By Michele Deluca
Niagara Gazette —
Ryan Seward still remembers the chilly day he toured a small vineyard in the Piedmont region of Italy.
The young man leading the tour, Luca Roagna, was a fourth generation wine maker who knew the exact date every vine in the field had been planted. So enthusiastic about his product, he reached down and grabbed some of the dirt and asked those in the group to smell it. Later, he led his guests through a sampling of wines in a century old cave where giant oak barrels held the family’s revered and carefully created grape elixer.
Seward, a seller of wines for Polaner’s, never forgot Luca’s passion. Throughout that tour of Italy, Ryan met many more artisan winemakers who held a reverence for their work which made him care more deeply about their wines. Two years later, he stood in at Dick and Jenny’s Restaurant on Grand Island and shared his stories of that visit with a couple dozen food and wine lovers, including me. Holding tight to my own dreams of revisiting my grandparents’ homeland in Sicily, this night was my own personal version of heaven, featuring all the delights of mediterranean travel without hassle of packing.
The occasion was a wine tasting and Italian dinner prepared by restaurateurs Richard and Jenny Benz, called “Wines of Italy 101.” And with wine expert Ryan Seward as our tour guide, we sampled foods from throughout the country and drank wines created from small family-owned vineyards in five areas of Italy.
In the interest of full disclosure, Dick and Jenny’s on Grand Island is one of my favorite restaurants. I enjoy the imaginative, ever-changing, Louisiana influenced menu, but I am also fond of Jenny’s loyal and capable staff, overseen by Jenny herself who greets guests personally and generously shares her own extensive knowledge of wine and food. So, this commentary is plainly biased. But, as a journalist, I feel obliged to share my favorite experiences, and this was such a one.
The wine tasting/food pairing was a first-time event at the Baseline and Love Road restaurant — opened by the couple who returned to Jenny’s island home after Hurricane Katrina convinced them to sell their popular New Orleans restaurant. Jenny hopes it will become a monthly event, pairing wines and foods from various parts of the world.
The first course was an amazing antipasti platter than included rice balls (arancini) stuffed with goat cheese, grilled polenta with garlic chard and a poached shrimp dotted with basil pesto. It included a beautiful, smooth red from an Italian winemaker Isabella Foradori, a woman quite famous, Ryan says, for her Teroldego reds and who dramatically reduced the yield of her vineyards to improve the quality of the grape.
That course was followed by calamari and egggplant fritti alongside a baked acorn squash slice topped with red wine-bacon risotto, and braised pork demi glace, served with two wines from Sicily, including a crisp, white Fiano that I will be looking for in the future.
Luca’s wine, a smooth red Langhe Rosso, was served with Richard’s roast rack of lamb with king mushroom cavatelli and porcini sauce. A trio of beautiful little lamb chops shared the plate with a serving of seared ahi tuna with sea scallops and arugula in lobster butter. It was an over-the top explosion of rich flavors from land and sea and the wine held its own among the flavors.
“My big focus is that people should be trying different things,” Ryan told me later. “There’s this vast world of wine out there that most people don’t ever experience. They stick with their favorites instead of exploring these different regions, different varietals and different people that have been wine making a really long time.”
Sitting around a table, family style, has other benefits. I met new friends, including Janis and Dave Miller of Grand Island, a lovely couple who shared friends in common with my husband, Doug, and the Christina Maroulis, an Island native and manager of Remington’s Tavern and Seafood Exchange in North Tonawanda. “I think it’s great that Dick and Jenny’s is introducing hospitality and food pairings of that sort in the suburbs, and to my hometown,” Christina told me later.
As for me, I won’t be reporting on the next dinner. Much like reviewing a concert or movie, it detracts from my being really present to enjoy the experience. But, I would advise readers to take Ryan’s advice and try something new in the new year, as there are so many wonderful foods and wines out there to explore.
Jenny’s already taking reservations for the “Spain 101” set for February, shortly after Ryan returns from Spain. For more details visit the website, www.dickandjennysny.com or phone 775-5047.