Ciao Italia!

"Una cena senza vino è come un giorno senza sole."  "A day without wine is like a day without sunshine."
I was hoping to quote a line from Under the Tuscan Sun; however, my favorites, having nothing to do with food, ended up being "Regrets are a waste of time. They’re just the past crippling you from the present" and "I am going to make love all over you!".
My goal today, however, is to quote neither movie titles nor wise Italian proverbs. Friday evening, I attended the 30th birthday celebration of a knock-out friend of mine at a quaint Tuscan eatery in the East Village called I Coppi.  While the Gnocchi all’ arancia e granchio (Gnocchi with crab meat in orange and gin sauce) leached onto my intestines for another couple of days, sharing a meal on a garden patio in New York City is, as usual, unforgettable, though I couldn’t starve my envy of knock-out’s 3-week ‘life transition’ vacation to her native Greece, leaving yesterday. Lucky gunaikos. As my thoughts escort me back to a cozy table, view of the Aegean, in Naxos, I get a crystal clear image of the moussaka & retsina I was served by the typical, ruggish well-aged woman dressed in black. Though I loved the two ladies I was traveling with, nothing brought me ‘home’ during that backpacking trip more than that very moment – oh, and of course the dolmades in Corfu & the Greek coffee and sing-a-long with some natives in Ios. Ahhhh, the ideas summer craves.
Now where was I? Ahhh, yes Italy, namely Tuscany. All roads lead to Tuscany. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Well, apparently it is lately, as I’ve been bombarded with Italian from every region and Tuscan restaurants in every corner of New York City. Wednesday evening, I had the great fortune of accompanying a restaurateur friend of mine to a wine tasting at Le Cirque. Italian darted from here to there, and wine flowed like grape juice. I speak French, and understand a bit of Spanish, but Italian slays me. I won’t even begin to discuss my secret desire to look like a femme fatale Sophia Loren, sexy lingua rolling off my tongue while hands wave about as if in the middle of a fly swarm.
The wine was good (will try to get those names out to you), I met some interesting characters and chatted about the World Cup (yay France!), and had my photo taken with a group of restaurateurs. And of course, caught in some schmoozing time at Le Cirque. Pretty swanky, indeed. After a few glasses of wine, Ms. Julesy was needin’ some nosh. A quick cab ride downtown brought my dinner companion and I to Maremma Trattoria Toscana (‘The wilder side of Tuscany.’) What a gem! Chef Cesare Casella’s cuisine is Tuscan with a twist! Set in the Wild West Village of NYC on W. 10th Street, Maremma dishes out some tasty vittles.
Cesare Casella began working, at the age of 15, in his parents trattoria, Il Vipore, just outside Lucca. After receiving a culinary degree from the town’s hotel school, he traveled Europe and the U.S., broadening his education by eating and observing. Back again to take over the reins of Il Vipore, Chef Casella’s education paid off to earn his restaurant its first Michelin star. Soon after, he left for New York to run Coco Pazzo and Il Toscannacio. On hiatus to write Diary of a Tuscan Chef and Italian Cooking for Dummies, he prepared to open Beppe and Maremma. A strong believer in a nice big sturdy hug of herbs and spices in his dishes, he is also well-known for displaying a bouquet in his tunic pocket.
For those of you who don’t know where the name comes from (shhh…I didn’t either), it is an area of Tuscany southwest of Florence and Chianti. Not just any area, however. One of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen…in a book that is. Chef Casella was eager to share the story of his beautiful home with me and this little filly was more than obliged.
The photographs were absolutely unreal. I had no idea. Wide open spaces inhabited by deer, wild boars, and wildcats; cowboys in fedoras riding horses and herding bulls; gracious hills, cliffs, and sandy beaches. It is indeed the Wild West of Italy. But don’t think you’ll be the first to start prospecting for gold in Maremma. Alain Ducasse already opened a restaurant and hotel there. And of course there is Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s vineyard.
One of these days, I’ll make it over there for a look-see, but for now I’ll stick to the Maremma I can reach by cab and subway, whose decor is warm and cozy, but not pretentious, donning cactus plants, Roman statues, a Michelin man hanging around, and even a pair of bull horns.
Appetizers to Main Courses run from $9 to $25, aside from the $47/person tasting menu. And everything is fresh! Noted on the menu: ‘Maremma is proud to feature the produce of Thanksgiving Farm & Tutto Bene Ranch at The Center for Discovery, located in the Catskill region of New York. The vegetables are raised from imported Italian seed and grown especially for the restaurant. Maremma only serves the finest artisanal beans from Republic of Beans.’

I thought our menu was pretty special:

Fagioli – Tasting plate of artisanal Italian beans
Polpo – Octopus terrine over arugula salad
Pontormo – Cesare’s signature salad of pancetta, lettuce and soft, scrambled egg
Strozzapreti – Swiss chard and bread dumplings with guanciale, onions and san Marzano tomatoes
Norcino – Spinach tagliatelle with a "butcher-style" pork ragu
Spaghetti – Pasta with white clams, garlic and wine

And Cesare said we didn’t even make it to the Main Courses. Yikes! But oh so tasty.
Chef Casella’s works of art don’t stop in the kitchen. Aside from his other two books, he’s written True Tuscan, and is also the Dean of Italian Studies at the French Culinary Institute.
Definitely a worthwhile dinner destination, and a glimpse at a new ‘old’ world.

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