Dorianne and I are spending a month in Oaxaca, Mexico. We knew coming in that this culinary capital, known for molè sauces, chocolate, and coffee was not wine country. The drinks here are mescal and cerveza. Indeed, we have had some wonderful meals, both in the city and out in the pueblos, where indigenous people make amazing foods. But wine – not so much.
There is a large supermercado near our Colonial Reforma AirBnB.com house that has a wine section featuring a few South American and Mexican wines, plus a smattering of French, Italian, and Spanish bottles – all at the lower end of the spectrum. The U.S. is represented here by Gallo. You don’t really find fine wines here, but some decent bottles are available if you know where to look. Better restaurants feature Mexican wines, but the local cuisine, driven by spicy molès, salsas, etc., does not pair well with wine for the most part. Beer (cerveza) is just fine for most cocina oaxaqueña meals.
And, I was, truth be told, growing a bit weary of the local cuisine after two weeks of nothing but . . .
That is why we were so happy to discover Ristorante Italiano Epicuro (no website, LINK to FB page), an oasis of fine Italian dining with a small, but welcome list of Italian wines – a regular list and an artisanal list with a total of about 30 wines. Stepping in off of Calle Guerro into number 319 one is transported, if not to Italy, to a sophisticated setting that could be in any major city. The decor consists of light green walls, very high ceilings, with a portion that has a retractable roof for this climate, scenes of things Italian on the walls, and nicely appointed tables. There are not a lot of restaurants in Oaxaca that are not oaxaqueña, so there are really few guidelines for how to handle the mix of cultures in terms of food and decor. Ristorante Italiano Epicuro goes purely Italian on the food and a more general upscale look on the decor.
Our good friends Richard Clark and Mary Stec were in town visiting for a few days. They used to own a gourmet chocolate business and sourced their chocolate and molès from Oaxaca. It was their last night with us in Oaxaca, so we went for dinner early – before 7:00 pm, so the place was nearly empty.
Our waiter, Juan Carlos, a veteran of the high-end Los Angeles restaurant scene (Valentino and others), greeted us warmly and masterfully guided us through the evening. Chef Valter Epifania is from Genoa, and knows his way around the kitchen. He came to our table near the end of the meal. We also met Eder, the owner, who came to Mexico from Italy six years ago and opened the restaurant a year later.
We ordered two bottles of wine from the smaller “artisanal wine list.” All were under 600 pesos, or about $35 U.S. at the current exchange rate of 16.8 pesos to the dollar. The most expensive bottle on either list was an Italian Cabernet Sauvignon on the main wine list for 820 pesos, or about $48 U.S.
Our first bottle was a 2010 Il Gargaiolo Chianti, 85% Sangiovese & 15% Merlot. It was very dry and tight at first, but it opened up after a while. I would say that the Merlot added a richness to the Sangiovese. A decent, but not a great wine.
Next we opted for a 2013 Francesco Cirelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and organic wine. Aged in stainless steel, the wine had a sense of terroir and a decent balance of dark fruit, with leather and chocolate overtones. Dorianne was the only one of us who preferred the Chianti to this wine.
The menu is purely Italian, with first courses, pastas, and secondi (not the terms on the menu). A complimentary eggplant appetizer (deliciously rich) is provided. We also received a sampling of their ice cream dessert after not ordering dessert. When Dorianne could not eat that due to allergies, a pear poached in red wine was substituted by the chef for her. Very nice!
We shared a pulpo carpaccio appetizer that was delicious and reminiscent of the pulpo in Spain. The octopus for this dish was sourced in the Gulf of Mexico we were told.
Then, Dorianne opted for a seafood pasta for her main dish. Mary and I ordered the rib-eye steak made with Ecuadorian beef; Richard had the special of the evening – rack of lamb.
All of the main courses were excellently prepared and delicious. We remarked that this quality of Italian dining in the US would command a much greater price. The bill, with tip, was just over 2440 pesos, or under $150 U.S. for four of us, including two bottles of wine!
Richard and Mary have left, leaving Dorianne and I to return to this Italian Oasis a few times in our two remaining weeks in Oaxaca.