Whether it’s an aperitif accompanied by a few appetizers, or a full meal from entree to dessert, the choice of a cocktail instead of wine is becoming increasingly popular in the US. Often, though, the pairing, and especially the taste, does not match expectations, because to bring out the best in ingredients and flavors requires a perfect synergy between spirits and food. When paired well, a cocktail can amplify the flavor of a dish and give a whole new culinary experience, but it can also ‘kill’ the dish.
Few people know, for example, that artichokes are considered the most problematic ingredient to pair because of the acidic cynarin, which makes dry spirits sweeter than they are. During an evening organized by the Italian Trade Agency (ITA), Chef Michele Casadei Massari and award-winning mixologist Valentino Longo led guests through a journey that combined iconic Italian liqueurs with ingredients of prime quality, offering the perfect ‘pairing.
“Often the focus has been on wine but given the success of spirits in the U.S. market, we thought we would talk about the pairing of food and cocktails, presenting a unique experience,” explained the director of the Italian Trade Agency in New York Antonino Laspina. “For many years in Italy, distillery has been secondary, except for grappa. Instead, today it offers new products, rooted in the past, but proposed with new flavors and combinations.”
The Italian Trade Agency this year partnered with 12 Italian brands featuring a wide variety of spirits to tell the American public about the authenticity, craftsmanship and versatility of unique flavor profiles ranging from aperitifs to bitters. “In my career I have seen many excellent dishes ruined by terrible pairings, and terrible dishes improved by excellent pairings,” says Casadei Massari, owner of Lucciola restaurant in the heart of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where the event was held.
“The pairings are something unique and exceptional,” Longo adds, explaining that to start, he chose an aperitif combining perhaps the two most famous Italian cocktails, Bellini and Spritz, with peach puree, Aperitivo Luxardo, prosecco and a mousse of bergamot from Calabria. The first ‘pairing,’ however, combines the Savory cocktail-with Italicus Bergamot, MeMento liquor, Americano Cocchi Bianco, pickled cordials, soda water–with a choice of Norwegian langoustine scampi carpaccio with burrata Kampot pepper, or farmer salad, endives, radicchio, lime caviar and Condimento Bianco Giusti.
A pairing where the cocktail seems to prolong the flavor of the dish, enhancing the taste of the fish, as well as the salad. The interplay of flavors and fragrances are many, and for this it is essential, as the chef and mixologist show, to formulate the right harmony: cocktails that are drunk with a meal, in fact, must be studied in all the nuances, from taste to composition, up to the alcohol content, to accompany in the most balanced way possible the dishes without overpowering the flavor, but on the contrary enhancing their characteristics.
So, it’s the turn of the B.E.V.O Negroni (with Gin, Meletti Bitter Rosso, Cocchi Torino Rosso, fresh basil, basil infused EVOO), a version of one of the most popular drinks, paired with a Felicetti Spaghettone, churned butter and spicy Rizzoli anchovies. Or with avocado, smoked pastrami, Seki salmon and pina. “The Negroni is a cocktail made with gin, vermouth and bitters, and its sweet and sour flavor is reminiscent of the briny notes of Cetara anchovies, while the basil helps with the churned butter,” they explain. “It also goes very well with buttery textures such as avocado, salmon and focaccia.
The third is perhaps the most mind-blowing pairing, combining Sgroppino al caffè Italicus Bergamot (Vanilla ice cream, Varnelli star anise, Lucano Amaro, espresso), with either Chilean sea bass or Wagyu beef cheek Stracotto, with crunchy pancetta, nutmeg, vanilla braised leeks and potatoes. “To enhance the sweet and pleasant flavor of star anise it is combined with nutmeg and a pinch of cinnamon, while to highlight its acidity it is paired with peppercorns, leeks, and Kampot potatoes,” Longo and Casadei Massari say.
Coffee, on the other hand, pairs well with roasted and smoked dishes such as speck, bacon, or smoked fish. And to end the journey, Casadei Massari and Longo have chosen to combine the Sapore di montagna (with Vecchia Romagna, Amaro Montenegro, Strega liqueur, Thun acacia honey, chocolate bitter) with vanilla ice cream, honey, nutmeg, cotton candy grapes and black truffle salt or a Piedmont cheese platter, where artisanal acacia honey goes very well with fresh, low-aged herbaceous cheeses.
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