Taking Kimpton colleagues to Italy has been a dream of mine for several years. This month, it became a reality when I jetted off to Tuscany with five wine managers from our San Francisco Italian restaurants — Scala’s Bistro, Puccini & Pinetti and Pescatore.
It was delicious fun with a strong purpose: to make the restaurant and bar experience authentic and memorable for our guests. I’ve always felt that the best way to infuse true culture into our Italian restaurants is to have our employees experience Italy first hand by really soaking up the sights, sounds, aromas and, of course, the tastes. The trip was the pinnacle of a nine-month employee program, which included classes on the country’s rich culinary heritage, geography and language. Over the course of the program we tinkered with our cocktail and after-dinner drink lists and literally changed the way we make cappuccinos. In November we even got together and reduced 50 pounds of lemons and three cases of high-proof vodka into limoncello. (You can sample the yummy results at the three restaurants I mentioned above.) The program was so successful that next year we’ll roll it out to each of Kimpton’s Italian restaurants across the country.
My first stop on the trip, before the other wine managers joined me, was Sicily. While I was enthusiastic to embrace the region’s wines, I confess that the food was my first draw. I was not disappointed. The unbelievable freshness and simplicity of the cuisine is pure magic. To put it in perspective, the island is covered with orange groves and the alluring aroma of zagara (orange blossoms) hung in the air everywhere we went. Oranges were featured on pretty much every menu. One of my favorite dishes was a salad of Sicilian oranges, shaved fennel and intense black olives. Speaking of salad, we could not get enough of the sweet local tomatoes; we had them in every form and the best was in caponata. This is a sweet and sour “cooked salad” of eggplants, tomatoes, capers and celery that can top just about any dish.
And let’s not forget the wine! In Sicily, they are predominantly made from indigenous grapes. My favorite is Etna Rosso, a varietal made from the Nerello Mascalese grape. It is grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna, which just happened to be erupting while we were there. (Check out my picture below of vineyards in the black volcanic soil.) The wine is soft and feminine, like a Pinot Noir. The vibrant floral tones and gripping tannins are what make it so distinctive. Planeta makes fantastic wines from five different distinctive locations around the island. Etna Rosso is new and I was thrilled to hear that they will be in the U.S. for the first time this year. We’re planning to add this wine to the menus of all of Kimpton’s Italian restaurants.
From Sicily I joined the Kimpton crew in Florence. We visited five different wineries over four days and each winery was special in its own way. Yet, they did have one thing in common: a love for cooking wild boar! We had wild boar braised, stewed and shredded over fresh pasta. Boar pairs so well with red wines and I think wineries take special delight in serving it. In fact, the vineyards were almost always surrounded with heavy electric wire to keep the pesky pigs from uprooting the vines. We had a cooking class one evening at Ruffino Winery and learned exactly what kind of elbow grease it takes to roll out pasta by hand. It isn’t easy, but the results are divine, especially when enjoyed outside with big glasses of Chianti Classico.
It’s important to note that visiting wine country in Chianti is very different than going to Napa Valley. For one, the wineries rarely use new oak. Instead, giant old barrels hold the wine and allow their fruit and earthy character to shine through. New oak gives loads of sweet spice and vanilla flavors to wine, which would overwhelm the subtle nature of Chianti.
We learned this and more as our explorations took us out to the coast of Maremma to a fantastic winery called Castello del Terriccio. Interestingly, the owner shows equal passion for raising jumping horses as he does for making great wine. From the winery you can see the tip of Corsica, which is a great view while enjoying a fabulous Super Tuscan wines. Super Tuscans often combine typical French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah with the local Sangiovese grape.
Our trip concluded with a day in Sienna. Sitting on the Piazza del Campo eating gelato and drinking Champagne was rivaled only by our final dinner at Castello Banfi, a family-owned vineyard estate. We drank three different vintages of the winery’s famous Brunello di Montalcino with wild boar (what else?!) and marveled at each wine’s intensity and power.
I look forward to seeing how our trip inspired my fellow travelers and discovering what they will back to their restaurants. I have a feeling this won’t be their last visit to Tuscany … or mine either.