Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Il Casale Cucina Campana + Bar: Wines of Campania

What wine pairs well with pig's tail and feet? Maybe the "Barolo of the South."

In Lexington center, you'll find il Casale Cucina Campana + Bar, the third restaurant from the de Magistris family, including Chef Dante de Magistris and his brothers Damian and Filippo. Their family is from the town of Candida in the Irpinia region of Campania, which is located in southern Italy. You might be more familiar with its capital, Naples. The restaurant reflects the cuisine of that region, including a number of old family recipes.

As it states on their website, "Nestled in the lush hills and valleys of the mountainous region of Irpinia lies their hometown village, Candida, where recipes survive only by word of mouth or at best are scratched on distressed pieces of paper hidden between the pages of a bible or an old phone book."

The Menu presents Sfizi, small plates ($5-$11), Antipasti ($9-$16), Primi, pasta dishes (small $11-$14, large $22-$28), Pasta al Forno, baked pasta ($$14-$28), and Secondi ($21-$36). It is moderately priced, offering high quality dishes in a casual and fun atmosphere. The restaurant is very open and airy, with an open kitchen and views of Lexington center. Their wine list includes some Italian wines which the de Magistris have specially imported and are not available anywhere else in the U.S.

I was invited to il Casale to experience a media dinner which showcased the wines of the Campania region. As I had just been to another Campania wine tasting the week before, I was intrigued to see how the il Casale wines would compare to those I previously tasted. Campania has a rich vinous history, extending back about three thousand years, and at least a few of their indigenous grapes extend back to the ancient Greeks. However, many wine lovers still are not familiar with the wines of Campania and that needs to change.

In addition, you should check out il Casala in Lexington for some delicious food which will transport you to southern Italy for an evening.

Our evening began with a white wine from the de Magistris’ private label, Phoenix famiglia de Magsitris. The phoenix is a symbol of Campania and also makes for a nice illustration on the wine label. The 2014 Coda di Volpe is produced from the rare Coda di Volpe grape and its name translates as the "tail of the fox." Campania is one of the few Italian wine regions which makes wine from 100% of this varietal. I found this wine to be pleasant and easy drinking, with tasty flavors of melon, citrus, and honey with floral accents and some herbal notes on the finish. An interesting wine, it has plenty of character and should appeal to many wine lovers.

As we enjoyed this wine, we received two planks of antipasti, including one hot plank and one cold plank. The hot mix included Bruschetta with cherry tomatoes, garlic, & Sicilian oregano; Burrata with candied pistachios, honey, & Sicilian oregano; 31 month aged “vacche rosse” parmigiana reggiano; Fried calamari with lemon mascarpone, crispy lemon, & donna’s pepperoncini; Speck & warren pears with frog hollow farm pears, smoked prosciutto, arugula, gorgonzola crema, & hazelnuts; Fried mozzarella & prosciutto motto, with tomato basil salad; Potato croquette, “panzerotti,” stuffed with smoked scamorza & roasted red pepper sauce; and Arancini with white wine parmigiana risotto, truffled fontina fonduta, & chives.

What an abundance of delicious flavors and textures and you could happily enjoy just some antipasti and wine rather than order an entree. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these items, though the Burrata and Speck were my two favorite bites. Everything seemed fresh, was cooked just right and each bite was nicely balanced. An excellent start to the evening.

Our second wine was also from the Phoenix label, a 2014 Fiano di Avelino DOCG. Fiano is an ancient grape and its original name was Vitis apiana, Latin for "vine of the bees." This was a bright and crisp wine, with vibrant citrus and lemon flavors, a nice minerality and a bit of tartness on the finish. This would be a good pairing for seafood, or a dish with a cream sauce because of its high acidity. An excellent white wine, this would be perfect for the summer, but would also work well in the winter, dependent on your food pairing.

All of their pastas are made in-house and they use different flours to make different types of pasta. The Spaghetti Puttanesca, is made with chitarra pasta, anchovies, capers, olives, and tomatoes. The pasta was excellent, with a nice texture to it, and there was some umami elements to the flavors of this dish.  It was a hearty dish, perfect for a winter evening.

Of the two pasta dishes though, my personal favorite was the Frutti di Mare "Alla Crema di Basilico" which was made with spaghetti, cream, clams, shrimp, mussels, and octopus. The creamy seafood was compelling and the pasta texture once again was excellent, enhancing the dish. All of the seafood was tender and again, it was a hearty dish, perfect to warm your belly during a chilly evening.

Onto the red wines, starting with the 2008 Vinosia Santadrea Taurasi, which is from a newer winery but the owners have plenty of experience and now want to create their own wines. The wine is made from 100% Aglianico, maybe the top red grape in Campania and which is sometimes referred to as the "Barolo of the South." The Vinosia was produced in a more traditional style, with a deep almost black color and an intense, alluring aroma of blueberries and spice. On the palate,  the wine is complex and interesting, with a pleasing melange of black and red fruits, from ripe plum to raspberries, with mild spice notes, moderate tannins, good acidity and hints of chocolate. Such a compelling wine, I was very enthusiastic about it and would highly recommend it. An excellent wine for hearty pasta dishes, wild game, steak and more.

The next dish was the de Magistris family "soul food," a rustic soup from the mountains of Irpinia made with braised better greens, pigs tails & feet. For the potentially squeamish in our group, all of the meat had already been removed from the tail and feet so you wouldn't have known where the meat came from if you just looked at the dish. Back in Campania, you would have found the actual tail and feet in our dish, which I would't have minded. The tender meat was delicious, with a superb savory broth, and it paired perfectly with the Vinosia, answering my initial questions in this post. Though the sound of the dish, tail and feet, might turn you off, it would be a mistake not to try this tasty dish which would please any meat lover.

The 2008 Vinosia Marziacanalae Taurus, also made from 100% Aglianico, is more of a modern, international-style wine. It is a silky smooth wine with black and red fruit flavors but also a strong vanilla streak, almost giving it a hint of sweetness.  It is a style that will appeal to wine lovers though my personal preference was for the more traditional style wine.  I think the more traditional style better reflects the region of Campania as the modern style can be found in many areas around the world, from California to Australia.

The last savory dish was the Pizzaiola, Neapolitan braised beef, San Marzano tomatoes, roasted potatoes, pine nuts, and raisins. Once again, the meat was very tender and flavorful, with crispy potatoes, and it paired well with the wine, though I think the traditional style Vinosia was the best of the two pairings. The pine nuts added a nice crunchy texture to the dish, as well as their own nutty flavor.

The last wine of the evening was the 2009 Vinosia Sesto A Quinconce Aglianico, one of the top wines from this producer. It is 100% Aglianico, from vines that are at least 75 years old, and they make only about 500 cases each year. It is dark and deep, intense and muscular yet still with plenty of elegance and restrained tannins. Back fruits, spice, cocoa and so much more can be found in this complex and intriguing wine. It is more in the traditional style and I was thoroughly impressed, finding so much to like about this wine. Highly recommended!

For dessert, we had a Rum Baba with pastry cream, amarena cherries, and crushed biscotti. A nice blend of flavors and textures, it was light enough that almost anyone could find some room tin their belly to enjoy this dessert.

We also enjoyed some Piccolini, a variety of cookies including Florentines, Biscotti (chocolate hazelnut and almond,) and Lady Fingers with apricot. The Florentines were my favorites.

Before I left, I had to try their Meletti Barrel Aged Manhattan, which is made with Overholt Rye, Meletti Amaro, & Amarena cherry. A deep and savory cocktail, it had some intriguing spice and herbal notes,  with a nice bitter tinge. It is an intriguing variation of a Manhattan, substituting Amaro for Vermouth, and it works very well. No Manhattan lover should object to this cocktail and the barrel aging seems to provide some added depth to the drink. Check it out!

And seek out the wines of Campania, both their whites and reds.

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