‘Saluti’: In vino veritas

Wednesday, May 8, 2019 - 8:41pm

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It’s ironic, considering I constantly write about the culinary foundation I grew up on, that I actually haven’t lived at home in two years. The seed for my foodie tendencies was planted in a small town on the Jersey Shore and in New York City before I even learned my first words. Coming home means so many things for me, but ultimately, I grew up around an Italian table — a place where anyone is welcome and you’re guaranteed to be overserved. A place where life lessons are taught and learned through flavor profiles, wine pairings and the secret ingredient in Italian meatballs. A place I took for granted throughout my childhood, never realizing that I’d blink my eyes and suddenly grow up. As everything does when you move away, the table, its idiosyncrasies and open arms became less consistent. Moving back to New York for the summer means so many things: being close to my family, being in the greatest city in the world and, of course, living in one of my favorite food cities in the world. It would take 22.7 years to eat at every restaurant in New York City, and, while I only have four months, I’m thrilled about the opportunities to learn about food and wine this summer, focusing on my foundation in the Italian kitchen and branching out to having new experiences in new kitchens. I will write and share my anecdotes of culinary discoveries, my pursuit to become a sommelier and the hidden delicacies in one of the world’s most exciting food cities. It’s a journey home, through food.

Though this piece is not set in my childhood home, in Rumson, New Jersey, it goes back to my roots in a more intimate way than a zip code can. Together, we can travel to my ancestral home, a place where, no matter how long its’ been since my last visit, I always feel welcome. Something about the air in Italy, always reminds me of how I was raised, of the lessons I learned in my childhood, of my father and mother’s consistent pursuit of il ingrediente primo.

Before spending three tipsy days in Verona, Italy, attending the Vinitaly wine festival with my father, I never expected to become so infatuated with wine. But Verona surprises us with its clandestine, undercover beauties,  its humble subtlety and  its power to make us fall in love.

Vinitaly is a wine festival, yes, inviting anyone with a ticket to the festival to taste wines, dive into salty charcuterie boards, converse in Italian and English or a combination of the two and of course, kiss on both cheeks. But more than a wine festival, the four-day event bleeds over the city, becoming a 24-hour ‘festa’ or party in which the hottest ticket is not the festival itself, but private dinners and wine events that begin when the fair closes for the day — and never seem to end, blending into the next day’s festivities in a tipsy, seamless bliss.

There is hardly time  to breathe, and there is almost too much to see to the point of being  overwhelming, and the pressure comes from the knowledge that you are bound to miss something. My advice, walking away from this experience? Keep your eyes open and hold on. I did not expect to feel so inclined to viniculture before attending the event, but I realized something interesting during my time at Vinitaly:Wine is a little like math, and a little like politics. It is as calculated as an equation but as unpredictable as an underdog winning a race. Wine tells a story to us. In a sip, it’s a metaphor, a simile, a paragraph; in a bottle, it’s a narrative, a life sentence, one hundred years. Vinitaly is about wine, yes. It is about its intricacies and intimacies — the way wine opens us, not through intoxication, but through the way it cuts straight to our vulnerabilities. But even more so, Vinitaly is all about gathering, it is about people, it is about stories, it is about us. It is about the tables we end up at, the elbows we rub, the experiences we have through tasting and the journeys we take through bottles of wine.

In the center of Verona, the largest piazza in the whole city, lined with charming, nostalgic cafes, historical, hearty restaurants and notable buildings, I fell into a coquettish love affair with wine. In a city center crawling with life, the celebration of Vinitaly is a chain reaction — traveling down slender streets and inside restaurants, crowded around smoky, upholstered leather booths, I realized what wine does for us, and why it is not just a beverage, but the protagonist of the best novel ever, written in a universal tongue.

With a glass of wine in their hand, everyone is hungry — for connection perhaps, or a crispy polenta trio, accented with a thick slab of lardo, followed by a bowl of creamy asparagus risotto, complemented with a light dusting of parmigiano reggiano. Often times, it’s both food and human connection that we crave. In a warm restaurant over low light, my father and I split a bowl of bean soup and enjoy fresh peach-colored white wine. We meet a couple who grew up in Ann Arbor, we share with them a dinner restaurant recommendation, clink glasses and realize we will most likely never see them again. They tell me they cannot wait to go home and read my food columns in The Michigan Daily; I am glad we may keep our conversation alive through my writing.

At Restaurant Bottega del Vino, located down a slender side street off Piazza Bra, its small hanging sign illuminates the cool, spring, midnight sky, inviting you in toward its warm illuminated glow. Everyone reconveneshere after splitting apart for private dinners and wine events. A single window is open from the inside of the restaurant, and a pulsating crowd is fighting to reach the opening to exchange a fistful of euros for a cold bottle of wine and as many wine glasses they can hold. The street surges with drunk lovers, leaning like trees against brick walls, friends and strangers, the rich wine importer and the poor college student, shouting and laughing and singing — telling stories, sharing anecdotes of home. The common theme: Everyone has a glass or a bottle of wine in one hand, and someone else wrapped around the other. This off-road tradition will never conclude. It beats on to the early hours of the next day.

I walk away wondering: why does this 1997 wine I’ve tasted — a deep, musing red — taste of aged oak barrels and history, and why does the crisp 2017 white that followed taste of peach? In what ways do they differ, and in what ways are they the same? What’s the science behind the bottle, what’s the grease and sweat behind the first sip? In what ways is wine like a fingerprint: Never repeated, singularly unique, each bottle belonging to the universe and the drinker, ephemeral from the moment you pop the cork?

I am ready to begin my journey to answering these questions myself. A sommelier is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, one who understands the truth behind the grape. As I dive into such rich education, I begin with this knowledge: Wine mends us together, it weaves our stories and our visions of the world, it strips us bare and renders us vulnerable. I only hope to learn more of such terrific magic.