(January 28, 2012 in Santa Monica, California) Damned new editors at Buzzine were making me get out and write more! Although presently Buzzine's busy publisher and CEO, I formerly wrote food/wine/travel columns, and now have been assigned to cover a lunch at my favorite beach hotel (Shutters) at their acclaimed restaurant (Coast) with my favorite TV chef -- Mario Batali. Mario was personally cooking a special lunch to promote his book, Molto Batali — Simple Family Meals. I was going to taste an array of appetizers, then eat three courses from the cookbook, all the while getting drunk on wine pairings from Mario’s celebrated Italian vineyard. Ah yes, life is so tough!
The winter weather…what winter? The beach weather was sunny and perfect. Shutters is right on the sand, and the light and ocean air piqued our appetite as we sampled finger-food appetizers of lovely fried squash blossoms with ricotta, an amazing white beans "alla Toscana," tasty roasted baby peppers stuffed with tuna, and arrancine alla bolognese --decadent little balls of fried risotto, stuffed full of goat cheese, with a textbook-perfect tomato-rich “Bolognese” dipping sauce. The warm, tangy cheese would literally burst out upon first bite, requiring one to smack and lick the lips. We washed it down with Flor winery’s excellent prosecco (prosecco being Italian sparkling wine). Waiters kept refilling our glasses. The gentle ocean breeze wafted into the sunny patio; one could hear surf breaking nearby. I smacked my lips, thanked the Universe for where I was, and had a second cheese ball. Then a third.
Mario Batali was busy in the kitchen preparing lunch -- long red pony-tail, and wearing his iconic shorts and orange rubber sandals. As his crew readied to bring the food out, the iron chef was gracious enough to have a few words with Buzzine:
Richard Elfman: Is lunch today all from your new cookbook?
Mario Batali: Yes. Everything that you’re going to taste is from my new cookbook, and everything that you’re going to drink is from wineries that I’m participating in.
RE: Where do you get your great passion and enthusiasm?
MB: I was born into a family of passionate and interested people involved in almost everything we can get our hands on. We’ve loved and celebrated food, making food, leisure, relaxing, but most significantly, family. And that’s where I get my passion!
RE: So what’s coming up in 2012?
MB: We’re opening a restaurant called Lupa in Hong Kong. It’s our first venture into China. We’re working on trying to figure out whether or not we can put an Eataly [N.Y.] in Los Angeles, and I think the answer is yes. And I look forward to supporting my children’s basketball campaigns!
And with that, the first course hit the tables:
Rabe (Italian broccoli), potato, and ricotta ravioli. Perhaps not the “simplest” dish in the Simple Family Meals cookbook, but absolutely delicious! The food was paired with Bastianich “Adriatico Friuliano.” Bastianich is a boutique winery operated by Batali associates Joe and Lidia Bastianich in the Friuli-Venezia region of northeast Italy. They describe the white “Adriatico“ as a "typical" friuliano -- 100% Tocai-friuliano grapes, having a slight almond edge and expressing Friuli-Venezia'a history and terrior (uniqueness of soil and region). I found the wine medium-bodied with nice pear flavors, balanced with a light acidity — a perfect pairing with the ravioli! Where was that ravioli? My plate was already empty!
“Secondi” course was braised chicken with sweet onions and parmigiano. A tender tender tender boneless chicken thigh, topped with a saucy mélange of caramelized onions, savory pancetta bacon, and grated parmesan cheese, served over a piece of Tuscan country bread. Simple ingredients, maybe, but OMG, we were obviously in the hands of a master -- this was world-class cuisine. Sooo damned good!!
And paired with an excellent 2008 Bastianich Vespa Bianco -- a blend of equal parts Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with a smidgeon of Picolit grape. I would describe this as a “big” white, with flavors of wildflowers, honey, and pear, a hint of minerality, and a tannic structure more akin to a red wine — quite able to stand well with fowl, pork, and cheese.
Another glass, please!
And loosen the belt, as the third course, dessert, arrived — orange-scented cannoli. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli!” – my mind wondered if Godfather author Mario Puzo had ever tasted cannoli this good when he wrote that famous line. This sublime pastry went beautifully with a Flor prosecca rose.
Super-chef Nancy Silverton dropped by the table to say hello. Mario Batali is a partner of hers at Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza -- two of my favorite local dining spots. One can actually find the appetizers from this lunch served at these places.
My autographed cookbook in hand, now I couldn’t wait to try some of the recipes at home. The book is divided into months, with dishes for every season. It's amazing how Mario Batali finds the time to do his TV shows, open restaurants around the world, and write a bevvy of great cookbooks!
Now the next pressing question is whether I have drank too much to drive home. Maybe I’ll just check into the trés aesthetic, luxurious Shutters...and take a nap.
This is tough business, I tell you!