Passione = Passion: a compelling desire for someone or something; enthusiastic enjoyment of an interest or activity; intense emotion compelling action. How appropriate that the name of London’s finest enoteca is also the perfect noun to describe its founder and leading light Luca Dusi.
Fuseblower knows you love getting out there and finding the latest wine that you simply have to tell your friends about before anyone else does. So does he. That’s why he was determined to interview Il Maestro and unearth some great new Italian wines to talk about in 2020.
Sr Dusi is as familiar to lovers of vini Italiano, as he is to Italian chefs and English chefs with Italian restaurants. He is also a recognisable figure at food festivals and gastronomy events as well as one half of Wine Tales (along with Francesco Mazzei) – the competitive supper & wine club that sees both ‘protagonisti’ face off over a food and wine pairing menu – that the diners then vote on. Since you ask: scores are currently even in their head-to-head battles.
When Fuseblower went along for a chat with him we both had filthy colds but that didn’t seem to diminish his ebullience one jot! He has a raffish air about him and is quite the dandy: Rupert Bear trousers, braces, modish eyewear, thick welted brogues and a judicious amount of whiskerage. He would not look out of place at Pitti Uomo in Firenze!
Luca has a rich, deep and expressive voice that matches his vivacity and appetite for life. The affection and reverence he has for wines from his native Italy is compelling. I defy anyone to come away from a conversation with him without an immediate yearning to pull the cork on an Italian wine. If you’re having the conversation with him at Passione he will, more often than not, thrust a glass into your hands and urge you to try it to enhance the point he is making.
I wanted to understand Luca’s helter-skelter journey from Verona to Shoreditch and it’s certainly an interesting one. He tells Fuseblower that as a young man from Veneto in the 1990’s he didn’t really have any direction in life and so in 1995 came to London to seek his destino. That destiny must have seemed a long way off as he struggled with life in the catering world; first as a kitchen porter, pizza chef, greasy spoon cook then waiter until finally he became manager at a Soho bar. This last gig led to him being hired as a wine broker/representative and so, at 28 years old, he found himself travelling around the world and presenting Italian wines. Much as he liked visiting Tokyo and enthusing about Frascati to Japanese wine buyers, he just wasn’t excited about the quality of the wines he was promoting
His Damascene moment came courtesy of a bottle of Bruna Ferro’s, Barbera D’Asti Lia Vi Carussin 2001 from the Monferrato region just north of Barbaresco. A lightbulb flickered in his head and Luca received his calling, and mission, to embolden Italian wine lovers in the UK to explore a more diverse range of his homeland’s wines. One of his wine brokerage clients was Federico Bruschetta – then GM at Neal Street Restaurant (Antonio Carluccio’s only London restaurant) – and Luca set about convincing him to join forces and set up a wine importing business and use their combined knowledge and client base to kick-start this business venture. Passione Vino was born!
Luca & Fede traversed Italy (literally) to create a launch list of wines that represented small, independent Italian artisan winemakers providing interesting wines, at great value for money, for their on-trade clients. They listed wines from 13 vineyards and Luca underplays the risk that they must both have taken having very little experience in this nascent enterprise. He had a simple three point doctrine back then and still today it helps him decide whether to stock a wine or not: the Dusi Declamation:
- He must love, love, love the wine when he tastes it
- Is the winemaker getting the absolute best result he can from the grapes
- Is the winery passionate about their terroir, their methods and their wine
Unless he can say yes and tick those three boxes it will be a simple “La ringrazio, ma per questa volta è no” – ie “Thanks, but not this time”. He is also always looking for a wow factor or something unexpected that lets him tell the story behind the wine and provide a point of differentiation for his customers
A decade on and Luca and business partner Federico decided to open a shop and wine bar. What he had in mind was very different from most of the venues in Shoreditch/Old Street at the time. There was to be no minimalism, no industrial chic in their décor. What Luca was looking for was a distinctive vibe that attracted curiosity but remained connected to the vineyard and wine. He approached creative interiors specialist Toby Sanders to implement the makeover. I think this concept reached its apotheosis in the room at the bottom of the building where the breathtaking blooms of Ellie Cashman’s wallpaper are offset by the copper piping (as used by plumbers) twisted into a magnificent vine-like chandelier – roots and all. It is like being in the middle of a rhododendron glade at dusk, especially under the muted lighting they favour at the enoteca
Passione Vino now stocks 300+ wine labels from 75 hand-picked wineries and I was curious about the trends Luca is detecting and what he foresees in the 2020’s for Italian wines. He believes the new generation of vineyard owners – the daughters’ and sons’ of long established grape growers – will increasingly decide not to sell their grapes to big producers or co-operatives and instead make their own wines to reflect their individual expression. What he doesn’t want is for this to result in wines that are bastardised into meeting prevailing trends for over-extracted, over-oaked (and over here!) wines, that no longer reflect their history or their terroir. He is all for experimentation and regenerating old grape varieties but not for the end result to be a ubiquitous Chardonnay flavour because that is what the market prefers. He deplores what he calls ‘vinous castration’
He is also unrepentant about the changes he abhors in today’s Chianti Classico’s and refers to them as Bodybuilder wines which he attributes to the “Bolgheri effect”. For years he says the Sangiovese grape has produced remarkable and refined wines. Now the grape is being grown in areas he doesn’t consider to have the right terroir to get the best out of the grape (eg Maremma). In his opinion, he confides in me, they are giving these wines musculature to satisfy a market niche but at the expense of the Sangiovese aesthetic
His tips for greatness (or, if you prefer, greater recognition) are Valtelina – what Luca calls “The Burgundy of Italy”. He already stocks Dirupi and Sandro Fay and is looking to add a third producer soon. Fuseblower is a big fan of Mamete Prevostini wines from Valtelina and heartily endorses Luca’s drive to promote these delicious wines from the slopes of the Alps. He thinks great things are happening in Sicilia and especially in the South East of the island in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG – especially the wines from COS
I ask him if he thinks supermarkets will ever be trailblazers for some of the lesser well known wine regions – after all M&S stock an Aglianico Del Vulture from Basilicata; Salento wines from Apulia can be found at Majestic; specialist Sicilian and Sardinian wines are sold by Waitrose. He thinks not. In his opinion supermarket wine buyers favour a chain reaction. They would prefer that brave souls like Passione Vino bring a wine to the attention of discerning palates – for example someone like restaurant critic Giles Coren (who wrote about one of Passione’s wines in a restaurant review). It is then easier for them to surf this wave of approval without the risk factor
Luca is no slouch in the kitchen! All that time hanging out with chef friends: Francesco Mazzei, (of Radici, Fiume and Sartori), Angela Hartnett MBE (Murano), Tim Siadatan (Trullo) and Jon Rotherham (Marksman), has certainly stoked up his desire to create inspiring dishes for his family and friends. I believe a signature dish says a lot about a person and Luca’s is Seppie in Umido (Cuttlefish Stew). The cousin of the squid, with tender, sweeter flesh and richer ink and, importantly, more of it! It suggests someone who isn’t afraid to search for an underappreciated ingredient and then turn it into something special for open minded palates to savour. (See below)
If you have any semblance of interest in vini Italiano and you have not yet visited Passione Vino, in Shoreditch, you should immediately remedy that. But if EC2 just isn’t going to happen for you then there is talk of Passione Due opening in the Badlands of South West London to usher in a new decade of Italian wine appreciation. Hold on to your braces!
Seppie in Umido alla Luca Dosi: Recipe + Ingredients
Tip 1: Use small and young cuttlefish which are certainly the most tender and are a real delicacy of the Adriatic. Try to use fresh peas too as the result will be much better.
Tip 2: Unless you are still a secret Goth (and if we’re honest, which of us isn’t…?!) you may want to clean the cuttlefish wearing disposable gloves, otherwise you will find yourself with black fingernails for a few days. Or ask your fishmonger to undertake this preparation. Set aside several of the ink sacs to use later in the sauce for the dish. Cut the cuttlefish into thin ribbons but keep the tentacles as they are
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and gently sauté the onion. When it starts to brown continue to fry for a minute or two before adding the cuttlefish to the pan. Turn the heat up and cook the cuttlefish until any moisture has evaporated. Luca then likes to ‘bathe’ the cuttlefish in the wine and their ink and, after several more minutes of cooking, when soft, adds salt, pepper and the passata. Now cover the pan, lower the heat and continue to cook gently for just over three quarters of an hour. He recommends you check the mixture every now and then and add a few tablespoons of hot water, when needed, so the dish doesn’t dry out.
15 mins before the end of cooking add the peas, stir and finish cooking. Just before removing the cuttlefish from the heat, taste to adjust the seasoning and serve sprinkled with a little chopped parsley. Polenta is a good accompaniment. Luca thinks the best wine pairing for this dish is a rosato from Calabria and, having tasted this union, I can attest to its ambrosial flavour
800g small to medium-sized cuttlefish (with their ink sacs)
400g fresh peas (frozen if you can’t get fresh)
1 Large Onion – chopped
75ml Good quality olive oil
1 glass of white wine – a Grillo would be perfect!
Fresh flat leaf parsley – chopped
Black Pepper + Sea Salt
Passione Vino, 85 Leonard Street. Shoreditch, London, EC2A 4QS.
Tel No: 0203 487 0600 www.passionevino.co.uk