This summer, I devoured the snack-sized detective novels featuring Salvo Montalbano, an irascible Sicilian inspector who always gets his man, but not before he finds time for a leisurely but surely gluttonous meal of local cuisine. I first discovered Montalbano when I was researching arancini, a Sicilian delicacy I’ve been enjoying my entire life but have only in recent years come into the mainstream. For the unfamiliar – which is hard to believe, since they’re pretty much on the menu of every trattoria remotely associated with the Mediterranean – arancini, or rice balls, are fritters of risotto, shaped in a ball (or sometimes a cone), stuffed with ragu and deep fried. Montalbano is actually given some credit – at least according to Wikipedia, which is always right, right? – for popularizing the treats outside of Italy.
When I was a kid, arancini was the first thing that made me connect to my Italian heritage through food in a powerful, almost indescribable way. I can still vividly remember an international fair we had in elementary school, where everyone was asked to share something from the cultural background. My mom and I made arancini. This was long, long before you could buy them in food trucks, remember, so it was mind-blowing for me to observe the reaction of both kids and adults as they first experienced them. Utter astonishment and joy. Everyone coming up to me, unprompted, wanting, needing to tell me how great they were. I was a shy kid, an introvert, so this was a big deal, to find a way to connect with so many people, through food, through history and culture.
Funnily enough, my mom’s maiden name does not end in a vowel. But she’s the gourmet, the cook, the one who taught me in the kitchen, so when she learned to cook arancini from her new husband’s Italian mother, she realized that using Uncle Ben’s rice with some egg to make it stick didn’t seem right. It was resourceful, these Italians in Brooklyn, not having access to arborio rice, but she set out to find the right way to do it. (Before the internet.) I wish I could tell you that the Madaio family recipe for arancini is some age-old one passed down from generation to generation, in the oral tradition, but you want to use real risotto, don’t you? So here’s the way my mom taught me.
There’s one book of Montalbano short stories called Gli Arancini di Montalbano, which is in a way a play on words, because arancini (which in a literal translation means “little oranges”) themselves are often snacks or appetizers, so it’s clever for author Andrea Camilleri to call the book of stories “arancini”. On the other hand, there is an actual story called “Gli Arancini di Montalbano” in which – from what I understand, because it’s not actually translated into English – our lovable inspector attempts to get out of a romantic New Year’s Eve getaway to Paris with his girlfriend in order to attend dinner at his housekeeper’s house, where she is serving her special arancini. This, in a tight little bow, sums up Montalbano’s ethos.
In addition to following the fictional machinations of La Cosa Nostra, I’ve been drinking quite a bit of Sicilian wine lately, especially as I lazily enjoy the latest of Montalbano’s antics and dream of an island getaway. Once plagued as a warm climate optimal for churning out bulk wine for the masses (in a way, Italy’s answer to France’s Languedoc), more recently Sicily has begun to emerge as a serious wine region, with the elegant, volcanic wines of Etna drawing comparison to Burgundy and the friendly Nero D’Avola establishing itself as a flagship grape.
One of the fascinating things about the island is that, like Italy as a whole, Sicily cannot be defined by one grape or one wine style. Though Nero certainly is the most widely planted dry variety, one must also consider the aforementioned Etnas, the light, friendly Frappato, a wide variety of indigenous whites including Grillo, an increasing amount of international grapes, and of course Marsala. A detailed study of these micro-regions, however, will have to be saved for another time. (Fear not, terroir-geeks, as we’ll be dispatching a correspondent in the not-too-distant future.)
As for now, I give you instead my little notes, a.k.a. Gli Arancini di Madaio. Pair any or all with arancini.
Tasca D’Almerita Regaleali Bianco 2011 ($12.99)
A nice, easygoing white that features just a touch of sweetness up front to counterbalance the bitter citrus and minerality of the finish. Easy to keep sipping, so perhaps good that it is 12%. Perfect for antipasto.
Firriato Quater Bianco 2011 ($11.99)
A blend of four indigenous grapes, this is easily one of the oddest white wines I have ever tasted. Initially, the nose is so insanely funky, laced with burning rubber, smoke, tar and even dish soap, it could easily pass for a red (and might even rate higher as such). There’s fruit there too, but it’s tough to find. The palate is austere, with some tropical fruit, and a crisp finish. After a day of air, the funky nose blew off, and some fruit (peach?) emerged on the nose, but the palate held its austerity, leaving me wondering how Wine Advocate could have possibly come with the description “truly beautiful”. Though this is certainly not for everyone, those into unique and different discoveries may want to give it a try.
Mazzei Zisola 2011 ($14.99)
A pure, clean and beautiful expression of the Nero grape, Zisola has become a yearly go-to. The nose features lovely floral notes of violet and plum fruit, as well as a fresh note that might even be described as swimming pool. On the palate, dark cherries mingle with plums, and a touch of tobacco integrates with chocolate on the long finish. I recently tried a 2008 bottling of the Zisola, as well as the winery’s Doppiozeta 2008, a mix of Nero, Syrah and Cab Franc, and though both were still enjoyable, I found myself missing the explosive freshness offered by the younger wine in both cases. In other words, drink up!
Tasca D’Almerita Nero d’Avola Lamuri 2011 ($15.99)
Another versatile, friendly version of Nero that will marry well with a variety of foods, especially barbecue, kabobs and burgers. For best results, give this baby at least 90 minutes in the decanter, which will bring out much more complexity on both the aroma, including tar and tobacco, and the fresh, welcoming palate, which features cherry, anise, cola and of course cocoa (in this case tootsie roll). Excellent QPR.
Firriato Altavilla Red 2011 ($11.99)
A mix of Nero and Cabernet, this wine features a surprisingly soft mouthfeel for its age, but still offers vitality on the finish. A touch of smoke on the nose mingles with green pepper, while the palate features berries, spice, violets and chocolate. This offers plenty of value and pairs nicely with casual Italian fare.
Firriato Santagostino Rosso 2011 ($15.99)
My favorite of the three Firriato wines I tried – a lovely blend of Nero and Syrah that’s mostly modern in style but isn’t afraid to hint at its rustic, gamy side, especially on the nose. On the palate, the dance of modern-meets-rustic continues – though it is mostly red fruits and warm spices, just a touch of tar slips in. It’s sweet but tart, with good balance of acid and tannin.
Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Enta Rosso 2012 ($20.99)
TdTN is an up and coming Etna estate, quickly expanding availability in the US. The entry level Etna Rosso is subtle and elegant, but shows considerable nuance when given the chance. After some time in the decanter (2 hours), the nose offers hints of earth, tobacco, and violet. The palate is light in flavor, but smooth, featuring floral notes, purple fruit and anise. It is not a wine that will knock your socks off, but is an excellent red for lighter foods.
This estate offers several single vineyard Cru wines as well (including Calderara Sottana, Feudo di Mezzo, Santo Spirito, $39.99 each), which should excite collectors, especially those with a taste for Pinot Noir and a distaste for Burgundy prices. (This is not Pinot, but it has similar characteristics.) These wines are drinkable now with a 2+ hour decant (and some hearty food), showing more dark cherry & balsamic concentration, furry tannins and power than the entry-level Etna, but are better suited for careful storage for at least 5 years, and will provide enjoyment for 15-20.
Arianna Occhipinti SP68 Rosso 2012 ($33.09)
Blend of the lighter Frappato and Nero D’Avola (similar to Cerasuolo di Vittoria). In a way it is a shame that wine writer Robert Camuto, in his excellent book Palmiento, as well as in articles for La Cucina Italiana, Wine Spectator and others, has done such an amazing job painting a portrait of Sicilian winemaker Arianna Occhipinti and her wines as engaging, interesting and complex. Because here in the US, at my home, while his stories have consistently dazzled, her wines have seemed pedestrian in comparison. There is nothing wrong with this one in particular; it’s just simple. Bright and fresh, but simple. Were it a $10 or $12 bottle, I might say grab a case and break it out every Friday with pizza, but at $25 or more, it is difficult to recommend. (In classic PA LCB fashion — the government run liquor board of my home state — this is listed as ‘Special 1968’ in the system, when in fact the wine is named SP68 after the road that runs past the vineyard.)