Verona – Love, Opera and Valpolicella
When traveling romantics make the pilgrimage to Verona to view Juliet’s balcony, they are pleasantly surprised to discover that the city is much more than feuding families and wayward lovers. Among other sites, an ancient Roman operatic amphitheater sets that stage to experience Verona’s exquisite food and world-famous wines.
We will enrich the experience by rediscovering Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet; “the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made.” (Roger Ebert)
Chef's Travel Notes
Few films have impacted a generation of teenagers more than Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo + Juliet. Just hearing the first few bars of its theme song, “A Time for Us,” hurls us (of a certain age) immediately back to a time of innocence and hope, filled with dreams for a better future. (It was 1968, Vietnam, and anti-war protests on the streets.)
Zeffirelli melded the spirit of rebellion with Shakespeare to create a stunningly beautiful film. He refreshingly cast two very young and inexperienced actors as the ill-fated lovers resulting in an intensely emotional experience. Young students were better able to relate to Shakespeare and many were exposed to the beauty of Italian landscapes for the first time. Though Shakespeare’s main characters are fictional, they have been so intertwined with the city of Verona that hordes of people make the pilgrimage to view Juliet’s balcony (added, by the way, in the 20th century) to live the fantasy. But inevitably, these traveling romantics are pleasantly surprised to discover that Verona is much more than feuding families and wayward lovers.
Verona is located in a corner of Italy’s north eastern Veneto region, between Lake Garda and the Adige River. It is one of Italy’s most attractive cities, also designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is punctuated by a magnificent Roman amphitheater (built in 30AD) renowned as the venue for the world’s oldest Opera Festival. It is internationally famous for its perfect acoustics and large-scale performances.
Any enophile out there who might be contemplating a trip to Verona should plan to be there in April for the world’s largest wine exhibition – VINITALY. Not only will you taste new releases at the show, you undoubtedly will sample some of Verona’s own best wines – Soave, Valpolicella, Amarone. Our wine selection this week comes from vineyards located on the slopes of the Alpine hills, north of Verona. Allegrini wines, overseen by CEO Marilisa Allegrini, is Veneto’s most acclaimed winery. Its 2018 Valpolicella is a graceful expression of the zone’s native grapes. It is light bodied, with notes of bright red fruit and aromatic herbs – and can be enjoyed slightly chilled.
Insalata Veronese combines the flavors of Verona. Radicchio and escarole are chicory varieties grown in the fertile Po Valley. It wouldn’t be a Veronese menu without at least a little polenta. If it weren’t for the COVID closures, there would have been the much-anticipated Polenta Festival (Sagra) this week. An interesting note, this area is where Italians first attempted to grow corn after Columbus returned with it from the New World. We boiled the polenta, chilled it, diced it and then fried it, to add a crunch to our salad along with roasted pumpkin seeds. Squash and pumpkins are widely enjoyed in the Veneto. We finish the salad with shavings of Asiago cheese.
Gnocchi di San Zeno is a typical dish eaten around Carnevale (Mardi Gras) with a very colorful history. “Venerdi Gnocolar” (Dumpling Friday) is one of Verona’s most anticipated events. “Papà Gnoco” (Father Dumpling) officiates the festivities. He is pot-bellied with a long white beard and red cloak, holding a large golden fork with a big potato dumpling on top, like a scepter. At the end of the masquerade parade, he distributes gnocchi to everyone. San Zeno is an old area of the city, historically inhabited by the poor. Legend has it that in 1531 there was a shortage of food and the people of San Zeno were facing starvation, when a benefactor donated a large sum so they could buy flour to make gnocchi. In his will he ordered to distribute, every year on Carnevale’s last Friday, gnocchi and wine to the people of San Zeno.
Branzino con Finocchio Brasato is pan seared Mediterranean sea bass, probably the Italians’ favorite fish. Its fine-textured but firm flesh is delicately flavored and best prepared simply with evoo, lemon, salt and pepper. Fennel is grown in the region and when baked, its subtle buttery liquorice flavor is the perfect accompaniment.
The recipe for Torta Sbrisolona is one of my prized gifts from this week’s winemaker, Marilisa Allegrini, herself. I prepared it when we were featuring her for a wine dinner a few years ago. It is not easy to describe – probably a cross between shortbread and crispy almond crumb topping. Being very crumbly, this cake is not served sliced but rather broken (usually at the table with your fist) and eaten with your hands, not before, however, a generous sprinkling of grappa (omitted here 😊.)
We don’t know if Romeo and Juliet existed or even why Shakespeare chose Verona as the scene of his tragic story, but that seems irrelevant now. The fact is it is a beautiful city whose citizens enjoy refined food and wine against a backdrop of artistic expression. Take a little time and (re)watch this spectacular film. Even after fifty years, its theme song remains poignant and timely:
“A time for us at last to see. A life worthwhile for you and me. And with our love, through tears and thorns, we will endure as we pass surely through every storm.”