Prices, Pecks and Puntarelle

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Early winter finds me in Northern Italy, every year, that is, each year for more than two decades. I have come to fight off price increases from wily wineries. I taste the new vintages, somewhere between embryo and infancy, after maceration and fermentation, before the malolactic, directly from tanks and barrels. You’d be surprised at how you develop an ability to detect flaws and come up with a pretty good idea of what the apotheosis of a wine will be throughout its adolescent and adult lives.

I know you don’t believe me, but it’s long, hard and arduous work. My reward is a day or two in Milano. I go to Pecks, one of the finest gourmet shops in the world, visit the wine cellar and check out the price of white truffles. Pecks has a visually arresting display of large, top quality tartufi bianchi. You should reach for your cell phone and take a picture. If you have won the lottery, you can reach for your charge card.

Il CarpaccoWalking toward the Central Train Station, I pass through an old neighborhood adjacent to Corso Buenos Aires. It is Italian, but with touches of Ethiopian and Eritrean influences. I wind up at via Lazzaro Palazzi, 19, at Trattoria Il Carpaccio, where Gabriella Gavazzi has been dazzling her local regulars for decades. Il Carpaccio has been around since 1970. It is small, the menu changes daily, the service is friendly, the prices are moderate by Milanese standards.

I have come for the insalata di puntarelle. Puntarelle are seasonal. They are cousins to chicory, and usually eaten raw. You can find them in the U.S. at fine Italian restaurants in the wintertime. They come from California. The taste is reminiscent of raw escarole, but bitter, crunchy and juicy. They are dressed with olive oil, hopefully extra virgin from the new harvest, lemon juice, garlic and anchovy fillets. You can add shavings of parmigiano reggiano cheese, even thinly sliced raw artichoke hearts, radicchio or endive. The salad is dense. It takes a while to chew and swallow: pleasantly bitter, delicious, unique, seasonal, regional, fresh. It is cucina italiana at its best. You feel energized.

I follow it with catalogne saltate, sautéed catalogne, which are the green stalks of the puntarelle. It is a cross between cicoria and rapini. No wine can match the intensity of these dishes, but with the crunchy bread and focaccia that accompany them, I drink a glass or two of Vino Novello. This young new wine is Italy’s excellent answer to France’s Beaujolais Nouveau. Fresh, deeply colored, aromatic and juicy, recently at Il Carpaccio, I had the Santa Costanza Vino Novello 2013, a harbinger of excellent 2013 wines from Italy that we will taste in the U.S. over the next 2 to 3 years.

I even got to sample for the first time puntarelle cooked. The dish consisted of ribbon-like pappardelle pasta with pesce spada swordfish pieces, puntarelle and pacchini cherry tomatoes. It was at the Porta Rossa restaurant which features the cuisine of Puglia on the via Vittorio Pisani, close to the Central Train Station. It was Sicily meeting Puglia in Milano.

Puntarelle, catalogne, Vino Novello – these are not yet household terms in America, but you should put them on your radar screen. They are worth a search, even a side trip.

A big thank you to Rachel Eats for the featured image above. Check out her blog post on puntarelle here: Puntarelle alla Romana


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