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Toast of the Town 

Flour's upcoming Italian wine dinner should be a down-to-earth delight

Duck breast, soft-shelled crabs, and a magnificent roasted pork loin-and-belly dish will meet their match in wines from a venerable Tuscan estate during an upcoming dinner at Flour in Moreland Hills.

Featuring fine wines and estate-grown olive oil from Italy's Villa Calcinaia, the five-course dinner is the third in a series of semi-monthly wine dinners presented by Flour chef-owner Paul Minnillo. Representing the Chianti-based estate will be owner — and honest-to-goodness count — Sebastiano Capponi.

"That's our rule," says Minnillo, an avid and deeply knowledgeable wine fan. "It's got to be the owner or the winemaker in attendance. It's his baby, it's his wine, and when he gets a chance to showcase his work, both the winery and our diners benefit."

Just leave the snobbery at home. If the upcoming blowout is anything like Flour's Robert Foley wine dinner held in March, guests are in for one of the most unpretentious wine events in town. Seventy eager diners turned out to indulge in that evening's bash, hosted by Minnillo, chef Matt Mytro, and affable winemaker Bob Foley. Dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt, the silver-haired Foley looked every inch the laid-back Napa grape wrangler as he served up brief, often humorous, and relentelessly non-technical commentary on each of the night's offerings.

Equally concise were the remarks from Minnillo and Mytro as they introduced each dish — contemporary spins on Italian classics that occasionally found Mytro dipping into the toolbag of molecular gastronomy. Consider, for instance, the golden tomato "caviar" that garnished a daintily composed plate of Wagyu beef carpaccio. Crafted from tomato water and sodium alginate, the little orbs not only mimicked the appearance of roe, but exploded on the tongue with caviar's signature pop!

This time around, the menu reads a bit more traditional. First up: "cockles" (think baby clams) and spaghetti in caper butter — a straightforward pairing designed to showcase the villa's Comitale, a dry white wine made with Grechetto and Vernaccia grapes.

"You can't make these menus without tasting the wine," Minnillo emphasizes. "Matt and I get samples of the wine a few weeks in advance. Then we sit down, taste the wine, and banter back and forth," before deciding which dishes make the cut.

Located near the town of Greve, in the heart of the finest portion of Tuscany's Chianti district, Villa Calcinaia specializes in the signature red. Minnillo will be pairing the estate's Classico with some of the season's first soft-shelled crabs. The Reserva will be poured with duck breast served with truffled ricotta, hedgehog mushrooms, and fingerling potatoes.

Besides the grapey goodness, Minnillo will be highlighting another Villa Calcinaia product: estate-grown, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. "It's one of the best around," says the chef. "I'll serve it simply, with bread for dipping, but I know people will add it to the baby clams and spaghetti. Used sparingly, it adds a nice sharpness. Just don't overdo it!"

If all goes according to plan, the fourth course should be the showstopper: porchetta alla Romano — or roasted boneless pork loin, rolled with pancetta and thinly pounded pork belly. Served with polenta, grilled chickory, and cracklings, the labor-intensive dish is "over the top," in Minnillo's words.

"First we roast it at 500 degrees for 30 minutes until its gets crispy. Then we bake it for two hours in a 250-degree oven so it's nice and juicy. It comes out absolutely amazing. I'm debuting it at the dinner, but then after that, it's going on the regular menu!"

To accompany the robust flavors, the Count will be pouring the winery's Casara — a juicy Super Tuscan made mainly from Merlot. Noted for its firm structure and well-balanced tannins, the 2006 vintage earned 92 points from Wine Spectator.

And speaking of structures, turns out one of the count's palaces in Florence briefly played host to one of cinema's most infamous Chianti fans, Hannibal Lecter. Minnillo assures us Capponi will tell attendees all about it. "He's a great guy — and he loves to tell stories."

While the pork may be the star, it's worth saving room for dessert. As a sweet ending, the kitchen will be pairing a classic panna cotta (albeit one tweaked with 10-year aged balsamic) with Capponi's Vin Santo. Made from naturally dried grapes, the Tuscan dessert wine is aged seven years in small oak barrels. Amber in color, with a resinous aroma and velvety texture, the wine is known for its notes of dry apricot. Biscotti rounds out the final offering. "Dipping them in Vin Santo is a traditional treat," explains Minnillo.

If you should find a new favorite, all the featured Villa Calcinaia wines will be available for purchase at retail prices.

Cost for the 7 p.m. dinner is $75 plus tax and tip. Make reservations by phone at 216-464-3700.

This being a wine dinner, of course, the accompanying pours were certainly of equal import. For instance, those sheer tissues of rosy carpaccio were paired with Foley's shockingly good Merlot — so full of character and substance it put the lie to every snobbish post-Sideways put-down ever told about the much-maligned varietal.

"Bob is the king of Merlot in Napa," said Minnillo. "He started making it back in 1976 when no one even knew what Merlot was!"

Hard to imagine a better intro, then, than Foley's 2009 edition: Jammy, surprisingly heavy on the palate, and with a long finish marked by gentle tannins, it was a Merlot even Cab fans could love. "It's the best one I've ever made," Foley said. "Until next year!"

As for Mytro, he said his favorite dish was the evening's starter: luscious saffron shrimp, cooked under pressure, sous-vide style, with tomato oil, tarragon, and preserved lemon, then sautéed and served on a translucent emulsion of butter, lime juice, and mascarpone. "It's real simple, but the flavors are great." To go with, a fresh, fruity Pinot Blanc, vinified entirely in stainless steel to preserve the flavors.

For us, though, the highpoint of the evening arrived with the grilled scallops, boosted by a sweet-and-savory romp of wild mushrooms, golden fig puree, and petite florets of roasted cauliflower. This time around, Foley's 2009 Charbono was the chosen pour: an inky, silken stream of grapey goodness. The grapes, Foley said, are "an oddity," brought to Napa in the 1880s from France, where it was known as Corbeau. It's no longer grown much in that country; and although it's the second most-grown grape in Argentina (where it goes by the name Bonarda), there are only about 65 acres of Charbono vines cultivated in the U.S.

"Who knows?" said Foley expansively. "I might be the biggest grower and bottler of Charbono in the world!"

The final savory pairing featured tender lamb-cheek ravioli accompanied by the 2009 Griffin, a big, berry-bombin' blend of Petit Sirah, Cabernet, and Merlot. A fine example of the winemaker's art, the precise ratio of the grapes varies by year. "This is what a winemaker can do when they have no restraints," said Foley. "I guarantee you, your teeth will be purple and your tongue will be black after this one!"

Mytro scored again with dessert, a composition of bittersweet chocolate, cardamom bubbles, banana, and salted caramel ice cream — all finished with a drift of Nutella dust. To drink: a muscular 2007 Petite Sirah that, while doubtlessly delish, couldn't hold a candle to what a cheerfully soused companion called "that banana scrumptious-y thing."

But that's what wine dinners are all about, anyway: exploring new tastes, discovering new favorites, and ultimately landing in our gustatory happy place, where every taste bud feels well exercised and well loved.

If you missed this one, Minillo has another wine dinner coming up on May 22: Conte Sebastiano Capponi presents Villa Calcinaia, a maker of classic Chiantis since the 16th century. As well as wines, the five-course feast will feature the estate's extra-virgin olive oil. And with dessert, there'll be the harmonious, oak-aged Vin Santo del Chianti. Cost is xxx. Make your reservations by phone.

More by Elaine Cicora

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