Among my favorite Italian expressions is, “Anni e bicchieri di vino no si contano mai,” or “Years and glasses of wine should never be counted.” Here at Enoteca Athena in Brunswick, I am eager to begin a relaxed, uncounted evening of sipping and savoring the flavors of Tuscany’s Poggio Alloro winery and farm.
Enoteca Athena is bustling and convivial with a flurry of arrivals and warm greetings. I see my old friend, Paul Turina, the Italian wine dealer who arranged this evening. Living in Italy agrees with him.
The county-Italian enoteca is informal and relaxed. A wooden ladder hangs overhead draped in dried herbs and twinkly mason-jar lights. Sliding barn door and bright Italian pottery lend a rustic feel, and the wreath of chili peppers hints at the flavorful evening to come.
Sip and Savor
I visited Poggio Alloro several years ago and it is wonderful to see Sarah again. Her relaxed, friendly manner makes us all feel like family. Our first lesson is toasting — “Salute!” with Italian gusto and vigor, followed by “Buon appetito!”
We begin the evening with a generous pour of light, dry Toscana Bianco, whose flavor evokes citrus, honey, apricots, and Tuscan flowers.
Our first course is whipped salt cod or baccalà with olive oil and capers. Maine shrimp are similarly puréed with olive oil and flavored with red saffron threads — unctuous and light. Rustic bread from Standard Baking is perfect for tasting the spreads and sampling the farm’s extra-virgin olive oil. In fact, the whole evening is steeped in in Poggio Alloro’s extra virgin olive oil—which almost steals the show.
Our second wine is a pink-tinged Vernaccia from the Italian vernaculo, or indigenous. This beautiful wine hints at golden apple, almonds and vanilla. An arugula salad with fennel, prosciutto, walnuts and topped with crispy bits of (believe it or not) chicken skin, is a smash with the delicate, minerally wine—definitely a great pairing.
Our third taste is ruby-colored Rosso di Toscano, an everyday wine that, according to Sarah, improves the heart and circulation. I can feel my heart beating more efficiently already. People have been drinking this unpretentious red since 1276, “when Dante wrote the La Divina Commedia,” Sarah says. “Wow, you know?” She winks at us.
If there is a groove, we’re now all in it.
Our third course is my idea of a perfect light supper, una cena leggera, very thin cannelloni pasta stuffed with meat and spicy fennel flavor in a delicate tomato sauce, topped with almost weightless bechamel. Chef O’Brien really knows his way around pasta.
It’s a tough act serving 40 people seated family-style in a small room, and Enoteca Athena is doing the best they can. Since it’s easily the coldest night of the year, some of the courses cool down a bit too quickly, but the staff valiantly runs food and wine from kitchen to guests. Kudos to chef and staff for facing down the icy end of a tough Maine winter. Well done.
The final course is served my favorite Poggio Alloro wine, Convivio. I have loved this wine since I visited the winery all those years ago. The garnet colored red has flavors of cherry, raspberry and hints of cinnamon. The crowd discusses the wine’s “nose,” and somebody yells out, “Tobacco!” Right again. The wine is robust, warm and velvety on this frigid Maine evening. I have seconds — maybe thirds. But nobody’s counting.
Grilling outdoors in sub-zero weather is daunting, and brave Chef O’Brien is bundled up like Nanook. The last meat course is a challenge. Guests murmur, “At least it will be rare.” It is. The beef arrives piled high and on-the-bone, served on heavy white platters — Flintstonian and dramatic.
Siamo alla Frutta
Italians express the end of the evening as, “siamo alla frutta,” at the fruit. Traditional vin santo and cantucci arrive, another wow for Poggio Alloro. Made from almost-dry grapes, the amber holy wine is aged six years. With hints of caramel, nuts and honey, vin santo is served with not-so-sweet cantucci biscotti for dipping in the sweet wine. Perfect.
I am starting to feel abbiocco — the lovely drowsiness that follows a satisfying meal. Thank you Poggio Alloro, Paul Turina, Enoteca Athena and Chef O’Brien — sono pieno come un uovo — I am full as an egg.