Last year I had the privilege of attending the New York Wine Expo, now in its sixth year at Javits Center. It was an unparalleled opportunity to taste wines from all over the world in one afternoon. Read my review of last year’s event at the Wall Street Job Report.
This year, the Wine Expo returns to New York on March 1-3, 2013. Click here for more information and to buy tickets. In addition to the tasting event, this year’s event offers a series of seminars and guided tastings. It’s not too late to buy tickets for some of the lectures. I recently had the opportunity to speak with three individuals closely tied to the event.
The Exciting Growth of Italian Wines
Italy continued to be the leading exporter of wine to the United States in 2012, registering $1.5 billion dollars in export sales. “Considering the moderate prices of most bottles of Italian wine, this is a huge landmark,” said Italian Trade Commissioner, Aniello Musella. And the preference for Italian wine among American consumers is growing, Musella noted. In 2012, the market share of Italian wine remained stable at nearly 30%. “This is largely thanks to the great variety of Italian wines,” Musella said. “Italy has over 400 combined DOC and DOCG appellations alone and a bounty of native varietals.”
“I think that interest in Italian wines will continue to increase,” Musella said. “Lesser known and emerging regions like Puglia, Umbria, Sicily, Campania, and Friuli Venezia Giulia will benefit from a curious public. Organic, biodynamic and artisanal producers will attract interest as the foodie movement continues to grow in the US and the compatibility of these artisanal boutique style wines with diverse food styles is discovered.”
The Italy Pavilion at the 2013 Expo will feature roughly 30 different Italian wineries. I asked Musella for some recommendations. He said that wines from the south of Italy ought to be better known, mentioning Nero d’Avola from Sicily and Aglianico from Basilicata and Campania as varieties to try. He also highlighted Cannonau from Sardinia, and Sagrantino from Umbria, along with Primitivo and Negroamaro from Puglia. Pure varietal expressions from the North are also worth trying, such as Refosco from Friuli Venezia Giulia. For those that already appreciate wine, Musella suggested the Metodo Classico sparkling wines from Franciacorta.
He also touched upon the hot Moscato trend that has grown in the US in recent years and added that it would be terrific to introduce American consumers to another facet of this grape’s production possibilities, such as fabulous dessert wines from Moscato like Passito di Pantelleria. Passito is a rare, luscious, honey-gold dessert wine for which Pantelleria is known. Moscato di Pantelleria instead is a light, delicious off-dry wine which is also wonderful.
California Dreamin’ of Pinot Noirs
I also spoke with David Rossi of Fulcrum Wines in Napa, California. Rossi will be giving a talk at 7pm tonight titled California Pinot Noir: Touring The State’s Great Pinot Regions.Several years ago Rossi decided to combine his home winemaking experience with his corporate food marketing career and launch his own winery with his wife, Christinna. Aware of the need to be unique in the cluttered wine business, Rossi chose to focus entirely on Pinot Noir. “We wanted to find a grape where we could have a voice, and do something different,” Rossi said. In 2005, when Rossi started Fulcrum Wines, Pinots were getting heavier, bigger, and more like Syrahs. Rossi’s vision was to create a more balanced, restrained wine; hence the name “fulcrum,” or point of balance.
Rossi laughed as he told me about the “Sideways Effect,” what he termed the surge of interest in California Pinot Noirs following the release of the movie Sideways, which portrayed a road trip through California wine country. In it, Paul Giamatti waxed poetic about Pinot Noirs (the red grape of Burgundy), which got people excited about exploring the wine more. But that excitement is not a fad, noted Rossi. “We’ve had six to seven years of growth and it’s the fastest growing red variety,” he said.
In 2011 Fulcrum Wines released seven Pinot Noirs, all from California. Rossi sources grapes from all over the state, which boasts many varied growing conditions, with different types of soil, distance to the ocean, and levels of elevation. For example, the grapes grown in Mendocino County in the north are cool climate and retain acidity, with cherry, earthy notes. By contrast, the grapes grown in Chalone, to the south, are in a high plains, desert climate, so they are dark tannic, with chocolate and espresso notes.
Recognizing Excellence in the Finger Lakes
I also spoke with Thomas Pastuszak, Wine Director at the NoMad, who will be giving a seminar titled The Cool Climate, World Class Wines of the Finger Lakes at 12pm tomorrow (Saturday, Mar 2.) Pastuszak went to Cornell to study neurobiology and classical piano and began working in restaurants to pay bills. Through his restaurant work, he got to know smaller producers in the Finger Lakes region. Ever since then, he’s tried to get people behind Finger Lakes wines. “The region has been maligned,” he said. “It developed a reputation for poor quality wines. But the area is changing quickly. It’s only had a fine wine culture for three to four decades, and it’s entering a Golden Age.”
Pastuszak is excited about the region’s potential. It’s one of the few American regions that has a similar climate to the cool-climate regions of Germany, France, and some parts of Italy. It is home to some of the deepest lakes in the U.S., which allows for heat retention and warmer winters, as well as cooler summers. The wines are not fruity, but are balanced with refreshing acidity. His favorite white from the region is Riesling. It can be dry and mineral-driven, but it can also be honeyed. It’s a great transmitter of terroir and it speaks of the soil. For red, Thomas recommends Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. Their minerality and freshness makes them great table wines, akin to their cousins in France.
Last month as I strolled home along 30th Avenue, I discovered Leli’s for the first time.
This cafe brings a breath of fresh air to Astoria, offering a taste of the outside world.
It is a spot that manages to be both cozy and spacious, buzzing and customer-oriented, filled with eclectic but comfortable decor and a range of delicious treats, some traditional and others unique.
On Sundays, it is filled with families brunching, students studying, and friends meeting over coffee.
Drinks ordered to stay are served in adorable mismatched colorful cups and saucers. But the real appeal is the food. Pastries both sweet and savory, a huge array of cupcakes and cakes, and a case filled with cookies tempt friends meeting over coffee.
Astoria has plenty of bakeries and cafes, but few have the ambience that Leli’s does. It begs you to come inside, sit down, and rest a while.
Leli’s opened to great popular acclaim in November 2012. I am looking forward to several other new openings in the neighborhood– a rumored Korean restaurant on Broadway and 29th St. and a new venture, the Shady Lady, also on 30th Ave (and 36th St.)
Ever since I moved to New York, I have heard about Ippudo.
I have what I like to call a bucket list of places to eat in New York. The list is far longer than it is possible for me to conquer, given how often I read of new places I want to try and how much restaurant turnover there is in New York. The list began in my very first summer in New York, when I was an intern at Michelin Red Guides.
When I worked at Michelin, my first task was to call every single restaurant that would be listed in the New York guide and verify its hours of operation. I was given an Excel spreadsheet of restaurants and phone numbers and instructed to find out whether the restaurant was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; if so, what hours; what time the kitchen closed in the evening; and if it served a separate brunch menu on weekends.
It was somewhat of a rough culture shock, as I had just moved to New York.
Of course, many of the hostesses and reservationists who answered the phone were polite. In fact, all of the restaurants classy enough to have reservationists were a pleasure to call. Many of them invited me to drop by soon for a bite.
But, after hours on end of calling, there were certain restaurants I feared to call. These were the ethnic ones, tiny Korean or Chinese spots where it seemed no one who spoke English could be found to answer the phone, and those who did answer couldn’t understand why I was calling at all. Imagine calling a Chinese restaurant and asking if they serve breakfast. And then, of course, there were the trendy restaurants, where the hostesses felt entitled to an attitude. “All of our hours are listed on our website,” they would say. Subtext: You know what the internet is, right?
But I was not allowed to refer to the website. As an intern, my instructions were very clear: only a human being could qualify as proper verification of the information to be included in the Guide. I also could not reveal that I was calling from Michelin. I had to remain anonymous.
Those who (at first patiently) answered my litany of questions usually became curious by the end. A few even became suspicious. “Who is this? Why do you have a blocked number? Where are you calling from? We’re not going to buy anything from you.”
The most memorable phone call cracked me up. Transcript as follows:
Man on other line: Hello?
Me: What are your hours of operation, please?
Man: Ummm…24 hours a day. Until I die, I guess.
Me: Pause. Oh. Isn’t this a restaurant?
Man: No, it’s not.
That is the only instance I can remember in which I misdialed.
Anyway, as I called each restaurant (and checked their websites as secondary sources), I noted the ones that interested me on yellow sticky notes. I don’t know where those sticky notes are now, but they metamorphosed into little notes on my iPhone, in various notebooks, and in my head.
Ippudo was one of them. Long lines, communal tables, all part of the fun, according to bloggers and Yelp. I met up with my friend Kate for a lunch date at Ippudo a few weeks ago. As I expected, we waited about 30 minutes for a table, but since I arrived first, I put my name down and then walked over to a grocery store in Union Square to pick up some gluten-free gingersnaps for $1 a box (what a sale!)
When we sat down to eat, it was almost 2:15 P.M., and the restaurant had quieted down. I ordered the Akamaru Modern; Kate selected the Tori Ramen (both pictured above.) The broth was rich and delicious. I really liked the decor inside; shimmering wall hangings, a huge bamboo tree sculpture, and varied styles of seating. Our waitress was very sweet, too.
Ippudo was definitely worth the trip, and the wait. Now, on to my next gastronomic New York City adventure…
If you are craving a perfectly made cappuccino, or a savory cheese-filled pastry, then walk into Café Boulis on 31st Avenue and 31st Street. Its orange walls and homey decor greet you like a warm hug from Grandma, as does the ebullient Greek woman working behind the counter.
“Do you serve espresso?” you may ask her, already knowing (of course) the answer.
“Yes, we serve the best kind: Nespresso,” she would reply.
As she bustles behind the counter, preparing your drink, you feel yourself sized up by the burly Greek men lingering at the narrow bar against the wall. They speak comfortably, casually with each other in a language you don’t understand.
You gaze at the pastries occupying one wall. You first came to Café Boulis a month ago to try Loukoumades, their specialty, on a sleepy December Sunday with out of town guests. As you ate the small, sweet, greasy donuts, you felt a mixture of gratitude and pride: grateful that you found yourself, almost by accident, living in a beautiful village in which you can be transported to another world by walking only a few blocks from your doorstep. Walk in the other direction, and you approach the skyline of New York City’s Upper East Side. And proud that you could offer such a cosmopolitan treat to your guests, a worldly and well-traveled Venezuelan-Bulgarian couple, before sending them home on the train, back to New Jersey. They ate a spinach pie and a cheese pie; after tasting both, you knew you had to order one, but it was almost impossible to choose which.
Next your gaze wanders to the glass case of cookies in front of you. Last month, as you and your guests munched on pastries and donuts, the young girl working behind the counter offered you cookie after cookie to taste. Cookies drenched in butter and honey.
But on this day, you pass up the food, take your cappuccino, and walk out the door.
When I met Sakura, my heart opened a little bit.
Last June I needed to find a new roommate. I turned to Craigslist. Shortly after I put up a post, I received an e-mail from a foreign-looking e-mail address. The writer stated that she was a Japanese exchange student studying English who hoped to find a roommate who would help her learn about American culture. She said that she currently lived with a host family but had to leave because they had a new student coming and that she hoped to find a “friendly person” to speak English with.
A few days later, Sakura dropped by to see the room. She had only been in the U.S. for two months at the time, so it was a bit difficult for her to communicate. She asked if I would cook dinner with her and I said yes. I thought that was the sweetest thing. I could tell we would get along because I could tell she was a good person from the moment we met.
After she moved in, she started teaching me Japanese. I know how to say this:
Hello, my name is Beth. I like ice cream. How are you? I am well. Do you like ice cream?
Konnichiwa. Watashiwa Beth desu. Ogenkidesuka? Genkides. Ice sukidesuka? Ice sukides.
We went swimming at the Astoria Park Pool together often. We ate Thai brunch at Leng Thai. She even came to Bikram Yoga with me– more than once.
We ate hot dogs at Costco together.
I felt that I could open up to her, maybe because she was younger than me, maybe because I thought she wouldn’t understand all of the things I said, or just because we spent so much time together. She is a great listener. And I loved taking her on adventures.
I brought her to Long Island with my friends to taste wines and visit a water-logged beach. I brought her to Connecticut, to a birthday party for the neighbors I have known my whole life. She saw my old house in Connecticut and that meant a lot to me.
When I heard of a Japanese Street Festival in Astoria, I immediately wanted to take her.
It was about a fifteen-minute walk over to Steinway from home and just as we made it there, it started to rain. But, to my dismay, even the drizzle did not deter the long lines that snaked around booths of Japanese “street food” purveyors. From what I could tell, these vendors were hawking one of two products: either ramen or okonomiyaki.
There was a ramen-judging festival, which I would have been thrilled to participate in except for the fact that you had to pay. I guess I’m not in Vermont anymore, and I know this, but for some reason I still instinctively expect that I should be offered countless free samples in exchange for my excellent judging abilities, as I was at the Middlebury Chili Festival in February 2010.
Alternately, there was okonomiyaki. A word that has so many syllables, making it both difficult and delightful to say. Pronunciation: Oh-Koh-Noh-Mee-Yah-KEE! The lines for okonomiyaki were almost as long as the trip from New York to Japan. But then we found one okonomiyaki truck, offering either pork or seafood okonomiyaki, and we decided to go for it. We huddled under the truck’s awning as shelter from the rain, and one of the decidedly un-Japanese Okonomiyaki chefs chided us, “$5 awning fee.” Did you know that everyone in New York is just trying to make a buck? And the counterpoint to that: You can always make a buck, if you really want to, in New York City.
Okonomiyaki is a pancake. Sometimes it has pork. Sometimes it has seafood. It usually has cabbage. It always has a special kind of flour that gives it a chewy, gooey consistency, and it always has eggs. Sakura taught me how to make it. Here are some photos of our Japanese cooking lesson.
First you put the Okonomiyaki Mixpowder into a bowl.
I thought the instructions on the package were adorable.
Then you pour half of the batter into a hot skillet so that it forms a pancake shape.
Then, flip the pancake over. This is the tricky part.
And drizzle it with your special Otafuku sauce.
We bought all of the supplies at Family Market in Astoria on Broadway and 30th Street. This is one of my favorite places in Astoria. It is a tiny store filled with Japanese food products. It has a miniscule refrigerated section where you can buy mochi, tofu, and vegetables, a slightly larger freezer section with some yummy prepared foods like Shumai, Korean beef, and Kimchi, and lots of dry foods like Ramen mixes, bags of rice, and Miso soup mix. With the Okonomiyaki kit that we bought, you only need to add eggs, cabbage and bacon to create your own pancake.
I ate two oranges this morning. Big, round, perfect, juicy oranges. Citrus globules.
This is the season for oranges.
I didn’t have an orange peeler, so I bit through their skin once so that I could peel them. My friend Rachel showed me how to do this in college. When I saw her dig her teeth into the orange’s skin, I was perplexed. But she said, “Sometimes, you just have to do it.” Since then, I have.
An ex-boyfriend used to eat bananas with his fingers, breaking off pieces and popping them in his mouth. Since I first saw him do that, it’s become a more appealing method for me, too. I am not sure why.
When I was in Florence, my host dad Babbo showed me how to peel an orange without getting the white part under my fingernails, using a knife. Italians take care when eating their fruit, as they do in so many things. Babbo adored showing me how to do things. The moments when he showed me are now etched in my memory. He delighted in opening new worlds to me.
“Le ragazze americane non sanno il piacere di andare in motorino,” he shouted back to me as we sped down the hill in Antella past tiny Fiats beneath a cloudless sky and my hair flew in the breeze behind me. He was right.
There was nothing more soothing than the fruit course. “Ecco, la tartaruga!” my host mom would say. And she would hand us the wooden tortoise filled with fruit. Italian fruit tastes different. In the beginning of the semester, in September, we ate fruit from the garden behind the house (pictured above): white and red figs, apricots, plums, and apples. Later in the year, we had apples from the store, which had more matte skins than American apples, and were somehow crisper in texture, but not flavor. We had small oranges, which were flecked with dots of red. As it got closer to Christmas, they became redder.
“Diventano piu` e piu` rosse, e piu` buone,” Babbo said.
Then we had bananas. Dallas would leave half a banana under my coffee mug at breakfast, along with a handful of almonds taken from a giant bag that her mom had shipped her from the Costco in Washington state. These were well-travelled almonds.
Each fruit had to be peeled, with a knife. Not just bananas and oranges, but apples and pears and peaches too. Learning to peel fruit with a knife was one of the manual tasks I learned in Italy, along with the proper way to gracefully eat spaghetti (and ravioli–never cut them in half), how to apply mascara, and how to blow-dry my hair.
My grandma told a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that she fell in love with my grandfather, an Italian from Pisa, when she saw him peeling a peach with a fork and a knife.
- My grandparents at the Venetian resort in Las Vegas, NV
The fruit course is a restful, contemplative time, as I remember it. Your fruit peels drop onto the little plate in front of you. Sometimes you split an apple or a pear with someone. Around Christmas, nuts join the fruit course. Walnuts in their shells. Incidentally, I’ll never forget the time that Babbo took us on a long country walk, where we plundered an abandoned walnut tree and carried home as many as we could in our pockets, past hills of silver-tinged olive trees and paths flanked by cypress trees. They signify welcome, Babbo told me.
If you’re lucky, you savor a square of chocolate after you finish your fruit. “Ho voglia di qualcosa di buono.” Babbo would say. “Chi vuole qualcosa di buono?”
The expression siamo alla frutta literally means “We’re at the fruit course” and it means that you are finished, done, or worn out. During study abroad we used to say this when we were tired out from exams or travelling or eating too much. You can also say sono al verde or sono al lumicino.
And on Sundays, after the huge family lunch at 2 or 3, there was espresso. “Chi vuole caffe?” my host mom asked. And then she taught us fiorentino: “Un caffe, due haffe, tre caffe, quattro haffe.” Sometimes, only sometimes, Florentines drop the hard c: la hasa, la hiesa, instead of la casa, la chiesa. Brusciare instead of bruciare. But for non-native speakers, it’s hard to know when. I believe my Italian linguistics professor at Middlebury explained the formula to me. But, I don’t remember it. I only know what I remember from having lived there, from having learned Italian there, from the time when I believed that Fiorentino was proper Italian because it was the first Italian I heard. The baby that sees its mother when it first opens its eyes: that was me. I opened my eyes and ears in Italy and saw Florence and took her as my home.
Of course, natives of Florence insist that their Italian is the only proper Italian. After all, the fiorentino Dante Alighieri based his one unified Italian language on the Florentine dialect, declaring it the most pure.
2012 was not a good year for fruit. An early frost threw off the apple and peach crops. I didn’t have one good peach this summer. No sweet juice exploding through the fuzzy skin on first bite, then dribbling down fingers and chin. At an apple orchard in Rochester, where my parents live, signs encouraged visitors to “pick apples from the barrel, not the trees” because of the year’s difficult crop. Here in Astoria, the local 30th Ave Fruit Market & Apple Barn, a long yellow room filled with bins and bins of apples and a cold, sweet apply scent, ran out of Empire apples after only a few weeks.
Like the peach does summer, Empire apples speak of Autumn to me, in their cool refreshing crispness and fresh tart flavor. Autumn, the season of renewal and quiet passing into sleep, of rest and reflection. No Empire apples whispered this to me, this year. No round fuzzy peaches infused me with their summertime excitement, sang to me of dancing and beaches and sunshine-fueled burst of high energy followed by utterly lazy lying about.
But navel oranges, large and perfectly round, juicy and sweet, call me home in December.
In Parma I ate oranges. Italian oranges, sold with their stems and leaves still on them, from Africa, from Sicily. Sweeter and softer than the ones I eat here. In Parma I squeezed fresh orange juice every day for the children I cared for. They never wanted to drink it. I always did. Who could turn down freshly hand-squeezed orange juice? I even added two spoonfuls of sugar for them.
When I visited Sicily in 2009, I was offered oranges and other citrus fruit at every turn. Oranges the size of basketballs and lemons the size of footballs. This must be paradise, I thought.
And it was. Specifically, the moment that I visited this Fattoria di Cannoli, I felt that I had arrived at my life’s ultimate destination.
But perhaps, after all, the idea of an ultimate destination is just an illusion. I have been here, all along, untying the strands of my past in this bowl of pasta before me. Reaching deep into my heart to touch, tentatively, the secrets buried there. Opening my eyes and ears, once more, to see what is around me, to see less of what is inside me, and also to see more. Rediscovering a forgotten purity of spirit.
Take good care and realize that this city can be forgiven. Such flaws that there were, one imagined. Such flaws that there will be, shall not come. For forgiveness opens up the freedom to change.
What occurs in the space between us? A fit of fancy that stirs one to seek higher ground. A labeling that renders one labelless. A sweet piece of feeling that inspires, each moment a crystal glacier resting upon the sea inside me. The worlds contained in such a moment, the mind cannot know.
It is a sort of hollow place where I nestle in comfortably, a hollow place that expands as I fill it.
For what is it, after all, to feel embarrassed? Only a little bit of closeness that dignity haughtily dismissed.
Such is the path I have trodden, up and over and down and below, and so it stretches before me. There is nothing to choose.
Alone or in company, my heart has been filled with heady wonder.