I've just returned from a trip to northern Italy with food-loving friends. My luggage was light except for gifts for my favorite restaurateurs, lemons from Sorrento and bottles of incredible, just-pressed extra virgin from Castello di Ama. Vito Santoro, "l'artista", picked us up in his van, we headed for Piemonte, met up with Ivan Bertelli (owner-host one of my favorite places to eat and stay, outside Parma) and tasted a well-priced Barbera and an older, more serious Barbera aged in wood at Pico Maccario. Ivan joined us, along with Roberto Santopietro (who owns a nearby winery-agriturismo farm and makes wonderful products) for dinner at La Contea, in the village of Neive, our base for a few days. The restaurant is a favorite, has been for a long time, and never disappoints.
We visited the Ceretto winery, had a wine tasting, conducted by Federico Ceretto, who took us to the SS. Madonna delle Grazie chapel, set amidst vineyards - exterior by Sol Lewitt, interior by David Tremlett--as innovative as the Ceretto winery. They were paid with Ceretto's Barolo. We went to Alba to check out Ceretto's new restaurants, La Piola downstairs, rustic and traditional, Piazza Duomo upstairs, edgy, with Piemontese ingredients used creatively. We toured the Berta distillery, sampled their fine products, and scored a few bottles. We snacked the next day at Hostaria di Ivan, drinking Lambrusco Ancestrale and Champagne with salumi, and tosone fritto, trimmed-off bits of just-made parmigiano, wrapped in pancetta, like a super ham and cheese sandwich without the bread. We had lunch the next day at Il Calandrino, casual, paper placemat dining from the same kitchen of Le Calandre (one of Italy's greatest restaurants) and did some serious Christmas shopping, at pasticceria for the world's best pandoro, star-shaped natural yeast bread, without candied fruit or rasins. We spent the night at Isola di Caprera, an inn on the Brenta in Mira, just outside of Venice, close to La Ragnatela, a fantastic bargain of a restaurant, with both creative and traditional menus, amazing wine list. We raced off in the morning for Venice and lunch at Al Covo, always a thrill.
Then on to the village of Motta di Livenza, to see the Andrighetto brothers, a family of butchers I'd met at Dario Cecchini's shop in Panzano. We shopped at their butcher shop, stayed in their six-room inn, dined at Eccellentissimo, their restaurant-enoteca, shopped for glasses at their optical store and visited the sanctuary of Madonna dei Miracoli on the way out of town the next morning. We had to stop at Osteria Giusti in Modena to celebrate Osteria Francescana's second Michelin star with chef-owner Massimo Bottura, his wife Lara, their two kids, restaurant staff and friends like Sandro and Claudio Cavicchioli. We all came home loaded with bounty. Everyone adored the 2005 extra virgin from Castello di Ama. I wish I could send you a bottle. I can't...but if you'd like to buy some, visit their website.