Signature Dinner Review
The Ultimate Tour of Italy

2002 International
Food & Wine Festival

October 20, 2002
by Lynn and Tom Carbone

Ah… October. To us, this time of year signifies our almost religious trek to Epcot for the Food and Wine Festival. We were unable to attend last year, but have made the visit every other year since 1998.

Each year, we also try to attend one of the special dinners held during the festival. Two years ago, it was one of the Reserve Winemaker dinners. This year, out trip did not coincide with one of these, so we elected to try one of the new “Signature Dinners”.

Our dinner was held at the Wonders of Life VIP lounge. For those who do not know about the existence of this lounge, it is located on the upper level of the pavilion, just to the right of Body Wars (as seen when entering). The windows for the lounge are visible from the pavilion’s interior. This was formerly used by Met Life, but is now used exclusively by Disney for special events.

For those staying on property, the instructions were to be at the front of the resort at 5pm. Someone would then pick us up and whisk us away to our gastronomic liaison, which was scheduled to begin at 6pm. They didn’t pick us up until 5:55pm… after a few more than frantic calls from our cell phone. We arrived at 6:10pm, just in time to sit down to dinner. Unfortunately, we missed the reception and appetizers. Coincidence or not, we had the same experience two years ago with transportation to one of the Reserve Winemaker Dinners.

The theme for the evening was “The Ultimate Tour of Italy”. The Italian focus was not only on the wine, but the food as well. The guest chefs for the evening were Randy Zweiban of Nacional 27 in Chicago, and Christine Weissman of Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The guest speaker for the evening was Burton Anderson, noted author and expert on Italian wines.

The menu began prior to our arrival with a reception where the following were prepared by Chef Weissman:

Squab Napoleon with Black Olive and Anchovies Spread

Fingerling Potatoes stuffed with Caviar and Sour Cream Drizzle

Gorganzola Stuffed Baby Artichoke “Fritto Misto” surrounded with Parma Ham

Goose Liver with Dried Figs on Ciabatta Bread

One can only imagine (I know that’s all we can do) how good they were.

The wine which we did manage to sample was a 2001 Vermentino Di Sardegna “La Calla” from Sella & Mosca. It was a delightfully crisp and fruity white from the island of Sardegna off the coast of Italy. One can once again only imagine how it must have paired well with the food.

Once seated, the celebrity chefs were introduced. As is typical, the chefs looked somewhat uncomfortable speaking to a group, but were well spoken. Burton Anderson was introduced as the second wine was poured, a 2001 Fiano Di Avellino Dei Feudi from Di San Gregorio. This varietal is perhaps the top grape coming out of the Campania region. It was, in a word, fabulous. There was a lot going on in this dry, fruity white. We love complex whites, and they are often hard to find.

Mr. Anderson was a delight as he explained a bit about Italy, its regions and growing conditions, and the varietals it produces. As he spoke, our appetizer was delivered. It was “Lemon Cured Salmon with Micro Greens and a Balsamic-Mustard Vinaigrette” as designed by Chef Zweiban. Lynn is not big on cured fish, so she sampled a bit but did not finish. I did, and found it fairly pleasant but not overly exciting. However, we both noted the high quality Balsamic used in the dish. A high quality Balsamic first gives itself away by its thick, syrup-like consistency, and this was the real thing.

The next course was accompanied by a 1997 Col D’Orcia Brunello Di Montalcino. We’re not too experienced with Brunello, but found this a bit too tannic for our taste. After breathing for a while, it did mellow a bit. However, it was a perfect choice to accompany the “Truffle Gnocchi with Autumn Mushroom Ragout and Basil Oil”.

This dish, designed by Chef Weissman, hit us a bit odd. You see, Lynn and I are truffle fanatics. We use truffle in our own cooking, and an eyebrow always goes up when we see truffle included in a selection on a menu. What was odd is that we detected no truffle flavor… zip… nada. This, despite Ms. Weissman’s talk on this dish describing how she used truffle oil in the gnocchi dough and even shaved truffle on top of the dish as a finish. It was, however, a nice balance of the other flavors.

A 1997 Marchesi Di Barolo “Cannubi” was presented next. Of the reds, this was our favorite of the evening. However, we always tend to judge wines not only on nose and taste, but also on value. It was revealed to us that retail on this is approximately $90. Ugh… opinion lowered a bit based on value.

It did, however, pair wonderfully with the “Pan Roasted Cod with Orange Braised Fennel, Leeks and a Redwine-Olive Emulsion” as designed by Chef Zweiban. This was really the star of the evening. Lynn and I usually go for fish when eating out, so we are very critical of quality and this did not disappoint. We marveled at the fine balance of flavors. If done simply, it is easy to produce a delicious fish dish. However, since fish is usually very delicate in flavor, it is difficult to balance complex flavors. Chef Zweiban certainly proved his talent here. It also went to prove that red wine can work with fish.

The fish was followed by a 1995 Bertani Amarone. On recollection, we can’t remember much about this wine. This is not unusual at wine dinners, as after several hours (and 4 glasses of wine so far) the palette begins to tire. We can say that it was not outstanding… either on the good side or bad.

This was accompanied by “Braised Veal Shank “Crepinette” Enhanced with Essence of Bone Marrow, Creamy Polenta, Shaved Roco Parmesan” as designed by Chef Weissman. Ok, another familiar dish otherwise known as Osso Bucco. Having an Italian Chef as a friend, we are familiar with quality, traditional Osso Bucco.

The first few bites were wonderful… a complex blend of flavors that seemed to work well. However, after a short time the problem with this dish became apparent. Sometimes simpler is better, and in this case we felt it was over complicated. Osso Bucco is all about the veal, and the flavors only distracted from that.

Ah… dessert. We both love dessert. What would be in store for us?

To end the evening, we were first presented with a 1992 Vino Santo Tretino. We both enjoy dessert wines, although we avoid sweet wines otherwise. This was lovely… not too syrupy… not too sweet.

The dessert was “Dolce Tentazioni” as designed by Vincenzo Vaccaro of Alfredo’s Di Roma Epcot. The setup was good… a different chef for pastries. We find that most chefs who are good at appetizers and entrees fall apart at pastries.

This was a trio of flan, mini-cannoli, Tira Misu. Each item was the same… good but not outstanding. Notable was the mini-cannoli (cute as can be) that was obviously filled at the last moment, as the shell retained its crispness.

Parting offered the guests a choice. For those who wanted, they would be escorted to a VIP viewing area for Illuminations. A nice gesture, but having seen Illuminations the previous night we elected to be driven back to the Yacht Club.

All in all, we had a wonderful time. Was it worth the $100 per person entry fee? Yes, absolutely. It was not a perfect meal in our opinion, but the combination of wine, food, atmosphere, and talks made it a fun evening despite the transportation problem. We would not hesitate to do such a dinner again if we could be assured of arriving on time, and next year we will be making this desire well known in advance.