I actually consider myself a bit of a linguist. There was a time that I was pretty close to fluent in four different languages, but over the course of time (coupled with considerable laziness), two of those have drifted away. Now I am down to two (if you count English, with which regular readers of this blog know I struggle mightily).
The other is decidedly not Italian.
There was a time, though, that I was fairly comfortable with what I called “restaurant Italian” or the ability to deftly make my way through an Italian menu. It was not always so. Back when I was leading bike tours in Europe on a regular basis, I pretty much stayed within the confines of the French-speaking world: Switzerland, Belgium, and of course France (one could argue that the languages spoken Switzerland, Belgium, and the South of France are bastardizations of “Parisian French” but that is the subject for another post).
There were a couple of occasions, however, when I was called into service to lead trips in the northern part of Italy. In most cases, I could converse with the hoteliers using either French, English, or a well-timed smile, but this was not the case in restaurants. Part of the charm of the tour group was that we went to great lengths to find special restaurants, those that were away from the tourist areas, frequented by the locals, and often run by a husband and wife and staffed by their children.
Unfortunately for me, that also usually meant that there was no one within 3 kilometers of the restaurant with whom I could communicate without a fair amount of pointing and childlike facial expressions.
That meant that I would ride like a banshee from town to town, desperately trying to arrive before 15:00 when most of the restaurants would shut down until dinner. I would make a reservation, borrow a menu, and then spend most of the next five hours translating every word on the menu, committing it to memory (I did this usually in a local enoteca, sampling most of the local wines). By the time dinner rolled around, I was able to translate the menu for the clients on the trip, making it seem that I actually knew how to speak Italian.
Most of the time it worked. Except when it didn’t. One particularly poignant failure was in Stresa, on Lago Maggiore, where the entire group thought they were ordering a white fish and they ended up with lamb intestines.
I was reminded of all my struggles with Italian the other day while cruising along the Schuylkill Expressway at 54 miles an hour (I drive a Prius) when my phone rang. Like many of you out there, I get a ton of spam calls and when a number comes up that I do not recognize, I simply let the phone ring. On the fifth ring, while trying to avoid causing a 17 car pileup, I noticed the call was from Italy.
It is not every day that I get a call from Italy, so I decided to answer it (using the Bluetooth feature in the car, naturally). I really don’t know what happened next as the person on the other end spoke even less English than I speak Italian. Halfway through the “conversation” (does an interaction qualify as a conversation if neither party has any idea what the other is saying?) I heard the word “vino.” Now I may have forgotten most of my restaurant Italian, but I have retained that one (along with fragola, for some reason).
When I eventually hung up the phone, I was pretty sure that some wine from Italy was heading my way. That, or I was having sheep intestines for dinner.
Later that day, these showed up. Phew.
N.V. Rivetto Kaskal Metodo Classico Extra Brut: Retail $40. 100% Nebbiolo. I have been drinking more and more Italian sparklers these days: Prosecco, the occasional Franciacorta, and a few from the Trento DOC. Admittedly, I had the first two wines below first from this producer, and I had high hopes for this wine. And I was not disappointed. I did not know what the varietal make-up of this wine was when I tried it, but I presumed there was a fair amount of Chardonnay in the blend: bright and tart with citrus predominate. And I was wrong as this is all Nebbiolo–the first sparkling wine I have ever tried from the Piedmontese variety. Lovely balance buoyed by the vibrant acidity. Initially, I thought this was a bit too bright, but over the course of the bottle, the considerable depth and body gradually won me over. Very, very nice. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2011 Rivetto Barolo Del Comune di Serralunga d’Alba DOCG: Retail $50. A tiny bit stewed on the nose with raspberry predominate (with a little heat: 14.5%). On the palate, surprisingly pretty big fruit for a Barolo, with some mocha and tobacco thrown in. The balance here is admirable and there is a considerable amount of tannin on the back-end suggesting this wine has a ways to go. Bigger than most Barolos I have had, but that is not a bad thing in this case. Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
2010 Rivetto Barolo Briccolina DOCG: Retail $150. More of a classic Barolo nose with restrained fruit of black cherry and raspberry, some heat (14.5%), some coffee, and a bit of mint. On the palate, this is near seamless from beginning to end. The tannins here are less prominent than the Serralunga, but this wine is not going anywhere anytime soon. This is a wine for the long haul, but honestly, this is so good right now, it would be difficult to allow it to age gracefully on a wine rack in the cellar. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
Many thanks to Valerie Quintanilla of Girls Gotta Drink for reaching out and putting me in touch with the fine people and wines of Rivetto.