By Walter Sanders
Spend time in Italy, anywhere in Italy, and you’ll soon see that wine plays an integral role in Italian life.
It is poured at lunch and dinner. You may occasionally see a morning cappuccino being chased with a glass of delicate vin santo. Wine is enjoyed as a pick-me-up at bars and cafes during work breaks. Parents, good parents, even offer it, cut with mineral water or soft drinks, to their children to accompany a meal.
I now perceive wine in Italy as a food. No, even more. Remember the food groups pyramid? Italians would probably name wine as a food group and put it near the base, just above grains.
Chiaro o Scuro?
Perhaps no institution better depicts the integration of wine into Italian life than the vini. The word means wines, but I’m referring to the vest-pocket shops that sell wine and snacks.
The vini are informal gathering places. They provide an opportunity to linger and visit with old friends or stop for a quick snack and a nourishing sip of wine. All in all, vini are a time-honored and textured way to touch the pulse of Italy.
My favorite vini are the Florentine hole-in-the-wall shops. They show up every couple of blocks and are often so unobtrusive that, save for the customers milling in front, you could walk right past them.
The vini present an austere, chest-high wooden counter. On one side of the counter is an assortment of crostini: pieces of toasted bread slathered with cooked chicken liver, stacked with salami or prosciutto, or spiked with tuna, onions, olive oil, and pepper. At the other side of the counter is a tower of sturdy glass gotti, oversized shot glasses. No fancy stemmed glassware here; these beauties are heavy-duty. Wine in a gotto may be savored sip by sip or gulped to wash down a quick crostino.
Behind the counter is a narrow bin, filled with wine bottles attended to by the ruddy-faced proprietors. No matter which vini I recall, the proprietors are brothers. You can tell they are brothers by their facial similarities, but they are identical twins in their passion for wine.
And behind the brothers: a steep, creaking stairway down to a grotto where the liquid inventory is stored.
The vini serve an array of patrons. The old-timers belly up to the counter and grunt their preference. For these veterans, it is not a matter of a particular vintage, grower, or grape type. A simple scuro or chiaro suffices. Scuro, which means dark, is Florentine slang for vino rosso, red wine. Chiaro means clear or light, code for vino bianco, white wine. I don’t see these boys drinking much chiaro.
Other customers are a bit more discriminating, but no less appreciative. They inquire as to what is available. Some even seek recommendations.
Whatever the level of engagement, the proprietors meet it: civil, knowledgeable, but never overbearing.
On a hot summer afternoon during a recent visit to Florence, I stopped at one of my favorite vini near Piazza Signoria. I spotted the familiar knot of patrons: the old-timers, the business types in their suits, some young couples, even a few savvy tourists.
I worked my way up to the counter, fully expecting to greet the old brothers I remembered from the last time I had been here.
Much to my amazement, the old vini was now staffed by a pair of young gentlemen with fresh complexions and quietly efficient manners.
You could tell they were brothers by their facial similarities, but they were identical twins in their passion for wine.
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