Usually, I am quite effusive about my trips away from home. Whether I am in Sonoma, Sicily, or Santiago, I am usually quick to post photos within minutes of touching down.
Not this trip.
Why? Well, first of all, it has nothing ostensibly to do with wine. Of course, I try to shoehorn wine into every trip I take, but I am in Cleveland, Ohio, not exactly the first place that comes to mind when one says “Wine Getaway.” I am here to help my son move out of his dorm room and then we will drive north to Detroit (again, not a “wine haven”) to visit my mother for a couple of days.
Normally, I visit one of two restaurants here in what some people used to call “The Mistake by the Lake” (actually, many parts of Cleveland are quite pleasant, but I digress). I either hop into my car and head west to Lakewood and the Humble Wine Bar or I venture onto campus and visit L’Albatros, a rather traditional French restaurant.
This go around, however, I decided to stroll down to Etna, a tiny spot on the edge of Cleveland’s Little Italy for some pasta and Italian wine. We had been there before when we dropped Nathan off as a freshman and the food and wine were stellar, causing me to wonder why this was only my second visit to the restaurant.
Once I opened the door, I remembered why I had not been back, the place is small and even on a Wednesday night, it was packed. I was flying solo, though, the pandemic essentially over, and there was one seat at the bar, so I nabbed it. Within a few moments, I had a glass of Firriatto Etna Bianco in hand (fruity, crisp, just enough tartness, 89 Points).
I then turned to the menu, and after a quick perusal, I settled on two dishes, both requiring further information.
The first was a salad, and while I love caprese, finding a good one in early May can prove to be challenging. So once Eli, the bartender (finally) approached to take my order:
“I am thinking about the Caprese, but how are the tomatoes?”
With a bit of a glint in his eye, I immediately knew he understood.
“They look quite good, actually. “
And that was good enough for me, since if the tomatoes are not fresh and flavorful, it is a waste of mozerella.
I then asked about the puttanesca, which my new BFF, Eli said he loved, but was not crazy about the fusilli pasta that was listed. He suggested replacing the pasta with spaghetti and I readily acquiesced.
Then came the pivotal question: “if I order a bottle and don’t finish…”
Eli interrupted me: “you can take it with you, of course.”
The list, almost exclusively Italian, included a couple sparklers, a heaping handful of whites and a healthy couple dozen reds. There were two Barbarescos, neither of which I recognized, one $50, the other another 50% more. Since my son had ditched me, I figured I had a little wiggle room in the budget, so I was leaning toward the more expensive bottle.
Well, like many tiny restaurants across the world, they apparently don’t update their list all that often and they were out of both Barbarescos. Eli suggested a Gattinara, the ubiquitous Travaglini, a wine that one can find at virtually every wine shop in the world. At this point I decided to play the wine writer card, which I rarely do, but I felt like I had no choice–I was looking for a wine a bit more off the beaten path.
As he suggested another wine, I asked if there were any “one-offs” in the cellar; interesting wines that were so few in inventory that they would never make it on the list. What happened next is what I absolutely love about a restaurant that takes pride in its wine program. His eyes opened as if excited and offered: “Of course, I will be right back.”
I doubt he had vanished for more than a handful of minutes, but my Firriatto gone, I was parched, and his absence seemed like forever. A scant couple of minutes later, he re-emerged with four bottles tucked among his folded arms. All of interest: a super Tuscan Cabernet Sauvignon, an Etna Nerello Mascalese, and a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, but it was the Amphiarao, also from Tuscany, that caught my eye. Since my time in Alentejo, Portugal, I have been fascinated with wines aged in amphorae. Something about the ancient method lures me in and it helps that every wine I have tried aged in the large clay pots has been stellar. As was this one.
2018 Castello Vicchiomaggio Amphiarao Toscana IGT, Italy: Retail $40. On premise $60. Agglomerated stopper. Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese. From the Maremma region of Tuscany. Aged for 12 months in 500 litre amphorae of Impruneta terracotta. Surprisingly light in color, particularly given the Petit Verdot. The nose is laden with dark berry fruit, blackberry and cassis, considerable earth, and just the slightest hint of funk. The palate is quite a bit lighter than the nose portends with bright fruit and brilliant acidity. As I mentioned, quite light on its feet but it held up beautifully to both the Caprese salad and the spaghetti puttanesca. Wonderful. Excellent. 92 Points. It was also refreshing to see a local importer on the back label although the importer’s name, “Wines, LLC”, was a bit lacking in creativity.
As for the pasta? Good choice. The spaghetti was perfectly al dente, perhaps the best I have enjoyed in a decade. The sauce was rich and on the verge of a South Philly “gravy” but I was scooping it up with the twirling spoon to capture every last bit. On the way back to the hotel, I knew I would be forced to return to Cleveland at some point, but the prospect of a another trip to “The Mistake” just became a little brighter.