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Frescobaldi and the Wine Bars of Florence

Frescobaldi and the Wine Bars of Florence

If you happen to be an art historian, Florence's Piazza della Signoria appears unchanged in recent years. The Palazzo Vecchio still stands, as stern and imposing as ever; the Loggia dei Lanzi still shelters a small assembly of marble heroes and martyrs, gesticulating in silence; the replica of Michaelangelo's David still attracts gaping throngs.

The Cantinetta dei Verrazzano

The Cantinetta dei Verrazzano

But if instead you're a wine lover, the piazza looks a whole lot different—and much more attractive. That's because the David has a new neighbor: the Frescobaldi Wine Bar. Since opening two years ago, this cozy oasis adjoining the piazza has become a destination of choice for enophiles.

And it's not alone. Duck down any side street in the city center and you're likely to find a spanking new wine bar, or enoteca. Since the mid-1990s, Florence has seen an explosion of these trendy watering holes, coming in all shapes and sizes: rustic country-style, sleek ultra-modern, Tuscan traditional.

Foreign tourists may not realize it, but these are signposts of a fundamental change in thinking about wine among Italians. Until a generation ago, Italy's imbibers were quite provincial in their tastes. At the dinner table, families drank local wine bought for a few lire from a neighboring farmer or made in the cellar by grandpa. The thinking was, Why spend $50 on a Super Tuscan when I can have my farmer s fantastic wine for $1?That mentality carried over into restaurants, which served bulk wine in carafes or bottles of generic product made at the local cooperative.

For wine bars to take hold, three things had to happen. First was the influx of wine-savvy foreign tourists, particularly from America, Germany, Switzerland, and Japan, who began demanding more from restaurant wine lists. Second was the emergence of wine publications like Gambero Rosso, Civilta del Bere, and Il Mio Vino, important educational tools that whetted Italians' appetite for wines beyond their village borders. Third and most important was the overall rise in quality in Italian wine during the past 30 years. From Alto Adige to Sicily, vintners have replanted their vineyards and updated their cellar technology in a concerted effort to succeed in the world market. It took awhile, but Italian consumers have finally caught on. The greater wine world beckons, and Florence offers enticing portals under every enoteca sign.

Inside the Cantinetta Antinori, the grandfather of Florence's wine bars

Inside the Cantinetta Antinori, the grandfather of Florence's wine bars

Florence also has something that other Italian cities don't: wine bars owned by Marchesi Antinori, Castello di Verrazzano, and Marchesi de' Frescobaldi. These names resonate loudly in the wine world. Each is a family with deep roots in Tuscany that has grown into a viticultural empire. By having wine bars in Florence, they create show windows for their huge portfolios, allowing tourists and residents to look, browse, and sample their wines. For customers, it's a low-cost, low-risk way to taste, while for Antinori, Verrazzano, and Frescobaldi, it's basic salesmanship; they understand there's nothing like love-at-first-sip to create a convert.

Florence's Renaissance-era Palazzo Antinori (left), home to La Cantinetta Antinori

Florence's Renaissance-era Palazzo Antinori (left), home to La Cantinetta Antinori

Beyond this common raison d'être, the three have quite different approaches. Opened in 1959, the Cantinetta Antinori is considered the grandfather of Florentine wine bars. Housed in the family's stately Renaissance palace, the Antinori restaurant is elegant, intimate, and all about fine dining. Far more casual is Cantinetta dei Verrazzano, a 13-year-old establishment housed in a former bakery that caters to eat-on-the-run crowds, serving plates of fresh cheeses, salamis, oven-hot focaccia, and delectable desserts.

The Frescobaldi Wine Bar is the newest kid on the block, and also the most innovative. Taking a page from its peers, it offers both wine bar and elegant restaurant rolled into one, with menus to match. At the so-called Frescobaldino—a casual wine bar and patio—there's cheese and cured-meat plates, salads, bruschette, and crostini. The restaurant, in turn, offers a full menu for serious dining. But uniquely, it also gives the option of smaller portions--a new concept in Italy--and projects an accepting attitude towards ordering just a course or two. This flexibility portends a new approach to dining in Italy, which since time immemorial has been locked into the four-course antipasto/primo/secondo/dolce chain. But even if the Frescobaldi Wine Bar doesn't launch a new light-dining trend, it's a welcome addition to Florence's culinary map.

A peak inside the dining room of the Frescobaldi restaurant

A peak inside the dining room of the Frescobaldi restaurant

It's quite fitting that the Marchesi de' Frescobaldi should open an enoteca in Florence. This Florentine family already boasted an international reputation in wine by the time of the Renaissance. Its vineyards are older still, pre-dating 1331, the year Berto Frescobaldi drew up his will and listed "lands with vineyards" on his Tenuta Castiglioni property, located in the hills now designated the Chianti Colli Fiorentini zone. Frescobaldi wines were much coveted across Europe. In the family archives are purchase orders signed by King Henry VIII of England, one of many noblemen to favor Frescobaldi wine on their lavish dinner tables. 

Today the Frescobaldi empire has grown to include nine estates up and down Italy, with nearly 3,000 acres under vine yielding 7.5 million bottles annually. But this giant has discerning taste. Rather than cashing in on characterless bulk wines, the Marchesi de' Frescobaldi has a portfolio filled with fine premium labels. In the wine ratings game, many are top of the class.

It stands to reason, then, that I would first flip open the wine list when settling down for dinner in the Frescobaldi restaurant—a space that's at once friendly and classy, with trompe l'oeil brocade curtains and bistro mirrors. Perusing the wine list, I hardly feel limited by the fact that everything comes from Frescobaldi properties or partnerships. Quite the contrary. This list goes on for pages, offering a dizzying choice of over 50 wines, 80 percent of which are available by the glass. Only the trophy wines and older vintages must be ordered by the bottle. These include their famed Super Tuscan, Ornellaia, as well as Masseto, a powerful Merlot from Tuscany's up-and-coming Maremma coast.

But for 10 Euros, I can get a sizable pour of prized classics like Chianti Rufina Montesodi and an aristocratic Cabernet blend called Mormoreto, both from Frescobaldi's Castello di Nipozzano estate. And in the 3 to 6 Euro-range, there's a huge array of choices: Prosecco, Pinot Grigio, Tocai, and Chardonnay from Italy's northeast regions. Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon in pure or blended form from the Maremma, Rufina, Montalcino, and Pomino appellations. Luscious dessert wines from Tuscany and Pantelleria, a windswept island near Tunisia. And a choice of three grappas for the brave and hearty.

The more informal wine bar

The more informal wine bar

Looking next at the dinner menu, I'm confounded. A salad of octopus, potatoes, and cannellini beans drenched in Tuscan olive oil looks quite appealing. But this doesn't suit the Primitivo 2002 that's caught my eye. Bottled under the Danzante label, Frescobaldi's lower-priced tier, this succulent red from sun-baked Puglia is a brand new addition to the empire's portfolio. It's so new, in fact, that it hasn't even hit the market yet. Curiosity wins the day. I settle on the Primitivo, plus a floral Friulian white—Attems 2002 Ribolla Galla—as a starter, then I ask my personable young waiter to suggest two accompanying dishes.

When the sformato caldo di patate con ragu di carni bianche arrives, I know my trust has been well placed. Despite its clunky English translation - potato flan with white meat ragout - this dish is exquisite. A ragu of chicken, veal, and sausage in tomato sauce tops a tender mound of sformato—a ricotta, egg, and potato custard that's delicately seasoned with nutmeg and sage. This is followed by peposo alla fornacina, a hearty beef stew slow-cooked in wine and tomatoes, with whole peppercorns providing unexpected bite. The meat falls into succulent shreds at the touch of a fork, and evokes cozy winter fires and mamma's comfort food. 

"Was it tender enough?," asks Duccio Magni the next day about my sformato, leaning intensely across a bistro table. The loquacious director of the Frescobaldi Wine Bar has been describing his menu's deep indebtedness to Tuscan culinary traditions, and he's delighted to hear that I tried the sformato, one of his favorite recipes. "Sformato is very traditional," he says. "They call it two things: sformato or sfornato. If it cooks in the oven (forno), it's sfornato. It's sformato if you have a special mold (forma)."

The Frescobaldino

The Frescobaldino

My beef stew proves to be even more local. "Only around Florence do you have it," Magni explains. "It's called alla fornacina because it was cooked in the ovens by the terracotta firms in Impruneta, outside Florence." The terracotta workers would put a pot of stew in the furnace antechamber and leave it for 12 hours to cook in the indirect heat, he explains. "If you go to Impruneta, people are still doing it the old-fashioned way." 

Magni scrolls down the menu with his chunky finger and recounts more food histories. The fresh pasta with rabbit ragout is pure Tuscan. ("In other regions of Italy, they think rabbit is like a cat; they just don't eat it.") Pigeon is yet another local specialty. ("You see many countryside houses with piccionaia ­ rooftop pigeon coops. Pigeon was bred by all the farmers.") The menu offers more modern recipes as well, but these too make use of classic Tuscan ingredients.

All this makes perfect sense, since the fundamental idea is to highlight Tuscan wine—Frescobaldi's mainstay. As any Italian will tell you, a region's food and wine evolved side-by-side over the centuries and bring out the best in each other, like a harmonious long-time couple. Where Frescobaldi upped the ante among enoteche is in the quality of its kitchen. "Frescobaldi is a wine producer, so we must have food that is exactly at the same level as the wine, yes?" says Magni, curls bobbing energetically. "Frescobaldi wine is high quality, high class, very elegant, so the food should go in the same direction, without forgetting our Tuscan and Florentine origins. But it must never overtake the wine."

Diana Frescobaldi nods. "This is a place where wine is the principle actor," says the lithe blonde, who has joined us at the table. She personally oversees not only the Frescobaldi Wine Bar in Florence, but two smaller enoteche in Rome's Fiumicino airport. But if wine is to be the main actor, it needs supporting players—and this enoteca casts them well: handmade pasta every day, fine artisan cheeses and salami, traditional local recipes done with finesse, and all at a reasonable price. "For us, wine and food go together," Diana continues, reciting a truism among Italians. "That's the basis of the Frescobaldi Wine Bar. A good glass of wine has to have good food, and vice versa." And that's a lesson worth studying—diligently and often—at this excellent enoteca. The David can always wait.

Published in the July 2004 issue of Pasta magazine.

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