In January 2019, I was made an offer I could not refuse. I had told good friend Brett Pontoni many times I had one country in Europe I wanted to visit and that was Italy. Apparently, Brett got tired of me making this request because soon after the Holidays, he adamantly told me to get a passport, block out some time in April and get ready to go. What follows are the details of a 7-day trip to Italy I will never forget.
SETTING AND SYNOPSIS
The business purpose of the trip centered around going to Vinitaly, a very large wine and spirits exhibition held April 7th – 10th in Verona Italy. Most of my traveling companions had some connection with the industry and spent one day making contacts and sampling some of the 3,000 wines provided. The remainder of the trip was spent going to restaurants, distilleries, wineries and even a balsamic vinegar production facility. Along the way, we saw amazing architecture and met friendly people who had the patience to put up with our fractured Italian.
We stayed at Villa Gasparini, a 18th century country mansion turned into a 15 room charming bed and breakfast inn situated about 25 miles west of Venice. The lodging included many of the conveniences of home, such as internet and a bidet. The friendly staff was also there to provide the help we (actually mostly me) needed.
Monique Huston (National Spirits Director for Winebow Group) - The ultimate trip organizer who handled every curve thrown her direction with a firm but polite assertiveness.
Brett Pontoni (Spirits Buyer for Binny’s Beverage Depot) - The skilled trip driver and my go to guy for every question and need I had during the trip.
Mike Trow (Director of Beverage Program for RPM Restaurants) – The Human GPS whose driving instructions were poetry in motion.
Annie Huston (Monique’s sister and Real Estate Mogul in Spokane) – Prolific photographer of everything Italy had to offer.
Dan Farber (Brandy distiller and Founder of Osocalis Distillery located in Santa Cruz) – The ultimate resource in the best places for Italian food and drink; the one in our group with most time in Italy.
Jordan Halpern (President and Founder of JMH. Capital., a securities trading firm) - The voice of reason for all aspects of the trip whether it be the route to take or the restaurant to select; the possessor of good taste and a boundless appetite.
Jon Daniels (Controller of Center for Humans and Nature) – Travel rookie soaking up as much of Italy as possible.
My commentary below includes observations and activities for each city we visited.
SUNDAY, APRIL 7
Venice — The Endangered City
During our continental breakfast on our 1st full day in Italy, we decided to go to Venice, about 15 miles away. We took a nearby ferry on the 25-minute water journey to our destination. Venice is a group of 118 islands linked by over 400 bridges and separated by numerous canals. The city is subjected to 2 seasons of flooding which has become worse as a result of global warming and threatens its very existence. The approximately 55,000 inhabitants of this ancient city center live in an architectural setting that dates back to the Roman Empire. The most famous structure is Basilica di San Marco (completed in 1092), one of many elegant churches one can visit.
Our food/beverage centric group went restaurant hopping to a half dozen small casual restaurants. I soon learned that ordering too much food was easy to do. A traditional meal includes at least an appetizer (aperitivo/antipasto), Primo (first course, includes pasta), Secondi (heavier meat dish), Dolce (dessert) with Caffe (coffee). Fortunately, we shared several meals at each stop.
Since cars and bikes are outlawed, travel by foot and the gondolas are your choices to get around. Walking through the maze of narrow streets provides a unique view of old buildings with retail shops and dining spots at the turn of each corner. After our 6-hour visit, we hustled back to the ferry and departed with a nighttime view of this remarkable city.
MONDAY, APRIL 8
Verona — The Setting of Romeo and Juliet
After picking up Jordan at the Verona Airport, most of the group headed to the Vinitaly Exhibition. Annie and I stayed in Verona to do some sightseeing and lunch. The city has a population of 250,000 and is known for being the setting of the play Romeo and Juliet which comes alive through a museum featuring the famous balcony.
I spent most of the time enjoying the shops and architecture. I soon learned that winding narrow streets with churches, shops and restaurants would be the layout of most cities we visited. The highlights of Verona included the Piazza delle Erbe (public market and plenty of al fresco dining), Castelvecchio (imposing seven tower 14th century fortress) and my favorite the Arena. The 1st century amphitheater seats over 30,000, is remarkably preserved, and serves as home for the Verona Summer Opera festival.
I was at a loss for a lunch spot but knew my destiny when I saw a small restaurant Sinatra Café. Pasta Carbonara washed down with a local beer was all I needed. By late afternoon, we all congregated at Archivio, a side-street micro bar known for its imaginative cocktails. This drink savvy group mentioned to the owner a mutual friend (Clark Street bartender Chris Lovett) and soon enough we were sampling some drinks.
On the way back to our hotel, we had dinner in Padua at Ristorante Al Chicheto, a highly rated late night dining place noted for its its seafood and pasta dishes. Most of our group went full boat with all the courses. A modest portion of appetizers and a first plate were more than enough for me. In a few days we would spend more time in Padua.
TUESDAY, APRIL 9
Dolo — The Day of Rest
With the group going again to Venice, I decided the time was right for a leisurely day of local fare The hotel staff provided me the bus pass and I made my way to downtown Dolo, a town of around 15,000 For lunch I fell into Do Mori Calici e Gusto, small bistro hidden away off the beaten path close to a windmill on the town canal. The prix fixe menu included wine, appetizer, first plate pasta, second plate buffet, dessert, and coffee for 15 euros ($17).
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10
Modeno for the Balsamic Vinegar Tour / Lunch
Bologna for Dinner
The next morning, we were off to Modena, a city of about 185,000, with a storied history dating back before the 15th century and the attractions to prove it. However, the city is also known for its car factories (Ferrari, Maserati, etc.) and production of balsamic vinegar. Being food centric, we skip the cars and bee-lined to Acetaia di Giorgio, a traditional balsamic vinegar producer located in an 1870 3-story residence near the city center of Modena.
The vinegar is produced from the local white grapes that are slowly fermented in a series of casks (behind Monique below). The vinegar is moved in small portions from cask (small) to cask (larger) over periods ranging from 12 to 25 years with the small casks being replenished to start the process over. The vinegar has subtle taste differences based on the type of wood. Several in our group brought bottles of the vinegar that costs well over $100 per bottle. I sampled the product but my taste buds were not refined enough to make a purchase.
Modena is home of Osteria Francescana, the #1 ranked restaurant in the world. Through the forceful clout of Monique, we were able to get lunch reservations at its sister restaurant, Franceschetta 58. an informal dining brasserie and bar, that features some of the courses from the main restaurant backed by a variety of choice wines. The 3-hour food/wine extravaganza was unlike any dining I had ever experienced.
We spent the rest of the day in Bologna, a city of almost 400,000 inhabitants. Bologna not only has a famous well-preserved city center but its faster pace is indicative of its importance as business hub for both Italy and Europe. I marveled at the leaning Towers of Bologna (below). A structural feature noted while walking is the extensive and elegant porticoes which make walking without an umbrella quite possible.
As we walked around to work off our prodigious lunch, we were offered free appetizers at each café we stopped. By appetizers, I mean mounds of sliced ham with bread and cheese; hardly something our overworked appetites needed. We ate dinner at Trattoria Bertozzi, a cozy 8-table café which had a traditional Bolognese cuisine of very good pastas and meat sauces. The friendly ambiance included the resounding presence of a very proud chef at many of the tables.
THURSDAY, APRIL 11
The Road Trip to Bassano for Grappa Tours
The owners of the two Grappa distilleries wanted us not only to tour their facilities but also to have the full Bassano experience and stay overnight. So we wisely spent the night in Bassano, a town of 45,000. Grappa is a brandy like Italian beverage that contains 35 to 60% alcohol. Grappa is made by distilling the leftovers (skins, pulp, and stems) of the wine making process. It is served as an after dinner drink to relieve the indigestion of a heavy meal. Grappa is usually served in a shot glass, but drinking as a shot is strongly discouraged. Recent efforts have been made to make it more palatable through cask conditioning.
We had the privilege of being the guests of 2 very notable producers of Grappa, the Poli Family and the Nardini Family. The difference in the two families could not have been more noticeable. We started with the Poli Distillery. The tour of the facility emphasized a very traditional family approach starting with a tour of the Poli Grappa Museum. The artisan technique they use is very labor intensive emphasizing quality control and aging in a variety of wood casks. There is no better way to understand the distillation process than to witness each intricate step as we did from pouring the raw material (grape-pomace) into cooking vats to bottling the finished product.
I was expecting a day of drinking which turned out to be more a day of learning about an incredible industry and family. We had lunch with family members and were asked to provide feedback on their new venture into vermouth. I was mortified as I stared into 12 glasses of vermouth which I was being asked to sample and provide “expert” rating and feedback. I could not believe five of the staff were pouring over my results. Scary and Surreal!! Their plant/museum was so tastefully done it could be featured in an interior design magazine; just a tribute to a family that embraces what they do.
Ironically, the B. lo Nardini distillery dates back further than the Poli Distillery, but what we saw was more automated and less labor intensive process. Unfortunately, Nardini had recently moved its distillery so we only could tour the bottling plant and storage area. They have about a 25% share of the grappa market. A highlight of this tour was going into their corporate headquarters which were built in 2004 in celebration of the 225th anniversary of their company. Their offices and meeting space would be perfect for a James Bond movie. Although the plant/offices had a cold feel that wasn’t helped by the rainy weather, Antonio Nardini was a friendly tour guide that proudly served us his popular grappa in their tasting room. Our time with Antonio & his staff had just begun.
After we checked into the hotel, I decided to peel off the group as they went to have drinks and dinner hosted by Antonio. My goal for the evening was twofold, to find a small restaurant that serves good pasta and to get lost in the maze of narrow streets. I am pleased to announce that I succeeded on both counts. A long fascinating walk built up my appetite and led me to Osteria Alla Caneva. I got lucky. My post-meal Trip Advisor search had this post, “Good authentic local food in a cozy warm atmosphere” which aptly describes my experience.
I knew this place was right for me when the waiter took the blackboard menu in the window and stuck it on my table. I had Tagiatelle con Fungi (noodles with mushrooms), the best dish I had during the trip. I also sat by a US couple with whom I constantly talked about baseball. With some direction I got back to the hotel and noted the group was still out with Antonio. I joined them for dessert and finished the night with grappa, of course.
FRIDAY, APRIL 12
Verano for Winery and Lunch
Padova for Dinner and Gelato
From Bassano we went to Fumane, a town of about 4,000 located 9 miles northwest of Verona. Monique called Secondo Marco (her client) and got the winery to make reservations for us at the nearby Enoteca Della Valpolicella, top ranked super cozy countryside restaurant, offering multiple small dishes of local fare paired with the best wines of the region; at this point in the trip, just another meal way out of my league and savored by my traveling companions.
Marco Speri, owner of the Secondo Marco Winery and son of the legendary Benedetto Speri, broke away from his famous family in 2008 to follow his vision of making elegant, drinkable, food friendly wines. Marco’s passion during the tour was furthered fueled by the insightful questions of our group (especially Dan).
My thirst for learning the wine making process was far greater than my taste for the wine. I learned the tricks of the trade such as optimum position of vines and adjusting the fermentation process for grapes grown in a bad weather season. We finished our stay with some wines in their tasting room. We sampled Fumetto 08, a wine Marco made to commemorate the Obama Presidency.
On the way back to our hotel we stopped in Verona and returned to the Craft Cocktail bar Archivio plus we did some final day sightseeing. We then stopped for a longer visit of Padua, a city with about 200,000 located halfway between Verona and Venice. Padua is the setting for Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, thereby completing our trilogy of Shakespeare cities (with Venice and Verona). The city has the typical dense network of streets with many bridges over the Bacchiglione River. What stands out in Padua is the enormous (90,000 sq. meters/22 acres) city square called Prato delia Valie, the largest of its kind in Italy. I was also impressed with its light rail train that covers 6.5 miles on a north south route including a part of the city square.
We had dinner at Pago Pago, an informal pizzeria with a lot of hustle and bustle, no 2- hour dinner at this joint. I threw everyone a curve ball by having the black squid pasta instead of pizza. I just had to finish my trip with pasta. For dessert we went for gelato, hopping from shop to shop. No matter how much we had for dinner, there was always room for gelato; making different combo flavors at each stop.
APRIL 6 / 13
To and From Italy
Due to my expert travel guides, Brett and Monique, travel proved to be uneventful. However, on the way we had a 6-hour layover in Madrid for a trip to the market. On the way back we spent a night in London meeting up with more industry friends. Both of these side trips whet my appetite for more travel, especially London. I owe a debt of gratitude to all my traveling companions for making this trip excellent. Yes, I said it. EXCELLENT!!