March 12, 2021
By Bruce Neyers
Rigatoni pasta with sautéed baby artichoke, pancetta and Reggiano Parmesan.
It makes sense that I first heard of Harry’s Bar from Alice Waters. Alice loves grand things, and Harry’s Bar in Venice is one of life’s grandest. In the years that I’ve known Alice, I learned a lot about food and wine, but I listened to her closest when she offered tips on travel. When Barbara and I were invited to Venice to celebrate Alice’s birthday, I thought immediately we should have dinner at Harry’s Bar.
When we met up with Alice in Venice, she had eaten at Harry’s Bar the prior night. She insisted on making the reservation for us, but made me promise to order the baby artichoke pasta special. “It’s only available in the spring,” she said. “They’ll want you to order a white wine, but get something red and rustic.”
We were joined for dinner by another couple who were in Venice for her birthday. When we arrived at Harry’s, the host immediately took us off to the restaurant’s version of ‘Dining Siberia’, in the rear of the second floor, where we were seated out of sight of the scores of celebrities. The maître d’ had been looking for us though, and following Alice’s instructions, quickly apologized, and moved us back into the thick of the action downstairs. After the obligatory Bellini, our waiter came for our order. We did as instructed – veal carpaccio to begin, followed by pasta with baby artichokes, just as Alice had suggested. We were complimented effusively for our excellent taste, and advised that the pasta dish was a temporary special, available only in season. I declined the suggested bottle of white wine, then thumbed through the wine list, searching for something to make Alice proud.
I found it too – a Carignan from Sardinia made by a producer I’d met through our New York distributor who specialized in Italian wines. The food arrived and it was as wonderful as Alice had promised. The restaurant was everything I expected, and the excellent bottle of wine elevated even further my respect for our New York distributor. The bill? Let’s just say it was humbling.
Years later I look back on this as one of the great dining experiences of my life. Barbara prepares the Harry’s Bar pasta with baby artichokes from time to time (see the recipe below) and to this day we are the only winery in the Napa Valley that makes Carignan. Whenever someone asks me why we produce it, I smile to myself, think of that dinner in Venice, then tell them it’s a complicated story. One day we’ll have Alice for dinner again. Barbara will make this pasta for her, and I’ll open a bottle of our Carignan.
The grapes for Neyers Carignan come from the Old Evangelho Vineyard in Oakley, just a mile or so south of the Carquinez Straits, in northeast Contra Costa County, where the Sacramento River joins the San Joaquin River. The soil there is very sandy which eliminates the problems of Phylloxera, so grape vines are planted on their own roots, and live far longer than normal. These vines were planted in 1880, the year James Garfield replaced Rutherford B. Hayes as president of the US. The crop is small – barely 1 ton per acre – and while the wine is intense, it’s soft and agreeable, loaded with complex fruit flavors, with a long, gratifying finish. It should be on the list at Harry’s Bar – at least during artichoke season – but we haven’t been able to get an appointment with them since our dinner there. You can try it easily enough though. We are currently shipping the 2018 Carignan ‘Evangelho Vineyard’. It’s an adventure worth the effort.
Old Carignan vines in the Evangelho Vineyard in Oakley. Note the sandy soil which prevents the spread of the root louse Phylloxera. This enables the vines to be planted on their own roots, one of the reasons they live so long. At this age though, the crop size is reduced almost 90%.
Rigatoni with sautéed baby artichokes
- Rigatoni, one pound
- 3 pounds baby artichokes (20–30)
- 2 lemon quarters
- 1/2 white onion minced
- 4 slices of pancetta cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 to 1 cup water
- 1/3 cup freshly grated Reggiano Parmesan
- Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Please note: Your local grocer may not have baby artichokes, but during the season – spring through early-summer – you can get them at several specialty food stores, like Corti Brothers in Sacramento. They ship them, so order online, or at 916-736-3800.
Pull off outer leaves (about 5 layers) from artichokes until reaching yellow inner leaves. Trim stem end, and rub cut surface with lemon quarter. Cut off top third of artichoke and discard. Halve or quarter artichokes lengthwise (depending on their size) and rub cut surfaces with lemon quarter. Repeat with remaining artichokes.
Cook the pancetta until browned, then set aside.
Over moderate heat, simmer the minced onion and artichokes in water until the artichokes are tender when pierced with a knife and the onion is clear in color – about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the water and sauté artichokes and onion in olive oil over medium heat until golden brown – approximately 2 minutes.
Cook the Rigatoni following the directions on the package. Drain the pasta and toss with the artichoke mixture and pancetta. Add Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste. Sprinkle each serving with grated Reggiano Parmesan.