More Illinois Reviews
Of the half-dozen or so wine dinners which Lauren
and I have attended, it would be difficult to select the one that
was head-and-shoulders above the rest... Having said that, last
night's wine dinner at Francesca's Famiglia in Barrington was akin
to sitting in the box seats in Wrigley Field during the World Series
and watching Ron Santo hit a home run. Only last night we did
not watch, we actually participated. OK, OK. So the
analogy may be a slight stretch. However, Francesca's and its
staff put together one very fine evening that featured the wines of
Michele Chiarlo (pronounced "Mee-KELL-a
Kee-AR-lo", as close as I can
tell) from the Piedmont region of Italy (in the upper northwest
you can see from the map (click on the map for a larger view), this region is nestled in the shadows of
the Alps and is not far from the Mediterranean... the soils
available, along with the climate, make the area a natural for
growing grapes. We hadn't realized that Piedmont -- also
known as Piemonte in Italian, which literally means "at the foot of
the mountain" -- is one of the most famous wine regions in the
world; they are renowned for boutique wineries. And from what
I can tell after dinner last night, Michele Chiarlo likely produces
some of the best wines from that region; more on that later.
The evening started with an introduction to "Stosh"
(GM Eustacio Duarte) and an interesting, hand-shaken pre-dinner
cocktail of that consisted of -- I believe -- Belvedere Black
Raspberry vodka, Chambord, and floated with blueberries. I know
there were other ingredients... but the drink was bright and
piquant; a great start to the evening.
Gino Catalano was the Italian Wine Specialist
provided by Kobrands; he got things going with a brief background of
the winery and the wines which would accompany the dinner. I
must admit that, even considering some Italian heritage, I knew next
to nothing about Italian wines other than the Chianti that I love to
have with my seafood Lasagna. I have always been a fan of
French and California wines. That has now officially
The First course was Ostrica Crudo:
exquisite little Kumamondo oysters (they originated in Kumamoto Bay,
Kyshu Japan, but are now cultivated in the U.S.) topped with tiny
cubes of fresh pear, with lemon and basil. I also detected a
subtle hint of Pernod that really put these bivalves over the top,
flavorwise. They were perfectly paired with a 2010 Gavi:
"Le Marne". Pale straw in color, this white wine was crisp
and light, with the nose showing hints of sea air; on the palate
there were flavors of peach, followed by a spritz of lime in the
finish. The acidity and lime were a perfect accompaniment to
Course number two was an eye-popping salad,
Polpo Grigliato: Grilled Octopus, fagioli Gigantic, and a
marinated, oven-roasted tomato topping crisp, green frisse that was
gently kissed with a superb lemon-oregano vinaigrette. I would
never have guessed that a red wine could go so well with a salad,
but the 2009 Barbera D' Asti was an incredible match. The
Barbera grape variety accounts for more than half of the Piemonte
region's total annual production of red wine; Asti is said to
produce some of the best Barbera wines. Chiarlo's "Le Orme"
-- meaning "footprint" -- could be the best of the best. With a
ruby/garnet color, a slightly floral nose and hints of fruit, this
wine is light and lively; it is probably due to the fact that it
undergoes an induced malolactic fermentaion and then is aged for
almost a year in oak. With very little tannins and a high
acidity, the result is an extremely drinkable wine that goes quite
well with everything from seafood to pizza and pasta marinara.
A note from kobrandwineandspirits.com:
"Michele Chiarlo is credited with being one of the first
producers to introduce malolactic fermentation to Italy, thereby
achieving wines of greater stability, lower acidity and easier
accessibility in their youth."
A 2007 Barbaresco "Reyna" (meaning "The
Queen") was aptly paired with our next course, Coniglio
Cacciatore: Braised Rabbit, crushed San Marzano tomato
sauce, cipolini onions, celery root puree, sautéed oyster mushrooms
and herbs. Cacciatore means “hunter” in Italian, but this
preparation was nothing like the "normal" way to make cacciatore; it
was more of a "pulled" version and the sauce was closer to a broth.
In any case, the result was a magnificently-flavored dish that was a
joy to the palate. The Barbaresco was a joy as well.
Grown on limestone-rich marl soils in a slightly warmer, drier and
milder version of a maritime climate, Barbaresco is 100% Nebbiolo
grapes that ripen a bit earlier, resulting in a wine with less
tannins but still plenty of acidity. With a nose that is
slightly floral -- almost rose petals -- with hints of a forest
floor, the aging in French oak has created a wine that is complex
yet refined. There is ripe, red fruit and a long, polished finish
that complimented well the cacciatore.
Unbelievably, we had yet another course before
dessert! It was Filetto di Manzo e Tartufo:
Roasted Tenderloin of Beef, sliced over truffled risotto, along with
a red wine reduction. It was a fork-tender fillet and an
almost-sweet risotto with white truffles... Of course this would be
natural, since the Piedmont is the region where the white truffle
(actually a mushroom) grows underground and generally harvested at
this time of year. A slightly "bigger" wine -- the Barolo "Tortoniano"
("The King") accompanied the tenderloin. Barolo is something
of a cousin to Barbaresco, in that both wines are made from the
Nebbiolo grapes and grown only about fifteen miles apart. But
whereas the Barbaresco vines grow in soils that are underlain by
limestone and clay, the Barolo vines are planted in soils rich in
magnesium. This creates a subtle but significant difference in
the two wines. Two years in oak. Full, dry, rich and
velvety is the Barolo. Reminiscent of perhaps a good
Zinfandel, there are slight earthy and musky undertones, combined
with a floral quality. It stood up to the beef and made
Amazed that I was not stuffed to the gills
(although quickly approaching it...), we were served
Chiacchera al Limone for our final course of the evening:
Fried Dough, ricotta dolce, lemon curd and acacia honey. A
soothing and tart raspberry sauce was also served wit it. The
perfect partner? A 2010 Moscato d'Asti "Nivole" ("lighter
than clouds"). I had expected an overly-sweet dessert wine.
Au contraire. Oops, I meant anzi. The wine was vastly
different than what I had expected. A slight effervescence
added the zing to this low-alcohol treat. Soft and light on
the palate, it was fragrant with an almost fruity bouquet and only
slightly offset by some musky notes with hints of orange peel.
It was an excellent finish to an incredible evening.
Aside from great food and wine, I was most
impressed by several very obvious highlights on the evening.
The service was casually elegant yet quite professional, the plating
was well done... and the evening seemed as if done in the "slow
food" style reminiscent of what is said to take place in the
Piedmont region of Italy. I was amazed too, at the really
reasonable price charged for the evening. And it wasn't just
the price, it was the whole package; I have had lesser experiences
for twice the price. My only small distraction was a live band
that played. They were good, but just a tad too loud, as the
music forced the conversation to an unnecessary decibel level.
Were it not for the drive-time (about fifty
minutes for us), I would visit far more often. But I do
promise to return -- possibly for Famiglia's next wine dinner.
I would highly recommend that you call and make a reservation for
Combining some Latin with a tiny bit of Italian, what
I can easily say is: Veni,
Ho mangiato: I came, I saw, I ate. And
boy did I enjoy it! Ciao for now...
Your Table is Waiting
Special thanks to Francesca's Famiglia Executive
Chef Salomon J. Alvarez for preparing an excellent repast, Lisa
Mango for some outstanding wine pairings...