5 TUSCAN TOWNS THAT YOU SHOULD BE ON YOUR LIST

 

Tuscan landscape

Tuscany is on a lot of folk’s bucket list and for good reason. It is a beautiful place that offers it all. Great food, wine, history, art and landscapes are all at your fingertips when visiting this central Italian region which is home to just under 4 million people. Florence, the region’s capital, receives almost 2 million visitors each year making it one of the top 100 cities visited worldwide. No wonder it always seems crowded!

Tuscany is where the Renaissance started, dragging itself and the rest of Europe out of the Middle Ages. The region is home to seven Unesco World Heritage Sites. These include the centers of Siena, Florence, San Gimignano and Pienza, the Cathedral of Pisa, the Val d’Orcia and the Medici Villas and Gardens. It also has over 100 protected nature reserves.

There are thousands of wineries and vines are planted virtually everywhere you look. Tuscany boasts the second highest number of DOC/G wines in Italy, right behind Piemonte. These are considered the top of the quality pyramid. Some of them are the most famous wines in the world and include Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano and the Super Tuscans. If you are a wine lover, than Tuscany is a great place to visit and get your wine on.

I’ve visited Tuscany many times. In fact, I spent two months living and working in a small hamlet called Rendola which is in the hills just outside of a town called Montevarchi. (Tip: the Prada outlet is just outside of town) When someone comes to me for advice on visiting, the first thing I ask is where they are staying. Almost, but not always, I am told somewhere in or near Florence. Next, I ask how long they will be in the area. Almost, but not always, I am told 2 or 3 days. Then they will be on to Rome or Venice. I get it. For many it’s a trip of a lifetime and they want to pack in as much of Italy as possible. That’s fine. But, it’s well worth it to spend just a bit more time in Tuscany and seek out the not-so-touristy places.

First, I would suggest a more central location than Florence. Florence is fine but getting in and out is a nightmare most of the time and the hotels and apartments are expensive. Just outside Florence is better and less expensive. But there are better options. I like the area around the town of Poggibonsi. It’s near the main autostrada (highway) linking Florence and Siena. It’s also easy to get to the coast (Pisa, Lucca) and it’s on the edge of the Chianti region. There is no need to go into Poggibonsi itself except to use the market to stock your pantry.

A Tuscan Villa

I like to rent a villa. I know it sounds expensive but most are now chopped up into apartments so they are manageable. Also, if you have a large group, renting a whole villa is very affordable and tons of fun. We’ve done that several times. You can find them on Airbnb, Homeaway and my favorite Parker Villas. We’ve used them many times in the past and have always been happy.

Within Tuscany there are some must-see’s and do’s. Let’s get them out-of-the-way first. Go to Florence for the day. Go to the museums, the Boboli Gardens, the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and Baptistry. Then go to Pisa and see the leaning tower. On the way to Pisa visit San Gimignano with its’ medieval towers. See the walled town of  Monteriggioni, just down the road from Poggibonsi. And go to the Chianti hills for a half-day of wine tasting before heading back to the villa or apartment. You could do all of this in two and a half days. That leaves you plenty of time, if you’re staying put for 5 or six days, to see some other cool places.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of places to visit. There is so much to see and do in Tuscany. Ideally spending a month would be the thing to do. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that luxury. So here are some of my favorites. Most of these visits are half-day affairs so you can do more than one town per day.

Siena from above

Siena

A lot of people skip Siena. Big mistake. It’s my favorite town in Tuscany. Think Florence without the crowds and, more importantly, the cars. Siena is a pedestrian city, no cars allowed in most of the city so you can leisurely stroll without the fear of being run over by a Fiat.

I could spend days in Siena. In fact, I have. The more time you have, the better. It’s the largest of the five I’m recommending and there are lots of things to see and do. Here are the highlights:

Piazza del Campo – This is one of the world’s most celebrated squares and certainly one of the most famous in Italy. Twice each summer the piazza is transformed into a racetrack for the famous horse race Il Palio. Crowds squeeze into every corner to see the action. Riders are chosen from 10 of the 17 contrada, or neighborhoods. Horses are then drawn randomly and the race begins. It is a spectacle. It happens once in July and then again in August. If you plan to attend book your tickets and a place to stay well in advance.

Piazza del Campo is a great way to spend a few hours just taking in the town and people watching. There are many cafes that line the square where you can get a coffee, glass of wine or something to eat. I prefer to grab something from one of the many salumeria that occupy the side streets that feed into the piazza. I always head straight to Pizzicheria de Miccoli for some salumi and formaggi and, if they have it that day, a porchetta sandwich. I then go to Il Campo and spend a leisurely couple of hours with my treats.

Fortezza Medicea (Medici Castle) – This is the old Medici fortress that guards the northwestern portion of town. It’s as interesting as any other old Medici fort but it has something the others don’t. The Enoteca Italiana is in the fortress. This is like a wine museum or library. You can visit the cellars and then taste wines from all over Italy. You can even buy some to take out. This is a must see for wine lovers.

Duomo – Visit Siena’s Gothic Cathedral above the Piazza del Campo. The exterior is magnificent. Inside there are works by Michaelangelo, Donatello, Pisano and Pinturicchio.

Piazza dei Salimbeni – This is not only a beautiful piazza but also home to the oldest bank on the planet, Monte dei Paschi di Siena. The bank was founded in 1472 and has been in the news lately. It may not survive much longer in its’ current form so you may just want to make a visit while it’s still around.

Mangia Tower – This tower, over 100 meters high, sits next to the town hall in Piazza del Campo. Construction was begun in 1325 and completed in 1348. The climb is well worth it. You will be rewarded with a commanding view of the city and surrounding countryside.

There is more to Siena but that should get you started. It’s one of my favorite European towns for just wandering around and getting lost. And if you do get lost, just make your way back to Il Campo and start all over again.

Volterra high on its’ perch

Volterra

The most underrated Tuscan town in my opinion. This Etruscan town dates to at least the 7th century BC. In fact, it is believed that the surrounding area has been continuously inhabited since the 8th century BC. It was one of the most important Etruscan settlements and largest with almost 25,000 inhabitants. The whole town stands perched on a hill 1700 feet above sea level. The area is rich in alabaster and the local artists do wonders with this translucent mineral.

Volterra is a treasure trove of riches from both the Etruscan and Roman periods. There is  an unparalleled collection of Etruscan antiquities from this ancient civilization on display in the Guarnacci Museum. The Porto all’Arco is still intact after 2,000 years. Its’ 3 badly eroded heads keep watch on all who enter the city. The Roman theater just outside the walls dates to the 1st century BC.

I like to just take my time and stroll through the narrow streets and take in as much of the atmosphere as possible. Visit the Duomo (Cathedral), enlarged after an earthquake in the 13th century, to see its’ many paintings, wood carvings and statues from some of the best artists of the time. For a unique experience visit the Fortezza Medicea or Medici Fortress. Part of it is now a prison. At certain times of the year you can have a meal cooked by famous chefs helped by the inmates. Enoteca Scali is a great place to stop for lunch. Very friendly staff and great food and wine.

Montalcino

This hilltop town is a must-see for all wine lovers. It was hard to choose between here and Montepulciano due east on another hill. For pure charm this wins out. The town is small and can be done in half a day. I would  combine this with a visit to one of the wineries that surround the hill. I cannot guarantee which take visitors and which charge for tastings but some of my favorites are: Biondi-Santi; Siro Pacenti; Ucceliera; Pian dell’Orino; Il Palazzone; Carpazo and Sassetti. Here is a handy reference for the producers with a map.

Stroll the narrow streets and take in the view of Val d’Orcia. Try and have lunch at Osticcio. This is an enoteca in the true sense. It’s a wine shop, wine bar and restaurant serving small plates, sandwiches, cheese and salumi. Sit in the back room for stunning views of the valley below.

Sant’Antimo Abbey

Time permitting visit the Sant’Antimo Abbey just south of town. It is one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Tuscany. It was a powerful monastery in the middle ages. The abbey fell into disrepair and remained that way until the 1980’s when efforts were started to restore it. Today there are about a dozen monks who call Sant’Antimo home.

Panzano

Panzano is a small town located on a ridge along the Chiantigiana (Chianti road) exactly halfway between Florence and Siena. This is one of the smaller Chianti towns that is often overlooked but it should not be. There is not much to see and do but stroll the town and look at the remains of a Roman road here and there. It’s a great way to really see and appreciate the small towns of Chianti.

Try to go on a Sunday as you will be in for a treat. Sunday is market day so the piazza is humming with activity. Before you go make a reservation for lunch at Solociccia. Lunch starts at 1PM sharp and the seating is communal. For 30 Euro, you get a 7-course meal. Each course consists of meat from various parts of the cow, cooked using various methods. There is even a tartare version called Tuscan Sushi. And you can bring your own wine. The world’s most famous butcher Dario Cecchini owns the restaurant. His butcher shop is just across the street where it has been for several hundred years. Visit the shop and you’ll be welcomed with a glass of wine, some bruschetta with lardo and other bites to whet your appetite before heading over for lunch.

Talamone, Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano – Yes, I know that’s three towns but they are all worth visiting and are within a couple of minutes drive of each other.

Many people skip the coast. This is another big mistake. In the warmer months the coast is a cool respite from the hot interior of Tuscany. Why not take a day trip and spend some time in a small fishing village or seaside resort town?

Porto Ercole by Petitverdot: Matteo Vinattieri

Talamone is small. It’s really small. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in charm. It’s located on the very southern edge of the Maremma regional park. Park your car and take a walk up to the main piazza which overlooks the Mediterranean and the rest of the town. Wander through the marina with its mix of fishing boats and mega-yachts. There are two hotels and a handful of cafes in the town. An hour or two is more than enough time to see everything there is to see.

Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano are both located on the Monte Argentario promontory on southeastern Tuscany. It is linked to the mainland by a few causeways. The area has been a vacation spot for wealthy Italians since Roman times.

Pass through the town of Orbetello on your way to Porto Santo Stefano. Park the car and walk along the harbor where fishing boats, pleasure craft and ferries are coming and going. Have lunch at one of the many restaurants that line the water. It’s a great spot for super-fresh seafood and a bottle of Vermentino.

After lunch drive around the promontory to Porto Ercole. It was here in 1610 that the famous Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio died of malaria on his way back to Rome after being exiled by the Pope. He is buried in the Cathedral.

There you have it. 5 Tuscan towns that a lot of tourists don’t visit but should. If you have any other hidden gems in Tuscany or beyond I’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Happy travels!

 

 

 

 

Piemonte is not all about red wines. Here are 5 whites from Piemonte you should be drinking.

The hilltop town of Serralunga D’Alba with its’ vineyards.

Piemonte, tucked into the northwest corner of Italy, is a stunningly beautiful place. During the growing season one cannot help but notice that vines are almost everywhere, particularly in the heart of the region in the Roero, Langhe and Monferatto hills. In the fall, during truffle season, the patchwork of red and gold hues from the changing leaves on the vines will leave you breathless. In winter, the hills are often covered with blankets of snow. This is wine country. To be more precise, this is red wine country.

The powerful Nebbiolo based wines shine here and take the spotlight. Barolo and Barbaresco are the king and queen of Piemonte wines respectively but wines made from Barbera and Dolcetto are also highly regarded. The whites, although also well-regarded, are not nearly as popular outside of the region as they should be. Although it’s winter time and the temperature is not screaming white, I thought a primer on these very good wines was overdue. So, here are some grapes and the wines made from them that you should seek out now and when the weather starts to turn a bit warmer. But first a bit of history.

Piemonte played a key role in the unification of Italy in the 19th century. It was also where the nation’s industrial revolution took place which shaped the new nation’s economy. The region is the second largest behind Sicily and the largest producer of fine wines in the country. It is also home to some of the best cuisine and ingredients, such as white truffles, in a country that is known for its exceptional food. To say Piemonte is important to the wines, economy and culture of Italy is an understatement.

The region has been inhabited since around 1,000 BC by several tribes who settled here. Wine has been produced here since that time. It was the Etruscans who helped the locals with grape growing and winemaking as they did throughout central and northern Italy.  This proud band of people stood in strong opposition against the might of the Romans until they finally capitulated in about 100 BC.

Fast-forward to the 18th century when the House of Savoy acquired all of modern-day Piemonte and set the groundwork for the unification of Italy. The House of Savoy set up shop not in France but in Torino, Italy. Eventually it would acquire the island of Sardegna and become the Kingdom of Sardegna, one of the most powerful in all of Italy. Piemonte then became the central region in the unification movement. In 1861 most of the independent entities of the peninsula were united as the Kingdom of Italy.

Piemonte’s vineyards cover about 110,000 acres. There are almost two dozen grape varieties planted that are unique to the region. The 42 DOC/G’s of the region ranks it as #1 in that category in terms of the number of appellations and the quantity of wine produced at this highest level. In fact, all of Piemonte’s vineyards, except a scant 10%, fall under the DOC/G category. This is the only region in Italy to hold this distinction.

No other region can challenge Piemonte for fine wine production. The region has the lowest average yields each year. All of the vineyards are planted on superior hillside locations and there are many single-vineyard wines produced within each appellation. Piemonte wins more wine awards than other region each year. Piemonte is the King of Italian Wine. And reds get the vast majority of the respect.

But there are some unique, fantastic whites produced here as well. I’ve picked 5 grapes and the wines made from them that you should try.

Moscato

Moscato vineyards
Ripe Moscato grapes

This is the most widely planted white grape and second overall, behind Barbera, in Piemonte. Most of these are used for the sparkling wines of Asti: Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti. These are both DOCG wines that share the same geographic boundaries. They are different in style though. This is the largest DOCG in terms of production in the region. Together they account for over 100 million bottles per year.

Asti Spumanti is a fully sparkling, slightly sweet wine produced from the Moscato grape exclusively. It was created in the 19th century by Carlo Gancia. Gancia had grown up in the region and traveled to Champagne where he learned the technique of traditionally made sparkling wines. He brought his knowledge back to Piemonte and made a sparkling wine using the traditional method like in Champagne. But Gancia’s wine was sweet. It was a big hit.

Eventually, an easier way of making wine sparkle was introduced called the Martinotti method. This involved making the wine sparkle in a tank instead of the bottle it was going to be served from as in Champagne. This, known as the Tank Method, was much easier and less labor intensive. Gancia adopted this method which better preserved the fruit of the Moscato grape. The wine has been recognized by the Italian government as Asti Spumante since the 1930’s.

Asti Spumanti is a fully sparkling wine that has a finer mousse (bubbles) than one might imagine from a Tank Method wine. Aromas are pronounced with the telltale grapey notes along with white flowers, orange zest, acacia, stone fruit and rose petals. The acidity is usually moderate as is the alcohol which rarely exceeds 9 or 10%. You can find a good Asti Spumante for around $10.

Moscato d’Asti is also produced from Moscato exclusively but it is a decidedly sweeter version with less sparkle. These wines are frizzante, meaning slightly sparkling. These are perfect wines to pair with desserts due to the high residual sugar. The wines are usually around 5% alcohol and must have the vintage on the label. Due to the low amount of carbonation these wines have a traditional cork unlike the mushroom cork and cage that Asti Spumante has. The aromas are more pronounced. There is much less Moscato d’Asti made and the producers are smaller often making red and white wines from other grapes as well.

Erbaluce

This is an ancient, native grape grown in northern Piemonte near the border with Valle d’Aosta around the town of Caluso. The wines made from it vary in style from bone-dry to ultra-sweet and even sparkling. The reason for the variety is due to its’ thick skins and high natural acidity. Both are required for wines made in the appassimento method. This involves picking ripe grapes and then drying them on mats to concentrate the sugars. Thick skins are beneficial as they are less likely to be affected by rot. The high acidity keeps the sugar in the wine from tasting too cloying or thick.

Erbaluce harvest at Ferrando. Photo, Madrose.
View of vineyards near Caluso. Photo, Madrose.

The wine made from Erbaluce is called Erbaluce di Caluso or Caluso DOCG. All of the styles are permitted under the regulations. It is up to the producer to decide what style he or she wants to make. It is possible and often common for a producer to make dry, sweet and sparkling. The still, dry style is becoming more popular. The dry wines hint of apple, white flowers and citrus. The sweet versions will have more stone fruit, honey and spice. These are not easy to find but well worth the effort. One of the best producers is Liugi Ferrando.

Arneis

Arneis in the local dialect refers to a difficult personality. It fits as the grape is difficult to grow with its’ naturally low acidity and inclination to become overripe if harvested too late. It is also prone to mildew, has low yields and oxidizes rather easily. For these reasons the grape, and its’ wines, fell out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century. If it were not for two producers, Giacosa and Vietti, the grape may have remained in obscurity and disappeared altogether.

These and other growers found that the chalky, sandy soils of its’ home, the Roero hills, added structure and acidity to the wines. Now, there are several outstanding producers of Roero Arneis DOCG including Giacosa, Vietti, Ceretto and Malvira to name just a few. The wines are on the fuller side with aromas of nuts, peaches, apricot, honey, ripe red apple, pear and orange blossom. There is also an excellent sparkling wine made under the Roero DOCG if you can find it.

Cortese

The Crotese grape with its’ restrained character has been documented as far back as 1659. In 1870 it was noted that the grape was widely planted in the Alessandria province of southeastern Piemonte. The grape was particularly valued for its’ resistance to disease and its’ ability to deliver large crops while producing quality wines. It is still considered a vigorous variety and yields must be curtailed to tame the naturally high acidity. Ripe fruit from lower yields produces wines with ripe apple, pear and citrus with refreshing acidity.

Although Cortese is grown outside of Piemonte in Lombardia and the Veneto it performs best around the town of Gavi in southeastern Piemonte. Wine has been made in Gavi since at least 972 AD. The wines gained popularity in the 1960’s and 70’s in Italy and abroad.

The Gavi DOCG encompasses 11 communes. The wines must be made exclusively from Cortese grown on hillside vineyards. In cooler years when the grapes don’t ripen fully the wines can be rather austere. Ripe grapes from low yields have good body with plenty of acidity and minerality. Producers can also make a sparkling version. If all the grapes come from one of 18 communes and hamlets the producer may label the wine with the name of the commune as in Gavi del Comune di Gavi is the grapes are all from the commune of Gavi.

Timorasso

Timorasso vineyards in Colli Tortonesi.
La Colombera Colli Tortonesi

 

 

 

 

 

Timorasso is an ancient variety that was once widely planted in Piemonte and Liguria. Its’ home is in the hills of Tortona in southeastern Piemonte. The grape fell out of favor after the arrival of phylloxera when it was not re-planted in favor of other grapes that were easier to grow and more commercially viable. If it were not for the efforts of one man, Walter Massa, the grape would have disappeared forever. Today there are several producers producing excellent wines from this high-quality grape.

The wines made from Timorasso, labeled under the Colli Tortonesi DOC, are some of the most exciting wines coming out of Piemonte today, red or white. I love them. They are high in acidity with good body. The aromatics are intense with floral and citrus notes along with apple, pear and a tinge of honey. The palate is on the full side but the acid keeps everything fresh. Although there is not a lot of oak being used on the wines they have a beautiful texture and creaminess that comes solely from the grape. Most of these retail in the mid to high twenties but they are worth it. Look for the wine of Walter Massa and La Colombera.

I hope you can find these in your local retail shop or a restaurant as they are well worth the hunt.

 

Stunning 2005 Barolo from La Spinetta

 

2005 La Spinetta Barolo Vigneto Campe

Back in 1999 we opened our first restaurant, L’Amante, in the picturesque fishing town of Gloucester, MA. Gloucester was, and still is, a fishing village. Back then the town wasn’t as gentrified as it is now. The downtown waterfront wasn’t developed (although it is starting to be it still has a long way to go) and main street was a mix of casual places and rowdy bars. We opened in East Gloucester away from the hustle of downtown. It was more of a neighborhood with some higher-end homes on the water and the Rocky Neck Arts Colony and theater down the street.

We were definitely something new to the town. L’Amante was the high-end place but we still kept a casual feel to our small, 41 seater with windows overlooking the East Gloucester square. We were successful from the first night and reservations were hard to come by. What does this have to do with the above wine?

Every time I open a bottle of La Spinetta I think of our first restaurant in Gloucester. We were doing upscale, creative Italian and everyone loved it. To go with the food we knew we wanted a great wine list with lots of big names like Gaja, Ornellaia, Paitin, Biondi-Santi, Conterno and others. Problem was that we didn’t have a lot of money when we opened. That, and we were new and most of those wines were, and still are, highly allocated. A sales rep actually told us: 1. You’ll never get any of those wines because you’re in Gloucester and 2. Forget about any ‘great’ wines from Italy and focus on the cheaper stuff as that is all that will sell in Gloucester. Yes, that did happen. We never called him back.

Another salesman came in with an alternative to Gaja. It was La Spinetta. He told us that the winery started producing Barbaresco in 1995 and that they were special and were going to be the next big thing so we better hop on the wagon early. So, we tasted the wine and were blown away. That was the 1997 Barbaresco Gallina. We loved everything about it including the label. We bought as much as we could afford and put it on the list. For $50! The wines now sell for over $150 retail! I wish I had a couple of bottles left but they’ve all been drunk.

Now, the wine. 2005 La Spinetta Barolo Vigneto Campe

The Rivetti family purchased the Campe vineyard in 2000. At the time it was not known for exceptional grapes. In fact, the owner was selling them in bulk at very high yields. The vines were not very healthy but the south-facing vineyard had great terroir and potential. Yields were cut, vines were nursed back to health by using only natural fertilizers and manual labor in the vineyard. The vineyard in now full of healthy, 50 year-old vines.

La Spinetta is a proponent of oak. More specifically, new French oak. After a manual harvest and fermentation in stainless steel the wine is transferred into new French barriques for 24 months. The wine is then transferred back to stainless steel for 9 months and sees another  12 months in bottle before release. Fortunately the fruit can handle the oak as it does not mask the Nebbiolo grape or the terroir of the vineyard.

This is still a big wine 12 years later. The color is a bit more ruby than garnet but still pale and starting show just a bit of age at the rim. It jumps from the glass with dark red and black fruits, rose, violet, vanilla, caramel, underbrush, tobacco and mushroom. There is also the faintest hint of menthol and spicy licorice. The palate is full and plush with big, chewy tannins. Plenty of acidity keeps it form being too cloying. This has tons of concentration and depth of fruit. The oak is so well-integrated that it really contributes to the overall harmony and balance of the wine. It has great length as the finish goes on and on. This is outstanding and I wish I had more. I traded some patio furniture for this. It was a really nice set but I think I made out in the deal. $199.

Oh, remember that salesman who said we would never get those allocated wines in Gloucester. We did. I still have a wine list floating around somewhere with the 1998 Ornellaia on it. It was the most expensive wine on the list at $55!

 

It’s happening and I predicted it years ago! Just sayin’

If you haven’t read this article series about what’s going on in the national restaurant scene, you should. Make sure you read all three parts. For years I’ve been saying exactly the same things that Mr. Alexander writes about in this piece for Thrillist. I saw, and am still seeing it, play out for the past decade. There are so many things restaurant owners have to deal with today that they didn’t have to just a few years ago. And it’s finally coming to a head. That’s not to say that the restaurant scene or business is going up in flames. Yet. But there are some major changes headed our way for multiple reasons.

Higher Minimum Wages and Healthcare Costs

I’m all for higher wages. But…. someone has to pay for them. There are a lot of people talking about paying all workers a fair wage and making sure everyone can earn a decent living on minimum wage. I’m for it. But I just hope that these same people will be willing to pay the real cost of a dinner out. “$28 for a steak? That’s expensive!” Well, if you think it’s expensive now, wait until the owner has to pay the dishwasher $15 an hour. That steak will have to cost closer to $35 or 38 for the restaurant to make it. Because on top of the $15 an hour are employer payroll taxes.

The same goes for healthcare. Most restaurant owners are good people. They are just trying to make a living like everyone else. They are not out to screw people over whether the public or their employees. If they could afford it they would make sure everyone had health care coverage at minimal cost to the worker. But it’s just not possible for most small restaurant owners. The cost is too high.

Tipping

Many feel that the restaurant owner should be paying the server a fair wage, above minimum and that tips should go away. That’s great. But what is a fair wage? How is a fair wage for a server determined? In a high-end restaurant in my town servers probably make $25-35 per hour which includes the server minimum wage of $5 per hour plus tips. Is $25-35 per hour fair? Should an owner now have to pay the server $32 per hour? Of course not these people say. Just pay them a fair wage. So, what? $12 per hour? $15 per hour? What do you think is going to happen when an owner tells his servers that they are going to a no tipping policy and that they will be paid a flat rate of $12 per hour to start? That’s a $20 per hour cut in pay. The servers are gone. Why? Because they can make $12 per hour at a clothing or convenience store and not have to work as hard.

And how is the owner going to afford to pay servers $12 per hour? By raising prices which will drive people away. No matter how good the customers feel about the server getting a ‘fair’ wage most will not be willing to pay the extra money for a dinner out. Sure, they’ll go out on special occasions but not enough to keep many places in business. Getting rid of tipping will take a cultural shift that could take a generation.

Shortage of workers, mostly in the kitchen

I went to culinary school here in Vermont. I started in February of 1995. My tuition was about $14,000 a year. For six months of school! We went to campus, in this case a hotel, for 6 months and then went on a paid internship for 6 months. Fortunately, I landed a great internship that turned into a full-time job and then an extended internship in Italy. So, I never completed my formal culinary education at school. And I think it turned out well for me.

One reason I didn’t go back was because I learned too much in my first 6 months at school. They did too good a job. We were cooking every day. By the time I got to my internship I had already learned so much at school that I fit right in and excelled on the line. I was a bit older than my fellow students but others had the same experience as I did and many of them didn’t go back either.

The other reason I skipped out on my second year was financial. I could not justify paying another $15,000 or so when I could have an actual job making money and learning the same things I would have learned at school. And you know what? None of the sous chefs or the chef de cuisine had culinary degrees. That was eye-opening. After my internship was up I was offered a full-time job with the understanding that if I stayed another 6 months I would be hooked up with a couple of stages in Italy. A no-brainer.

The same thing is happening now all over the country. Culinary schools exploded in popularity in the last decade or so. Right as the Food Network was becoming popular. People saw celebrity chefs on TV and wanted in. Once in though, they saw the reality of $11 or 12 per hour, working in a hot kitchen on your feet for 10 hours with minimal breaks and being yelled at by a crazy sous or chef. So, saddled with upwards of $40,000 in debt a lot of cooks are leaving the business for greener pastures with better wages and ‘normal’ hours and conditions.

This means not as many cooks to fill all the positions in all the restaurants that have opened in the past decade. And a lot of restaurants have opened up. Too many.

Too many restaurants

There are too many restaurants. There, I just said it 3 times in a row. There are not enough customers to support them all and not enough skilled cooks to staff them all.

I know, the cream will rise to the top. Well, that’s not always the case. You know: location, location, location. There are a lot of bad restaurants out there that do rather well because of their location. And there are a lot of really good restaurants that don’t do so well because of their location. But it’s more than that.

With so many restaurants it’s really hard to find good help both in the front and back of house. Sure, you can find bodies most of the time but that’s not enough. The public expects more now. So finding good help is hard and keeping them is just as hard. That means higher wages to keep someone around which cuts into the bottom line which means higher prices. See the circle.

Evan if all the restaurants are good some are going to suffer because they can’t fill their seats enough. If a restaurant is making a 5-6% profit they are doing well. Add some higher wages and a slight downturn in business and that is almost wiped out completely. The business is really, really hard. It gets even harder when you’re not making money.

There is also the fact the small, independent operators are competing with large chains that can beat them up on price. Have you seen the ad for Chili’s $10 3-course meal? How about Applebee’s where two people can eat for $20. That’s really hard to compete with when you’re an independent. The chains are packing them in by giving food away. They have the purchasing power to offer such low-priced fare. Independents don’t.

So, where are we headed?

I have a prediction. The restaurant landscape will change in the next decade. Mr. Alexander talks about it in the article. A whole category of restaurants will mostly go away.

Very high-end dining will stick around. I’m not talking just about the $200 and up prix-fixe meal kind of places. I mean the upscale, white tablecloth, special occasion places. The regular clientele will still go because they can afford it and others will go because it will be a special event.

A lot of the more casually upscale  places will go away. These will be the places in the middle that suffer the most. These fall somewhere between the really upscale and the chains. The neighborhood, place with a good wine list, inventive food, nicely appointed. The price point is one that makes the place a bit of money but is always three bad weeks from going under. If they have to pay higher wages they’re done because they can’t raise prices enough to pay for it. It will be harder to keep skilled cooks and servers. They also will not be able to compete with the chains and the new breed of restaurant that will be opening up in the near future.

The new breed will basically be food trucks in a brick and mortar location. No more table service. No more table linen and fine glassware. These will be upscale, quick serve places. You’ll go in and place your order at a counter, you’ll pay for everything up front, get your beverage and sit down at an open table (if/when one is available). Your food, cooked to order, will be brought to you. You’ll eat and then leave. Simple. The space will be cool and comfortable. The food will be inventive, fresh and great. And prices will be reasonable. There will be no need to tip. Staff and overhead will be kept at a minimum. And the owner can pay everyone a fair wage and still make a reasonable profit.

And then there will be the chains.

This is not going to happen overnight but instead may take a decade. But, we already see it happening in larger cities where the higher minimum wage has already kicked in. There are many fast-casual places, even chains, popping up all over the place. Chipotle was the forerunner but it was just a model. The new ones will be nicer and the food will be better, more inventive and cooked to order. Maybe you already have a place, or places, like this where you live.

I hope you found this interesting and thought-provoking. I don’t want to sound like I’m predicting doomsday for the restaurant industry. I just wanted to point out some realities that owners of smaller, independent restaurants are facing and will be facing in the coming years.

I have spent over 25 years in the industry. I have done it all: dishwasher, busboy, waiter, host, manager, sous-chef, executive chef and chef/owner. I love the industry and it’s been good to me. But I do feel that big change is coming. I also hope that it’s for the best. I would like to see better wages for all, better working conditions and access to health care. I would like to see people look at all restaurant positions as professions and not just part-time gigs. How many times have you heard someone ask a server what they really did for a living? I think it will take some getting used to but I’m positive that good things will come.

 

 

 

Quick and Easy Turkey and Sausage Chili and a Wine to Match

Now that winter is in full swing we are turning to heartier fare up here in Vermont. And what better cold-night dinner than chili? And let’s keep it healthy by using, mostly, turkey. This is a super-simple to make, one dish meal that only takes about 25 minutes.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 small Spanish onion, medium dice

1 yellow pepper, medium dice

1 green pepper, medium dice

1 red pepper, medium dice

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 pound ground turkey

1 pound bulk hot Italian sausage

1 32 ounce can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 16 ounce can crushed tomatoes

2 tablespoons chili powder (or you can use equal parts ground garlic, cayenne, cumin, coriander, pepper flakes)

In a large saucepan heat the oil over medium heat and add the onion, peppers and garlic. Saute until translucent, about 4 minutes.

Add the ground turkey and sausage and cook for additional 5-7 minutes.

Add the beans, tomatoes and chili powder. Turn heat to med-high and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 10-15 minutes. You may need to add a bit of water if it gets too thick.

Serve in bowls with some crusty French bread. You can also shred some cheddar on top.

Serves 4-8 depending on size and you’ll have some leftover.

With something hearty and a bit spicy like this chili I like a wine that is a little rustic but also has some fruit to stand up to the spice. I reached for a Syrah/Grenache blend from southern France.

2012 Chateau Cadenette Costieres de Nimes, about $12

This is a juicy, rustic wine from a region that straddles the border of the Rhone Valley and Languedoc. The wines here are blends of several grapes, this being mostly Syrah with a smattering of Grenache. The nose is very aromatic with ripe red and black fruits, prune, cooked plums and tomato skin. The palate is fresh and clean with soft, ripe tannins. This, or something very similar, is a perfect match to this hearty, spicy chili.

New Year’s Resolutions for the Wine Lover

Sparkling wines in New Zealand

It’s a new year which is always exciting. It’s a clean slate. An opportunity to try new things, get better at something, be a better you. So, why shouldn’t wine be a part of that? After all, you’re a wine lover. Right?

So, here are some suggestions for improving the wine lover in you for the upcoming year. These don’t take a lot of effort so no excuses and no quitting half way through.

Forget about ‘Dry January’.

Don’t deprive yourself. I know, I know. The health benefits of taking a month off. All the weight you are going to lose because you aren’t drinking anymore. Blah, blah, blah! Instead, why not just cut down your wine consumption by half. It will save you some money, you’ll lose a few pounds and maybe you’ll be able to stick to your newly purchased gym membership. But by drinking a little you will still be supporting your local wine merchant and/or restaurant when they need you the most. And just think of how good that glass of wine will taste on Friday after work when you have been abstaining all week.

Napa Valley

Visit a winery. Or, better yet, plan a vacation to wine country.

There is a winery in every state which means that you can find one, or more, within a couple hours drive. Wineries are fun places. The people are  always really nice, you get to learn something and you get to taste a bunch of wines. Some of which you may have never tasted before. And wine country vacations are the best, IMHO! One, they are located in beautiful places. Think of Napa, Chianti, Burgundy, Argentina. I could go on but you get the point. Two, the restaurants in wine country are usually really good. At the least you’ll be able to find one or two outstanding restaurants some of which may be at a winery. Three, hot air ballooning. Yes! I know this is on a lot of people’s bucket list and most wine regions have someone giving hot air balloon rides. Why not combine them?! If you need any help in planning your getaway, I’m here to help.

Step out of your comfort zone.

Always drink New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc when you go out to eat? Try something different. Even if it’s Chardonnay. Drinking the same wine over and over again must get really old. I know. I do it and have to stop myself sometimes. Branch out and try something you’ve never tried before. How about a Gruner Veltliner or an Arneis instead of that SB? Instead of reaching for a Malbec (the new Merlot, sorry Miles!) try a red from the Languedoc or a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. There’s too much wine out there to be drinking the same thing all the time.

Open that bottle you’ve been saving for the last 15 years.

You know that bottle of Champagne you got as an anniversary gift 12 years ago? You know, the one sitting on the bottom shelf of your fridge. Open it!! It’s probably past its’ due date but what the hell. It’s not going to get any better. Unless it’s Krug or maybe Dom. Hey, most wines are meant to be drunk within the first two years of release. So what are you waiting for. Go to your cellar and look at what you’ve got, pick something and open it. It doesn’t have to be a special occasion. I’ve had phenomenal wines with pizza. Remember the Scavino Barolo I talked about in my last post? That’s a $95 bottle of wine that we drank with a burger. There’s even a night called ‘Open That Bottle Night’.

Getting ready for a Languedoc-Roussillon tasting.

Take a wine class or attend a tasting hosted by a professional.

Yes, I’m being a bit selfish here as I teach classes and host tastings. But, if I had a buck for each time someone told me they wanted to take a class I wouldn’t have to teach classes anymore. Ironic, huh? So just take the class. Most formal classes are not inexpensive but they are well worth it. You’ll be able to wax poetically about malolactic fermentation and rotofermenters at the water cooler or your bosses holiday party. (If you don’t know what those two terms are contact me to sign up for a class). But seriously, you’ll learn a lot. Even at the informal tastings I host everyone learns something. The easiest way to do this is to have a wine professional like me come to your house and host a tasting. They are a ton of fun. Going to your local wine shop’s Saturday tastings don’t count. I’m talking about a sit-down tasting hosted by a wine geek.

So there you have it. That’s your homework for the year. If you have a particular wine resolution that you are committing to this year I’d love to hear about it.

Happy New Year!

A couple of great Barolo’s for my birthday.

Two stunning Barolos

Last week was my birthday and I always treat myself to some good wine on my birthday. This year I decided to make it a multi-day event and opened a couple of stunners from the cellar: 2004 Domenico Clerico Barolo Ciabot Mentin Ginestra and 2008 Paulo Scavino Barolo Carobric. I’m glad I pulled them as they were both delicious, not too old and not too young, just right.

Barolo is made in the Langhe region in Piemonte from the Nebbiolo grape exclusively. It is considered the king of Italian wines due to its’ age-worthiness, complexity and long-standing reputation. Nebbiolo only does well in a few places on the planet, all in Italy, but it reaches its’ zenith in the Langhe hills near Alba. The wines are tannic when young but reward time in the cellar if you can resist them.

Domenico Clerico and Enrico Scavino are contemporaries. They are considered two of the iconic producers of the region who followed similar paths in the vineyard and cellar over the last 4 decades or so. There was a time when both men were considered ‘modernistas’ of Barolo in that they used small French oak and made wines which were more fruit driven and laden with vanilla and toast from the oak. These wines were sometimes criticized for abandoning the traditions of the appellation and making wines that did not fit with the history.

Some of this is true. These modern wines were a bit overblown. The oak masked the characteristics of the Nebbiolo grape and the terroir of the region. But they also introduced other practices that have since been adopted by almost every producer. Some of these like the use of stainless steel, rotofermenters, shorter maceration times and better practices in the vineyard are taken for granted now. And the wines are better for them.

2004 Domenico Clerico Barolo ‘Ciabot Mentin Ginestra’

Clerico’s estate is in the heart of the Barolo appellation in the town of Monforte d’Alba. He crafts outstanding wines which express the exceptional terroir from his vineyard holdings in some of the top vineyards: Ginestra, Bussia, Pajana and Mosconi.

He was a key proponent of the modern Barolo movement making wines with more power and more rounded fruit. There was a time when new French barriques were employed for all of his Barolo. Now, the percentage of new oak is down. He is a believer that the grape is more important than the production method and is an advocate for the land in the winemaking process. This may explain his focus on single vineyard wines.

This wine comes from his 5.5 hectare plot in the Ginestra vineyard from vines planted between 1965 and 1970. Rotofermenters are used and the wine sees 24 months in French barriques, 80% of which is new.

2004 was an exceptional vintage in Barolo and this is an exceptional wine. It is ready now but can still be aged for another decade or so. That’s good because I still have a couple of bottles left. This is a great example of an aged Barolo. The fruit is still there with aromas of red cherry and red fruits but they are overshadowed by dried rose petal, underbrush, mushroom truffle, turned earth, iron and a touch of cocoa and cigar wrapper. The tannins have really mellowed but still have some grip. The acidity keeps everything lively. This took a few minutes in the glass to really come around but when it did it was special. The finish lasted for minutes. The only downside was the amount of sediment. I would say that at least a half a glass was undrinkable due to it. See above.

2008 Paolo Scavino Barolo ‘Carobric’

Scavino has always been one of my favorite producers. The wines are always good no matter the vintage. The wine making is exceptional. The attention to detail unmatched. Enrico Scavino’s winemaking philosophy has change over time but one thing has remained constant: his dedication  to hygiene in the cellars and the health of the grapes. This is something he inherited from his father Paolo and his grandfather. The estate has been in the family since 1921. In the 1950’s brothers Paolo and Alfonzo split the holdings and Enrico and his cousin Luigi took possession of prized holdings on the famed Fiasco hill. (Luigi is the owner of Azelia, another great producer)

Enrico employs the same winemaking for all of his Barolo. Exceptional care is taken in the vineyard to ensure the healthiest of grapes at low yields. The grapes are sorted and each plot is vinified separately, using only indigenous yeasts, in stainless steel tanks. The wines are aged in a combination of old French oak and large Slovenian oak before a time in stainless and then bottle before release. After the first year of ageing the wines are evaluated. Under performing lots are sold off in bulk and not included in the final blends.

2008 was a very good vintage that was cooler than average. A late warm spell saved the wines. They are still young and could do with a bit more time in the cellar but I thought this was drinking really well with some time in the glass. I would decant for about an hour or so.

This is a blend of three of Scavino’s best vineayrds: Rocche di Castiglioni, Cannubi and Fiasco. It offers a great interpretation of Barolo that is still evolving. The tannins are more present than the Clerico but well-integrated. There is more fruit on the nose with dark, black cherry, and stewed plums. Violets, rose and lilac fill the glass along with chalky earth, tar and cocoa. For a fairly young Barolo it was round and pleasant to drink. Actually it was delicious and kept getting better and better with time.

It was a good birthday for wine!

 

Great read from Andrew Jefford about one of my favorite wine regions: Languedoc-Roussillon

I wanted to share this article by Andrew Jefford from Decanter magazine on the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon. More specifically, the IGP or Vin de Pays of the region, here called Pays d’Oc.

The Languedoc-Roussillon is one of my favorite wine regions for so many reasons: the breadth of selection of wines; beautiful scenery; the history; the food; the charming towns and villages. I could go on and on. But one aspect I’ve been telling folks about for years is the affordability of the wines. And I’m talking really good wines at ridiculously reasonable prices.

Vineyards in the Languedoc-Roussillon, courtesy Wine Scholar Guild

Pays d’Oc fit into the middle of the quality pyramid of French wines. There are rules that need to be followed in order to make the wines. But the winemaker has much more leeway when it comes to available grapes and wine making techniques among other things. In the Languedoc-Roussillon this means that there are over 50 grapes at the winemaker’s disposal and just about anything goes when it comes to turning those grapes into wine. The winemaker can source grapes from anywhere within the region and blend them together to make his wine. With so much being grown here this is beneficial to the grower, the winemaker and finally the consumer because it keeps prices low.

As Andrew points out, the vast majority of the wines are single varietal. And, more importantly, the name of the grape can appear on the label. This is important because the next level up the pyramid (AOC wines) requires the place-name of the wine. So, a Pays d’Oc wine might read ‘Laurent Miquel Syrah’. While an AOC wine from the same producer might read ‘Laurent Miquel St. Chinian’. With the first wine you know what you are getting, Syrah. But what are the grapes in the second wine? You may not know unless you are a student of the region. Pays d’Oc wines are easier to understand for the average consumer, are reasonably priced and are, mostly, well-made. Enjoy the article. (By the way a St. Chinian is a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and other grapes and they are delicious!)

Read on to find out more.

 

Sparkling Wines for New Years Eve. It’s not all about Champagne.

In a couple of days a lot of sparkling wine is going to be opened, sprayed around the room (maybe) and then drunk in celebration of the new year. That’s a good thing. But what sparkler will you be drinking? And how much do you plan on spending? Sparklers will set you back anywhere from $6.99 (stay away from these please) to $699. How do you choose? I’ve done some of the leg work for you. Here are several good options at different price points.

Champagne

All Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. In order for a wine to be called Champagne it has to come from the Champagne region in northern France and it has to be made in a very specific way. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier grapes are used to make a base wine. This base wine is then placed in a bottle with some sugar and yeast and then capped. The yeasts eat the sugar giving off some more alcohol and carbon dioxide which is dissolved into the wine since it cannot get out of the bottle. After all the sugar is consumed the yeasts die. The wine is then aged on the dead yeasts, or lees as they are now called, which imparts the distinctive yeasty, bread, biscuit and toasty aromas you get with Champagne. The yeasts then must be removed from the bottle by riddling the bottles. This is a long and labor intensive process. Once complete the bottle is topped off with some reserve wine and sugar (not always) and then corked.

There are other sparkling wines that go through this same process but they cannot be called Champagne. Often they will use the words, Methode Traditionelle or Traditional Method Sparkling Wine but they will not be the same as Champagne. Champagne is unique due to the grapes used, the place they are grown and the process. It is a wonderfully unique, delicious wine that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Some places come close but they cannot match the complexity and energy that Champagne delivers. And for that you pay a premium. Champagne is not cheap. The method, reputation and demand all contribute to the high price we pay for this extraordinary wine.

You can expect to pay upwards of $40 for a bottle of Champagne. There are some out there for slightly less money but I think if you start at $40 it’s a safe bet that you’ll get a good bottle. Some names to look for are: Duval Leroy, Bollinger, A. Margaine, Aubry, Krug (super expensive!), Le Mesnil (one of the great bargains in wine), Tattinger, Billecart-Salmon, Egly-Ouriet, J Lasalle.

Cremant

If a sparkling wine is made in France using the same method as in Champagne but is made outside of the region of Champagne, then the wine is called Cremant. These are good alternatives to Champagne at much friendlier prices, usually from $15 upward. They lack the concentration and depth of Champagne but are more fruit forward. Look for wines labeled Cremant de Limoux, Cremant de Loire, Cremant de Alsace, Cremant de Bourgogne and Cremant de Jura.

An assortment of sparkling wines from around the globe – Italy, Argentina, France and Spain.

Cava

Another wine made in the same way as Champagne but from Spain and one of the great values in sparkling wine. You can get a good Cava for under $10! One of my favorites is the Segura Viudas Cava Brut Rose that can be found on sale for $8.99. Once again, these wines are more fruit driven and less complex than Champagne.

New World Traditionally Made Sparkling Wines

Almost everywhere wine is made there is a producer making sparkling wine using the traditional method like in Champagne. Some of these are very good and outstanding and some terrible. I would stick with producers from well-known wine regions that have a reputation of making good wines. These wines will fall on a broad spectrum from sweet to dry and from fruity to yeasty and complex.

In California some safe bets are Roederer, Mumm, Iron Horse, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon. Plan on spending upwards of $25 for a good bottle. I really like a wine from Argentina that we tried recently. It’s pictured above from Domaine Bousquet. The wine is a very pale salmon color made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There is just the slightest bit of sweetness but it has great body and a creamy mousse (bubbles). It’s made in the traditional way and is only $14. Buy it by the case if you can find it.

Tank Method Sparkling Wines

There are several ways to make a wine sparkle. The method used to make Champagne discussed above is considered the best way. The worst way is to inject wine with carbon dioxide. And then there is the Tank, or Charmat Method. This involves making a base wine, putting it into a sealed tank with sugar and yeast and letting the second fermentation take place in the tank. The wine is then filtered to remove the dead yeasts and bottled all under pressure. This is much less time-consuming and labor intensive. It is also good at showcasing fruit. These wines are made all over the globe but there are two countries that excel at them.

Italy

Prosecco is the first sparkler that comes to mind when Italy is mentioned, and for good reason. It is one of the best-selling sparkling wines on the planet. It comes from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy from the Glera grape. It’s fruity, slightly sweet (off-dry), easy and inexpensive. Everyone likes Prosecco. Chances are you’ll pay about $10-15 for a good one and most producers are a safe bet. Some of my favorites are Zonin, Foss Marai, LaMarca, Carpene Malvoti.

But Italy is not all about Prosecco. Asti, from Piemonte in the northwestern region of Italy, is another famous Italian sparkler made in the tank. This is always off-dry to sweet and offers incredible value as well. Moscato d’Asti is a slightly sparkling (frizzante), sweet wine that pairs well with desserts. And let’s not forget Lambrusco. These dry to off-dry red sparklers are perfect for antipasti, charcuterie and cheeses. There are also traditionally made sparklers from Italy that rival Champagne. These are Franciacorta and Trento DOC

Germany

Last but not least is Germany. The Germans consume a lot of sparkling wine. Much of it is imported. But it is not always sparkling when it gets there. The Germans import excess wine and add the sparkle when it gets there using the Tank Method. These are called Sekt and are great values. They can be anywhere from dry to sweet. Expect to pay $10-15 for a good Sekt. Henkell is a good producer that should be easy to get.

So, there you have it. A primer on sparkling wines for the New Year. I’ll post another article that goes a bit more in-depth into the production methods in the future. In the meantime if you have any questions or comments I’d  love to hear from you. What will you be toasting with this weekend?

 

Risotto Milanese: Saffron Risotto

People loved the risotto at our restaurant L’Amante. No matter how we served it, it was always a big hit. It was always on the menu. In fact, at one point we had 2 on the menu. And it’s not an easy dish to pull off in a restaurant. Risotto takes a lot of work as you really need to pay attention to it. Fortunately I learned from a couple of masters. Daniele Baliani  was the chef at Pignoli in Boston, the first restaurant I worked in out of culinary school a long time ago. And Francesco Berardinelli, his friend and chef/owner at Osteria di Rendola in Tuscany, are two of my mentors and they showed me the way with risotto. They also taught me the trick to serving perfect risotto in a restaurant which I will keep to myself for now.

As I said, Risotto is not an easy dish as it needs attention. I think this is why so many people don’t cook it at home. If it’s just a little under or overcooked it’s pedestrian. Getting it right takes practice and patience.  When it’s cooked properly it is ethereal. Hopefully this recipe will help. Don’t get too married to the quantities of liquid. The dish is about feel. You have to taste as you’re making it. The finished rice should be creamy and al dente.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 small, Spanish onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon saffron threads

4 cups water*, simmering

2 cups canaroli* rice (can substitute arborio)

1/2 cup dry, white wine

3/4 stick of unsalted butter

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

*A quick word about the liquid and rice. I like to use water even though most recipes call for some sort of stock. My reasoning is that as you cook the rice the liquid will get concentrated. That’s fine if you are using a good stock. But by using water it lets the ingredients shine as opposed to the stock. For rice I like carnaroli. It’s harder to find than arborio but I think it stands up better and is much more forgiving. It takes just a bit longer to cook as well.

In a heavy 14-inch skillet or sauce pan heat the oil and 1 teaspoon of butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat. Add the saffron and season with salt. Stir to coat. Turn the heat to med-high and add the wine. Stir until almost all the wine is absorbed. Add a 6-ounce ladle of water and stir until absorbed.

Keep adding the water, a ladle at a time, waiting until it is absorbed each time and continue stirring. After about 15-20 minutes the rice should start to look creamy (this is the starch being released by the constant stirring). Taste the rice to see if it is slightly al dente and creamy at the same time. If it is, remove from heat and add the remaining butter and the cheese. Stir to incorporate. Portion the rice on plates and serve warm.

Serves 4 portions.