When taking an overnight flight to Europe from the United States, the first day’s lunch is often the worse meal of the entire trip. This is especially true when circumstances combine to make for a difficult arrival. And our arrival in Milan for a two-week sojourn in Italy was no exception. First there was the extreme turbulence that prevented breakfast from being served until thirty minutes prior to landing. And of course, there were the usual delays at baggage and customs. Then there were problems with one of the rental cars at Malpensa Airport which caused an hour delay while we waited for Hertz to find us a working car. And finally, there was the 2 ½ hour drive from Milan to Rapallo, just south of Genoa on the Italian Riviera. To me, Italy is the Shangri-La of the culinary world, so the last thing I wanted to do was to start the trip off on the wrong foot and have a bad meal. Or end up going someplace ridiculous, like I did when I arrived in Geneva on my very first trip to Europe back in the early 1970’s, when for some strange reason my jet-lagged brain decided it would be a good idea to have my first meal in Europe at a Wimpy, a rather pedestrian British-American hamburger chain.
Anticipating these potential difficulties and being fully aware that my decision-making powers would be severely compromised upon arrival, I decided to make prior arrangements for our lunch. That way there was a better chance that our first meal in Italy would be a success. Oh, did I mention that I was leading a group of nine family members and friends? Yet another reason for making arrangements in advance, rather than wander the streets of Rapallo aimlessly in search of a restaurant that would accommodate such a large group on the spur of the moment.
After a discussion with Beatriz Lagos-Pola, the Food and Beverage Manager at Hotel Italia & Lido, our hotel in Rapallo, she recommended “Parla Come Mangi,” an enoteca in the heart of the pedestrian quarter of Rapallo that also does private events and tastings. That sounded like the perfect solution, so I contacted them and arranged for a private tasting in the store. And what could be better than starting our tour of Italy with a sampling of local cheeses, cured meats and regional wines surrounded by local cheeses, cured meats and regional wines?
Parla Come Mangi, a traditional bottega/enoteca, was founded in 1997 and is a family-owned business that is now in its 4th generation of shopkeepers. It is an old-school store where the staff are not merely clerks, but craftsmen who are knowledgeable about every facet of the food products that are available for purchase. As we walked into the shop, we received a hearty Benvenuti from the manger Guido Porrati, who was, as Beatritz promised, a “real charmer who speaks fluent English”. He is also a great showman (something he picked up during his training as an actor) whose enthusiasm for wine and food was not only immediately obvious, but contagious.
Guido explained: “We choose natural products from talented artisans throughout Italy, products that give us an emotion and which make us live better and richer lives. These products are not simply ordered from a catalog,” Guido continued, “but are selected personally by the staff of Parla Come Mangi. I do quite a bit of traveling, visiting farms and vineyards and talking face-to-face with the producers. We love to shake the hands of the artisans that we buy from.” As for the wine, the shop has over 1,000 labels, carefully selected with a constant desire to improve the selection. “We are never content with the status quo and search out the most interesting wines from the entire Italian peninsula. And we love to have our guests experience wines from passionate artisanal producers, such as Antonio Testalonga, who makes a wonderful Rossese di Dolceaqua from Northern Liguria,” a winemaker and a wine that I am personally familiar with.
Sorry to say, a lack of sleep had overtaken both my mind and body by the time we sat down for lunch, so I don’t remember the specifics of the cured meats and cheeses that were served. Though Guido assured me in a conversation afterwards that the cured meats were from local butchers and all the cheeses were raw milk cheeses from Liguria. My recollection of the details about the wines was equally sketchy. We started with two whites from 2015. First was Vetua Vino Bianco, a Vermentino from Monterosso on the Cinque Terre, a region just a few miles up the coast. And the second was a 2015 Valpolcevera Coronata, a wine produced in the area west of Genoa that was a blend of Bianchetta Genovese, Vermentino and Albarola. The first wine was a darkish yellow color but was light on the palette. The second was lighter in color but a bit heavier on the palette. Or was it the other way around?
Next, we had a pair of red wines from Azienda Agricola Santa Caterina, an organic producer in the Magra River Valley in Eastern Liguria, not far from La Spezia. I think one was a Sangiovese and the other a Canaiolo. Or was it a Merlot and a Ciliegiolo? As I said, my memory is a bit vague on the particulars of each wine. But in the end, these were unimportant background details of no real consequence, all that mattered to us was that the wines blended in harmoniously with the conversation and the selection of cheeses and cured meats and were just the thing we needed after our long journey from America. The perfect antidote for all our ills. And a great start to our trip to Italy and a delightful first meal. And finally, there was one more wine to taste, not an Italian wine from the enoteca, but an American wine that I brought with me so Guido and his staff could sample one of my local wines. Knowing the Italian preference for basic traditional wines rather then for exotic blends or obscure grapes, I decided to bring a 2012 Old Roots Merlot from Palmer Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island.
The name Parla Come Mangi comes from a popular Italian idiom that means “speak as you eat”. In other words, cut the bull, drop the legalese and political rhetoric and just say what you mean. And while our journey from New York to Rapallo was not as circuitous as the trek to Shangri-La as described in James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon,” the end result was the same. We had arrived at a paradise where the wine and food were heavenly and where people talk plainly and honestly about the joys of life. As we sat silently in the protective seclusion of our newly found Utopian society, having obtained a perfect state of harmony, reluctant to return to our hotel and reality, we wondered why the outside world couldn’t be more like life at this entoteca. Parla come mangi! Now that’s a strategy (and a way of life) that we all can fully support.