Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fine Dining Any Day? Penne alla Vodka

With a perfect pairing to match!
A recipe & pairing by: Eric Guido

I've posted quite a few recipes that could take from an hour to six hours of preparation and usually with a decent hit to the wallet. So I got to thinking about the average person or aspiring cook in this busy day and age. I know that entertaining can be laborious and often expensive, but what if you could make a pasta plate that could stand tall next to anything a restaurant has to offer and do it in under a half hour from start to finish? Then, what if I told you it could cost less than $30 to feed a party of four? Seems too good to be true? Well it’s not; it’s Penne alla Vodka.

Rule of thumb: If you're not willing
to drink it, don't cook with it.
Penne alla Vodka is not a traditional Italian preparation and searching for its roots leads to a wealth of disinformation and theories. What is fact is that ages ago it was realized that alcohol can help to bring out flavors in tomatoes that cannot otherwise be obtained through any other preparation. This is often why a red sauce will include wine in its list of ingredients. Not only does it help to bring out these flavors but it also imparts its own qualities to the sauce.


Penne alla Vodka is a balancing act of flavors. The sweet sautéed garlic and onions play against the woodsy and smoky pancetta. The crushed red pepper provides a heat that is kept in check by the addition of heavy cream, which also rounds out any rough edges left behind by the vodka. The tomatoes take center stage providing a deep, fresh, succulent tomato flavor that, I find, can only be achieved in this dish. Lastly, the basil grounds you in reality with an earthy, vegetal mistiness, which brings it all together… God I love Penne alla Vodka!

See the Tasting Note Below
As for the wine, pairing with this dish can be tricky. It's a rich, cream based, tomato sauce so you'd think that any high acid red would do the trick. However, there's a spiciness to this dish that would react badly to anything high in tannin or alcohol. This led me to think of Sangiovese, but not just any Sangiovese, something from a warmer climate than the typical Chianti. This train of thought brought me to the Maremma and Morellino di Scansano. Add in the garnish of pancetta, which is a great accompaniment to oak influence, and you have Morellino di Scansano Riserva.

This is truly fine dinning in your home without the price tag or the hassle. Enjoy!


Penne alla Vodka
Serves 4 - 5 guests

A note on the ingredients: Try to find San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. Believe it or not there are domestic brands that try to trick you with tomatoes of inferior quality and a completely different taste. Also, using penne “rigate” (instead of regular penne) is important because the texture holds the sauce to the penne. Lastly, an entire bottle of vodka is not included in the cost of the recipe and since it is only a ¼ cup, use the good stuff if you’ve got it. Remember, your food is primarily the sum of your ingredients.

28 oz can San Marzano tomatoes
5 cloves minced garlic
½ cup yellow onion cut into fine dice
½ cup pancetta small dice
¼ cup vodka
¾ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 cup heavy cream
1 - 2 tbls olive oil
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (depending on your preference for spice)
1 pound penne rigate
8 fresh basil leaves cut chiffonade (This should not be done until the end of the cooking process.)
salt and pepper

While bringing a pot of salted water to a boil, measure out and prepare your ingredients.

Pour the tomatoes into a bowl and, with your hands, break up the tomatoes into small pieces. Remove any skins if they were left on the tomatoes.

In a large saucepan, pour in olive oil and set to medium flame. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the pancetta and cook until browned (about 4 minutes). Remove the pancetta from the pan and reserve as a garnish for later.

Add the onion and garlic to the pan and season well with salt. It is also at this time that you should add the pasta to the boiling water and set the timer for 1 minute short of the recommended cooking time. Cook the onion and garlic until translucent (about 2 minutes).

Raise heat to medium high, add the red pepper flakes to the pan and stir. Pull the pan from the stove (away from the flame) and add the vodka. Place back on the stove and add the tomatoes. Stir well to combine.

You should stir regularly as the sauce cooks over the medium high flame. Make sure that it does not begin to burn on the pan bottom. If the sauce appears to be reducing too quickly, lower the flame to medium.

About the same time that the pasta is done, add the cream to the sauce and stir to combine. Season the vodka sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Drain your pasta completely and quickly rinse out the pot and dry.

Pour the pasta back into the pot and add ½ cup of the grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and half of the brown pancetta. Stir them into the pasta and then pour the sauce into the pot. Move the pot onto a medium flame and continue cooking for one minute. Remove from the heat and stir well.

Allow the pasta and sauce to sit in the pot for two more minutes, stirring from time to time. This allows the pasta to absorb and integrate with the sauce. While the pasta is resting, cut your basil.

Stir one last time and ladle the pasta onto warmed plates. Dress with basil chiffonade, browned pancetta and a sprinkle of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Clean the rims of your plates with a warm, moist towel and serve.



2008 Mantellassi Morellino di Scansano Riserva Le Sentinelle - The nose showed intense black cherry with a dusting of sweet spice and purple and blue floral tones with an earthy, mineral core. On the palate it was velvety and rich with ripe dark fruits, yet juicy throughout, showing off it’s brisk Sangiovese acidity. Notes of plum, cocoa, spiced apple and lavender, all made an appearance and lasted through the finish, with silky tannins, which were nearly imperceptible. This wine was suave and poised, with just enough structure to keep me coming back for more. (92 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pyramid Valley: In Search of Something More...

A local retailer, showcasing 12 different New Zealand
Sauvignon Blanc, with only one Pinot Noir.
Only a few years ago, when I thought of New Zealand, I thought only of Sauvignon Blanc. This is not rare, as the wines speak for themselves, and the variety outnumbers all others in the region on retailers’ shelves. My interest in these wines spurred me to dig a little deeper, to start learning more about this country’s wines and what made them so special. I quickly realized that there are many varietals that I love being made, and made well, in New Zealand. I was delving into crisp Riesling that rivaled my favorites from Germany, Gewürztraminer of stunning depth and mineral core and, of course, Pinot Noir like I had never seen.

These weren’t the bone-dry pinots of Burgundy that would take a decade to understand, nor were they the overripe fruit bombs of California. These Pinots fell into a category all their own, with perfectly ripe fruit and a juicy, thriving structure that was complemented by mineral, stone, soil—earth. I was at once in love with the style that seemed to walk a middle ground between austerity and hedonism. That was when I found Pyramid Valley Vineyards.

Just when I thought my infatuation could go no further, a force of nature reinvigorated me. Two Pinots that were made under strict natural, biodynamic principals came under my microscope. Two wines made with the least possible amount of human intervention and then bottled with only trace amounts of sulfur. They inspired me to write, “Pyramid Valley: A Genie in a bottle”.

Story over, right? Wrong!

While researching the vineyards of Pyramid Valley and history of its owners/winemakers Mike and Claudia Weersing, I came across a line of wines that truly excited me, The Grower’s Collection.

The Grower's Collection is a series of wines that represents individual growers, varieties and vineyards from New Zealand, all in the fashion of Pyramid Valley Vineyards. It showcases the terroir and varietal expressions of each location with small blocks of fruit and in some cases very rare varieties. As I started to taste through these, the first thing that struck me was how incredibly natural these tasted. The wines are certainly in the style of Pyramid Valley with naturally occurring / stopping fermentations, no filtering and little to no sulfur. But these wines aren't just good; they don't just have wonderful aromatic bouquets and amazing juiciness on the palate. These wines actually taste--healthy. They seem to somehow nurture you, like juice from some unknown fruit that has just been discovered.

I know this may sound a little over the top, but I can think of no better way to explain them. The best recommendation I can make is to taste them for yourself.

The Cab Franc, my tasting note could
have just read, "God, I love this wine"
2009 Pyramid Valley Cabernet Franc Growers Collection Howell Family Vineyard - The nose was deep, rich and vibrant with sweet cherry, cinnamon spice, wild herbs and stony minerals providing an earthy canvas to it all. On the palate, it was medium-bodied, juicy and fresh with sweet, bright cherry, citrus peel, exotic spice and a core of brisk acidity. Hints of tannin lingered on the palate, reminding me that this is wine and more than just a delicious beverage. It was a highly enjoyable Cab Franc that I will look for going forward. (92 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!


2009 Pyramid Valley Pinot Noir Growers Collection Cowley Family Vineyard - The color in the glass was a bit cloudy with a light ruby red hue. The nose was seductive yet earthy and sweet, showing intense cherry preserve, a whiff of crushed stone, hints of bell pepper, and dry dusty soil. On the palate, ripe cherry was met by minty herbal tones, with silky textures perfectly contrasted by a hint of bitter tannin. The finish remained fresh and lively, showing ground pepper, spice and red berries.

Upon first opening, I was worried that this wine had been exposed to excessive heat. It was almost impenetrable, and so I put it aside. I'm glad I did so, because within two hours it came to life, softened and evolved, turning into what can only be described as a gorgeous pinot rooted in the earth. What's more; its cherry component was beautiful, seeming almost impossibly natural. It's a lovely wine. (91 pointsFind it on: Wine-Searcher!

Another spectacular wine, truly
unique and inspired winemaking.
2007 Pyramid Valley Sémillon Growers Collection Hille Vineyard - The nose was truly fascinating and kept me coming back to the glass again and again with an intense floral bouquet, showing honey, peach, almond paste, salty minerals and bell pepper. Yet somehow, all of this made me think of spring, sitting in a flower garden with soil stained hands. On the palate, it was fresh and electric upon entry with notes of peach, inner florals, and spice. A lull followed on the mid-palate, but was quickly replaced by a pop of tart lime-kiwi acidity, which kept this interesting throughout. It was impeccably balanced and wonderfully unique, a wine that I will look for again. (91 pointsFind it on: Wine-Searcher!

2010 Pyramid Valley Savagnin Rose Growers Collection Twin Valleys Vineyard - The extroverted nose showed a bouquet of pineapple, melon, honeycomb, and spice with hints of floral funk and undergrowth. On the palate it was silky smooth with sweet, spicy peach. It showed great presence and perfect balance followed by a hint of citrus, which lasted through the long, saturating finish that seemed to cling to the palate like fruit nectar. (89 pointsFind it on: Wine-Searcher!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Perfect Meatball & A Perfect Pairing

A recipe & pairing by: Eric Guido

One thing that I never order when eating out is meatballs.

Why? In my opinion, meatballs are one of the most underplayed components of almost every Italian restaurant’s menu. I’m not saying that everyone gets them wrong, but the fact is that more often than not, they are under-seasoned balls of nondescript beef that are dry and boring.

I often wonder why people settle for this, but when I think about it, I may have my standards set too high. You see, the first recipe taught to me in my grandmother’s kitchen were meatballs, cooked to be added to a Sunday Sauce.

To this day I still mix my meatballs by hand, and
will often adjust the recipe by the feel of the mixture.
In those days, I was taught to measure the proper ingredients by the feel of the mixture in my hands. I took these lessons very seriously, and in time I mastered them and began to improve upon them. Today, it is rare that I serve the following recipe to a client. However, it’s very often that these tasty traditional treats adorn my own family table, which is what really counts when the day is done.

Grandma’s Italian Meatballs
Makes 12 medium-sized meatballs

½ pound ground beef
½ pound ground pork
½ pound ground veal
1 medium yellow onion (small dice)
4 cloves of garlic (small dice)
2 tbls. chopped Italian Parsley (rough chop)
1/3 cup breadcrumbs
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 egg (beaten)
½ teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
1 tsp. kosher salt (plus more to season to taste)
Olive oil for sauté and frying

In a sauté pan, add enough olive oil to just cover the bottom of the pan and set the flame to medium. Allow the olive to heat through and add the onions with a good pinch of salt. Allow to sweat until translucent and add the garlic. Continue sweating this mixture until the garlic begins to take on color, but do not let it brown. Immediately remove the mixture from the pan to cool and spread out over parchment paper or a foil-lined sheet pan.

In a large bowl, begin assembling the remaining ingredients. Add the chopped meats, egg and parsley. With clean hands (hands are the best utensil to use for this preparation), mix the contents of the bowl. Then add the onions, garlic, breadcrumbs, Pecorino Romano, pepper and salt. Mix again with your hands until fully combined. Create a small test meatball (you must taste for seasoning).

Fill a fry pan with enough olive oil to come 1/2 of the way up the test meatball. Put the flame on medium and allow the oil to heat through. Next, add the test meatball to the pan. Watch carefully to assure that the oil isn’t too hot. The meatball shouldn’t sear immediately but should instead stay 2–3 minutes on each side between turning. Once it has browned on each side, remove to a paper towel to drain. Once cooled, give it a taste. If it needs more salt or pepper, add it now.

When happy with the mixture, begin to roll out your meatballs. Be careful not to make them too big or you risk not cooking them through. You should be able to roll out 12 meatballs.


Add them to the oil, again making sure they do not burn. Lower or raise the flame as necessary, but remember that these will be further cooked in sauce or the oven. Once they are browned on both sides, you have two options. One- you could continue to bake them in a 350 degree oven, covered in foil, for thirty minutes and then serve them dry with sauce on the side. Two, my favorite- you can add them to your favorite sauce and simmer them for 15-20 minutes and spoon them over your favorite pasta. What’s great about this method is that the flavors of the sauce and meatballs mix and bolster each other.

No matter how you do it, they will taste great and can be even better the next day.

So what about the wine?
It may seem like a cliché, but I find that nothing pairs better with Spaghetti and Meatballs, than a bottle of Chianti Classico.

2009 Castello dei Rampolla Chianti Classico - The nose was vibrant and layered, showing masses of ripe strawberry, floral tones, medicinal cherry, herbs and a hint of cinnamon sugar. On the palate, it came to life over the course of an hour, at first lean and then gaining volume, as juicy red berry, herbs and cedar messaged the senses. A deep well of structure showed through the finish as focused red fruits were turned lean with silky tannin which coated the cheeks. I thoroughly enjoyed this young Chianti Classico. (92 points) Find it one: Wine-Searcher!

*Recipe property of Eric Guido, originally published by Snooth Media.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

"The" Italian Wine Grape: Sangiovese

Every year, as the summer begins to melt away and hints of cooler autumn days can be seen off in the distance, I find myself craving Sangiovese. I will admit, even with my intense love of the Nebbiolo grape, that Sangiovese holds a very special place in my heart and in my cellar. You could say that Sangiovese is “The” Italian wine grape, with a storied history going back to the 18th century and its earliest documented mention in 1590. It is also the most widely-planted red wine grape variety in all of Italy. Sangiovese is the star performer behind many of Italy's premier wines, including Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino, Morellino di Scansano and many of the Super Tuscan IGT bottlings.

Sangiovese is widely planted throughout the regions 
of Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, Abruzzo
and the Marche
Central Italy is the area most planted with Sangiovese, often coined the Sangiovese belt. Tuscany is obviously the most famous of these regions with a number of great expressions, but you will also find it widely used in Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, Abruzzo and the Marche. Of course, Sangiovese isn't limited to Italy either, with many wines being made from California, Romania and Argentina. However, I'm still not convinced by most of these wines and find that Italy has little competition.

Courtesy of Wine Folly
"Guide to Sangiovese"
Honestly, I believe it has much to do with experience and acceptance of the grapes’ inherent traits. Sangiovese is naturally light in color with high acidity, stern structure and flavors of tart red fruits, herbs, leather and tea leaves. When a balance is stuck between these components, the results are beautiful. However, when not allowed to ripen perfectly, the stern structure and brisk acidity seem to dry out the fruit, making the experience painful. In some parts of the world, this balance is missed by over-ripening or the excessive use of oak.

Due to its inherent traits, Sangiovese is often blended with a large number of other grape varieties, but it's important that the percentage isn't too high, as its qualities can be lost against the backdrop of too much Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. With that said, there are many great Sangiovese-based wines that are perfectly blended with international varieties.

However, the Sangiovese purist would insist on a 100% Sangiovese or having it with more traditional Italian grapes, such as Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, Mammolo and Colorino. It also responds well to moderate use of oak, but it loses much of its natural beauty when overdone.

In the end, Sangiovese is worth the search, and there's enough of it out there to keep you busy for a long time. Each expression has its own unique characteristics, making the exploration into this variety a never-ending journey for those wishing to delve in. In the next few months, expect more on Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and a number of Super Tuscans.

Until that time, it is my opinion that Chianti Classico is probably the best place to start, and there’s nowhere better than the 2010 vintage. Classic is a word often used to describe the long, cool growing season in 2010, with a decent amount of rain moderated by periods of extended warmth and sunshine. This mix produced exciting wines of structure with juicy acidity and bright, focused fruit that really grabs your attention and holds it from the first glass through the last. Most of these wines are drinking beautifully right now, with a few that demand some time in the cellar. All of them perform much better at the dinner table, due to their brisk acidity. These are serious Chianti Classico that show the best qualities of the region and belong in your cellar. As for 2011, I’ll talk about them later in the year, for now; stocking up on 2010 is my priority.

On To The Tasting Notes:

2010 Fontodi Chianti Classico - The nose showed great intensity with red berry fruits, Tuscan dust, savory herbs, grilled meats and mineral tones. It came in waves with a dark and concentrated bouquet. On the palate, it was firm yet bursting at its tailored seams with tart cherry and something like a rich reduction of red meat and herbs. It was quite notable for its sweet, yet tart, yet savory personality. I found myself loving this wine more and more with every taste. The 2010 Fontodi Chianti Classico really hit its sweet spot after an hour open in bottle. (93 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!

2010 Isole e Olena Chianti Classico - The nose was vibrant and inviting with ripe cherry, autumnal spices, undergrowth, tobacco and crushed fall leaves. On the palate, it impressed with it's silky-smooth, medium body, and juicy red fruit, which seemed to touch on all the senses, followed by hints of spice and cedar. It was warming and finessed with a refreshing finish and balanced structure, which begged for another sip. Nowhere did I find the harsh tannin or elevated acidity that would usually accompany such a young Chianti, this was simply a pleasure to drink. (92+ points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2010 Castellare di Castellina Chianti Classico - The nose showed rich black cherry, ripe plum, exotic spice and herbs with hints of animal musk grounding it to it's Tuscan origins. It was highly expressive and brooding on the nose with a dark ruby color in the glass. On the palate, a vibrant core of acidity ushered in flavors of ripe red medicinal fruit and spice, yet soft and textured. It was a pleasure to drink and finished fresh with hints of structure giving balance to it's red fruit and floral tones. An excellent wine and an amazing value. (92 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!

2010 Fattoria Poggiopiano Chianti Classico - The nose was a beautiful mix of ripe black cherry fruit and fresh, sweet floral tones, as notes of graphite and cinnamon rounded out the bouquet. On the palate, it was mid-weight with brisk acidity taking center stage, backed by juicy cherry and mountain herbs. A slight bitter note resonated on the finish, but didn't detract as hints of juicy red fruit and cedar faded from the palate. This was a beautiful Chianti with stunning aromatics and a great "drink me" presence on the palate, a perfect food wine. (91 points) Find it on: Wine-Searcher!

2010 Querciabella Chianti Classico - The nose showed youthful cherry and spice with crushed fall leaves and a hint of cranberry. On the palate, it was rich yet balanced with refined structure and focused red fruits. The finish lingered on with notes of cranberry and fine tannin. This wine was just a baby and will likely be a stunner in another few years. (91 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2010 San Felice Chianti Classico - The nose showed strawberry, cherry and herbs with hints of spice, animal musk and a touch of barnyard. On the palate, it showed ripe red berries and herbs with a juicy personality. The finish was full of saturating red fruits with hints of fine tannin, yet it left me with a pleasant, juicy impression. This is just what I want from an any-day Chianti. (89 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2010 Rocca delle Macie Chianti Classico - The nose was fresh and floral with cherry, cedar, spice and hints of cinnamon and herbs. It coated the palate with rich raspberry and cherry fruits which slowly faded to reveal fine tannin and mouth-watering acidity. The 2010 Rocca delle Macie Chianti Classico is firm yet satisfying with excellent presence on the palate that screamed to be paired with a plate of pasta in red sauce. (89 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2010 Antinori Chianti Classico Peppoli - The nose was flashy with a modern curve, showing medicinal cherry, deep wood tones, licorice and dark chocolate. On the palate, it was medium-weight with spicy, red berry fruits and a slightly creamy texture that quickly gave way to a bitter twang. The structure shined through on the finish with hints of drying tannin offset by sweet cherry and vanilla. The 2010 is an oak-accentuated, early-drinking and lighthearted effort meant more for a weeknight dinner than anything else, yet it still represents value in the $20 price range. (88 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

2010 Vignamaggio Gherardino Chianti Classico - The nose showed cool red berries with dark earth, herbs and Tuscan spice. On the palate, I found tart red fruits with a dry yet balanced presence on the senses. The finish was medium-long with tart red berries and hint of caramel. (88 points) Find it on Wine-Searcher!

* A big thanks to Wine Folly for their image of "The Color of Sangiovese", make sure to check out their site and "Guide to Sangiovese".