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November 14, 2010

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Robust wines and hearty Italian fare

AS the temperature in Shanghai falls, I increasingly desire hearty and flavorful dishes accompanied by robust, rustic wines. It's somewhat ironic that the region of Campania in southern Italy, which doesn't experience very cold weather, has some great winter dishes and wines. Best of all, you can experience delicious Campanian foods and wines here in Shanghai at Bella Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria. Owner Guido Esposito is from a small town in Campania and the restaurant reflects his friendly character. Entering through the garden patio, you feel the calming effect of the warm and unpretentious decor that benefits the appetite.

Before getting into specific recommendations, let me emphasize the importance of regional wines and cooking. The best Italian wines and dishes are not just Italian; they reflect the characteristics of a specific region. When reviewing or commenting on wines, especially wines from the old world where vines have been cultivated for thousands of years, we commonly use the word typicity. This describes wines that have the colors, aromas, tastes and textures reflecting a certain place as well as the special characteristics of the grape or grapes.

In Italy, as in other European wine countries, it is not enough for a wine to just be good, it should reflect its region and heritage. This concept is often frowned on in the new world, but it has merit. It's no accident that the wines and dishes of Campania harmoniously accompany each other. Over many centuries as the style of wines or dishes of this region changed, they evolved together in a complementary manner. When you don't know which wine to pair with a specific Italian dish, choosing a wine from the same region as the dish is usually the best way to get a good result.

My favorite red wines from Campania are made with the aglianico variety that's indigenous to southern Italy, in particular, Campania and Basilicata. Dating back to the 7th century BC, this is one of the Italy's oldest varieties. The grape tends to make concentrated and tannic wines with good acidity, making them perfect companions to hearty pasta and meat dishes.

Light appetizers like the octopus salad or veal in tuna sauce enjoyed with a glass of Prosecco are ideal ways to start your meal at Bella Napoli, but the two dishes that make this restaurant the perfect winter retreat are the Rustic Homemade Pasta with Sausage, Bacon and Tomato Sauce and the Beef Stew with Polenta.

The pasta dish is Esposito's creation using homemade thick pasta that has a wonderful chewy texture with just the right level of al dente bite. But it's the sauce comprised of garlic, sausage, bacon and cherry tomatoes that makes this pasta dish truly memorable. The small cherry tomatoes contribute freshness to the sauce while the sausage and bacon provide substance and the bacon also adds an intriguing smoky nature. When choosing the Terre di Surrupaca Aglianico DOC on the wine list, you'll enjoy a quintessential Campanian experience. The deep black fruit and spice flavors of this 100 percent aglianico wine stand up to the strong meat flavors of the sauce, while the notes of slightly smoky oak in the finish of the wine blend beautifully with the smokiness of the bacon.

The Beef Stew with Polenta is a new addition to the menu. In southern Italy, peasants traditionally bought cheaper leftover meat that tended to be more fatty and tougher. They stewed the meat to make it more tender and palatable. Esposito maintains the traditions of this dish but uses a higher quality beef tenderloin cut that is cubed and stewed for over an hour with carrots, onions, celery, tomatoes and garlic.

In another delicious departure from tradition, the dish is served with rectangular-shaped grilled polenta cakes that help balance the strong flavors of the meat and sauce. Made from corn powder, polenta is a northern Italian food. Crucial to this dish is the liberal use of aglianico wine that as it reduces blends with the vegetables to create a weighty, rich and savory sauce. It's exactly this richness and savory quality that begs for an equally rich and substantial red wine like the Terre di Surrupaca Rosso Classico DOC. This predominantly aglianico wine spends two years in large Slavonian oak that imparts additional complexity and roundness mimicing similar qualities in the sauce.

Now that we can find robust and body-warming wines and dishes from Campania right in Shanghai, there's no reason to fear the winter.


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