Tommaso’s: “No good wines… just good bottles…”

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Above: Tommaso Restaurant is located in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, one of New York City’s thriving Little Italys.

Words of wisdom were imparted to us last night by restaurateur Tommaso Verdillo of Tommaso Restaurant in Brooklyn where I joined Alice Feiring, Elizabeth Spiers, and Lawrence Osborne for some old wine, great food, and a truly enjoyable and stimulating confabulatio.

Tommaso and his restaurant may be counted among NYC’s best-kept secrets and so be it. Perhaps because Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (one of New York’s true Little Italys) seems so exotic to the uninitiated, perhaps because Tommaso hasn’t received the attention his food and his wine list deserve, his excellent cooking and thrilling-if-ecclectic cellar (a true trésor of old wine) just aren’t on the culinary radar of Manhattanite would-be gourmets.

When it became clear to Signor Tommaso that we were there to raid his cave, he warned, “You never know how these bottles will drink. There’s a wise, old saying: ‘there are no good wines… just good bottles.'” And he’s right: when it comes to old wine, even when provenance is unquestionable and a given bottle has been cellared properly, age invariably increases the chance that a bottling will have gone bad.

The menu and pairings:

Polpettine di Riso and Mozzarella in Carozza

St Joseph Offerus 1999 Chave

Porcini-Filled Tortellini dressed with melted Castelmagno Cheese

Corton Bressan Grand Cru 1983 Chandon de Briailles

Spiedini alla siciliana (breaded and skewered veal served with roast potatoes)

Barolo Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto 1986 Bruno Giacosa

While the mozzarella in carozza was superb, the tortellini were by far the stand-out dish (I couldn’t resist sopping up the melted Castelmagno in my dish).

The St Joseph lacked the depth that I expected from such a highly touted producer but was good (granted, this is the winery’s “entry-level” wine). The 1983 Burgundy was very tired and had lost most of its body and acidity but its astoundingly low price made it well worth the experience (there are some great bargains on Tommaso’s list).

When we asked Tommaso about the Giacosa Barolo on the list, he told us he would go down in the cellar to see what was actually there. He returned with three bottles and proposed that we open the 1986 Barolo Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto.

The 1986 harvest was a sleeper vintage, he explained, probably because it was overshadowed by the more famous and much warmer 1985. He and Bruno Giacosa were old friends, he said, and the winemaker had often spoken to him about the underrated and underappreciated ’86. The fact of the matter was that none of us had could remember having tasted ’86 Giacosa. And while I’ve tasted many excellent bottlings of Barolo Falletto by Giacosa, I’d never tasted the cru “Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto.” (I’ve just discovered this excellent Table of Bruno Giacosa Barolo by nebbiolophile Ken Vastola. It reveals that 1987 was Giacosa’s last bottling of this cru.)

Now in the autumn of his life and career, Bruno Giacosa is one of Italy’s most revered winemakers and many would argue that his wines are among the best Italian ever (the 1990 Red Label Barolo Falletto is certainly one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted in my life). According to legend, Giacosa never studied winemaking. Tommaso told us that during the 1960s, before Italy’s economic miracle reached the Langhe hills (where Barolo and Barbaresco are made), many winemakers were forced to abandon their vineyards and travel abroad to find work to support their families. Giacosa, he told us, generously offerred to make their wines for them while they were gone, thus ensuring that their land would not be snatched up by unscrupulous speculators in their absence. This experience, he said, allowed Giacosa to refine his skill and knowledge and helped to shape his legacy as one of Italy’s greatest vintners.

Although it showed admirably for its age, the 1986 Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto was tired (it had some good fruit left in it but the tannin had faded). It would have been better a few years ago and I wished we had opened the 1990 Villero (another cru I’ve never tasted from Giacosa). But the price was reasonable and the experience truly memorable. And after all, our simpatico host had gently warned us beforehand, “there are no good wines… just good bottles.”

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Above: Barolo Le Rocche di Castiglione Falletto 1986 Bruno Giacosa paired with Spiedini alla siciliana and roast potatoes at Tommaso’s. The bottle of 1986 Giacosa didn’t have the government warning “front label” on the back of the bottle (yes, it’s called a “front label” by the TTB, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, even though it appears on the back of the bottle). But it did have a strip label that reported the following text: “Experience, love and passion allows [sic] us to obtain this product of the highest quality coming from grapes chosen and selected exclusively by us.”

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