Monday, October 29, 2012

Italian Perfection? SPQR Book Launch & Lunch

October 29, 2012

Ah, it was good day to be in San Francisco. I know reader, you may leap to the stunning seven game streak that lead the Giants to their World Series triumph last night as the cause of my gratified reflection, but you’d only be partially right.

While I savored sweet victory another flavor from the day competed for richness, namely, Matthew Accarrino’s lamb ragu.

Celebrating the launch of SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine, Book Passage patrons and Bay Area foodies gathered with sommelier superstar Shelley Lindgren and recently Michelin Star anointed chef Matthew Accarrino for a spectacular fall Cooks With Books lunch. Balancing elegant execution with deep tradition, the two shaped a meal expressing that exquisite polarity of Italian cooking and wine: the rustic and the refined.

Autumn sunlight poured through the generous skylights of A16, splashing over the open kitchen and the long family-style table set for us. While being welcomed with a glass of Ferrari Brut Rose (red currant nose, and surprisingly dry), I watched as Chef Chris made the pasta for dinner service, feeding delicate sheets of hazelnut colored dough through the maker, gathering and weighing the strands, each bunch placed carefully aside, and then repeated.

It is this quality of careful attention and ease that permeates both of Shelley’s restaurants. Everything is done with the utmost quality but also a graceful naturalness. It is something I think of as very Italian, there is a right way to do something, so relax and do it.

Which brings us to lunch. Opening with chopped chicken livers, brought to buttery smoothness with crème fraîche and tempered with Marsala wine, topped with a wine gelatina and dollop of carrot marmellata.

Smeared on thick slices of grilled bread, the rooty sweetness of the carrot and near-foie richness of the liver came into perfect harmony, washed with a sip of J. Hofstatter 2006 ‘Koblenhof’ Gewürztraminer, yeasty and spicy with the right cut of sweetness.

Next a dish inspired from the picnics of Accarrino’s childhood, Erbazzone Torta with braised greens and dill crema fresca. The torta was simultaneously light and hearty, the salty gravity of the pastry, greens, egg, and cheese balanced with the springy freshness of the greens and dill, and well paired with a Queciabella ‘Mongrana’ Chianti Classico.

Between each course Shelley would illuminate the wine, its region, production, history, and peculiarities. The velvety and highly aromatic Damiano Ciolli, Olevano Cesanese 2009 (pictured above) from the volcanic hills of Lazio and a 5th generation winemaking family was the standout. Medium bodied with a floral and earthy nose, met with leather, clay, and cooked cherry in the mouth, it has the complexity and depth one associates more readily with the big Barolos to the north, not to mention exquisitely complementing…

The Ragu! Braised lamb that pulls into buttery strings in a velvety ragu served with pillow-light semolina gnocci and grated over with Pecorino Pepato. I cannot do justice here to the exquisite satisfaction of this dish.

The entire table was in awe of the lightness of the gnocci. Matthew explained it came from a technique he learned while working for Thomas Keller. The batter of the gnocci has no potato, but rather cheese, egg and semolina, and is piped through a pastry bag and cut into pieces directly over boiling water. When met with skepticism on the home chef’s chances for recreation he reassured the table, “that’s how it comes out, no tricks, every time.” As one who has suffered the humiliation and texture of overly dense gnocci, this “trick” alone is worth the price of the book.

The lunch closed with a passion fruit panna cotta, zinging sweet and served with thin chewy coconut macaroons. Matched with a glass of the delicately bubbly La Spinetta ‘Biancospino’ Moscato d’Asti 2001, sweet and acid it reflected well the zesty fruitiness of the dessert.

Have I piqued your appetite? Not to worry, as Shelley promised over her shoulder on her way to refill a glass “It’s all in the book.”

~Avram Kosasky

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