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Dean's Wine and Food Notes - What happened to all the tomatoes?

Dean Gold (Dean)

Dean Gold and Kay Zimmerman own Dino, an Italian restaurant in Washington D.C.

Fresh Tomatoes and Mozzarella for the Summer

For the past few months we have been in local tomato heaven. Tuscaroara Growers Coop is located in rural Pennsylvania and we order from them twice a week: Mondays and Thursdays. The orders come in the next day. Twice a week we get a fax from them with all the goodies available. It is fun to see something new, but a little sad when a particular crop goes away.

This summer at our restaurant we had several dishes with tomatoes: Caprese and Antipasto di Verdure were hugely popular. Our Caprese is made with fresh mozzarella di bufala flown in from a small maker in Campania. Our purveyor gets it twice a week so the stuff is very fresh. None of the vacuum packed mozzarella you see in the market, this stuff comes in Styrofoam airfreight boxes (with the Lufthansa airfreight stickers still on them) enclosed in a large plastic bag. We would chose from amongst our six or eight varieties of tomatoes to see what was ripe. So your Caprese would have anywhere from four to eight kinds of tomatoes sitting on a bit of basil oil and topped with the sliced mozzarella. The Antipasto di Verdure was sliced grilled eggplant and zucchini (also from Tuscarora) with roasted stem artichokes marinated in oil and slices of tomato. We loved both dishes. Kay and I would have one or the other at dinner most nights.

Fresh Squashes for the Fall

One day when I called in my order for tomatoes, Tony at Tuscarora told me that the tomato season was basically over. They might get in a case or two later, but the days of abundant tomatoes was over. Now, instead of 12 to 16 cases of tomatoes stuck in every free space we have, there are winter squash everywhere! Pumpkins, butternuts, sweet dumplings, Kabocha, and heirloom pie pumpkins (almost foot ball shaped!). Our menu now has as much winter squash as it formerly had tomatoes. Pumpkin soup, a stuffed squash with winter greens, mushrooms and polenta, winter squash hash with the chicken and a roasted veggie antipasto. Summer is gone now and it is only a matter of time before we are shoveling snow!

Summer's end also requires adjustments to the wine list. We were featuring a lot of lighter reds and summery whites. Now we need more muscular wines for the heartier food and cooler weather. So we are removing things like simple Valpolicella and Bianco di Custoza and adding more Rosso di Montalcino and Amarone. This means I am tasting a lot of my favorite wines these days and seeing how the new vintages are.

Wines for the Fall

In 2004, Rosso di Montalcino is simply superb. This may be the best vintage I have had for this wine. They are very fun to drink and showing extremely well in their youth. Rosso di Montalcino is 100% sangiovese grown in Montalcino's zone. It is released approximately a year after the harvest. Most wineries use their rosso as a way to sell their lesser lots of wine that would not normally go into their Brunello. In a year like 2004, however, these wines are really baby Brunellos. 2004 should be a fantastic year! My favorites so far are Ciacci Piccolomini, Argiano and Le Macioche. I am awaiting a new shipment of Agostina Pieri which has been a favorite in every vintage since 1997.

Speaking of Montalcino, the 2001 Brunellos are arriving and I am buying up all I can. These wines are really good, full and rich with classic flavors and a generous structure for either early drinking or long aging. With a few well selected 2000 Brunello and the last of the truly excellent 99's, Dino is really a Brunello lover's dream right now. We have a total of over 30 Brunello.

The 2002 Amarone are beginning to show up as well. Amarone is a very interesting, albeit expensive wine. They take grapes from several varieties including Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara to blend the wine, although Corvina is the main crop. The grapes are picked fully ripe and then laid on mats to dry under the roof of the winery. The buildings are typically designed with the roofs, supported on beams raised above the top floor to create an open space, for the grape drying. To make Amarone, the grapes are dried for three to six months, reducing the yields and creating raisin-ey grapes. This is why there is no such thing as a cheap Amarone. Where you could make 2two to five bottle of Valpolicella, you may now only get one bottle of Amarone from the same grapes,

2002 was not a particularly kind vintage grape-wise in much of Italy. There were torrential rains mixed in with hail storms. A large number of vineyards went entirely, or mostly, unpicked. But if you did get a crop in Valpolicella, it had potential for a good Amarone. This is because of the drying process. The grapes may have started out water logged, but the wet conditions favored the formation of the mold Botrytis, which encourages dehydration and the concentration of the resulting wine. Thus 2002 is a good to great year for Amarone (and Ripasso which is Valpolicella re-fermented on the Amarone skins after the making of the Amarone is complete) while the Valpolicella "normale" are fairly spotty at best!

So far I have put on the La Giaretta and the Tomasso Bussola BG. These are fairly early drinking styles of Amarone and both are quite yummy. For Amarone, they are fairly priced.

Dean Gold lives in Maryland, when he is not in Italy, and owns the Washington DC restaurant Dino, www.dino-dc.com. See Dean's Slow Travel Member page and more of his food and wine notes.

© Dean Gold, 2006

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