Cibo Trattoria's summer dinner series highlights the wine regions of Italy
Credit: Cibo Trattoria

Cibo Trattoria's summer dinner series highlights the wine regions of Italy

The Veneto region of northern Italy is romanticized for its fairytale landscapes, those star-crossed kids (Romeo and Juliet, in case you’re not up on your history) and a wealth of wines like Prosecco, Valpolicella and Amarone. If you think of Veneto as a classic slice of Italy, you’d be right.

But at Vancouver’s Cibo Trattoria, Robert Stelmachuk, sommelier and GM, and Faizal Kassam, executive chef, are telling a different story. They’re rethinking some of the most classic food-and-wine pairings as clearly showcased at “In Veno Veneto,” the restaurant’s first in a series of five-course wine dinners, each highlighting Italy’s wine-producing regions. Upcoming dinners include Tuscany and “The Anti-Chianti Experience” on July 8, and the series ends August 2 with the second annual “Bottle Royal,” where B.C.’s best wines will go up against global varietals. (Wines are available for order through at Marquis Wine Cellars.)

But back to Veneto, the restaurant's first region in the series, which I got to experience first-hand. Click through for a course-by-course guide to give you a taste of what this special event has to offer.

Cache Creek Ox Tongue with Monte del Fra Bardolino
Credit: Cibo Trattoria

Cache Creek Ox Tongue with Monte del Fra Bardolino

Our amuse bouche – Cache Creek ox tongue with smashed favas and pecorino-mint pesto – is an explosion of colours, textures and flavours.

“Beef tongues from Cache Creek are brined for three weeks in a Court-bouillon and shaved paper thin,” says Chef Kassam. Raw fava beans and peas are married with salty pecorino cheese and fresh mint, rounded out by a garnish of radishes and a splash of olive oil.

And the wine? Well, Stelmachuk has already veered away from the traditional Veneto opener: Prosecco. Instead, we're drinking a red wine, Monte del Fra Bardolino, served chilled.

“I always like to show the alternative side of what else there is to do from a region,” says Stelmachuk, describing the wine, which comes from a small southern appellation that sits on Lake Garda, called Bardolino. It's a blend of some of the traditional varieties, mostly Corvina and Rondinella, with a little Sangiovese as well.

“When you chill it, it takes the harshness out of it a bit. It dumbs down the alcohol and the tannins, brightens the fruit quite a bit and makes it more palatable with a wider spectrum of food.”

Tortellini in Brodo with "Monte Alto" Soave Classico
Credit: Cibo Trattoria; Robert Stelmachuk, sommelier and GM

Tortellini in Brodo with "Monte Alto" Soave Classico

Another visual feast follows our amuse bouche: tortellini in brodo, Martinez Ranch braised lamb neck, spring peas, fresh horseradish and vinegar. The dish is presented without the broth, which was poured tableside by the server – an elegant flourish that allows the fragrant aromas to further tantalize.

As expected, the pasta is perfectly al dente and the broth is earthy and complex, but a surprising Italian twist comes from a boozy ingredient: Aperol. Chef Kassam has braised the lamb necks in this bitter orange Italian aperitif that gives the classic Spritz cocktail its luminous orange hue and appealing bittersweet flavour.

And while our wine pairing is a more traditional one from Veneto, it also happens to be white: Soave (remember, red was served with our first course). The Ca'Rugate “Monte Alto” Soave Classico 2009 is made from a grape called Garganega, which Stelmachuk says is often described as “the runt of the litter.” There are some fantastic producers of Soave, he adds, noting that most Soave is unoaked. “This one, however, spends a little time in oak for structure but not for flavour, something we see quite often in the new world,” says Stelmachuk. “It lends depth, dimension and texture, and certainly, more complexity. This wine is textural and round with lemon verbena, almond skin and apricot.”

Risotto Nero with Valpolicella Brigaldara
Credit: Cibo Trattoria

Risotto Nero with Valpolicella Brigaldara

While pasta and Italy are synonymous, the Veneto region is also celebrated for its rice, so it’s no surprise that our next dish is risotto.

Chef Kassam's recipe – risotto nero, with octopus and a bone marrow gremolata – melds land and sea. The charred octopus crowns the creamy rice and it’s finished with the decadent bone marrow (pictured above). And although the risotto’s inky hue is intimidating, the flavour is earthy, rich and satisfying.

“Since chef is doing risotto, I picked a Valpolicella, but not from one of your average producers,” says Stelmachuk. “This one is Brigaldara, the most coveted hillside slope is possessed by three wineries, Brigaldara being one of them. Stelmachuk says that Valpolicella, as a basic entry-level Veneto wine is simplistic, juicy and uncomplicated.

“The unique thing about this Valpolicella is that it is completely raised in stainless steel: there is no oak contact with this wine at all. So what you get is a pure expression of this varietal and it lets it play incredibly well with the food.”

Fraser Valley Quail with Ilary Cordin Amarone
Credit: Cibo Trattoria; Faizal Kassam, executive chef

Fraser Valley Quail with Ilary Cordin Amarone

Our main meat course is grilled Fraser Valley quail with red wine lentils, radicchio and salsa peverada. The quail is first cooked in an immersion circulator at 50 degrees for an hour and a half and then flashed on the grill to get a bit of char, says Chef Kassam. “The salsa peverada, which translates to ‘peppered sauce,’ is basically a really complex sauce with foie gras, anchovies, onions, garlic, chicken stock and a lot of ground pepper.” Textures play off each other with the tender quail and al dente lentils and the classic Veneto peverada elevates both elements with a generous hit of spice.

To complement the dish, Stelmachuk has chosen a luscious Amarone, which is “at the top echelon of Veneto wines” and is typically a combination of noble red grapes: Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara. To make an Amarone, the grapes are laid on some straw mats to dry out a bit so they shrivel up like raisins. “That lets the water escape, it concentrates the sugars, you get higher alcohol and get this prune-y character. Amarone is nothing short of big and boisterous,” says Stelmachuk, who is particularly excited about the Ilary Cordin Amarone he’s chosen.

“The story of Ilary is fantastic,” says Stelmachuk, who describes how this daughter of a famous Amarone-producing family decided to forge her own path after a family feud, producing her own celebrated wine. It’s “a classic Amarone: dry, prune-y, chocolately, mocha. It goes really, really well with the richness in the quail dish,” he says.

Walnut and Caramel Tart with Masi Recioto di Amarone
Credit: Cibo Trattoria

Walnut and Caramel Tart with Masi Recioto di Amarone

To cap off the evening, our dessert – a walnut and caramel tart with honey, coffee and cream – is married with Masi Recioto di Amarone, a dessert wine made from Amarone wine. In this style, fermentation is arrested and the residual sugar lends a little sweetness. Then it's put in barrels where it takes on more acidity.

"Sometimes [these Amarones] are really sweet; sometimes they have a bit more freshness on the palate like I think this one does,” says Stelmachuk.

It's a lush complement to the nutty dessert, which is brightened up with acidity from both lemons and oranges, preventing it from being too sweet.

“Recioto is the unsung hero of the Veneto region,” says Stelmachuk. It's “sweet and refined with hints of Christmas spice, prunes, stewed pecan and cherry. Dark chocolate and raisins round out the finish."