day 8 :
sunday, 21 may
Today was the start of our cooking class, the “alumni” version of the course that we had taken on our honeymoon. When Giuliano Hazan told us that there would be an alumni course at Villa Giona, to be held exactly five years after our honeymoon there in 2001, we decided that this would be the perfect way to celebrate our anniversary.
Eric woke up feeling under the weather today, so we decided to head out from Bologna immediately after breakfast so that we could spend a leisurely afternoon resting up at the villa before the gala dinner that evening.
Luckily, the trip today was only about an hour and a half on a relatively calm autostrada. We breezed northward in quick time, and exited just west of Verona. After stopping briefly in a tiny river town called Pescantina, we finished the short country drive to San Pietro in Cariano, pulled up to the gate at the villa, and rang the bell. The gate opened to reveal the gardens and villa, looking just as it did in our memories from five years ago. Could it really have been that long? It felt like we were transported right back to the moment we had left.
We pulled up the drive, where the staff greeted us warmly and ushered us to our room. Eric immediately started a nap while Dawn unpacked. After settling in, she wandered outside to read a book under the garden umbrellas, where she met Ali, Jay, Ron, and Carolyn, all returning alumni of previous courses with Giuliano. Everyone seemed excited to be back.
After a couple hours chatting, Dawn went back to the room to see how Eric was feeling. He was decidedly unhappy, because he was in no condition to get out of bed for the dinner we had been looking forward to for so long. It was a Sunday, when almost everything is closed in Italy, so Paulo, the owner of the villa, called around to find out which farmacia was open. The pharmacies in Italy alternate with each other to ensure that at least one pharmacy in a region is open on Sunday, while the rest close for the day. Paolo found that the one closest to his home was open, so he drove Dawn to pick up some cold medication and vitamin C. Paolo then prepared a light dinner for Eric and laid it out on a white tablecloth in our room. He could not have been more kind and helpful, during a time when Eric needed it most.
The class soon started gathering in the garden for the pre-dinner reception, so Dawn headed outside to meet everyone. Marilisa Allegrini, who had hosted the wine presentations each evening during our previous course, was there to tell us about the Spumante we were drinking, and to introduce Leonardo LoCascio. Leonardo is the founder of Winebow, which is the importer for Allegrini and many other high-end Italian wines to the U.S. He spends most of his time in the U.S., but we were privileged to have him join us as a guest that evening for our dinner at the Allegrini winery.
After everyone introduced themselves and got acquainted, we piled into the touring bus and headed over to the winery. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our chef for the evening was none other than Giorgio Soave, who owns the restaurant Groto de Corgnan that we had enjoyed so much in the previous course. We had talked about how we wanted to go back to that restaurant someday, so it was sad that Eric had to miss that evening's dinner.
The meal highlighted regional specialties using seasonal produce. Giorgio has recently been focusing on cultivating his own produce, so much of what we ate was grown in his own gardens. One of the appetizers was a simple preparation of sweet white asparagus from southern Veneto, with a fried egg. Apparently, this is traditional in the area — we had a variation on this same dish at Ca' Sette later in the week. Pea soup was another dish that was outstanding in its simplicity. There was nothing to smother the flavors of the sweet peas, and the only garnish was a small bowl of freshly made croutons on the side. Then was a frittata made with tiny shrimp, shells and all, followed by a risotto made with more sweet peas.
Leonardo is originally from Sicily, which is one area we had considered visiting during this trip instead of Tuscany and the Veneto. During dinner, several at the table were asking him for tips on traveling to the island. He was emphatic that you need a minimum of ten days to see Sicily, but ideally two weeks or more. He suggested spending about a week in the Palermo area, then take a half day to drive to the other side of the island to finish the trip. We both hope that our next trip to Italy will include Sicily!
The meal conversation frequently drifted toward topics of food and especially wine, since Leonardo and Marilisa were sitting nearby. Leonardo described an amazing meal he and Marilisa had enjoyed at El Bulli, the same restaurant we visited in Spain last fall. Apparently, they have been there three or four times over the years! Leonardo asked us at one point if we knew how wine barrels are made. He then led an impromptu tour into the wine cellar, where he described the locations where barrel wood is harvested, and how the barrels are constructed over wood fires which “toast,” or char, the inside of the barrel. Winemakers can decide how much toast they would like: light toast, medium toast, or heavy toast, each of which lends a different characteristic to the wine. Light toast provides a spicy oak aroma, medium has vanilla and honey notes, while heavy toast adds chocolate and coffee characteristics to the wine. He showed us the mark inscribed on the Allegrini barrels that designated “medium toast.”
We settled back into our meal, which continued with a handmade pasta, made in the northern style, using only yolks instead of the whole egg. The pasta was filled with nettles and finished with a tiny grating of nutmeg, along with a touch of strawberry sauce on the side, for dipping. This was followed by a secondo of beef with shaved black truffles. Giorgio's specialties ended the meal: first, a cheese course with his famous mostarda preserved fruit, and finally, a huge bowl of ice cream and chestnuts served family-style for the table, which was covered in honey and rum sauce — yum!
Espresso and grappa rounded out the meal. Marilisa told us about the two types of grappa that she had chosen for tasting, while Leonardo showed Ron how to make a caffè corretto, by slipping a shot of grappa into his espresso. Leonardo and Marilisa then decided it was time to show us Americans how to really drink grappa. He stood up and placed his glass on the table in front of him, then leaned forward and grasped the rim of the glass in his mouth (no hands!) and proceeded to pick it up and tip it over so that the entire glassful went down his throat. Marilisa followed, and this continued around the table for a while, until Giuliano finally suggested that getting up early the next morning might be difficult if we didn't head back. It was about 12:30 AM when Dawn finally returned to the room.