There are a few Italian Restaurants in the Los Angeles area where it feels as if you’ve been transported to Italy, the land the ancient Greeks called Enotria, the land of rich vineyards. Il Forno is one of those restaurants. I arrived at a fully booked dining room for the four-course Southern Italian wine dinner. Chef Domenico Salvatore and proprietor Sorin Costache curated the menu with wine pairings by Sommelier Diane DeLuca of Goblet & The Fork.
The starter course of stuzzichini (small bites) of Salmon Affumicato (smoked salmon) and Polpette di Tacchino (turkey meatballs) set high expectations for the meal. The stuzzichini were paired with a 2015 Etna Bianco from Planeta Winery. The Etna Bianco is made from the white grape, Carricante, grown on the slopes of Sicily’s volcanic Mt. Etna. The Etna Bianco was bright and fresh with rich minerality on the palate. Our primo corso, Santa Barbara prawns, prepared with frisèe, grilled radicchio, olive oil and orange zest was paired with 2015 Macchialupa Beneventano Falanghina from the Campania region. Also a white grape, Falanghina is local to the region and lends particularly well to seafood. This was a stellar pairing! The preserved lemon peel flavor of the wine and its acidity cut through the char-grill flavor of the prawn and radicchio giving the crustacean a buttery flavor and soft texture while tempering the bittersweet lettuce. I eyed my tablemate’s plate, hoping he’d pass on the dish, but he’d consumed the entire prawn, head included.
The second course was Baccala alla Siciliana, black cod with oven-roasted tomatoes, garlic, fresh oregano, capers, and breadcrumbs. The cod was paired with 2013 Tenuta Rapitalá Nuhar, a Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) and Nero d’Avola blend from Sicily. There is a long-standing misconception that you can only serve white wine with fish, with the exception of a light red wine with salmon, but this pairing wonderfully illustrated how complementary red wine can be with fish. The cod was cooked perfectly and the low-acid, low tannin wine brought out the sweetness of the tomatoes, which were slow-roasted in the oven overnight. The wine also enhanced the earthy brine of the black olives and capers.
The third course, appropriately a pasta course, was strozzapreti with zucchini, venison sausage, forest mushrooms, and tomatoes. The wine to match was 2016 Niro, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo. Montepulciano D’Abruzzo is a varietal from the Abruzzo region. It is often mistaken for the Sangiovese grape grown in Tuscany’s Montepulciano area of the Chianti Region. The Montepulciano grape is its own varietal from the Abruzzo region, thus the confusion of origin and nomenclature. The wine was young and fruity and gave a bright pop to the venison ragù. I circled back to the Pinot Nero blend, tasting it with the ragù, and it was equally pleasing.
The delights continued with the fourth course, roasted lamb shank on a bed of soft polenta. Two wines accompanied this course, a 2012 Aglianico Del Vulture from the Manfredi Winery in the region of Basilicata and a 2013 Primitivo from Castello Monaci Artas in Puglia. The Aglianico had more pronounced tannins and seemed higher in alcohol than the Primitivo, which was fruit forward with hints of cassis and cherry wood smoke. Both were enjoyable with the enormous, beautifully prepared lamb shank and comforting polenta.
And finally, the dessert course—house made cannoli! The delicate, rich pastries were served with 2016 Planeta Passito di Noto Moscato Bianco. The Moscato Bianco is a sweet white dessert wine with a touch of botrytis. Botrytis, or noble rot, is a harmless mold that is deliberately cultivated for sweet wines as the grapes dry on the vine and sugar levels increase. With one sniff of the Passito, I was carried back to the Planeta tasting room in Sicily where I first encountered the wine and was giddy with delight to be able to purchase a bottle since it was not yet exported to the United States. Now here it was and everyone was just as delighted as I had first been! This meal was so special, not only because the wine and food were excellent and complemented each other, but because it imparted a wonderful terroir, a deep feeling of place, that took me back to Enotria, the land of rich vineyards.
This tasting menu was priced at $84.00 per person including tax and gratuity. Visit http://www.ilfornocaffe.com for updates on their next wine dinner.