Two weeks ago, Michael made a new acquaintance. For anyone who has ever met a Jennaro (Michael or otherwise), they know that members of the Jennaro family pride themselves on their Italian hospitality, cooking and entertaining. As such, mealtime is an event, regardless if there are two guests or 20. For example, during our first week in the valley, Michael went so far as to invite 16 people to dinner. With boxes still lining the walls and floors of our home, he gave me a four-hour window to prepare a meal for a hungry horde of friends who had been wine tasting all day (to put it in perspective, the invitation was extended at 2:00p.m.; by 6:00p.m. pre-dinner drinks were being served). Ever-the diligent host, he was determined to make handmade meatballs, purchase and set-up a new barbecue (yes, you read that correctly, he offered to host dinner before we had even purchased and erected our new BBQ…genius or idiocy…the jury is still out!), and to make what ultimately turned out to be a seven-course dinner….again, for 16 people. Go ahead and say it, I’m a Saint. Saint Strada. Test it out. Let it roll off your tongue. Yep, it sounds about right.
Given such tendencies, whenever I hear that my husband has invited someone to dinner, the first question out of my mouth is: When? I’ve come to learn that nothing else really matters. Whether I’m cooking for a small or large group, as long as I know the lead-time, I’m good to go. So it came as no surprise when, last week, he forwarded me a note indicating that he’d invited another young professional to dinner. Without fully reading the email, I noted the date of the proffered dinner and thought, “Great. It’s next week. I’m golden.”
However, upon closer look, it dawned on me that the last name of the invited guest was very familiar. As in, very, very familiar. As in, I’d seen that last name before. Yep, I’d seen it gracing wine bottles and esteemed wine lists across the country. Sure enough, in true Jennaro form, he’d invited a member of one of Napa Valley’s most legendary wine families to dinner. Further, in addition to the family operation, this individual recently (and very successfully, I might add) co-launched a wine label of his own. In a nutshell, we’re talking about an accomplished wine industry pro-fessional here. (Side note: for the sake of confidentiality, from here on out, I will refer to this individual as Spartacus.)
Ever the eager host, I just smirked at Michael and said, “What the hell are we going to serve?”
My husband’s-all-so-detailed response? “Food. Spartacus is a young buck. Any food is good food.”
Thus began my hunt to make a low-key dinner that still conveyed our appreciation to Spartacus for meeting with us. And, if possible, a dinner that would encourage Sparatcus to make many return visits to our home.
A true benefit of living in California is that we are able to cook with the seasons. With long growing months for both fruits and vegetables, we can purchase incredible local produce year-round, with little interruption. I figured that I would start with the easy dish: the veggies. Given our last-of-the-season basil growing in our backyard, a super fresh caprese salad was an immediate no-brainer. Who doesn’t love fresh heirloom tomatoes, potent basil and soft bufala mozzarella?
Next up, we had to figure out what we wanted for main courses and side dishes. Lately, we’ve been experimenting in a gluten-limited lifestyle. We started going down this route after a number of friends discovered various food allergies. As accommodating hosts, we wanted to continue to include old and new friends, and not have to worry about discriminating based upon needs or allergies. As such, we’ve undertaken the rather difficult path of cooking and baking sans gluten. Given our recent experiments, we figured that Spartacus would be a willing and able student in this experiment.
Back to the main course: my immediate thought was to default to our tried and true favorites. Homemade corn masa tortillas, fresh pico de gallo, and grilled fish or duck; a fan-favorite cilantro, edamame, peanut, cranberry, and quinoa salad; a divine saffron rice dish with cashews, cherries, celery, green onion, honey, and ginger; Michael’s world famous tri-tip grilled to slightly-charred perfection; delicious red snapper papillote with brown rice couscous and an assortment of seasonal vegetables; a rockin’ gluten-free baked ziti (homemade meatballs, tomato sauce and about 1,000 different cheeses); or Lebanese-inspired potatoes with fresh mint, lemon, green onions, and more. However, given our desire to use the rest of our trappings for the caprese salad, I decided to stick with our tried and true theme honoring our Italian roots: fresh caprese salad served alongside a gluten-free pasta dish with shrimp, basil, tomatoes, bell peppers, rosemary, garlic, homemade sauce, and brocolini. We decided that our one indulgence would be baking a gluten-free pie with the apples from our backyard tree and serving it with vanilla ice cream. Simple. Understated. Perfect.
When I ran this by Michael, his immediate response was, “Sounds like dinner for a king.”
So, the food portion was decided…now what to do about the wine? Perhaps I need to jump back a moment here to adequately convey who Spartacus is. I really don’t think you understand. Spartacus is related to Napa Valley legends. While you would never hear it when Spartacus speaks, conversations about his “bloodlines” are inescapable (dare I go so far to be obnoxious and insert the words “wine pedigree” here?). However, taking this into account, you just can’t just break out any old bottle of wine and say, “Have at it, Hoss.” There’s a baseline of expectation to uphold.
Shooting from the proverbial hip, we decided to have a few tried and true favorites on hand. We always keep a fairly “healthy” supply of beverages on-site, so we knew that we would have plenty of choices. But we wanted to ensure that we had a little something special and unique. Fortunately, Michael had just taken his team to Round Pond Estate the previous Friday, so he had stocked up on some of our favorites from this new-ish (and fun!) establishment (a separate, future article will have to be written simply on the merits of Round Pond…ridiculous views, phenomenal wines and more). Anyway, where there is Italian food, Italian varietals are never far behind. Fortunately, we had a couple bottles of Round Pond’s MacDonnell Family Nebbiolo (MSRP $38) on-hand, so we knew instinctively that we’d use one of those. Ruby in color, with notes of cherry and plum, it benefits from well-structured tannins; there was no doubt that it would be the perfect addition to our Italian-themed feast.
Further, as the bubble-loving gal that I am, no dinner with friends would be complete without some sparkling wine. So I did a quick check to ensure that we were fully stocked in that department (thanks to a recent buying spree at Chandon, I was golden!).
Sure enough, Wednesday evening rolled around, and no sooner had Spartacus rolled through the front door than Michael was popping bottles. A Domaine Chandon Pinot Noir Rose Reserve (MSRP $30) was the first to go. Fresh to the lips, floral and tart, with a long, smooth finish, this was the perfect start to the evening.
Before long, Spartacus was sitting in our kitchen, champagne flute in hand, laughing at our shared stories, various mishaps, and overall random experiences of life. Before the first glass had even been emptied, we had discovered that we shared many similar interests and even a few acquaintances. The races were off to a great start!
With the draining of the Pinot Noir Rose Reserve, we all piled into the dining room to grub on dinner. The fresh basil was knock-your-socks-off delicious and set the tone for the rest of the meal. With food and drink surrounding us, we sat and chatted for hours. By this point, the Nebbiolo was proving itself an A+ choice, expertly balancing the spice-and-herb infused dishes. Given our verbose natures, we could have chatted all night. But sadly, being responsible adults, we finally capped the evening and went our separate ways. All in all, it was an absolutely stellar dinner and one that we hope to repeat many times again in the future.
The only thing missing was the unveiling our most recent batch of Limoncello. If you are reading this, Spartacus, next time, good sir. Next time.