Carluccio's deli and restaurants are a high-street staple where great flavours in food blend easily with the quality wines that are on the list. Following the death of the charismatic founder, Antonio Carluccio, his spirit lives on in style and philosophy. Nick Breeze talks to Head of International Operations (especially where wine is concerned!), Mike Stocks about wine-list tips, food matching and the great man of "mof mof":
Nick Breeze: Can you give us your most chic Carluccio’s aperitif?
Mike Stocks: I am a huge fan of negroni it’s super Italian, super simple. We discovered a fantastic gin from the Amalfi coast that has a bit more lemon and tannin. Perfect for Negroni!
Nick Breeze: What tips do you have for bubbly at Carluccio’s?
Mike Stocks: We have a fantastic prosecco. It’s a bit sweeter, off-dry celebration wine. Any excuse for a glass of fizz. Or, Ferrari, a traditional method sparkling in a brut, more a bone-dry style.
We are also particularly passionate about our sparkling Lambrusco red, made by the 4th generation of family producers in Modena. It’s a lighter red wine, nice when served chilled. It’s a bit different; closer to a rosé in some ways and a perfect pairing for food.
A natural partner for the Lambrusco is salami antipasti. Italians always go for a regional theme. Milioriomari in central Italy, any cured meats, filled pastas, baked pastas.
Nick Breeze: Tell us your approach to selecting wine?
Mike Stocks: I look for three things when selecting wines:
The first is that we look for familiar, more recognisable styles which we know our customers are looking for, like the fantastic pinot grigio. These are great entry-level wines.
Number two is quality; finding value for money. We aim to find some really great examples of classic varieties, classic styles at a good price for our guests.
Thirdly - something a bit different; a bit of fun. Italy is such an amazing country to work with in regard to wine, as it produces over 8 billion bottles each year and has over 2000 indigenous varieties.
What I really love to do, is to discover great wines, which are from less familiar varieties, less familiar styles.
Nick Breeze: Can you give us an example of one that is unusual that you have on your menu right now?
Mike Stocks: Sicilian Grillo - it is a very interesting varietal, a bit more aromatic, but still has a dry finish, with maybe a bit more depth of flavour than a pinot grigio or sauvignon.
For reds, we’ve got some great wines from Planeta. A lot of Sicilian indigenous varieties. We have both the red and white ceretto blend, which perfectly catch that balance between the more familiar and more unusual. Such a great stepping stone.
Nick Breeze: What’s the best feedback you’ve had from customers in the wine context?
Mike Stocks: Thankfully we frequently receive emails from guests who say they discovered a wine on their visit to Italy that is their best-kept secret, and then it turns up on our seasonal list, or one of our seasonal specials.
It’s a good re-affirmation when they associate it with their holidays. First in a little seaside town in Sicily and then they get to enjoy it in our restaurants.
Nick Breeze: We were very sad to hear of the death of Antonio Carluccio. We know he was a food lover but did he enjoy wines too?
Mike Stocks: Absolutely, Antonio’s first job, when he first came to the UK, was actually as a wine merchant. His background was very much in wine. Initially, in Vienna and subsequently in the UK, he got inspired to get into restaurants. He described himself as a cook rather than a chef.
Through dining whilst selling wine, I think he learned a great deal about hospitality and how restaurants work. I think he thought, “I can do this”, and found a way of doing it.
That passion for wine and food combined certainly worked. He loved Piemonte reds, related to his upbringing. So we have a Barbera on our menu, which he was a great fan off. He was a very good friend of the Planeta family and visited their estates in Sicily. For him good food and wine were very much interlinked.
Nick Breeze: Is there any particular wine you remember him liking?
Barbera, a classic Piemontese wine.
Nick Breeze: So whenever someone drinks a glass of Barbera they can raise a toast to Antonio?
Mike Stocks: Exactly he would appreciate that.
Nick Breeze: Is there a dish you recall in Antonio’s cooking repertoire that was super special to him that we can find on the menu today and could you pick a wine to go with it?
Mike Stocks: Absolutely, a lot of the food and wine menu is inspired by Antonio but one stand out dish is Penne Giardiniera. It’s a dish that he created at a party for one of our restaurant’s opening, many years ago. Unfortunately so many people turned up, we actually ran out of the food. We were serving mushroom risotto to our guests and then a slight panic.
Everyone was stressing and he quite calmly walked into a deli and picked up a couple of bags of pasta, a few courgettes, walked into the kitchen and 10 minutes later served a dish which has become one of our best sellers. It’s been on the menu ever since. Essentially a large penne pasta with grated courgettes, a little bit of a chilli, a little bit of a parmesan, a little bit of a butter, and some deep fried spinach goes on the top. It’s a really great dish.
Nick Breeze: Sounds fantastic, what would you drink with that?
Mike Stocks: I’d probably choose a Bianco la Segreta; it’s a Sicilian white. It’s a blend of indigenous Sicilian grapes: a bit of chardonnay, a bit of grecanico, a little fiano and a little viognier.
It has for me that kind of crispiness; the freshness of the aromatics really matches with the courgettes, with the chilli. A little bite of acidity and the backbone cuts through the butter and the cheese.
Nick Breeze: From your perspective what is the best way to remember the great man?
Mike Stocks: His passion for food and wine was about serving fantastic food and being approachable in terms of what we do. His food philosophy was MOF MOF, it’s about "minimum of fuss" and "maximum of flavour"!
Mike Stocks is the International Operations Manager for Carluccio's.
Nick Breeze writes regularly for Secret Sommelier and can be followed on Twitter and Instagram here: @NickGBreeze
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