“Okay,” said Jessica one evening as we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Penn Avenue Fish Company on Forbes Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. “Here’s what we’re doing for your birthday.”
My 60th was just six weeks away and Jessica wanted to make it special. No matter that she would be celebrating the 60th birthdays of her father, her mother and her husband within a three month period. She was committed to making mine an event we would both remember.
“We’ll start with a weekend in New York. I have to be there for the U.S. Tennis Open just before Labor Day, so you can come meet me there and we’ll stay for the long weekend. How does that sound?” she asked knowing full well what the answer would be.
“That sounds great to me,” I said and I meant it. But Jessica wasn’t finished. Not even close.
“Then, the following weekend, we’ll fly to Rome, drive to Spello and spend a few days with the Angelinis.”
“And then?” I asked, pretty sure that I knew what was to come.
“Then we’ll drive down to Puglia and have a birthday party for you with all of our friends.”
“Perfetto,” I said, because it was.
And so it was that, on the Friday of the long Labor Day weekend, I flew to New York to meet my beautiful wife and begin the festivities that surrounded my 60th birthday. These are some of the stories that erupted from those events.
The weekend was one of food, wine, walking and art, each one of which we are passionate about. Dinners included feasts at Ilili (Middle Eastern), Nobu (Japanese) and, the highlight, Aroma Kitchen & Wine Bar in Greenwich Village.
Our dear friend, Bob, flew in from Pittsburgh to join the celebration and it was he that made the dinner arrangements at Aroma. It was also Bob who had first introduced us to Vito and Alexandra Polosa, the owners of Aroma, several years before and we have all been faithful and enthusiastic patrons ever since. Vito is originally from Potenza in the rugged land of Basilicata, the “arch” of Italy’s boot. The food from that region reflects the life of the peasants forced for centuries to eke out a meagre existence from the daunting landscape and the harsh conditions — herbaceous, rustic and flavorful — much like the cuisine of Calabria to its west and Puglia on its east, but less influenced by the sea. Vito takes the best of the traditions of Basilicata and puts it on his diners’ tables every night.
Bob and Vito planned the birthday celebration weeks before so our expectations were high when we arrived at the little restaurant in the heart of Greenwich Village. My hope was that Vito had command of the menu, while Bob exercised some influence over the wine list. My desire to have Bob involved in the wine selection was rooted in the fact that he is one of the most knowledgeable wine people I know and he would never allow an inferior bottle to touch his table. His wines have been auctioned by Sotheby’s and, for Jessica’s 31st birthday, he presented the table with a 31-year old chablis that held up incredibly well. Only Bob would know what three-decade old white French bottle could still be served. As I like to say about Bob, some people know wine; Bob knows the winemakers, and their kids, and their kids’ birthdays.
The two of them did a masterful job satisfying appetite and palate. Here was the menu:
Antipasti with grilled octopus, speck and melon, tomato caprese, stuffed calamari and stuffed peppers served with a Trevisiol Hyperbrut sparkling chardonnay followed by Felici Verdicchio. The intermezzo was a Bio Vio Rossese 2010 from Liguria served slightly chilled, as it should be.
The pasta course was a surprisingly light gnudi with truffle butter accompanied by a 2001 Poggio Mori Sertorius supertuscan. The tannins cut through the butter, emphasizing the truffle essence and the spice of the sangiovese complemented the earthiness of the precious fungus exquisitely.
Bob got serious at this point in the meal and asked Vito bring a bottle of Delamotte Brut 2002 champagne. Now, I’m not a wine snob (Well, maybe I am a little.), but I don’t like champagne unless it’s good champagne. Well, I really liked this champagne. There was none of the “edge” that I find so distressing in some of the sparkling varieties. It was just round and smooth and medium-bodied.
The wine continued with a 2004 Brunello di Montalcino from Pietranera, followed by a 2006 Ornellaia. Jessica asked for something “big and grapy,” to which Vito responded with a 2005 Recchia amarone. At first glance at the bottle, Jessica was a little disappointed because she has an aversion to amarone, having had a few of the newer-style, heavily-raisaned examples. After tasting the Recchia, she knew what a true amarone is and she enjoyed every sip she took that night.
The wines were punctuated by a selection of cheeses, chocolate molten cake, bread pudding, gelati and sorbets and a beautiful chamomile panna cotta. We left Aroma that evening, comatose with pleasure, practically immobile with the volume of what we had consumed and barely able to crawl into the cab that returned us to our hotel. Happy birthday to me!
And grazie mille to Bob, Vito and, most of all, to Jessica.
Next: A Very Buon Compleanno – Act 2: Umbria