Sunday, March 2, 2014

Pisa Wine Dinner at Messina

What's Pisan cuisine like? To be honest I hardly know anything about the town of Pisa except their apparent poor building skills, so I was curious when I saw a dinner event promoting their food and wine, organized by the Italian Chamber of Commerce. Another part that caught my interest is the venue - I have been hearing positive comments about Messina, an Italian restaurant in Hung Hom so that gave me the incentive to check it out myself. 

The restaurant is a bit out of the way and could be hard to find - it's located inside a harborside service apartment building in Hung Hom and part of the restaurant trio by the same owner (the other two being Kazuo Okada the owner's namesake Japanese restaurant, and the Michelin one-starred Yu Lei which serves Chinese/Shanghainese cuisine) I do like the space of the restaurant, featuring an open kitchen, magnificent harbor view in a very comfortable and elegant interior setting.

It's a prix fixe special menu so that saved us the trouble of going through the menu. Messina - named after a Sicilian city - specializes in Southern Italian cuisine, but this evening we went for somewhere more to the central/northern part of Italy known for its picturesque surroundings and country-style food and cooking. Pisan cuisine resembles what we typically described as Tuscan food, but the menu this evening highlighted some of the regional produce specifically from Northern Tuscany in the area surrounding Pisa and west of Florence. We started off with the amuse-bouche of crostino topped with gota foam and black truffles. I only came to know gota was actually pork cheek, which was finely minced with a good amount of fat to form a "foam" like texture. It's then spread on a small piece of toasted bread, topped with abundant black truffle flakes. The texture reminded me of chopped toro, and it's rich and creamy and almost addictive - I found myself keep reaching out for it slices after slices...

Amuse Bouche - Gota foam crostino and black truffles

Pomodoro e Pecorino - Pomodoro Pisanello tomatoes and Pecorino cheese
The menu listed our first appetizer course to be "Pomodoro e Pecorino", but it didn't look like the conventional Tomato and Pecorino cheese dish I expected. A couple slices of tomato (Pomodoro Pisanello) was presented on a bed of pesto sauce topped with a creamy sauce made of Pecorino cheese, and on the side, a small quenelle of tomato gelato and pesto "cake". But when I look beyond the rather avant garde presentation, the dish was actually very delicious, with various fresh ingredients were showcased in their best flavors and complement one another well. I wasn't a huge fan of sheep cheese but Pecorino Toscano was one of those I absolutely adored. It's rich but without too much of that "gamey" flavor that usually turned me off.

Pasta con carciofi e Tartufo bianco
Our pasta course was simple yet excellently prepared. The fresh pasta was in flat shape and said to be "bronze-cutted". While I wasn't sure whether this is made in-house or bought elsewhere (I didn't ask), but the semolina flour and extra kneading gave it an attractive yellowish color and a good bouncy texture. It's cooked and served with the creamy sauce made of artichokes and finely grated white truffles - both famous produce from the town of San Miniato near Pisa.

Filetto di Manzo
Everyone at the table was amazed at the stunningly beautiful presentation of our main course of beef. The medallion of beef tenderloin was slow-roasted in oven and pan-seared to give it a good crust on the outside. On top of the beef was plenty freshly shaved black truffles, and next to it was neatly sliced vegetables including zucchini, tomatoes, asparagus and radish. The sauce was made with the meat jus and Chianti wine reduction. Beef tenderloin is considered a lean cut compared to other parts but this is no means dry and tough. In fact it's soft and tender, and perfectly cooked to the medium rare done-ness.

Dolce - Saffron Soufflé, Vin Santo, Colombana grapes & San Rossore pinenuts gelato

Petit Fours - Amadei chocolate pralines and cantucci
We had some more cheese after our main course. Pecorino delle balze volterrane is the traditional local cheese made in the Pisa region under strict DOP rules (similar to how DOC/DOCG regulate Italian wine production). And the rich sheep cheese combined with the sweet and floral honey and marmalades served on the side was great. Soufflé was perhaps not an authentic Pisan dessert per se but the chef did put on a regional touch by making a Vin Santo gelato, grapes and pinenuts to go with the saffron soufflé. We then finished off with some cantucci - eaten in the traditional way of dipping into the glass of Vin Santo wine - and chocolate pralines made of Amadei chocolate, a well-known Tuscan chocolate brand based in Florence.

Chianti is probably what most people have in mind when you mentioned Tuscan wines, so there's no surprise two of the four wines we had was of Chianti varietals with Sangiovese being the dominant type of grapes. First was a cheerful Chianti DOCG which has a light body, mainly red fruit character on the palate and a (surprisingly) woody, pencil shaving type of nose. But personally I prefer the second one which was made with 100% Sangiovese which has a more typical Chianti taste and well-balanced. The other two we had was a white wine made with 100% Vermentino, which was sharp and refreshing, and also Vin Santo, a traditional Tuscan dessert wine made with grapes dried indoors after harvest before fermentation and kept in barrels for a relatively long period, giving it a deep amber color, a full body and honey, syrupy sweet flavor.

As later on our topic switched to Italian sweet wines, we decided to order a Passito di Pantelleria for a bit of comparative tasting. Passito is an indigenous wine in a small island called Pantelleria near Sicily off the North African coast. It's made in the similar way as Vin Santo using a different grape (Muscat of Alexandria), but showed totally different characteristics. To me, the wine was intensively feminine - a swooningly distinct floral nose with hint of vanilla (almost like a strong perfume), dominated by ripe apricot on the palate, but with good acidity to stand in the balance against the sweetness. I personally like the fuller Vin Santo but this is a pleasing beauty too.

It's been a fun experience learning and sampling some of the produce and wines from the Italian province of Pisa while enjoying good company. We even got a little recipe book we can take home with to know more. With lovely pecorino, steak, chianti, vin santo and cantucci served in one evening, it did remind me of the fond Tuscan memories we had from the trip a couple years ago. Perhaps a return trip to the area in the calling in the near future?

When? February 28 2014
Where? Messina il Ristorante, 5th Floor, The Harbourfront Landmark, 11 Wan Hoi Street, Hung Hom, Kowloon
Menu highlights? Pasta con carciofi e Tartufo bianco - Artisanal pasta with San Miniato artichoke and white truffles (from a special Pisa Italian dinner menu)
Marruchetome Vermentino Bianco 2011, Fattoria Varramista, Tuscan IGT
Chianti Superiore "Casalini" 2011, Fattoria Fibbiano, Chianti DOCG
Sangiovese di Toscana "VignAalta" 2008, Badia di Morrona, Tuscan IGT
Caratello 2006, Pietro Beconcini, Vin Santo Chianti DOC
Ben Ryè 2011, Donnafugata, Passito di Pantelleria DOC

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