When an email arrived in my inbox asking me if I’d like to take a complimentary City Wonders tour of Rome, I had mixed feelings. I was just about to leave for the eternal city, so the timing was perfect, but having lived there and visited dozens of times, I was skeptical. Would I just be revisiting some of the places I was already familiar with, or would I be learning something new, I wondered? As it turns, it was a little of both, and a great way to spend a couple of hours. City Wonders offers tours in many cities besides Rome – Paris, London and even New York, for instance. And within each city, it offers several different kinds of tours. I chose the food and wine tour (no surprise) and expected to be traipsing around the city sampling foods from different restaurants and shops where I might have already eaten.
Instead, what followed were two hours inside a private wine-tasting room at Roscioli, a legendary food purveyor whose shop and restaurant on via dei giubbonari I’d passed innumerable times. The evening went by in a flash, as Alessandro Pepe, one of Italy’s best-known and respected sommeliers, educated us on the many varieties of Italian wine and what paired best with each.
The “rimessa” as the room is called, is the perfect place for small gatherings of wine and food tastings, just around the corner from the restaurant and deli.
In all, we tasted six different wines, from Sicily to Friuli.
We started the evening tasting buffalo mozzarella from Paestum, and burrata from Puglia, two places I had just visited on my month-long trip to Italy and where I ate plenty of both of these cheeses. They’re usually not paired with wines, Alessandro said, but if they are, choose a light white wine, like a fiano di Avellino or a greco di tufo.
We tried a Greco di Tufo with the label of Alexandros. The wine takes its name from the village of Tufo, south of Naples. But tufo is also the name of the grape variety and the volcanic soil that gives the wine a strong mineral finish. However, 90 percent of the wines called Greco di Tufo don’t actually come from the village of tufo, Alessandro said.
This pesto from Liguria was also a delicious accompaniment to the wine.
I was too busy eating and drinking to get shots of all the wines and foods, but one of my favorite (and surprising) pairings was this tuna from Sicilian producer Tre Torri, that was matched with a luscious red wine – a nero d’avola – also from Sicily and the cantina Marabino. The tuna had been aged for two years in extra virgin olive oil and stood up well to the nero d’avola, whose grapes are grown in a volcanic soil, giving it a “salty” taste.
We ate pistachio-flecked mortadella paired with a bubbly lambrusco from the producer La Battagliola. Forget about what you might remember about those treackly lambruscos first imported to the U.S. in the 1970s. This is different, offering a much fresher taste, and the perfect palate cleanser to accompany the richness from the fatty mortadella it was paired with. The Italians have been making sparkling wines long before Champagne came on the scene, Alessandro said. A sparkling lambrusco was mentioned in 1567 by Andrea Bacci, the personal doctor of Pop Sisto V, he said.
Speaking of old, we also drank a montepulciano from Contucci winery, the oldest winery in the world, dating back 1,000 years, Alessandro said. Of course, most of the vines are from 20 to 45 years old, he said, and are planted in the red “pietra rossa” soil that gives the wine its plummy, earthy flavor. This wine was paired with salumi made at the Antica Corte Pallavicina, near Parma, an artisanal producer of cured meats that I wrote about in a blog post here.
My favorite wine of the night was this barolo from the Le Langhe area in the Piedmont region, a wine I had previously tasted in Piedmont. It’s an explosion of flavor in the mouth, with a roundness and perfect balance of fruit and tannins.
“For me, (France’s) Burgundy and (Italy’s) Langhe are the only two wine regions in the world, in the sense that vineyards and geography were designed upon the soil composition, and not based on the properties. So when you look at the map, this actually tells you something about the type of wine you might find in each,” Alessandro said. This bold wine was paired with an equally bold food – a parmigiano reggiano vacche rosse cheese aged 36 months. Talk about a marriage made in heaven….
We left the Rimessa Roscioli thoroughly pleased with our food and wine tasting through Italy and would recommend anyone to contact City Wonders, if this is indicative of their tours.
Of course, this tasting only whetted our palate to eat at Roscioli’s restaurant, so we rounded the corner and sat at a table next to the deli counter, where a heaping bowl of burrata cheese tempted us.
But it was pasta we succumbed to, namely this plate of rigatoni alla carbonara.
And this decadently rich pasta alla carbonara.
We were too sated to order dessert, but Roscioli provided us with these treats gratis – buttery shortbread cookies and meringues with a rich chocolate dipping sauce.
Grazie mille City Wonders and Roscioli and Alessandro.
Culatello – If you’ve never tasted it, you’ve missed one of the great flavor sensations of Italy. Prosciutto di Parma is great, but culatello is divine. It’s produced only in certain communities near Parma where the fog rolling off the Po River is crucial to the curing process. In the map below, the region of Emilia-Romagna is highlighted in peach, with the province of Parma highlighted in red.
The Italian poet and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio was enamored of this cured meat and in 1891 wrote that culatello “is aged only in the square of land surrounding Zibello, where the air of the Po is often humid and good for the mold that preserves this fatless cut of meat.”
The DOP on the label stands for “dominazione origine controllata” and that means that the government has given its seal of approval to the standards used in making and aging the culatello that is produced here at the Antica Corte Pallavicina – a 14th century property that once belonged to the noble Pallavicino family and that almost fell into ruins had it not been for Massimo and Luciano Spigaroli.
Years ago, Massimo and Luciano’s great-grandfather left the farm owned by Giuseppe Verdi, and came to work at the Corte Pallavicina. He moved from sharecropper to tenant, and worked the fertile lands here, raising silkworms, cows and pigs, planting poplars, fields of wheat and vegetable gardens. And curing pork in cellars along the Po River, using age-old methods.
Inside the house, it’s not hard to imagine what life would have been like at the court when it was inhabited by the Pallavicini. Would a curtsey have been required upon meeting the marquis in the sala dei mesi with its vaulted and frescoed ceilings from the 1500s?
Just think of what it must have looked like illuminated by candlelight on a multi-tiered wrought-iron chandelier.
You might have said daily prayers in small chapel decorated with frescoes, typical for houses owned by nobility.
The kitchen is impressive too. Pantry items are stored on a second level, where a door also opens to the servants’ quarters.
Foods were typically cooked in large fireplaces like this one in the kitchen.
But nowadays, chefs making meals for visiting diners to the restaurant here use modern kitchen facilities. It’s also possible to stay overnight here, since Massimo and Luciano Spigaroli spent the last 20 years restoring the complex to an agriturismo with six guest rooms. Click here to enter their website and find out more.
But on to the culatello, the reason for this post. About 5,000 to 6,000 culatelli are stored in this basement.
Some of them are earmarked for notables whose names you might recognize – such as England’s Prince Charles, Monaco’s Prince Albert, Italian clothing designer Armani, and French chef Alain Ducasse.
Culatello is made only in the coldest months – from October through February. The meat used for making culatello comes from only the most meaty part of the leg and butt – the part on the right side of the illustration below. The left side is used for fioccho, a less costly, but still delicious cured meat. With the leftovers of the thigh, strolghino is made, a sausage that had nearly disappeared from the regional cuisine, but that has made a resurgence thanks to the owners of the Antica Corte Pallavicina. The strolghino is aged no longer than 30 days before it’s eaten. Coppa, prosciutto and several different types of salami are made here too.
For one week, salt and pepper are massaged into the raw meat as well as Fortana, a locally made sparkling red wine. The meat is then stuffed into a pig’s bladder, and tied up with canvas rope. The culatelli are hung in this cellar, where the only temperature control comes from the opening and closing of a solitary window that brings in humidity from the Po River, necessary for the aging process. The aging can vary from 12 to 36 months and each culatello loses about 50 percent of its weight during that period, or about 4 kilos (8 1/2 pounds).
Upstairs, there’s a small area where you can buy some of the Corte’s products. As you can see, culatello doesn’t come cheap. Culatello nero, made from the prized black pigs, costs 110 euros a kilo, or about $142 dollars for 2.2 pounds.
My cousins and I had a tasting at the end of the tour. On the wooden platter below, from the left, you see the strolghino, the culatello, parmigiano reggiano and pieces of focaccia.
Unfortunately, the culatello is not exported to the U.S. — at least not yet. It is shipped to other European countries and Japan.
Before leaving, we strolled around the grounds and were greeted by a few farm animals including this white peacock.
Its more colorful cousin wanted to make its appearance known too, although the cows didn’t seem fazed.
And neither did the cat sleeping in a covered wagon.
A special thanks to my cousins Ivo and Lucia for taking me to Polesine Parmense, where we spent a delightful afternoon at the Antica Corte Pallavicina.