Sarasota seems to have an insatiable hunger for rustic Mediterranean food. Little Italian eateries are proliferating downtown; the best are small and tightly focused on replicating that loose, friendly neighborhood ambience that has made trattorias all the rage. Uva Rara has all those essential ingredients, including a young, ambitious Italian at the stove-33-year-old Oscar Revelli-DiBeaumont. One of the two owners, he's from Turin in the Piedmont region, where his father owns a vineyard and makes wine.
Uva Rara (which means rare grape) is nestled in Burns Court in one of the bungalows built in the 1920s by Owen Burns. It sits across the street from the town's art house cinema and is near antique and specialty boutiques. As a result, Uva Rara has a discriminating crowd of potential diners nearby every time a movie ends or shoppers want a place to rest. But the restaurant is also within walking distance of several posh Palm Avenue condominiums, which means the 60-seat eatery really is a neighborhood establishment. Pablo Castro, the handsome 29-year-old Argentinean front-of-the-house co-owner, knows quite a few regulars by name and most of the rest by sight. Oscar and Pablo met four years ago in Sarasota and opened Uva Rara about a year ago.
The menu is organized the way it would be in Italy, with several separate courses. We would call it a la carte. What you order is what you get. Side dishes, from appetizers and salads to pasta and vegetables, can be ordered as separate courses, or you can ask for several things to be brought to the table at the same time. It's a mix- and-match kind of thing and it requires a little thought, or else you end up with too much or not enough food. You can also spend a lot more than you intended to. (Prices range from $13-$17 for pastas to around $14 for most veal, fish and chicken dishes. If you want to split something, it will cost you an additional $3.50.)
Menu selections are in Italian with English explanations. When in doubt, ask Pablo or one of the European waiters. They are patient, and you'll love the accents.
On Tuesday, Oscar brings out the ossobuco (with rice and saffron), a stew made with a calf's hind shank that takes him a minimum of four hours to prepare. Chef buys the ingredients and makes it on Monday. Then he lets it rest for 24 hours for the flavors to fully mingle. Thursday is risotto night. And nearly every night, some regular customer asks for the sea bass, even though it is not on the menu. Chef Oscar loves to do seafood; he also delights in preparing a veal chop. He cooks it medium-rare with a narrow ruff of fat clinging to the edges, because that's where a lot of the flavor is. The health- conscious will virtuously trim it away. My willpower isn't that good. But that little rim of fat certainly is. The veal is done with a light sauce and mushrooms. You also cannot go wrong with the veal sautéed in rosemary, capers, lemon and white sauce or the veal dressed up with fresh tomato or sautéed with portobello mushroom in a marsala wine sauce. If you are a member of PETA, this is not the restaurant for you.
Gnocchi, which in Italian means "little lump," are light, fluffy dumplings usually made of potatoes or semolina flour. These are something most American cooks don't attempt at home, so it's nice to be able to order them here with four-cheese sauce or the restaurant's signature pesto.
Pasta-rigatoni-is made fresh daily with sauces that are light, fresh and fragrant. When a dish of pasta comes to the table, you really do think you are sitting in a trattoria in southern Italy. The restaurant's kitchen is too small for more complicated pastas; but on a recent trip home, Chef Oscar bought a new pasta machine he plans to use in an off-site kitchen (the courtyard space that used to be Junie Moon Cafe) to create generous pans of lasagna, ravioli and more.
The restaurant used to be a wine bar and has artful grape and vineyard reminders of the past owners on the walls and wooden wine racks in all the rooms. The wine list lives up to the décor. Wines by the glass can be had for $5.50 each, but the bottles offer better value. The proprietors stock many wines in the $20 -$25 range, which should encourage patrons to match the cuisine to an Italian regional wine. We enjoyed a '99 Castellani Primitivo di Puglia (a red Zin from old vines), an excellent buy at $21.
If a diner prefers a higher priced and bigger wine, he might confidently choose a '95 Barolo Marchesi at $79, which represents the loftier end of the price spectrum. In general, the wine offerings are a fine value, with enough variety to intrigue almost any palate.
As Uva Rara heads into its second season, Chef Oscar plans to offer seven different wines from his family's vineyard in Italy. The bottles will have an Uva Rara label and will be for sale in the same building that houses the pasta machine in the courtyard.
Uva Rara uses two rooms of the original residential dwelling-a tiny one with high bar stools and another decked out in more formal dining room fashion with ecru cloths and black napkins. The walls are coral-terra cotta with dark green woodwork trim. The interiors are cozy with an edge of sophistication. But many patrons choose to eat on the porch, which is surrounded with clear plastic flaps that are more practical than aesthetic. From this pleasant outdoor perch, you can wave to friends going to the movies, raise your glass to passing shoppers, practice your Italian with the waiters or just sit back and appreciate that even if you're not in Italy, you are certainly part of a congenial neighborhood scene.
443 Burns Court, Sarasota
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. -2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday, 5-10 p.m.
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ON THE CUTTING EDGE
Chefs talk knives.
Only members of a circus knife-throwing act are more obsessed with superior blades than chefs. Ask professional restaurant cooks what they cannot do without and nearly all will allude to their collection of knives. Most chefs protect their knives and won't let anyone else in the kitchen go near them. We asked four area chefs to give home cooks some advice about knives.
Q: What's your favorite knife?
Stephen Horn (owner, Maureen's on Longboat Key): My fish boning knife. I love to work with seafood.
Jeffrey Trefry (executive chef at Café Europe): It's a 50-year-old Dexter carbon steel 10-inch chef's knife given to me by an Italian friend many years ago. It is so precious, I keep it at home and use it for special occasions. Here at the Cafe, I can't do without my three-inch flexible paring knife by Henckel.
Giorgio Oldano (owner of Da Giorgio on Holmes Beach): I bought a Sabatier 10-inch chef's knife in Paris 35 years ago and still use it every day.
Jean Pierre Knaggs (owner of the Bijou Café): I have two. One is a 10-inch Henckel chef's knife, also called a French knife. And I'm also quite fond of my Japanese cleaver because it is so versatile. I use it as a knife and also as a spatula. I can chop and scoop. Very efficient.
Q: How often do you sharpen your knives and who does it?
Horn: We have a service that comes in once a week to sharpen all our restaurant knives. The cost is about $10 for up to five blades. In between, I use diamond point steel to sharpen as needed.
Trefry: We use an Apex system here at the restaurant. About once a week I'll get out the stone, set the angle and sharpen my knives. In between, I hone my knives as needed. A chef can just tell by the feel when it's necessary. All the cooks do their own knife sharpening.
Oldano: During the season there are three cooks in my kitchen, including me. I sharpen all the knives. I do it once a week. Every other day, I hone my knives as I use them.
Knaggs: We all sharpen our own knives at the Bijou. I do mine every three or four days.
Q: What are some knives you recommend for the home cook?
Horn: Brands I trust include Henckels, Wusthof and Edgecraft. I favor a blend of carbon and stainless steel because they do not rust and have a lifetime warranty. I also like the Kyocera ceramic knives for detail design.
Trefry: Home cooks don't need to spend a fortune for the power brands. Buy a medium-priced stainless steel. You'll need a three-inch paring knife, an eight- or 10-inch chef's knife and a 10-inch knife with a serrated edge for slicing bread.
Oldano: Every cook can use a 10-inch chef's knife. I recommend stainless steel. My wife has one that she uses in our home kitchen and she says it does just about everything.
Knaggs: I think a four-inch paring knife is also essential. Avoid knives with wooden handles and shanks that don't go all the way through. Once they get wet, they loosen and will be no good.
Q: How often do you cut yourself?
Horn: I'm a 33-year veteran chef so I don't cut myself very often anymore-maybe once every two months or so. It's a young chef thing. Besides, my hands are so callused by now, I'm tough to cut.
Trefry: I haven't been to the hospital for stitches in six years. But I do cut myself about every month or so.
Oldano: I've never needed stitches, although every few years I do nick myself. But don't ask me about burns. I haven't been so lucky in that department.
Knaggs: In 1980, in a kitchen in Monte Carlo, I chopped off the tip of my third finger, left hand. There was nothing to stitch; it just had to be cauterized. Talk about painful. I haven't done anything to equal that since, thank God. I've been cooking since 1972 and the more I do it, the more respect I have for knives. If I have one piece of advice to offer home cooks, it's this: Never, never try to catch a falling knife.
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THE BIJOU'S BACK
The popular downtown café re-emerges after a devastating fire.
On April 24, a fire destroyed the kitchen at the Bijou Cafe. Since then, owners J.P. and Shay Knaggs have been renovating and upgrading. See what they have been up to when the new and improved Bijou opens to the public the end of this month. Look for a private dining room/conference for 20, a full bar and lounge area and more restroom capacity.
What you won't see (unless you ask for a tour) is a completely upgraded and enlarged kitchen (two-and-a-half times bigger than the old one) that will allow J.P. to expand his menu. The cooks' line has gone from six feet to 24. There's a new refrigeration system (including those nifty under-counter drawers), state-of-the-art cooking equipment and plenty of storage space. It was a long, sad summer for area gourmands and business types who depend upon the Bijou Cafe for reliable Continental cuisine in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. But our patience has been rewarded.
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A quick course in playing the wine futures game.
By Robert Paul
Talk about delayed gratification! Imagine buying a wine in the spring of 2000, getting it two years later and then waiting another five to 10 years to pull the cork. That's exactly what tens of thousands of people do every year when they buy Bordeaux futures. That's right- high-stake futures, as in pork bellies or soy beans.
Bordeaux's place in the wine world is unequaled, and wine aficionados always want the reds of this region. And they are really thirsting after the 2000 French vintage. The buzz is that there won't be another label like it for, well, maybe a century or so. Famous wine critic Robert Parker, a Sarasota Winefest honoree, has asserted that it's the best vintage he's met in 23 years of barrel-tasting Bordeaux wines.
From the premier tranche (first release) Bordeaux prices have been escalating rapidly. We are already up to the quatrieme tranche, and prices have doubled. Prices rose so quickly that a consumer could have purchased futures of this vintage for less than a wine merchant could have purchased the same wine six weeks later.
That's made wine futures look very attractive to a whole new crop of investors. It makes economic sense to buy now and drink later if you scored your store of wine for prices well below what you would have to pay by the time the wine appeared in stores. Enthusiasts also point out that the dollar has weakened compared with the franc or the euro since the Bordeaux was made, which could boost prices even farther. Moreover, access to some of these vaunted wines may be limited. Purchasing a few cases now may be your best (perhaps your only) opportunity to acquire these Bordeaux wines without having to resort to an auction.
Before you begin playing with wine futures, you need to understand that prices are not always what they seem. You might read, for example, that the premier tranche of Chateau Unamit is $100 a bottle. Is that the price at which you can buy that wine? The answer is a resounding "no." The price you would be offered at retail, even as a future, would be approximately double that. The reason becomes apparent when you consider the time-honored system. The chateau (winery) provides samples that a courtier (broker) takes to a negociant (wine merchant), who contacts major importers and private buyers. Then the importer calls his clients (wholesalers and retailers), who then call their customers. Prices rise at every stage of the process, and the enthusiasm of wine critics, negociants and wine importers who have tasted barrel samples can also increase the offering price.
Locally, Michael Klauber, co-proprietor with Phil Mancini of Michael's Wine Cellar as well as a number of local restaurants, is into Bordeaux futures. He and Ken Drum, proprietor of Venice Wine and Coffee Company, have been investing in the Bordeaux 2000 futures market through the same source, Chris Lano of the Stacole Company of Boca Raton.
Using Parker's ratings as a guide, Drum purchased about 20 cases this year-half for his customers and half for his shop. Klauber took about 1,600 cases and sold 500 of them within 10 weeks. Next year, Klauber intends to go to Bordeaux and sample the wines himself. He also intends to invest in some other world-class wines from Burgundy and Italy. They don't offer futures per se, but they do "pre-sell." He predicts the '99 Burgundies should offer some super wines, as will the '97 barolos.
Klauber says he loves searching out some of the world's greatest wines and offering them to his customers at excellent prices. This year he focused on wines that Parker and others considered to be "sleepers" of the vintage, finding about 50 different wines with excellent ratings that he sold to his customers at prices from $9-$29 a bottle. He notes that his margins are lower on such wines because he sells them directly to the customers who order them and doesn't have to unpack and inventory them. "In every way, it's a win-win situation," he says.
But be warned: Predicting wine quality is an art, not a science. What tastes sublime in the barrel could evolve into a less-than spectacular wine in the bottle. A disappointed review from a critic like Parker could send the price of the 2000 Bordeaux plunging and cause investors to lose money. It does happen-for example, those who bought '97 futures are still about 30 percent in the red (we're not talking wine here). Most experts don't expect this to happen with the 2000 Bordeaux. But wine is fragile, and life is fraught with risk.
If you're still eager to enter the world of wine futures, the best approach is to ask a reputable wine merchant to help educate you about the market. You should also do some work of your own-for example, you can go online and check out the critical reviews of the wines in question. Then decide if you would like to part with your money in exchange for some deferred gratification of a world-class beverage type. If you succeed, you'll be doing what those with first-class wine cellars have been doing for years-buying some of the world's best wines in advance at some of the best prices in the world.