Food and Wine at Di Palo’s

There are plenty of wine stores in Manhattan and no lack of specialty food stores either.  But Di Palo’s Fine Foods on Grand Street and Enoteca Di Palo next door are something special.

There is a long and wonderful history for the food store.  Starting in 1903 as a store for dairy products, the store is run by the fourth generation with the fifth working there as well.  Aside from the wonderful smell of cheeses, dried meats, sausages and prepared Italian specialties, Di Palo’s exudes a sense of place and time.  This is Little Italy, now greatly reduced in size from its height in in the first half of the 20th century, still alive and real, even considering the incursions of New York’s Chinatown.  The three Di Palo’s (Lou, Sal and Marie) preside behind the counter over an empire of foods that are uniquely chosen in their many journeys back to Italy.

Sure, you can buy prosciutto and mozzarella elsewhere.  But where else is the mozzarella made every day in the back of the store?  You can see them bringing out trays of freshly made balls all day long.  The sheer amount of prosciutto sold here ensures that what you buy will definitely be fresh.  And in case there was any question, they will always give you a slice up front.  In Lou’s book, Di Palo’s Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy: 100 Years of Wisdom and Stories from Behind the Counter, he writes that it’s only fair to give the customer a chance to taste before he or she buys.


Lou di Palo giving a customer a bit of Piave cheese (Photo courtesy of

What differentiates Di Palo’s is the connection they have established between the Old World and the New.  The members of the family are acquainted not only with the major producers but also – and especially – with the farms that keep the old traditions alive in their food in a way that only individual hand crafting can achieve.  You sense that the Di Palo’s know not only every farmer in Italy, they know every cow!

So here you find speck from the Alto Adige; pecorino cheese from a specific dairy in the hills outside of Florence; truffled cheeses from Tuscany and Sicily; select olive oil from the Musso family in Sicily; balsamic vinegar from Giusti, the oldest in Modena; Spinosi pasta, well worth waiting for; ravioli made not by the Di Palo’s but by a cousin…and on and on.  Every few weeks, whenever it’s a good day for a walk or if we’re running out of parmigiana, we go for an Italian or a Chinese lunch and a pilgrimage to Di Palo’s.

And when we buy what we want, we always ask Lou, “What wine should we drink with this?”  For Lou’s son Sam has opened a wine shop adjoining the specialty store.  Again, you won’t find the big producers here, no Bolla or Frescobaldi or Antinori.  In their place are unusual finds like La Salette, Filinona and Tiburzi.  You may not always think these are the best but the selection is certainly the most unique.

They often host wine tastings at Enoteca Di Palo, where you get a chance to meet the owner/winemaker of what you are sipping.  For example, they just held a tasting of wines from the Colli Orientale of Friuli, where Giorgio Colutta poured wines from his vineyard.  We don’t know Friuli very well nor Signore Colutta’s wines but that’s exactly the point.  Here you get a chance not only to taste and buy wine but to get an education in Italian wine, which was certainly the case for us.  Our appreciation for the wines of Italy came late and was largely gained by the tips we got at Di Palo’s.


Castello di Borghese

It’s not every day that you can buy a bottle of wine from a prince. Yes, a real live prince and members of his family for that matter.  Oh, sure, you’ve had wine from vineyards owned by princes, dukes and counts but we’re talking about handing a prince some money and he hands you a bottle.  Such is the opportunity you have at Castello di Borghese in Cutchogue on Long Island’s North Fork.

There are quite a few reasons to visit Castello di Borghese besides hobnobbing with Italian royalty.  The foremost is that it was the first winery in this sector of New York State, when it was known as Hargrave Vineyard.  Alex and Louisa Hargrave had the wacky idea in 1973 that the land that had been used to grow potatoes for generations would also be suitable for wine.  Today there are more than 50 wineries there.

For more than 25 years they made a variety of wines and sold them in bottles a distinctive lattice label.  They tried quite a few varietals, including Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir.  It was our opinion (and still is, to an extent) that the terroir of the North Fork favors Cabernet Franc more than other grapes and so this Hargrave was our favorite.

(A little side story: The first time Steve invited Lucie to dinner, he wanted to serve his girlfriend from Québec something she had never tasted before, so he opened a bottle of Hargrave Cabernet Sauvignon.)

In 1999, the Hargraves sold their vineyard and winery to Prince Marco Borghese and his wife Ann Marie.  That is how it came to pass that we bought a bottle from a prince.  Marco and Ann Marie have passed away, but the winery is run by his heirs, so you still have your chance.

Another reason to taste Castello di Borghese’s wines is that they still rank among the best in Long Island.  Their wines continue to win awards among local and national competitions.  Now, the North Fork isn’t Bordeaux and the best of the region do not compare with the world’s greatest wines.  But then again, New Yorkers don’t have to take a flight to sip a bit from some pretty respectable vineyards when they go wine tasting on Long Island.


Photo courtesy of North Fork Weddings

Befitting its status as the North Fork’s first winery, the tasting room is, well, tasteful but unassuming.  The building is a little pink ranch house with a simple bar for tasting, in a room big enough to withstand weekend crowds.  People have been tasting here for many years and so it is a popular destination.  Castello di Borghese does require reservations for buses and stretch limos, but here as elsewhere it can get quite crowded on summer weekends.

A few wines bear some attention.  The Petit Chateau (a red blend); Chardonette and Fleurette rosé pay homage to the winery’s history with a bit of the lattice design.  Allegra, their dessert wine, is often quite good.  It’s not truly an ice wine, since they chuck the grapes in the freezer rather than letting nature take its course.  But it comes out pleasantly sweet all the same.

If you don’t mind an hour or two on the Long Island Expressway, a sunny day on the North Fork is always pleasurable.  And if you do go, you should definitely visit the Prince’s own Castello di Borghese.

Tasting Tips for Wine Events

As we mentioned in this issue, we recently attended a wine tasting organized by Treasury Wine Estates, the Australian company that owns many top end wine producers.  It was part of a tour around the country and similar tastings were held in Dallas, Miami and elsewhere.  They were highlighting four of their California brands: Beringer, Stags’ Leap, Chateau St. Jean and Etude.

If you have the opportunity to participate in such a tasting, we urge you to do so.  There are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind if you do.  Keep in mind that an event such as this is akin to a whole day’s visit to Wine Country, compressed into two hours.   Thus you have the advantage of tasting without all the driving from place to place.  On the other hand, a wine tasting like this packs a pretty solid alcoholic punch.  So, much as in a day of wine tasting, you have to pace yourself and make the most of what’s offered to you without overdoing things.

Moreover, tasting a lot of wines in such a short period of time challenges the taste buds.  Can you really differentiate what you’re drinking now from what you had five minutes ago, and five minutes before that as well?  You must use not only your mouth and your nose but also your brain.  What is there about each wine that distinguishes it?  What foods would bring out the best in the wine and voice-versa? (Having a spread of different foods to pair with the wines certainly helps figure this one out.)  If you’re with others (we always go wine tasting together) what do they think?  Their taste sensations may kick off thoughts in your own mind.

So when you go to a wine tasting such as the one we describe, consider some of the following tips.

  • Eat before you drink. There are two reasons for this suggestion.  The first is that if you’re going to ingest a lot of alcohol – and you will at such an event – you had better have some food in your stomach.  The other is that the best food goes fast.  There was quite a spread at this tasting: steak, jumbo, crabmeat, oysters and much more.  Many of the best items were gone within a half hour.
  • Don’t try to taste everything. No matter how small the serving, sipping up to 20 wines in that short a period is going to have a physical effect.  Moreover, you probably don’t like everything.  If you’re not a fan of white wines, don’t bother with them.  If Cabernet Sauvignon overwhelms (or underwhelms) you, skip them.  In other words, drink what you like, but not everything you like.
  • Stick to the best. Since you shouldn’t try everything, you ought to go straight for the wines each estate is known for.  And if you’re not sure what that is, ask your server or the representative from the winery.  This will enable you to make peer-to-peer comparisons, both between the same grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon at this tasting) and between different ones of the same vintage.
  • Talk to people. After all, they’re all wine-lovers like you so find out what brought them to the event.  In some cases they’ll be members of the same club as yourself.  Or perhaps better, they’re members of another winery’s club and can give you some perspective on why they like those wines enough to have joined.
  • Find a seat. Two hours on your feet is a long time.  Two hours drinking makes it feel longer.  At the particular event in New York, if here was any one criticism, it was that they didn’t have enough chairs.
  • Go back for more of your favorites. The wine is there; you paid for the experience ($30 in that case) and the servers aren’t going to take any bottles with them.  There’s no reason to be greedy but there’s no reason to be shy, either.
  • At the end of the tasting, don’t get behind a wheel. No matter what you think at the time, you’ve had too much to be safe.  By this point you’ve found your favorites and have gone back a few times for more.  It adds up.  We took a taxi home; you should, too.

A tasting like this one makes for a great night out.  Make the most of it if you get the chance.

When Napa Flies to New York City

We are member of a few California wine clubs that we visit once a year, but when one of our clubs visits us in New York, that’s special!

Etude Wines, together with their sister wineries Stags’ Leap, Beringer and Chateau St. Jean, was taking a road trip to New York in May. We were invited as club members of Etude, one of our favorite Pinot Noirs in the Napa Valley.  The tasting was held in two private rooms of a steakhouse restaurant in Manhattan, giving us a wonderful opportunity to go to a wine tasting of Napa Valley wines in New York City, without taking a flight.

Each winery was offering the best of their current releases and of winery-exclusives as they call them, which means their top wines.  Etude was serving our favorite Pinot Noir “Heirloom” and their 2012 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon (Etude wines have won many awards).  Beringer had their 2012 Steinhauer Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2012 Private Reserve Cabernet. Over the years, Beringer has had more placements on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list than any other winery in the world, Stags’ Leap was pouring an amazing rosé “Amparo” and the wine they are best known for, their Ne Cede Malis Petite Sirah, Chateau St. Jean had their famous 2012 Cinq Cépages.  And all of them were offering tastes, as many as you wanted!

Although all of them served a variety of wines, leaning more to red than white, each one had different leading wines: pure Cabernet Sauvignons, a Bordeaux blend, a Pinot Noir, a rosé and a Petite Sirah. This gave the attendees a chance to sample some outstanding examples of different wines, with some degree of overlap for comparison’s sake.  Keeping in mind that all the wines offered were top-flight, this was a fascinating treat for the taste buds.

Now the food pairing…. oysters, shrimps, clams, sliced filet mignon on bread, etc.  It was a fantastic idea to hold the wine tasting in a steakhouse and have the opportunity to have a food paring with those wonderful wines.  Some of them are big wines, steak wines, and the Pinot Noir that pair so well with seafood.

Some wineries were represented by their Wine Club “Ambassador”, as they call the person in charge of the wine clubs, so it was an opportunity for them to reach to their sisters’ winery club members and get them into their clubs, but for us a chance to meet those representatives and have a chat about their wines and clubs.

What a memorable wine tasting experience!  Another advantage of being member of wine clubs.