. The Fascinosa is every bit as large and luxurious (114,500 gross tons, 3,780 passengers) as its ill-fated class-mate, the Concordia.

Italy's tourism minister, Piero Gnudi, was on hand for the launch. He said that tourism can help Italy create 1.6 million jobs over the next decade. "In Italy we have many forms of tourism, and we need to strengthen them all," he said. "In recent years we have made the mistake of considering tourism as the Cinderella of the economy. We have invested little and lost market share."

Sounds like what I was saying on Crosscut as well as this very blog months and months ago.

Can you imagine what 1.6 million new jobs would mean for Italy, a country that can't even meet the Social Security payments for its own citizens? At least the Fincantiere shipyard in the northern Adriatic got 18 months of work out of the 500-million-euro ship's construction. I'm just a little wobbly on the name, selected by plebiscite on the company's website: Fascinosa (Fascinating, Glamorous) beat out Favoloso (Fabulous). My vote went for Inaffondabile (Unsinkable).