The generic concept that many Americans have of Italian food — pizza, pasta, parmesan, prosciutto — is instantly shattered by a visit to the Mediterranean country. So long as you’re curious about cuisine, it doesn’t take long to realize that almost every little village — sometimes, even just a big-city neighborhood — claims a special sauce, or noodle shape, or charcuterie style as its own. And more broadly, when scanning from the tip of Puglia and island of Sicily to the stylish streets of Milan and alpine reaches of Friuli, the style of cuisine shifts dramatically, from olive oil and tomatoes in the south to butter and brodos in the north.
The new West Haley Street restaurant Aperitivo is now taking Santa Barbara on an edible educational tour of these differences every week through its “Pasta Club.” Albeit a pandemic pivot from the restaurant’s original intent — which saw six weeks of in-person service from its October opening to the December lockdown — the club will serve its seventh regional menu on January 28, meaning that the to-go concept now has more experience than the restaurant itself.
“Why not just work our way through Italy, throughout every region, and give people the experience of wine as well?” explained Aperitivo chef/co-owner Brian Dodero of what he and sommelier/co-owner Andrea Girardello pondered as a means of keeping the business alive during this period. “With every pasta and wine pairing, we include a pamphlet with a bit of history on the wine and the pasta from that region. It’s a neat way for people to learn something more than just a microwavable takeout meal.”
Last week’s menu featured the northern Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige, pairing the spinach dumplings known as strangolapreti with a bright red wine from the schiava grape grown in Kalterersee, a region surrounding Lake Kaltern. Though I’d heard about the club from multiple people — and nearly jumped on the previous week’s Emilia-Romagna combo of tagliatelle alla bolognese with a sparkling red lambrusco — this was my first Pasta Club participation, so I was excited to dive into the paper bag that I picked up on Thursday afternoon from the restaurant, which is a quarter-block off State Street, the former home of Mosto Crudo.
Inside, I learned that strangolapreti translates to “priest strangler,” named after a legend that men of the cloth choked on these little balls of spinach, ricotta, parmigiano reggiano, and bread crumbs because they ate them so fast. All I had to do was boil salted water, plop the 10 balls in, wait for them to float, and then toss them in the brown butter, sage, and shaved garlic sauce I had warming in another pan. Five minutes later, my family was getting their first taste of these dumplings, which are known in other regions as gnudi — as in “nude,” like an unclothed ravioli.
Washing it down was the schiava, a grape I’d had a few times before, but rarely in such a brisk style, no doubt due to its high elevation, lakeside provenance. Its fresh red fruit character countered the richness of the buttery dish, and its herbal tones matched expertly with the spinach core. As encouraged, I posted a pic of my dinner to the @aperitivo_SB page on Instagram, in hopes of earning an upgrade on next week’s squid ink pasta offering from Campania, to be served with a white falanghina wine from the warm region.
Dodero and Girardello, who worked for many years together at the Four Seasons Biltmore, are uniquely qualified to provide this epicurean education. Originally from Santa Barbara, Dodero studied cooking in Florence, Italy, then worked in Manhattan and Providence kitchens before coming home to work at the Biltmore. His name is most familiar to us because of his role as top chef at The Pasta Shoppe, one of the original tenants of the Santa Barbara Public Market.
Girardello was raised in Milan, where he learned about wine from his dad at an early age. He then went on to work in London, for Relais & Châteaux in New England, and then the Four Seasons in Florida before coming to the Biltmore’s Coral Casino a dozen years ago.
They took over the property’s lease in March, and then were furloughed due to the pandemic, giving them ample time to focus on the design of Aperitivo, which is small in size but glitters with light and energy inside. The original concept, which they look forward to returning to once the pandemic subsides, emulates Italy’s aperitivo bar, a popular place for quick sips, small bites, and conversation with friends between work and dinner. (And I look forward to writing about that side of the business when I can.)
In addition to the Pasta Club, Girardello is also selling Italian wines direct to customers as well. I bought a half-case myself, requesting lighter reds made from grapes I’ve never heard of, and he nailed it — tintilia from Molise, anyone? “The same personalized experience we offer when we’re open, we try to deliver that in your case,” said Girardello. “Most of the time, guests just let me choose, and we go from there.”
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