Above: Classic Soppressa Trevigiana. Primo told me that it came from Christian Zago’s farm down the road.
There are great meals for the food and wine that are served. And there are great meals for the people with whom you share them. Sometimes, stars align and you find yourself seated at the table of those whom you admire most.
For me, once such dinner this year took place in the home of Annalisa and Primo Franco, together with their daughter Silvia, in late September of this year.
I owe so much to Primo.
Above: Sarde in saor, fried sardines served in a sweet-and-sour dressing, a classic of Venetian cuisine. Annalisa’s rendering was as wholesome as it was delicious.
Back in 1998, when I had just begun working as an editor at La Cucina Italiana in New York, the editor-in-chief asked me to write my first piece “for the front of the book”: 300 words on Prosecco, she asked, can you do it?
As much as I loved Italian wine at that time, I had never written a word about wine until then. But the one wine I knew well, thanks to my Venetophilia and my many summers touring the Veneto with a cover band, was Prosecco.
I called Primo (whom I didn’t know personally), interviewed him, and asked him to send me slides of his vineyards and the winery (that was before the digital image age!).
Instead of 300 words, I handed in a 3,000-word feature-length article. It was my first published piece on wine and the beginning of a new career for me.
Above: Pumpkin risotto, a classic autumn dish of the hills where Prosecco is grown. Annalisa’s superb, however simple and classic, cooking conjured up so many wonderful memories of my years as a student in Padua, a 90-minute or so drive from the Valdobbiadene hills.
In September, Primo had heard that I would be visiting Valdobbiadene, and when he reached out via email and invited me to dinner, I was thrilled, of course.
That evening, we didn’t speak about wine (although we tasted some wonderful wines, together; see below). We knew there would be time for tasting and comparing notes the next day.
Above: I love the wines of Nino Franco but my favorite is the classic Primo Franco, a wine that he created when he took over the winery. It’s always fresh and clean but also always has that classic, bitterish green note that Prosecco should always have. It’s what makes Prosecco great.
We spoke about politics in Italy and Europe. We spoke about the great professors of philology at Padua and Venice. We spoke about Goldoni, the great eighteenth-century Venetian playwright. We spoke about the intellgentsia and glitterati that used to gather in Solighetto down the road from Valdobbiadene back in the 1960s…
It was an evening that reminded me so fondly of my years as an academic in Italy. When conversations ran late into the night… when intellectual discourse always trumped mundane conversation… when political and dialectic engagement were de rigueur…
Above: At the end of the night, Primo opened this bottle of 1986 Vistorta, stunning wine. It seemed to peter-out initially. But then it had a second wind and showed us the greatness of traditionally vinified Merlot from northeastern Italy (Friuli). What a thrilling wine! Harvested the year before I came to Italy for the first time.
The next morning, after we met at the winery and tasted through the wines (the Riva di San Floriano was my stand-out), Primo insisted that we meet young Christian Zago for lunch. He wanted me to meet one of the rising stars of Valdobbiadene, he said.
At one point, when Primo left the table for a moment, Christian leaned into me and said, “everybody who makes Prosecco should give him 10 cents for every bottle they sell. We owe it all to him.”
Many don’t realize that Primo Franco singlehandedly — that’s not an exaggeration or hyperbole by any means — created the export market for Prosecco back in the 1980s when his father asked him to take over the family business.
Before his campaign to introduce English-speakers to the beloved Veneto wine, Prosecco was unknown in our country.
As for many of you, the first Prosecco I ever tasted in the U.S. was Nino Franco.
Above: A shard of Parmigiano Reggiano drizzled with a just a few precious drops of well aged Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia.
The next day, when we tasted together at the winery, I asked Primo about the beautiful designs on his labels. They’ve always impressed me, I told him. They are elegant, I said, but they also reflect the humble farming traditions of this once poor — now extremely affluent — area.
“My dream in life was to be an artist, a designer,” he told me. “But my father wanted me to take over the family business.”
The drawings on the labels are Primo’s. And the Prosecco is ours…
Annalisa and Primo, I can’t thank you enough for your hospitality, the conversation, and the wonderful dinner in your lovely home.
It was an unforgettable evening for me. And it’s my most sincere hope that it won’t be the last meal we will share together.