Take the road less traveled to the vineyards of Northeastern Italy.
Octopus can be a tricky critter to cook. Underdone, your mouth feels it’s chomped down on some- thing it shouldn’t. Cooked too long and your molars will be at it all night. Done right, there’s nothing like it. And Chef Marco De’ Matt of Trieste’s Pier The Roof restaurant does it righter than right, serving up thin slices of mouth-bogglingly tender legs touched with a bit of smokiness from the charred (but absent) head, and topped with a lavender-hued foam spun from blue potatoes. It’s a delightful surprise. And for those whose familiarity with northeastern Italy is limited to tourist-besieged Venice, it’s but one of many you can expect as you head into the countryside and leave La Serenissima behind.
The cities in this neck of the woods—including Padua, Verona, and Vicenza—are not short on charm and attractions—but for the wine lover, nothing beats a vista of hill-creeping vineyards and tasting rooms offering bottles that aren’t on every list back home. Celebrating local grapes, as well as demonstrating their ability to fashion unique expressions of international varietals, is a common practice among leading vintners in Friuli, the Veneto, and Alto Adige. At the Zorzettig winery in the Friuli region, visitors can get acquainted with local varietals, such as Pignolo and Ribolia, as well as a Sauvignon Blanc whose tongue-charging fruitiness is more peachy than tropical or grassy (zorzettigvini.it/en/). Headquartered at Caprino Veronese (just a few miles from Lake Garda) and with land situated across three different appellations, the Monte Zovo portfolio ranges from top-shelf Amarone and its more accessible kin, Valpolicella Ripasso, to Bardolino (produced from Veneto stalwarts Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella) and Crecevento, a 100 percent Pinot Nero bottling (montezovo.com).
Wines made from Gewürztraminer may not be as alien to casual wine drinkers as Malvasia or Schioppettino, but it’s a good bet most would be surprised by the way the grape is expressed at Cantina Tramin in Alto Adige. Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918 (German remains the mother tongue of many here) and home to the sky-scratching pinnacles of the Dolomites, the area is known for its world-appreciated white wines.
Gewürztraminer produces a sweet wine that too often hits the mouth like cotton candy. But in the right hands, it can be a special experience—spicy and floral—and with food, a welcome alternative to the usual suspects. A star in Alsace, Gewürztraminer has taken root far from France, with winemakers in Australia and the Pacific Northwest doing their best to honor this cool weather grape. At Cantina Tramin, veteran winemaker Willi Stürz has made a project of Gewürztraminer (the grape is thought to trace its origins to the town of Tramin, here on the Adige river), producing a range of bottles, from the decidedly sweet Epokale (aged for seven years in a former silver mine) and the almost austere Nussbaum, to the honey-like, late harvest Terminum (cantinatra- min.it). Okay, Gewürztraminer may still not be your thing. But look where you are.
You don’t have to travel for a good night’s rest after a day at Zorzettig winery. Its nine-room Relais La Collina is a little gem of escape, with a laurel-enclosed pool, views that go on forever, and the sound of birds and church bells to make you dream. The guest house at Monte Zovo—Casa Maffei—lies at the end of an unpaved road, but don’t let the dust deter you. This charming rustic retreat sleeps eight and if your veal tonnata isn’t what it ought to be, no worries, the winery can arrange meals for you. When you’re not sniffing and swirling, take time to explore the countryside, shopping and strolling the town of Garda, or zip across the Adriatic on a private boat to the old Austro-Hungarian port of Trieste. There’s a cephalopod there with your name on it (grabboatrent.it).