The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Abruzzo and undersea bugs: A fish dinner in Francavilla.

Brodetto. This adventure starts with an off-hand comment by Fausto Albanesi. He was visiting North Carolina, presenting wines at a variety of Torre dei Beati-themed events. I said the Rosa-ae Cerasulo was really good with all types of seafood (amazing for a Montepulciano-based wine) and he mentioned that is was made in an uncommon way, half like a white wine, half saignee. Then we talk about fish. “In the morning small boats of fishermen sell their catch on the beach near my house.”  A peculiar look was in his eyes. I sensed this was really a central thing in his universe. I wanted to check it out, partly to understand Fausto, and mostly because I love fresh seafood.

When planning my trips to Italy I get the important things on the schedule first. In an early email to Fausto I said I wanted to cook Dover sole bought the morning of my arrival in Francavilla al Mare. Sort of my rider for showing up: It’s a little ridiculous, but I’m demanding like that.

Francavilla was destroyed by retreating German troops at the end of World War II. It had been a popular tourist resort, and still has some bustle mid-summer, but it is fading. Adjacent Pescara, a city Fausto takes pains to point out did not exist 100 years ago, is clearly ascendant. Public works and seafront renewal projects in Francavilla seem interminably stalled, in Pescara they progress, and successful bars and restaurants line the city’s “old town” and beachfront area. Fausto has to admit the gelato is better in Pescara. I opt for acacia honey and Montepulciano grape must scoops. In the midday sun of spring’s first warm day they are both worth the short drive north.

I pass layers of Galassos as I follow the unmistakable, intense smell of fish cooking in liquid up to Fausto’s third floor apartment. I’ve never been to his home before, so I’m checking every nameplate. Everyone in the apartment building shares the last name. His wife is Adrianna Galasso, her cousin runs one of the region’s very big and not very good wineries of the same name. “He thinks we are crazy, to make wine like we do,” Fausto says. “At the beginning he said we would certainly go bankrupt.” I press him for a while on the mentality of large-scale industrial producers in regions where that trade seems to me to be slowly dying. I naively wonder why they don’t choose to make good wine, like Fausto. The reward would be three times as many euros per bottle, at least. I think it’s a strong economic argument to back up the ethical reasons for organic farming. Fausto says they have a booming trade in dirt-cheap (like 1 euro) bottles in Belgium and other northern European hypermarkets. I feel like I live in a bubble.

He works just outside of the remarkably beautiful mountain town of Loreto Aprutino, 30 kilometers to the west. In the course of a day Fausto has everything: snow on Gran Sasso and sunny beaches of the Adriatic. We look at pre-Renaissance frescos on the walls of the town’s most beautiful church, including a depiction of the Torre dei Beati, or Tower of the Blessed. It’s my favorite kind of religious art, a post-coma fever dream from a noted artist depicting the afterlife, full of rivers, reptiles, multiple headed tormenters of the damned, and milk and honey for the lucky few. The paintings are fascinating. Fausto laments the lack of investment in restoring the old church. But I’m not nearly as interested in the inside of beautiful old buildings, and am itching to get back into the incredible topography of the town outside. We climb to its highest point, to another church where giddy young women are mid-rehearsal for a wedding, wobbly organ music blaring. The perfect little core of Loreto Aprutino is almost empty. Fausto explains few people live here year-round anymore: its vitality is gone. Valentini own the largest building in the hollow center, a hotel.

As a first course Adrianna serves a cold calamari salad, tender and bright with olives, capers and spring onions. Then amazingly fresh shrimp arrive, sautéed in butter, with mild peppers and onions. Are they so perfect because of the head-on preparation, or because we are three blocks from the Adriatic?

Then comes the amazing thing, the brodetto. Fausto bought 13 different varieties of fish for this special dinner. It’s overwhelming. There’s one that looks like a sea cockroach. I ate it hesitantly, particularly the second one that was full of roe. The locals said it was the best one. I couldn’t say no… but I thought it. We are used to shrimp, and they look like bugs, too. I see a langoustine or two, and one or two “normal” small fish: Dover sole, for example. A local flounder is tender and good. A tiny catfish-like creature looks up at me from two close-set eyeballs on the top of its head. Another particularly ugly bottom dweller has a harelip and snaggly teeth, and skin like a toad. There is a mottled, hand-sized fish with a yellow-orange head. And maybe a small snapper? Brodetto has a special ceramic serving fish, like all great regional specialties. Fausto and Adrianna are ridiculously generous hosts, so they’ve prepared two of these 12+ inch vessels for our feast. Along with the frutti di mare component are abundant cooked tomatoes and a broth I could drink for days, the liquid of everlasting life and vitality. Luckily it is custom to sop this sauce up with piles of bread, so I don’t have to resort to indecorous slurping.  

The meal is special: I feel honored. I ask Fausto and Adrianna’s articulate daughter if they eat seafood often. “Not really, three or four times a week.” I can see the appeal of Francavilla al Mare.


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