Friday, October 26, 2012

Welcome to Sicily

I have been lucky enough to travel around the world, but I never had the opportunity to visit any of the places my family came from.  That list is longer than you may think since each of my grandparents was born in a different country. When the opportunity to visit Sicily came up, I was thrilled to be able to cross one of those places off my list.

The trip was organized by Rebecca Hopkins, whom I had met while at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. She works for Folio Wines and put together a trip for me with three of Sicily’s top wine producers, Valledell’Acate, Tasca d’Almerita and Donnafugata. The itinerary had us on eight planes and in the car quite a bit, but the positive side of that was that I would get to see a lot of the land my grandfather’s family was from.

It was a rough start to the trip as the cab I ordered didn’t show up and I came as close as one could get (the plane door about to close) to missing my plane. Had I been at a larger airport, there probably would have been no way I would have made it, but I ran onto the plane and took the first flight, a quick 20 minutes from Champaign to Chicago.

I arrived at O’Hare before my friend Tracy, who was coming from San Francisco to take the flight to room with me. The flight was full and there wasn’t an upgrade – or two good seats together – so we separated for the nine hour flight. Thanks to my status on American Airlines I was able to snag an exit seat with extra legroom and I enjoyed a few glasses of chardonnay with a decent plate of cannelloni and watched Julia Roberts in Mirror, Mirror.

After a few hours of sleep, the flight attendant woke me with yogurt and a croissant before the plane landed in Rome. We only had an hour to go through security to the other side of the airport for our Alitalia flight to Palermo and we managed to make it. The flight itself was comfortable and a quick 45 minutes.

Our driver Nunzio was waiting for us in Palermo airport for the three and a half hour wild ride through the winding roads of Sicily. We went past mountains, vineyards, farms and the Mediterranean Sea along the way. We also stopped for lunch at a gas station/restaurant, where Tracy and on mistakenly ordered a “cutlet” that we learned was not eggplant as we had thought (we didn’t learn what it was, and decided we were better off not knowing).

As we got closer to Ragusa, we could see more vineyards as well as green houses, goat, sheep and olive trees. Our hotel was in Ragusa Ibla (the older section of Ragusa) and we were staying at the Locanda Don Serafina Hotel. It reminded me a bit of some of the places I had stayed in Burgundy. It had that Medieval field, including a very steep staircase in the stone walls that we needed to take up to our room.

It had been a long 24 hours of travel and we took a little nap before Francesco Ferreri, owner of Valle dell’Acate Winery, picked us up and took us downtown for a tour of the city before dinner.

I loved the cobblestone streets and piazza in Ragusa Ibla. I watched the families and couples strolling and the men conversing on the street the way I heard my grandfather still did with his family once they were in Brooklyn.

Francesco took us into a Gelateria where they had made gelato with wine. I tried the rose and the moscato and enjoyed sampling as we walked around admiring the buildings and the churches (there 53 Catholic churches in Ragusa).  Then we sat down for some Asti Spumante and a table full of cheese, olives and other “nibbles.”

Dinner was at Locanda Don Serafino Restaurant, which actually wasn’t at the hotel since the owners wanted the restaurant in its own unique location. It was a beautiful building with similar stone construction, but also had modern touches, like clear Lucite chairs.

Before dinner we went down to see the extensive wine cellar. I was quite impressed with the selection the restaurant had, but for this night we were trying Valle dell’Acate wines.  We started with Bidis, a blend of Chardonnay and Insolia. It was buttery and smooth, tasting a bit like vanilla gelato. It went well with the exclusive extra-virgin olive oil the restaurant had for its bread, as well as the cherry tomato, goat cheese and buffalo ricotta appetizer.

The next course was rabbit and between my allergy to rabbit fur and my aversion to eating anything I pet, I passed, but Tracy said it was very good and worked well with the Il Frappato, a red wine that held the fruit nose in the flavor, along with just a bit of pepper.

As we got closer to Ragusa, we could see more vineyards as well as green houses, goat, sheep and olive trees. Our hotel was in Ragusa Ibla (the older section of Ragusa) and we were staying at the Locanda Don Serafina Hotel. It reminded me a bit of some of the places I had stayed in Burgundy. It had that Medieval field, including a very steep staircase in the stone walls that we needed to take up to our room.

My next course was just superb, a ravioli filled with apple and Aubergine cream, in a sauce made from raw tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella. With that I enjoyed the Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico, a blend of Nero d'Avola  and Frappato.  After a tender pork sausage stuffed quail, we had a cheese course, followed by “pre-desserts” (including a buffalo yogurt ad saffron cream), followed by Carob Crème Brulee and a pistachio semi freddo.

Francesco dropped as back at the hotel about midnight and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow and I dreamed of day two in Sicily.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Finishing Tales with Pig, Punch & Gin

I woke up early, had a quick yoga workout and then went up to the Reincarnation Room at the Hotel Monteleone for breakfast. The sponsor of the day was cognac (the spirit) and samples of cocktails and the straight stuff were everywhere.  I decided to pass, opting instead for a croissant, fruit and tea.

Before I headed upstairs to get organized for the day, I stopped at the pool, where they were sampling some tea cocktails. Somehow a chocolate tea smoothie – even if it was spiked – seemed more logical at 8:00 am.

My first event of the day was the I Love/Hate Cocktails Seminar. It was being led by Belvedere Mixologist Claire Smith, whom I had gotten to know a bit at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. Claire was monitoring a panel of six mixologists/liquor representatives who were divided between loving and hating cocktails. It was by far the most fun seminar I had ever been to and I was really glad it I had chosen it for my schedule. 

I had some time so I did a bit more walking around Bourbon Street and definitely got an intro to just how wild and crazy it could get down here. From strip clubs to bars with drinks larger than I could consume in an entire day (for less than one drink anywhere else), New Orleans is certainly a place like no other.

Between it all I could also see the remnants of poverty that were pushed to the limit by Hurricane Katrina. I had family affected in this area and a visit many years later I’m sure just gave me a small glimpse into what happened then.

I actually walked about two miles in downtown New Orleans
and was surprised by the one thing I really wanted and couldn’t find – beignets. Despite the thought that they are so popular in New Orleans, the only place I could find them at was Café du Mont, and the line was literally a block long.

I decided to forego the beignet and joined some of the Brugal Rum reps at Pigs & Punch.  It was actually a free event in the park. There were snow cones and interesting gelatos (I loved the Dark Chocolate Ginger), as well as tons of food. I had a full plate of shredded pork, cole slaw, potato salad and beans that made me really feel like I was in the south.

We decided to walk the 10 blocks back to the hotel and I was surprised when I was told we were taking a detour – to Francis Ford Coppola’s house. The director owns a modest townhouse across the street from his nephew, actor Nicholas Cage. Though Coppola was not in town, he had allowed a few of his partner brands to showcase in the home.

I sipped Krug Champagne and Ingelnook Cabernet Sauvignon. I also had a chance to pick out and order a complimentary pair of designer glasses from the reasonably priced Warby Parker, which I have since gotten and loved.

After I left Coppola’s house, I went to the Royal Sonesta for a tasting of Dancing Pine. It was packed as they passed out hors d'oeuvres and some unusual treats, such as snow cones (they are a popular choice in the heat of New Orleans) with their Cherry Tart and Brulee Liqueurs and even s’mores made right in front of us.

I made my way back to Hotel Monteleone where their famous Carousel Bar was hosting a Tanqueray Party. They served some very strong gin and tonics, in addition to French 75 and Manhattans. After the tasting I went back for a nap, but ended up sleeping through the Juniperlooza party!

The next morning I went to the Mr. & Mrs. Cocktail Brunch to say farewell to my first Tales of the Cocktail. There were quite a few members of the press there, some enjoying cocktails, but most sipping coffee. They had a nice spread that included Jambalaya, an omelet station (had a great goat cheese and mushroom omelet), salads and desserts (there’s nothing quite like Praline Chocolate Cheesecake).

I was more than ready to go home when the cab arrived, though I’m so glad I finally experienced Tales, the ultimate week-long party.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Tales Balancing Act in New Orleans

I was quickly thrown into the fire on my first day of Tales of the Cocktail and I was determined to act like less of a (Tales) virgin on day two. It's all about balancing the fun with the rest, or so I'd been told.

I started with a healthy breakfast in the Reincarnation Room at the Hotel Monteleone, also known as the place many journalists went between all night partying and all day drinking.  I happen to like my sleep too much for that. With about six hours under my belt, I was the most rested in the room as I had yogurt, fruit, a muffin and a few cups of coffee and water (alternating the two works best) to get ready for the day.

The Hotel Monteleone was filled with tasting rooms and I wandered through them for awhile. Lilett had a popular one, with a nice spread of fruit and cheese that included a delicious baked brie in crust. They also had some interesting cocktails to taste.

Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao also had a tasting room where they were promoting Curacao Orange in cocktails. They weren’t bad, but couldn’t compete with the Marie Brizard room where the Chocolate Royal Liqueur Crepe had people getting back online for seconds.

I headed down to the Royal Sonesta Hotel for a seminar called “Drinking the Panama Canal.” I thought it would be about the wine and spirits of the area, but it turned out to be mostly a history lesson on the actual Panama Canal. Fortunately, I had sat in the back so I was able to sneak out for something a bit more lively.

Since it was my first trip to New Orleans, I decided a little exploring was in order. I walked up and down Bourbon Street for awhile taking in one of the most unusual cities I'd ever seen. I could certainly understand how this was the place to have an event all about cocktails!

The Make A Splash Belvedere Pool Party was on the rooftop of the Omni Hotel. I stayed long enough to have a Belvedere Lemon Tea and tonic and mingle a bit with the large crowd. It was very humid and it was more an “around the pool” than “in the pool” party.  I decided the time I had until my next obligation would be best spent napping so I went back to my room at the Hotel Monteleone.

My catnap lasted a few hours more than I expected and I grabbed a quick slice of pizza before heading onto the Brugal Extra Dry Bus at 10:30 pm. This party bus went out every hour each night during Tales, taking revelers to some of the local hotspots while introducing them to Brugal Rum cocktails.

I sampled Brugal straight first and found it to be very smooth and not at all sweet like rum. Too me it was more like gin (without the juniper) or vodka, something neutral that would make a great cocktail.

I loved the bus as much as the spirit and hung out with Liza, a fellow writer from Boston who writes for Whiskey Advocate.  We got to sign the barrel tops on the bus and really enjoyed the Dehumidifier, a Mojito-like concoction. We also got to meet Brugal’s Master Distiller Gustav Ortega.

I only got off at one stop, Cure, a bar known for its cocktails. I have to admit I wasn’t overly impressed with Cure. It was an average looking cocktail lounge with some interesting drinks. I did enjoy my Blue Note (blueberry and cucumber shrub, sparkling wine and mint), but I expected more on the menu. It wasn’t until I got back on the bus that I was told the great part about Cure was what wasn’t on the menu. It seems that they make their own bitters and mixers, and the bartenders pride themselves on creating a drink on the spot after you tell them a bit about what you want.

By the time I got back to the hotel it was 2:00 am. I was glad I didn’t have an early wake-up call, but I knew I did have another big day ahead of me so I took full advantage of the chance to sleep.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Arriving in New Orleans a Tales Virgin

When the decision was made that I was going to New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail, I spent a month going between excited and terrified. I had heard so much about this non-stop party in one of the most sinful cities in the world. When I finally did arrive and made myself through a drunken crowd to receive my credentials and my “Tales Virgin” button, all of the apprehension came flooding back.

The trip to New Orleans had been uneventful. In fact, I had actually been able to catch an earlier plane. I checked into my room at Hotel Monteleone and picked up my packet. I have to admit that dazed and confused was probably the best way to describe me as I started walking the streets of New Orleans with all the liquor company trucks handing out samples and the Tales revelers in the street.

My first event was an early one, the Diageo Happy Hour.  Since it was a few miles away I decided to take a cab. Unfortunately, the driver was as new to NOLA as I was and he couldn’t find the spot. By the time I walked to it in the pouring rain, I was drenched. I wasn’t alone as some of the water was actually seeping through the tents. I tried not to let it get to me and instead got right into the party.

There were some great hors d'oeuvres being passed around. I hadn’t stopped for lunch so I helped myself to the Spring Rolls, Duck in Pepper Sauce, Veal in Phyllo and Apple Dumplings. There were stands throughout the room with cocktails made from Diageo spirits and the mixologists who had created them standing by. I made sure to have plenty of water between tastings to keep myself going.

I ran into Dan Dunn, who was about to do his Sirius radio show, but took a few minutes to help this Tales Virgin out with some pointers.  We chatted for awhile before he was off to do his show and I was back to tasting on my own.

There were a lot of choices, but my favorite drinks at the event were:

Zacapa Rum 23, Amontillado Sherry, maraschino liqueur and angostura bitters
by Jenn Tosatto, 2012 USBG & Diageo World Class U.S. Finalist Cocktail

Tequila Don Julio Reposado, Manuka Honey, fresh lime juice and tabasco
By Tim Phillips, 2012 Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year

The Big A
Zacapa Rum 23, ginger liqueur, unfiltered apple juice, lemon juice and ginger beer
By Tony Abou-Ganim, 2012 USBG & Diageo World Class Luminary

I left the Diageo party just before it ended to make my way over to the Beam Global Spirited Dinner at The Pelican Club. I sat with three fellow writers who I had met on three different press trips at Beam’s guests’ table and enjoyed a dinner paired with some of Beam’s latest and greatest. 

Host Noah Rothbaum of, who had been on my trip to Paris for the Perrier Jouët Anniversary, talked about the various eras of whiskey through the years as the drinks and courses were served. He was accompanied by Fred Noel and Max Watman, who were equally as knowledgeable on the history of spirits.

Even though whiskey isn’t usually my top choice, I liked all of the drinks they served, especially the Ginger in the Rye (Knob Creek Rye, ginger liqueur, fresh lemon sour, fresh pressed apple juice, pear puree and a pear garnish) and the Storyville Julep (Knob Creek Bourbon, thin honey syrup, fresh pressed pineapple juice, club soda, pineapple and mint).  I noted the trend in apple cocktails, which certainly fit in well for fall.

The dinner was good, but the dessert had everyone wanting to clean their plates. It was South Carolina Peach & Honey Cobbler, with a white chocolate and pecan crumble. To finish it off, we were given the Stag Spiced Mocha, with Red Stag Spiced, Kamora Coffee Liqueur, French vanilla ice cream and a caramel drizzle.

I was more than full and exhausted by the time I walked into the Hotel Monteleone. The crowds were still sampling the endless spirits in the lobby and for a moment I thought to join them, then I remembered my full schedule for day two and instead headed to my room.          

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Day of Tasting through Montauk & the Hamptons

I was able to spend a lot of time on the east end of Long Island this summer, reminiscing about my childhood and checking out places new and old. Most of the trips involved overnight stays, but there was one where my friend Gail accompanied me for a marathon day of eating and drinking through Montauk and the Hamptons.

The first stop of the day was in Amagansett, at the Clam Bar. Since I can’t eat seafood I was forced to watch while Gail checked out the best of this infamous stop. Everything here comes in fresh from the docks every day and it looks amazing.

She started with the Local Sea Scallops, a ceviche with a lemon-lime marinade she enjoyed. Next was the dish that made them famous – the Lobster Salad Roll. Gail agreed it was worth the hype, as was the Spicy Crab & Sweet Corn and the New England Clam Chowder, before she demonstrated how to eat steamers (see video above).

I was getting hungry watching the food, but there was plenty for me at Montauk’s Navy Beach, where I sipped La Tigressa (vodka, agave syrup, basil and watermelon) and nibbled on the incredible Yuman Ribs with chili and caramel. Gail went for the Local Ceviche plate, made with shrimp, scallops, fluke and octopus, while we both also tasted a fresh and fruity concoction called Marganegra, made with silver tequila, Crème Yvette, raspberries, blackberries and lime.

We had to go a bit further into the town of Montauk to South Edison, where they use fruits and vegetables to make cocktails. The Fresno Chili Martini is made with gin soaked chili peppers and the Pickled Martini uses smoked and pickled onions. There are also drinks made of garlic, asparagus, green beans, cherries and other produce.

The food isn’t only in the drinks at South Edison.  Gail had a tasty Local Baby Lettuce Salad with smoked golden trout and banana vinaigrette and I loved the Chicken and Waffles with honey butter.  It was true comfort food and quite different from anything on the menu at Sole East, where we went next.

This contemporary boutique resort has a bar restaurant with a small, but well thought menu. The drinks are named after the owners kids and are quite creative, especially the Samantha, a wonderful combination of jalapeño-infused Filandia, spiced pineapple and lime. 

As for the food at Sole East, the menu is small and very interesting. I really enjoyed the Parppadelle with Beef Brisket. 

There was no food at the Montauk Brewery, but the beer on tap is produced by three local men who started the company three years ago and now sell it to many east end restaurants. They deliver it using a beach cruiser to help do their part for the environment. Gail Liked the American Style ESP, a cross between pale ale and an IPA.

We left Montauk for Bridgehampton where we had a fantastic Italian feast at Osteria Salina. As full as we were, we tried to taste bites of everything and were glad that we did.

At Osteria Salina, a new addition to the area this year, they start you off with cucumbers marinated in olive oil and a bit of salt. We thought they went well with the drinks, a Prickly Pear Mojito and a Selena Sunrise, made with blood orange juice.

The food just kept coming and every dish was better than the last: Bucatina Con Sarde, with sardines, fennel and pine nuts; Mezza Rigatoni, pasta with eggplant, tomatoes and Buffalo mozzarella; Polpo Eolicno, charred octopus tenticles with fava beans and lemon oil; and Oven Roasted Chicken, in escarole and fagiolini.

The only thing better than the meal at Osteria Salina was the dessert. The homemade cannoli was light as a feather and the Peach Plum Tart was delicious.

It was rather late in the evening when we made it to the last restaurant, Plaza Café. The bartender was waiting for us with a Blueberry Mojito and a Watermelon Margarita, both extremely refreshing.  Gail liked the Fish Tacos, made with Mahi Mahi, and I was impressed with the Grilled Pizza with fig, prosciutto, baby arugula and balsamic syrup.

Needless to say, we didn’t eat for quite a while after this food-filled day. The season in the Hamptons is technically over, but that makes it one of my favorite times to visit. Take advantage of the lower rates and plan a trip out to Eastern Long Island this fall.   The Clam Bar is open until November; Sole East, Plaza Café and Osteria Salina are open year round. The Montauk Brewing Company is still open weekends. As for the rest, it’s never too early to plan for a trip next spring.