A lot goes into creating the perfect Italian dinner. The wine. The food. The wine. The servers. The wine. The ambiance. And did we mention the wine? It is an art affected by any number of factors. But when the stars (or the Duroc pork tenderloin and a juicy Super Tuscan) align just right, it can even make a Scotch-Irish girl like this one say "Magnifico!"
Tuesday night's dinner at the Wyndham Cleveland’s Encore restaurant was the stuff of Tuscan dreams, with a menu prepared by sous chef Jim Barnhart and wines selected by long-time wine retailer-turned-wholesaler Mario Vitale of Vintage Wine Distributors. The Taste of Tuscany Dinner was the most recent in an ongoing series of all-inclusive wine dinners offered by the hotel for just $50. And at that price, the six-course/five-wine meal may just be the best deal in town.
“I want to start everything with bubbles,” said Vitale, who chose to begin the evening by pouring a bright, effervescent Canella Prosecco Di Conegliano from the Veneto region. So light and effortlessly cool, the wine felt like a Fellini film.
Vitale guided the night with clever banter that combined Varietals 101 with grower anecdotes and regional trade secrets. He called the Prosecco the “gold standard in its category.” But it met its match in Barnhart’s deliciously simple starter: a prosciutto, goat cheese, and brown butter crostini, garnished with a crispy sage leaf.
What followed was a pageant of beautiful Italian dishes alongside their various viniferous complements, each presented at the perfect pace. A pristine tomato consommé arrived with a Castelvero Cortese; succulent seared bronzini was paired with a hefty Le Rote Vernaccia. And a palate-cleansing pinot grigio sorbet was tweaked with a splash of balsamic that was older than I am!
The climax, however, of this Italian masterpiece came in the pairing of a braised pork cheek and gorgonzola ravioli with slices of seared Duroc pork tenderloin — all stacked atop garlic sautéed spinach and mascarpone chive polenta. Pink and beautifully plated, the tenderloin was a melody of melt-in-your-mouth tenderness and bright, aromatic seasonings. Sanguineti Nessun Dorma was the Super Tuscan chosen to accompany the pork, and the night's singular red wine — a blend of Sangiovese, Syrah, and Merlot — did not disappoint.
As Vitale concluded a tale about the winemaker, he repeated a phrase that had become his refrain: “The message is always that you don’t have to spend a lot to drink great wine.” All the evening's wines might be obscure, Vitale explained, but they were not expensive. Yet their quality shone through nonetheless.
Just like this Taste of Tuscany at Encore.
Prior to the dinner, I was asked about my favorite food.
“Burgers,” I had blurted, a standard answer that just underlined the fact that I felt out of my league among Encore’s white tablecloths. But the Taste of Tuscany Dinner was the perfect anecdote to my dietary doldrums. It found foodies and fast-foodies alike, sitting side by side enjoying top-notch Italian cuisine and handcrafted wines from small Italian makers at a reasonable price.
It just proves you don't have to visit Italy for an ideal Italian meal.
Bellissimo. Bravo. Encore. — Lydia Munnell
Encore's next wine dinner will be the Taste of California on July 13th. Cost is $50: tax, tip, and valet parking included. For reservations or more information call 216-615-7500. The Wyndham Cleveland at Playhouse Square is at 1260 Euclid Ave.