One of the perks of writing and talking about restaurants is the occasional invitation I receive to attend events that pair food with wine. Or beer. Or bourbon. Or scotch. Or tequila, rum … or even mead. You get the idea – if I attended them all, I’d be in ‘round-the-clock detox.
But some of these generous invites are hard to turn down, and last weekend’s wine dinner at Fish On was one of those. I was pleased to share a table not only with Italian winemaker, hotelier, restaurateur (and Count) Manfredo di San Bonifacio, but also Paul Karp, whose Vintage Imports company made it possible for us to enjoy Manfredo’s wines here in the United States. SoDel Concepts’ corporate sommelier Mike Zygmonski was in attendance, along with longtime Cape Region entrepreneur, restaurateur – and birthday girl – Alison Blyth. These are the sort of invitations that we lowly scribes dare not turn down.
Each of the five courses was paired with one of Count Manfredo’s wines, and Fish On Chefs Jen Bradour and Raul Rodriguez spent time tasting the varieties that inspired the creative dishes we enjoyed that night. One of my favorites in the di San Bonifacio lineup is the prosecco. It has a bright, fruity acidity and a (welcome) lack of sweetness that paired perfectly with a charcuterie plate that featured Jen’s house-made mortadella speckled with whole pistachios. The second course included Manfredo’s clean and crisp pinot grigio. It stood boldly nose-to-nose with crunchy mini-turnips dusted with sea salt and surrounded with asparagus, peas and eggs. Both the prosecco and pinot grigio are produced in the Veneto wine region of Italy. Though the area sports an impressive variety of reds, it is also known for refreshing whites such as that sparkling prosecco.
One of my all-time favorites has always been the garnet-hued Monteregio sangiovese (the same grape as chianti classico, but more full-bodied). It was expertly paired by Jen and Raul with a crispy soft-shell crab perched on sweet corn polenta.
I have to admit that the surprise of the evening was the fourth-course offering of the Sustinet syrah, known as a “Super Tuscan.” The term applies to Tuscan reds that may include non-indigenous grapes like Cabernet or Merlot. The Sustinet hails from a small vineyard in Maremma on the coast of western central Italy. This 94-plus pointer (that’s as close as I will get to stepping on wine columnist John McDonald’s feet!) treats the mouth to a cascade of tastes. It’s difficult for me to finish all the wines that are poured at these dinners, but the Sustinet glass was empty when it was wrested from my trembling paws. The wine was the perfect accompaniment to smoked lamb marinating in a parmesan broth over Lupo’s fresh bucatini.
SoDel Concepts’ association with the di San Bonifacio family began serendipitously with the late Matt Haley’s choice to enjoy a dinner at a small boutique winery and hotel in Tuscany. Manfredo tells the story best in his delightfully broken English: “A server came up to me and said, ‘There’s an American chef in the dining room who wants to see you.’ My first reaction was to go into the kitchen and ask my chef what he did wrong.” Though Matt did not drink, it turned out that his companion at the time was loving the di San Bonifacio wines. Matt asked Manfredo where he could source the wines in America, and was told that they were not available.
After a few months, Matt called Manfredo and asked why the wines were still not available stateside, and Manfredo admitted that he didn’t have any contacts with an importer. Matt’s exact words were, “I’ll call you back in 10 minutes.” Manfredo was even more surprised when Matt actually did call him back in 10 minutes. Matt had contacted his friend Paul Karp from Vintage Importers. When Manfredo tells the story, he politely recounts that “Matt reached out to Paul.” Paul’s version is a little different: “Matt TOLD me to import the wines,” he smiles. As the owner and operator of multiple restaurants, Matt was not a shy person. And thanks to his and Paul’s efforts, the popularity of the di San Bonifacio wines has grown around Delaware and now extends into Pennsylvania and New Jersey. As a boutique winemaker, they only produce about 35,000 bottles of reds and another 30,000 to 35,000 bottles between the prosecco and the pinot grigio. In the world of wine, that is a very small production. Hence the word “boutique.”
One of the stars of the show last week at Fish On was the dessert course. The brainchild of Corporate Pastry Chef Dru Tevis, a strawberry olive oil cake was drizzled with a wine and berry compote, and topped with pistachios, almonds and an amazing dulce crumb redolent of creamy caramel. The Count’s Docet cabernet blended seamlessly with the rollercoaster of taste and texture that Tevis created.
Count Manfredo’s family has been in Italy for 1,100 years. In fact, records of the very first di San Bonifacio date back to the year 852. Wines were produced and consumed locally, until Manfredo’s generation began to bottle and label them for sale. Thanks to Matt’s last-minute decision to enjoy dinner at a tiny restaurant surrounded by vineyards in Tuscany, all of the SoDel Concepts restaurants carry various di San Bonifacio wines; the entire line can be enjoyed at Lupo Italian Kitchen in downtown Rehoboth Beach.