Sunday, May 15, 2011

Italian Wines and Lunch at Firenze Osteria with Fabio Viviani

Escolar with Puttanesca Sauce
I confess, I actually don't really watch much TV, including Iron Chef, Top Chef and all that, but I do hear about the contestants and winners. Most Angelenos probably know of Fabio Viviani, a Top Chef contestant and now cookbook author and celebrity chef, who then opened up Firenze Osteria in Toluca Lake and Cafe Firenze in Moorpark. I went for the first time for a hosted wine paired lunch with Santa Margherita wines. Fabio was there to prepare our lunch and talk to us, and with his travel schedule, this was a chance hard to pass up.

The reviews seemed mixed. LA Times' SIV went in 2009 and didn't like it, but my friend Weezer Monkey went recently and loved it. My Last Bite also says it's one of her favorites in the area. It turns out based on this lunch I'm loving it too. Now, I can't tell you if S Virbila's dislike of this place came from the fact that she went when they had just opened, or because Fabio is actually here taking care of our meals, or because I rarely agree with her in the first place. All I can tell you is that we had a great lunch and that this is what this restaurant can be.
Fabio Viviani at his restaurant.
Now, a bit of background on how this lunch came to be. Antonio Terlato, founder of Terlato Wines, was the first one to introduce Pinot Grigio to the US. Fabio Viviani's partnership with Terlato (and thus Santa Margherita) began when he won a trip to Napa in one of the Top Chef challenges. He did a tasting with Terlato and they fell in love with him. He says he grew up drinking Chianti and enjoy cooking with them.

The main dining room.
Unexpectedly, this was to be a seven course lunch! And Fabio warned us that the portions will not be small, either. He's Italian, he exclaims. He also says in an Italian home, if a guest doesn't finish his/her food, s/he won't be invited back. Uh oh.

Bracing for the courses ahead, we started with some Crostino di Pancetta (toasted bread, burrata, grilled pancetta, crispy sage, brown butter)

He calls his crispy sage the "vegan bacon" and the smokiness certainly gives that sense. The burrata was creamy. He flies in the burrata from Italy every 3 days (even then, he admits, it's not the same as having it fresh there).

ProseccoThe first two courses were paired with the Santa Margherita Prosecco (retails about $24.99). The wine is crisp with a slight metallic aftertaste, but its acidity cleanses the palate from the smokiness of the sage and pancetta. His goal is to cleanse the palate so that each bite is "fresh" and doesn't become boring.

The second course:
Gamberoni in Camicia (pancetta-wrapped jumbo shrimp, filled with gorgonzola, served over parmesan polenta and sauteed spinach)
Pancetta-wrapped Prawn
The creamy polenta reduces the sharpness in the wines.

Throughout our lunch, Fabio did a lot of talking, explaining his dishes, the pairing, and more. He said that a tasting menu should transition between courses. The next course should incorporate something from the previous course, not a break-up of flavors. You might say "duh, of course?" but it is nice to have him explain what that transition is. Both the first and second course have pancetta, while the second and the upcoming third course both have parmesan and a creamy element.

Gnocchi Cinque Terre (potato dumplings, basil pesto, pine nuts, parmigiano)
Gnocchi with Pesto
According to Fabio, the gnocchi in Italy is typically served this way, just lying on a bed of pesto, but the customers in the US always ask for them to be tossed in the sauce, so they're not typically served tossed unless you ask otherwise. I really enjoyed the pillowy texture of the gnocchi.

This dish and the next were paired with the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio.
Pinot Grigio

Fabio carries the garlic element from the gnocchi into his next course: 
Olive oil-poached Escolar with Chunky Puttanesca
Escolar with Puttanesca Sauce
This was one of the table's favorite. The escolar, poached in olive oil with lemon and thyme, was meaty, dense, yet incredibly moist. The tangy and spicy puttanesca sauce worked quite well with the crispness and acidity of the pinot grigio, which tames the spiciness. At the same time the dish tones down the sweetness of the wine.

We move strongly into the meat and red wine with the Costolette di Agnello (herb marinated rack of lamb served with glazed pistachio nuts)
Rack of Lamb
This is Fabio's version of pork and beans. Instead of beans, he braises pistachio nuts instead and I must say I've never had anything quite like them before. The lamb was a perfect medium rare, tender and velvety, bursting with juices and flavor.

This course and the next were paired with Santa Margherita Chianti Classico Riserva (retails around $24.99). Compared to the original Chianti Classico which was 100% Sangiovese, this wine is 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Merlot. It was also aged an extra three months in the bottle. The changes were made so that the wine will have a more robust flavor and can complement "bigger" and bolder flavors in food.

The last savory course was another pasta:
Trofie con Anatra e Finocchio (homemade trofie pasta, duck sausage, caramelized fennel, parmesan)
Trofie Pasta with Duck

Trofie is apparently a Ligurian pasta, made by rolling the dough by hand into rounded, squiggly, strips. 
I unfortunately had to leave at this point, so I only managed to quickly pop a bite for a taste.I liked the chewy, al dente pasta and the gaminess of the duck.

I was sad that I had to leave early and miss out on dessert, but I certainly already had plenty of great food to last me til the next morning, and enough wines to keep me happy! I loved the lunch we had and I'm looking forward to returning for a meal here. I hope they've now been open long enough to consistently be as good as they were that day!
Chef Fabio Viviani and Executive Chef
Fabio Viviani and his Chef de Cuisine at Firenze Osteria

Firenze Osteria
4212 Lankershim Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 91602
(818) 760-7081
Firenze Osteria on Urbanspoon

Disclosure: this meal was hosted


Lori Lynn

Like the transition idea between courses.
Sounds like a fabulous lunch, really like to hear what the Chef says about his menu and wine pairings.

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