Touch of Italy and The Buttery: A progressive pairing
The subject line in Bob Ciprietti’s email shouted, “Progressive Dinner!” Memories of similarly themed events in the ‘70s came flooding back (along with an unexplained chill down my spine). Of course, they all started off with the best of intentions: Everybody gathered at venue No. 1, had a sip and a bite of this and/or that, then piled into their cars to drive to venue No. 2. More sips. More bites. This is where things got dicey. Back in those days, society hadn’t yet cracked down on synchronized sipping and driving, but it was still just as dangerous. So low-level skirmishes would arise as unsuspecting designated drivers were recruited - often against their will.
On to venue No. 3 (assuming everybody made it out of venue No. 2 with their keys and at least some residual dignity). By that time it was a free-for-all. The interval between meals meant that people filled up faster, and venue No. 3’s host (usually with the most kitchen duty) would invariably be miffed when the erstwhile diners retired en masse to the den to watch football (or “I Dream of Jeannie” reruns, depending on the crowd…). And of course to sip some more.
Lacking the instant gratification of today’s Facebook status updates, the ensuing weeks would see the inevitable reshuffling of friendships. In other words, that particular group would probably never meet again, at least not in that form.
But Touch of Italy’s Ciprietti and John Donato of The Buttery had a better idea. Why not locate venues No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 directly across the street from one another? The event would consist of a series of noshes between Touch of Italy and The Buttery, rather than uncomfortably rushed drinking and eating interspersed with moments of sheer highway terror.
Chairs and tables were cleared from Touch of Italy’s dining area and replaced with long counters overflowing with Italian bits and bites complemented by flutes of golden prosecco. Freshly baked bread mingled with tastes of cheese, spiced meats, sun-dried tomatoes and ... wait for it … deep-fried olives! After downing about 12 of the tartly delectable orbs, I realized that this was how nature had intended the lowly olive to be consumed.
Coats were gathered as the trek to venue No. 2 was announced. Leave it to Donato and Ciprietti to do it up first class: A red carpet stretched across Second Street from Touch of Italy to The Buttery. Was the light drizzle a problem? Of course not: The length of the walkway was flanked by identically tuxedoed valets, each holding a big black umbrella over the strolling diners. I was so impressed I forgot to take a photo.
The meal was a joint effort between Ciprietti’s Italian heritage (throw in a dash of Jersey and Brooklyn) and restaurateur Donato’s time-honored penchant for doing everything right. Southern Wine & Spirits’ division director Paul Rizzo kicked off the first course by expounding on how Banfi’s Fontana Candida Frascati Superiore paired delightfully with stracciatella, a Roman-style egg-drop soup with spinach and Italian seasonings. He was right. No sooner had we put away both the soup and the wine than baked cherrystone clams oreganata began to circulate. We washed them down with the apple/pineapple-tinged Principessa di Gavi.
The pasta course and the final dish of breaded chicken (crowned with prosciutto and melted taleggio) were both home runs. Fusilli intermingled with grilled portobellos and pignoli/lemon/basil pesto, setting the stage for the pan-seared cutlets to follow. Banfi’s Centine Bianco complemented the pasta, while the flawlessly constructed chicken enjoyed the pear, banana and anise overtones of San Angelo Pinot Grigio.
Rizzo lured the diners back across Second Street with Banfi’s delicate raisin-laced Florus and the garnet-hued Rose Regale, redolent of rose petals and strawberry. Touch of Italy had been transformed into a sea of Viennese desserts and pastries. The whole production was topped off with a fountain of warm chocolate.
The intense gastrotherapy applied by Ciprietti and Donato has totally erased my fear of progressive dinners. If they’re all this good, then bring ‘em on! Heck, I’ll even bring the “Jeannie” DVDs.