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Necce’s Ristorante hosts Italian wine master

Francesco Mazzei and Denese Jokela earn a round of applause from their “audience.” (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

BY JEAN RUZICKA

The grand magic of anticipation was in the air.

Italian wine master Francesco Mazzei had arrived in Minnesota’s north woods to share an evening of wine, food and art, Necce’s Ristorante the venue.

Mazzei generally travels to major metros in the U.S., a single stop in Minneapolis years ago. “I don’t get much of a chance to see the countryside,” he said Monday evening. “It was a beautiful drive.”

This week’s event was a culmination of weeks of planning, conferring and tweaking the menu.

Area chefs, including Amy Thielen, Wonewok’s Mike Ludke and Jay Kimble of Blueberry Pines, partnered with Denese “Necce” Jokela and her staff to compose an epicurean rhapsody.

Jokela had been approached by wine distributors Dominic Guilani and Scott Lindman with the idea of hosting an evening with Mazzei.

The purveyors of spirits often made “detours” to Park Rapids to savor her Italian cuisine. After an evening of ottimo cibo (great food) and vino they broached the idea of inviting Mazzei to present wine pairings from his family’s three Italian estates.

The Mazzei family has an “unparalleled” heritage in the Tuscan winemaking tradition. Francesco Mazzei is a 25th generation world-class wine master, the family owning three vinificazione estates in Italy.

“We’d like to bring him here,” the wine distributors told Jokela. They proposed Mazzei present wine pairings with a menu of Jokela’s creation.

She admits to being intimidated, initially.

“This is the man who determines thumbs up or thumbs down on Chianti,” she said of his role in the Italian wine industry. “One of the main wine masters of the world was coming to eat my food.”

“But I like challenges.”

Collaboration key

Jokela grew up with “good Italian food,” her mother a gourmet cook. Jokela attributes 30 percent of the ristorante’s recipes to Sheila Desjardins. A “beautiful spread of food” emerged from her kitchen every day, “plated beautifully,” she recalled. “Holidays were a celebration of food.”

At 7, the restaurateur-to-be began her career as a crumb sweeper in a five-star St. Louis restaurant. A year later, at 8, Jokela had perfected chocolate cake.

“I started thinking… This is an unbelievable honor… Just so serendipitous… How do I make this special?”

Collaboration, she determined, was a key ingredient.

She picked up the phone, recruiting an “all-star line-up of chefs,” including her own Julz Notch and Heather Hart and sommelier Ryan Miller.

“We sat down, tasted the wine and planned the menu,” she said of its evolution, the food complementing the wine. Jokela and Ludke exchanged a fist-bump in affirmation of the menu’s excellence. “We cut no corners.”

Thielen, who was in New York at the time, tweaked the menu. “We had good ideas, but Amy took them over the top.”

Carter’s tomatoes were recruited. Local basil and garlic were to be employed. Lamb would be arriving from New Zealand.

“We want to create a special dining experience, credibility. We use the finest ingredients – and let them shine,” Jokela said.

“We’re always looking for the perfect bite. The sip and taste should be magical… The experience taking you to another world.”

Meanwhile, in mid-August, Guilani returned with Riccardo Legnaro, an Italian wine trade specialist, who added insight to the pairing of food and wine.

“I had no idea he was coming,” Jokela said of the noted international authority.

“I bought their dinner,” Jokela recalled, telling Legnaro, “It’s a true honor to have you here.’

In spirito Italiano, he jumped up and kissed her on both cheeks, followed by invitations to come to New York - “I have some restaurants I’d you to try” - and Boston, where he invited Jokela to cook in a kitchen for a week or two.

Jokela, in turn, shared her plans to transform the bar to reflect the aura of Tuscany, the Italian renaissance. “Break bread. Take time. Sip wine.”

“These wines are beautiful,” she said of the world- renowned Mazzeo vineyards, which are expanding to “new viticulture and wine-making frontiers.”

“I was thrilled beyond belief to have been chosen for this honor. I have to pinch myself. It feels like it was meant to be,” Jokela said.

In the meantime, word had spread of the masterful event, which benefited the Nemeth Art Center, tickets evaporating in no time.

US a growing market

“Good wine is about the environment and having a vision, a passion,” Mazzei explained Monday evening. “And finally, a good team of people. A good wine is made by well-trained, passionate individuals.”

Seventy percent of the product, he said, is exported to 55 markets, including Asia, “the fastest growing.”

Fifteen percent travels across the Atlantic to the U.S., which recently became their single biggest market. “It used to be France and Italy, with a huge consumption per capita. “But that’s going down,” he said, comparing the 315 million population of the U.S. with Italy’s 55 million.

“People are beginning to understand wine more and more,” he said of the American audience, which “is not the most sophisticated market of the world, but growing.

“Wine is replacing other beverages.”

‘All men are created equal’

While sommeliers may be tipping their hats to Francesco Mazzei, his ancestor, Filippo Mazzei, holds a captivating role in American history.

Born and raised in Tuscany, Filippo embraced libertarian ideals, for which he became an advocate.

At the request of the Duke of Tuscany, Francesco explained, Filippo traveled to England to buy stoves from Benjamin Franklin. During his stay, he met several businessmen from Virginia who spoke to him of the political climate and agricultural possibilities in the colonies.

He set sail for the New World in 1773, becoming a political activist and subsequent proponent in Europe for American independence.

He befriended and collaborated with several prominent political figures - George Washington, Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson - sharing his progressive ideas.

“They became friends,” Francesco said of Jefferson, “and exchanged ideas.” Filippo, he said, planted a vineyard at Jefferson’s mountaintop home, Monticello.

Filippo advocated the notion that “All men are by nature equally free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government.”

This ideal inspired Jefferson’s introduction to the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Filippo’s “All men are created equal” contribution to the Declaration of Independence was acknowledged by John F. Kennedy in his book, “A Nation of Immigrants.’

Mazzei acted as an agent to purchase arms for Virginia during the Revolutionary War.

In recognition of his role as an American loyalist, a commemorative stamp, “Patriot Remembered” was issued in 1980, the 250th anniversary of his birth.

US has ‘room to grow’

The Mazzei family’s winemaking now spans six centuries, the inception in the medieval hamlet of Castello di Fonterutoli. The Fonterutoli estate in Chianto Classica has been owned by Mazzei family since 1435.

“It’s one of the oldest properties in the world in family hands,” Francesco Mazzei said.

“Italy needs a revolution, he said of his homeland’s abysmal economy. “We need change, a younger generation to fight for their future. It’s happening, but slowly.” He said the currency is strong, but in a state of deflation. “The system is paralyzed with no money circulating.”

Mazzei, who holds degrees in economics and political science, initially decided not to follow the family business. He worked for Barilla, “the number one pasta company in the world,” and for Vespa Scooters.

But within a few years, he decided to go back to the winery, and concentrate on the U.S. market, which he hopes to increase.

“There’s plenty of room; we could easily do two times the sales,” he said of the 20,000 cases of wine currently being exported to the U.S. Penetration, he said, is currently on the two coasts.

In November, Jokela, Notch and Hart will travel to Italy, where they have been invited to stay at one of the Mazzei estates.

They will make a stop in New York, spend a couple of days in Paris and then head to Cinque Terre, a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera.

Viva Italia!

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