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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, March 21, 2001

An Italian miracle: Wine that's for enjoying

By Randal Caparoso

Do you believe in miracles? I do.

I recently was in Italy, a place many people think of as a miracle, a land of ancient walled towns atop rolling green hills, with turquoise-blue lakes shining like mirrors under the sky. The most beautiful lake of all may be Albano, in the township of Marino, 20 minutes outside Rome.

This area around Lake Albano is home to one of the most fabulous wine restaurants in the world, Antico Ristorante Pagnanelli. And practically across the street is another miracle, the home of Paola di Mauro, one of the greatest cooks in Italy. I said "cook," not "chef," because Paola's kitchen looks like anyone else's honest home kitchen: pots, pans, bottles and cutlery strewn about in purposeful fashion.

Then again, there is a difference, since Paola also has a little vineyard, a grove of olive and fruit trees, and a working winery just outside her door. Thirty-four years ago, Paola bought her property from another lady who was originally from Bordeaux in France. So Bordeaux grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, sauvignon blanc and semillon are still to be found in Paola's vineyard alongside trebbiano, malvasia di lazio, and other native Italian grapes. Paola has continued to make wine - both red wines and whites - first as a joke, and then for family and friends.

And wouldn't you know: The wines of Colle Picchioni, the name of Paola's estate, have become the darlings of the wine insiders' world. But the miracle is not that Paola's wines have become famous. The miracle is the fact that she and her son, Armando, still actually produce wines that they like, not what wine writers like. It is wine that goes with their food.

Armando poured me the 1999 Colle Picchioni Marino Bianco, a soft, dry, fluid white wine, rather light and almost oily on the palate. It isn't something big, thick, oaky, fruity or awesome - all the flag words for the most highly rated wines of today. It is, in fact, an old-fashioned wine; rather square, almost boring by today's standards.

Paola brought over her white bean soup - made from a different bean, a little more fava-like, from the better known white beans of Tuscany - over which Armando drizzled olive oil and dried chile flakes, and then stirred in a tiny dollop of blood-red paste made from tomatoes, bell peppers and olive oil.The taste was smooth, soothing, yet tingly and robust; each sensation intensified by the round, easy, mildly oily texture of the Colle Picchioni white.

Then Paola finished what she was cooking in the pan, bringing to the table in a ceramic pot her "Roman lamb." Nothing cute about the name, since she lives in Rome and this is the way she's been cooking lamb over the past 30 years: bony morsels of lamb and, when she feels like it, chicken parts and livers, rosemary, dried anchovy, white vinegar, pepper, and the all-pervasive olive oil.

"Now we will show you why in Rome we drink white wine with everything," says Armando, "even with red meat." And indeed, what was plain as the Italian hills was how easily the oil and herbs pulled together with the soft, oozing quality of the white wine. "The dish is not a difficult one," added Paola, "but neither is the wine. Great wine and food is not always complicated."

This made me think of the words that I once heard from Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy's most respected winemakers: "Drinking wine is a pleasure, and so you should always judge a wine by how much pleasure you feel when you drink it."