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Book Review: Collio: Fine Wines and Foods From Italy’s North-East by Carla Capalbo

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One of the more indulgent pleasures in today’s frenzied world (especially when it comes to the tiny kitchens of Manhattan) is to buy a glossy cooking magazine with mouth-watering photographs of incredibly decadent cuisine, and just sit there, savoring a glass of wine as you read the recipe and pretend you are actually making the meal.

Or maybe it’s just me.

At any rate, as soon as I began to read Carla Capalbo’s gorgeously photographed and lovingly written book Collio: Fine Wines and Foods From Italy’s North-East, I felt the desire to read it with a glass of good local wine and some cheese from the area. Collio is written for people who love not just food, but the individual stories that tie in with the food and wine from this bountiful region.

On a map of Italy, the region looks tiny — easy to overlook — especially when you consider its proximity to glittering Venice. Yet two thousand years ago, the Romans considered it the crossroads between east and west, north and south, and built the key trading city Aquileria here. Pliny visited, of course, and wrote about the way the affluent members of Roman society built luxurious weekend homes and farms (almost similar to the way wealthy Americans are buying wineries in Napa).

Whether you love food, wine, or Italian culinary traditions, or are planning a trip to Northeast Italy, this is the book for you. Author Capalbo is a born storyteller, and perhaps without even realizing she is doing so, turns each of the many wine producers, chefs, and farmers she interviews into a very three-dimensional character. In just a few paragraphs, through the way she paints these individuals with words, and the sentences she chooses for their quotes, we come to know them intimately. Take Aldo Polencic, described as a “soft spoken, opinionated, forty-something winemaker.” In less than a half page we learn not just his winemaking techniques but his relationship to his father, his thoughts on his family’s four-hundred-year history in the area, and his passion for the land.

Capalbo likes to let her characters (they are so vibrantly colorful it is sometimes difficult to remember they are actual living people) speak for themselves through their dialogue and through her physical descriptions of them. And curiously, in the same way that she brings the winemakers to life, Capalbo brings the actual wines to life. Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla are the local stars here, along with Malvasia and Pinot Grigio. The wines are given personality by the intense mineral-rich soil and limestone hills, and it’s this sense of terroir that in part encouraged Capalbo to choose the area for her book.

Though Collio had been famous for thousands of years, it wasn’t until 1964 that the Collio Consortium was founded to promote the region as a denominazione with a recognizable territorial brand. Save for Pinot Grigio, it’s possible that you haven’t heard of the local varieties — few outside Italy have. Felidia Bastianich, a famous celebrity chef in Manhattan, was born in nearby Istria and can be credited for bringing wines of the region to New York.

In the course of interviewing dozens of winemakers, through Capalo’s eyes we learn about the wine of the region, and also the lifestyle and history of people who live there. “To me,” says Nicola Manferrari of Borgo del Tiglio, “the most important patrimony we have in Italy is the culture of the poor, of the “unschooled” contadini and artisans who seemingly have nothing to teach us but in fact are the transmitters of our most significant wisdom.”

In addition to the poignant stories of the winemakers and cheesemakers and farmers, Capalbo ensures her book does double duty by revealing top restaurants in each area, points of interest, and guest accommodations which she has visited herself. If indeed you do plan to use this book as a guide, be sure to use a yellow highlighter pen to underline important points such as the one Capalbo uses when directing readers to the Latteria di Montefosca dairy: “Always phone to check opening times before venturing up the mountain to Latteria.”

Well said… especially if you are hiking up that mountain!

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