Old Vine Café and The Splendors of Italy
We attended as a guest of the venue
Cooking classes in Italy. This is near the top of my bucket list. If you share my love for incredible food, cooking, and travel, Old Vine Café and The Culinary Institute will be hosting a 10-day epicurean adventure to Calabria and Sicily this April where travelers will enjoy hands on cooking lessons, fabulous meals, wine tasting, sight seeing and more.
While sadly it does not look like I will be going this spring at least, I did have the consolation of attending a private food and wine pairing dinner at Old Vine Café celebrating authentic dishes from Italy prepared and presented by Chef/Owner Mark McDonald and Sommelier Kate Perry where Chef Mark’s passion for authenticity, using seasonal local ingredients, and sharing his knowledge of Italy’s regional cuisine made my first dining experience there memorable and educational.
Our culinary adventure began with a wild spot prawn fresh from the waters of Santa Barbara. This sweet prawn was lightly poached in extra virgin olive oil and served as a salad with ribbons of shaved fennel, blood orange supremes, and peppery petite arugula tossed in a fennel infused extra virgin olive oil and finished with Calabrian chile oil, sea salt, and fennel fronds. A glass of Les Hauts de Milly Chablis made from Chardonnay grapes in Northern Burgundy offered minerality and green herbaceous notes to compliment the dish. I savored every bite of this refreshing salad with it’s wonderful textures and light licorice and sweet citrus flavors, and though I would have loved more, I suspected what would follow would be equally as delicious.
I was not wrong. Our next course was a seafood brodetto from the Marche region of Italy bordering the Adriatic Sea. Basically a seafood stew, Chef Mark made his brodetto starting with three different seafood stocks from the heads of the prawns, fresh live lobster, and the carcasses of fresh wild California sea bass. These were combined and condensed and then finished with a touch of tomato. Served piping hot tableside over a trio of prawn, slow cooked calamari, and mussels, this broth was nothing short of sublime. While traditionally served with stale bread, Chef Mark further elevated his with olive focaccia from the OC Baking Company pan fried in clarified butter. After polishing off every drop, it was as if Chef Mark read my mind when he came by and poured more of his broth in my bowl. Bliss. My mouth is watering as I sit here remembering it. Accompanying this dish was the full-bodied Inama, Vignetti di Foscarino, Soave Classico from the Veneto region. This Soave made from the Garganega varietal, was selected for its round, acidic notes and a slight oakiness to pair with the brothy seafood.
Our next course was fregola sarda, a traditional pasta from Sardinia made with finely ground semolina rolled into tiny balls. This earthy dish was prepared simply with oven roasted olives from Calabria, tomato sauce, ricotta salata common in Sicily, and parsley infused extra virgin olive oil. The wonderful texture of the dish was a standout. Kate paired this dish with Nanfro’s Frapatto, Terre Siciliane, a lighter style red with a fresh acidity and green notes at the end to blend with the tomatoes and olives in the dish.
The savory portion of our dinner was rounded out with a beautiful porcini mushroom risotto. Chef Mark made this dish the traditional way, no par-cooking, just stirred continually for 25 minutes adding porcini broth to the traditional Carnaroli rice as they do in Northern Italy’s Pavia. With white truffle butter added in and porcini mushrooms, the risotto had a hearty meaty flavor. And for an extra measure of decadence, though not classic, the risotto was topped with a succulent braised pork cheek drizzled with a pork demi-glace and a few grates of Parmesan-Reggiano. Our risotto was paired with my favorite wine of the evening, the jammy fuller bodied N Zero, Negroamaro, Salento. with spice and berry notes.
Ready to roll home, I couldn’t fathom a dessert course, but when someone serves you cheese with truffle honey and a glass of sauterne followed by a homemade strawberry mint ice cream float, there is no point in denying yourself. The damage has already been done, so you may as well go for broke. The ice cream float could not have been a more perfect end, especially on a scorching summer evening. The refreshing iciness of it brought me back to the very first time I had homemade mint ice cream as a kid at a friend’s house on a similarly hot summer afternoon in Georgia. Chef Mark’s ice cream soda was finished with Centorri, Moscato from Pavia, Italy… my kind of ice cream soda!
So, while I physically may not be heading to Italy this Spring, my taste buds were transported there for a blissful three and half hours or so. Yours can be too.
If you have been pining for your own hands on taste of Italy, Chef Mark is booking his annual Splendor of South Italy Tour as well as his Splendors of North Italy Tour now, though space is limited, so I recommend booking soon. For a preview of your adventure, let Chef Mark guide you through one of his fantastic meals at Old Vine Café located at The Camp in Costa Mesa… if you haven’t already. Reservations are recommended.