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Wine, food were wonderful in Italy ... Paris fell short

Posted: Thursday February 22, 2007 5:24PM; Updated: Thursday February 22, 2007 6:19PM
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We got off the plane in Milano, jumped into a rented car, fought the traffic and lack of sleep, finally getting on the Auto Strada north to the little town of Termeno, also known as Tramin (names in the Alto Adige in Italy's north usually are in two languages, Italian and German, sometimes three ... Ladinisch being the third). The destination was the wine firm of J.Hofstatter.

I have written about their wines before. Far northern Italian wines with a French or Germanic tinge. Last year, at a hotel called the Turm, we had their 2002 Blauerburgunder, or Pinot Noir, that was as close to the great wines of France's Cote d'Or, their Burgundy region, that we'd ever tasted outside the area. That was the wine that brought us to Hofstatter's tasting room on this February day.

Martin Hofstatter Foradori, the GM, winemaker and part owner, led us through the lineup of wines, as we looked out on the magnificent slopes of the southern Dolomites. Once again their Blauerburgunders, the Pinots, stole the show, the single vineyard wines designated Barthenau and Mazon, being lovely, classy young Burgundies. These are not expensive wines, probably found in the $35 range in this country. A little more expensive is their Yngram, made from four Bordeaux grapes. It's a slow developer, crafted in the old Bordeaux style, still a bit greenish now, in the classic way, before they added "charm" in Bordeaux and made them drinkable early.

We drove north, climbed a corkscrew hill up to the heart of the Dolomites and wound up at the Hotel Turm in the little town of Fie allo Scilliar, pronounced Fee-yeh allo Sheel-ya. Last year we had a lunch there, took a little tour of the place and decided we had to stay there some day. We stayed for a weekend this time.

The meals? Everything made with a light touch, nothing overdone, the essence of freshness. One night Linda had the 1001 Kalorienmenu, the 1001-calorie menu, which drew the big heehaw from the jackass sitting next to her. Until I tasted some of those things...wonderful light potato and mushroom dumplings, red cabbage, perfect chicken. And then downstairs we went, to a special strudel tasting they'd set up, instantly undoing the virtues of the 1001-calorie special, but along with those strudels they had four rather obscure, but delicious, dessert wines from the region, including two red moscatos. This is not an area for exorbitant prices. One night the fixed price dinner was 50 euros apiece, the next night 28.

The hotel is known throughout Europe, not only for the food but the grace notes, the huge collection of original art that lines the walls of every space in the place, the "Natur" or nature area with three different kinds of sauna, including one with pine cones and needles and aromatics. Prices for this kind of accommodation were not as ferocious as you'd think, since this was considered the off-season...102 euros apiece per night for their top of the line double.

From Turm we drove to Venice. Venice, flatly, is Linda's favorite city in the world, and I'm getting to that point. She's gotten there eight times, flying the discounted fare when it comes up, staying in a shockingly reasonable hotel on the Grand Canal, the Pensione Wildner, finding the hidden restaurants, developing a firm network of Venetian friends. It's her getaway art-fix, and if it weren't for the fact that she can get the lower, out-of-season rates and goes there during the fall, the football season, I'd have been with her on all those trips.

I'll tell you one great thing about Venice. You look at a city map, and you see that a place is, say, seven or eight blocks away, and, thinking in terms of Paris or London, you figure you're going to wear yourself trying to walk it. The blocks on their city maps look reasonable but can last forever. But in Venice the blocks fly by. They're short, a breeze, a pleasure, and there's always something fascinating to see.

I'll tell you one not so great thing about Venice. At the Gallerie dell Accadamia, where they have the paintings of all those wonderful old Venetian masters, I asked for the seniors' discount on the admission ticket. The lady pointed to a sign, which said only European seniors would be honored. Hey, no problem, I'm from England, Norfolk to be exact, can't you tell? Then I heard the magic words, "Passport, please."

Huh? A freakin passport to get into an art museum? OK, they won that round.

Wines from the Veneto are very good, but I'd never felt they were great. The youngest and freshest of the whites were the most enjoyable, but the sparkling Proseccos are beautiful. The Redhead especially loves Amarones, heavy, robust entries with an alcohol level that can push 15 to 16 percent, but they're not for everyday drinking, and the prices for the really good ones are kind of stiff. But with the right meal, an Amarone can be perfect.

Linda handled all restaurants. The Turm was our number one for the trip, possibly our No.1 in all of Italy, but our favorite in Venice was a cheap little lunch place called La Zucca, which did magical things with vegetables and a fine, highly spiced osso bucco, and their signature dish, pumpkin flan, which sounds weird but was a marvelous blend of the pumpklin itself with olive oil and hazelnuts. The price for the meal for the Redhead and me was 68 euros. Best of all, we didn't see a single American there, except for us, of course.

Antico Panificio was a trattoria which Linda always has called her greatest pizza place ever (Number two is Dundee Bistro in Dundee, Oregon, No.3 is Reservoir Tavern in Boonton, N.J.). La Bitta was a new place for us, a sleeper chosen by one of Linda's Venetian friends. Tiny, tucked away, serving dishes I'd never heard of before...thickly sliced salami with balsamic vinegar and onions, gnocchi with sauce made from chopped mutton. No credit cards, no freezer.

The latter is significant. We found out when we asked if they had ices for dessert. "No freezer," Linda said, "means that they don't freeze food and keep it. Everything is absolutely fresh." Now why couldn't I figure out something like that?

Our last night there, the Flaming Redhead's friends threw a farewell dinner for us. Two of them owned a wine store in Venice. They brought things, I shlepped a few bottles from the states. I launched into one of my typical diatribes about how I really respected Italian winemakers who were loyal to their own grapes, and didn't try to glitz it up with French varieties, and as a rebuttal, a magnum of 2004 Palazotto Cabernet Sauvignon was opened up, a selection made by the great winemaker of the Veneto, Fausto Maculan of Breganze.

I knew him as a maker of dessert wines, the light Dindarello and powerful , rich Torcolato, but his Cabernet was a wonderful creation, showing a little tannin in front, and then smoothing out with a fine richness. It was explained to me that the Cab in Italy is a different clone than that in Bordeaux, more suited to the Italian soil. You're never too old to learn, right?

As warm and wonderful Venice was, that's how off-putting we found Paris, where we wrapped it up with a final weekend. I've had my ups and downs with this city. I first got to know it via a series of weekend passes from my post in Germany. We'd drive all night and arrive just as the bakeries were opening in the morning, and that's what we'd have for breakfast, a loaf of newly baked bread and a big hunk of butter. I can smell that bread now.

Many long walks, lots of time by myself, strange adventures, some hilarious. But we're talking about the mid to late 1950's. Then Paris got mean, especially to Americans like me. But about 10 years ago, when Linda and I started going, it warmed up. People were friendly, sunshine was everywhere. This trip? I'm not sure.

Neither of us felt comfortable there, and Linda always has liked it more than I did. It was the off-season, but crowds were everywhere, with wall to wall folks from the US of A. Getting through the streets was kind of rough. Frost was in the air. Oh, there were still plenty of nice things. Particularly helpful was a book that had been loaned to me, John Leland's A Guide to Hemingway's Paris. But I don't know. Things were just strange.

And after those friendly little restaurants in Venice, the ones in Paris seemed aggressive, overcrowded, uncomfortable. In at least two of them, L'Ardoise and Chez L'Ami Louis, you had to hurry up and get finished because the line for tables was already forming inside, spilling over to the passageways, hanging over your plate. Ugly stuff.

Yeah, the food was good. Not wonderful...we don't eat in the Michelin starred places...just good. But it's tough to enjoy it with someone hanging on your shoulder. Our favorite? L'Ami Jean, not to be confused with the Louis ami, which was weird and ferociously priced, unless you think that 60 euros, or $80, for a plate of asparagus (no, we didn't order it, thank God...we're not nuts) is reasonable. L'Ami Jean served us a fixed price 30-euro dinner that was big and rich, in a Basque sort of way, and totally enjoyable.

I don't like to sound like some kind of hick who goes psycho when separated from America, but honest, we've had some great times in Paris, but this wasn't one of them. Sorry.